I once heard it said that travel could be disappointing because no place could live up to the images you create in your head about a place.
I can’t agree. That feels like saying a book could never be as good as its 500-word précis.
I find that the images I have in my head – garnered through film and television, books, articles, travel anecdotes and photos – can never have the texture of the real environment. I certainly do picture places, and even have certain expectations, but I am aware that these are just ideas of a place. The location in my head is a mere preliminary sketch of someplace much more real.
One of the principal joys of travel for me is to be on the ground, to complete (and correct) that mental image with depth, taste, sound, scent. I want to know the fully flawed reality and not the shallow idealised postcard shot. I like to get away to local neighbourhoods, to catch local public transport, to see the streets beyond those made pretty and festive for the tourists.
Montreal is a city made for that kind of exploration. Like my hometown of Melbourne, this French-Canadian city is more about neighbourhoods and lifestyle than it is about grand buildings and must-see sites.
The first correction to the Montreal-in-my-head was the level of French signage I found. Having been part of the colony of New France, I expected Montreal to have signage in both English and French. I didn’t expect that a much higher percentage of the signage to be French-only. Hurrah for the easy bilingualism of the residents, especially as my mostly forgotten schoolgirl French is 33 years out of date and for a different dialect.
The effect was deliciously Twilight Zone-ish. A lot of Canada has that effect on me (it being North American but not US; being colonially linked to Great Britain, like Australia, but neither British nor Australian; having strong and abiding French roots especially in the east but not being European).
Montreal best exemplifies this between-worlds feeling, especially in the first day or so; but as it becomes more familiar, it also becomes more itself.
Like Melbourne, Montreal is a place of experiences rather than sights, and is a fabulous patchwork of districts. Its tourism heart in Old Montreal is reminiscent of streets I’ve explored in Central and Eastern Europe – a strange sensation in North America. It’s genteel and pretty though, and the buildings are beautiful.
The Latin Quarter isn’t beautiful, but it is fabulously lively. A ‘former’ red light district, the streets are filled with cheap eateries, buzzing entertainment venues and glorious street art – as well as many, many sex shops. Les Foufounes Electriques (the Electric Buttocks) is one of the most popular music venues, with a punk history and walls decorated with seriously Not Safe For Work art for sale. The vibe reminds me of Northbridge (Perth) in the 80s or a little of newish Melbourne venue, Revolt. It’s shabby-grunge-cool and robustly friendly. (For a description of our night out in the Latin Quarter, read Tim’s blog post Red Light in the Latin Quarter.)
The Flavours of the Main food walk takes us through all these areas as well as Chinatown and later the Portuguese quarter. Our guide, Micheline, describes the city’s multicultural history through its food and distinctive neighbourhoods, feeding us fortune cookies, dragon’s beard sweets, poutine and smoked meat sandwiches along the way.
Slicing across Montreal on foot, seeing the grubby street level, the daily life of Montrealers, while learning a culture’s back story adds layers of knowledge and sensation to that sketchy idea of a city. Montreal becomes more solid and real by the moment.
Music is an important part of Montreal’s culture too, and is a key thing I wanted to experience. On our way to Les Foufounes Electrique, we came across a street festival for emerging music and stayed to dance and watch the light projections.
The summer weekly drumming circle, the Tam Tams, finds us in a park full of visitors and locals, all drumming or dancing or lying on the grass and listening to the rhythms. There’s a whiff of marijuana in the air, but mostly a cheerful energy that’s a little wild and a little mellow and feels somehow perfectly Montreal to me.
It’s a feeling that’s echoed later that night at the Piknic Electronique, another weekly summer music event held on St Helene’s Island under a giant statue that looks like an insectoid alien. We listen to international DJs and dance while watching the sun set on the city across the river. Again, the wild-mellow vibe, a combination of relaxed and friendly attitudes with a free-wheeling avante-garde sensibility, feels like an insight into this part of Montreal life.
Montreal is also filled with friendships. We had lunch one day with Susan, my online friend who drove two hours up from Ottawa so we could meet in person at last. We later had coffee and a long walk with Hugo, who works for Tourisme Montreal and who we met in Melbourne last year.
The Montreal-in-my-head is now more than a sketch, and while it’s not yet a completed artwork (I’ll have to go back and work on that) it has more depth, colour and texture than before. It’s more real than it was, and how could that be disappointing?
Thank you to Canadian Tourism Commission, Tourisme Montreal, Piknic Electronique and Flavours of the Main for hosting us. Thank you to Susan too for coming all that way to meet me!
Narrelle M Harris is a Melbourne-based writer. Find out more about her books, smartphone apps, public speaking and other activities at www.narrellemharris.com.