Wednesday, March 28, 2012
Montréal was a city that I loved. It has everything in a footprint small and compact enough that whizzing from one side of town to another is never a problem. It also has this edgy, grungy, neo-punk aesthetic (in a lace-up leather boot and trench coat kind of way) and patina that keeps things funky and interesting. In comparison to stodgy and staid Washington, Montréal was a breath of fresh air.
The streets are loaded with people, walls full of street art, restaurant patios and terraces packed with happy, jovial people, drinking beers, taking coffee breaks, and munching on artisanal sandwiches. Underground parties take place in warehouses in post-apocalyptic industrial wastelands; hipsters breeze along boulevards in demarcated bike lanes. Potbelly-having ethnic whites, often Portuguese, Italian, and Greek immigrants sip espressos outside of old country boulangeries and patisseries. The city feels alive and festive – and with a myriad of riots and demonstrations, even a tad bit anarchic – giving me the impression that people are genuinely happy to be there (i.e, they moved there to be there, not for a job or career).
Personally, I found the whole “Petit Paris” thing totally hyped up and blown out of proportion. Aside from the touristy, cliché Vieux Port area, most of Montréal is North American in architecture, layout, and overall appearance. The city has lots of greystone rowhouses, with most of them having second-story, spiral staircases. The music you hear in cafés, movie posters you see (even if they are forcibly dubbed into French), and popular culture one is exposed to, etc., is decidedly North American. Sure, you hear people speaking French (and they all speak English, too), and see small cars, and perhaps, a few cobblestone lanes or scenes otherwise reminiscent of France, but these things do not make Montréal some European enclave in the New World. I was impressed by the bilingualism, though, even if it makes me even sadder that most Americans have enough trouble properly speaking and writing English, let alone mastering another, entirely different language. That said, the bilingualism is the result of quasi-totalitarian state policies that some may view as overreaching.
The city is also surprisingly diverse, but in the Canadian sense that immigrants (at least their children) are well-integrated into society, speaking French (and English, and many times, a third native tongue, such as Haitian Creole or Arabic). Haitian cabdrivers; leather jacket-wearing, shisha-smoking Mahgrebian exchange students, nightclub and dépanneur owners; the Colombian host of the place I stayed at, separationist Québécois; French expats; Chinese students; and Hasidic Jewish bakeries and judaica shops. The exception to the integrated feeling were the poor, angry-looking black and Arab kids in the city’s rough-and-tumble northern sector; torn between the country of their parents, and that in which they live in, with neither quite feeling like “home,” they seemed more like the discontent, disillusioned, utterly angry youth one finds in Paris’ banlieus. Very reminiscent of La Haine, a great French film that should be on everybody’s “to watch” list.
And on a Parisian note, the Brutalist architecture and, in particular, Métro station designs, are wonderful, and evoke the futuristic feeling typical of the mid-20th century. And on another Parisian note, Montrealers love their cigarettes! In fact, so many people there smoked, that cigarettes seemed to be another layer or part of their wardrobe and associated appearance. Still no Paris, though. But that is fine with me; I am perfectly content with Montréal as is (that being edgy and semi-dysfunctional, but still easy to love and find highly enjoyable) something of which led to it earning a place on my list of favorite North American cities.