Friday, January 13, 2012

Wintering in Montreal

After winning the Grantourismo/HomeAway Holiday-Rentals travel blogging competition in March, I was burdened with the excellent problem of how to use the prize of free lodging anywhere in the HomeAway property list. At long last I realized that the best vacation was the one that could be shared, and with a trip already planned to the East coast to see them, I added an extra layer of thermal underwear to my bags and told my parents to warm up their car: we were headed north to Montreal. I was excited to give my parents a get-away after all of their support while I had been in school, and I was thrilled about taking my partner, NT, to a French-speaking city. NT immigrated to America with his family from France at age 16, and while he has crossed the great while west, had still never been to Canada.

I was so excited about our trip, and so completely trusting of the lodging we selected on HomeAway, that I did not research this enormous city beforehand, at all. Neither did my parents. Nor did NT. But I didn't worry. I knew from the comments on the HomeAway website that the owner of our apartment, Alain, would meet us personally when we arrived, and from all of the positive feedback his guests had left him, I felt pretty certain we could rely on him to share ideas on how to best see Montreal in a whirlwind weekend.

While I felt confident that Montreal, just over the border, would be navigable, interesting, and beautiful, I didn't count on it feeling so... foreign. Drifting through the border from Vermont, no more snow lay on the north side than had on the south. Yet, suddenly the countryside was filled with French-style stone farmhouses, European cars, and the convenience stores and gas stations of NT's youth. And just when it seemed that we had taken a wrong turn into some small, French farming village, the city appeared.

Montreal, which rests on an island in the middle of the St. Laurence river, is Canada's second largest city. It is a cultural haven and both highly livable and hospitable, having been named both a UNESCO City of Design and North America's number one host city for international association events. It is also the second largest French-speaking city in the world, after Paris. While English and French are both recognized as official languages in Canada, in the province of Quebec it is only French. English appears, but second and smaller, on signs, menus and in greetings. In fact, it is illegal to greet someone in English before French, a byproduct of which being the Franglais greeting "Bonjourhello," popular throughout the city.

For being the sixth largest city on the North American continent, Montreal was surprisingly easy to navigate, and we found our way to our HomeAway rental without trouble. Our host, Alain was as nice as his previous guests had claimed and, to my relief, did in fact have many suggestions of what to see, along with a dog-eared guidebook that had no doubt been appreciated by others beforehand. He greeted us appropriately in French, then English and led us to our fabulous local, a modern condo on the 8th floor of a brand new building.

Our condo was on the edge of Old Montreal, a small set of city blocks, once making up the entire city. Where in the 1600’s it was fortified by a wall, it's boundaries now are marked simply by architectural differences, and, according to Alain, by the invisible border of expense versus cheap restaurants and apartments. He noted his favorite restaurants on the border, gave us directions to the nearest supermarket, the scoop on sights near and far, and his cell phone number. He made us feel right at home.

We relaxed at once into our stylish digs.

And ate nouveau french bistro style at the trendy Vallier, just down the street.

Our condo was a one bedroom with pull out couch, modern appliances and trendy style. In addition to being clean, comfortable, and having a coffee maker, one of its best features was a huge kitchen island with four stools. Here, we not only congregated to look at maps, and drink tea, but in the morning, before leaving to explore, we also laid out a veritable feast of Christmas cakes, breads and cookies (plus our favorite, the Grittibaenz) that we hadn't wanted to leave at home. Communal breakfast with our own foods was something we could never have done at a hotel, and gave us a chance to spend relaxed and unstructured time together as a family.

In addition wanting to introduce NT to his first experience of a French speaking country other than his own, something that sort of blew my mind and all sense of social norms when I first went to New Zealand years ago, I was also looking forward to him experiencing in full the intensity of a true Canadian winter. You will imagine my excitement then, when we woke on our second day to fat flakes of the season's second snowstorm. We trudged outside in winter gear for a view of the old city, and found our vision obstructed by our own hoods, scarves and eyelashes, laden with white. The magic wasn’t lost on us.

Old Montreal is a tourist trap - the most expensive French restaurants can be found here, along with a souvenir shops carrying as many maple-leafed sweatshirts and stuffed beavers as you can fit in a suitcase. At the same time, there has been tremendous effort maintain the quality and charm of the original building and cobblestone streets, and one has the feeling they are going back in time as soon as they cross the border from new Montreal into old. In one morning we ate up everything the old city offered - from hidden courtyards and beautiful architecture, to my personal heaven - a maple syrup museum and bakery cafe.

Of course, we also visited the Notre-Dame de Montréal Basilica. No matter how many churches you have seen on your travels, this one is guaranteed to stun you into open-mouthed silence.

We were loathe to skip the Pointe-à-Callière Museum located in old city confines, but the scenery outside was too beautiful to miss, and that afternoon we hopped in a cab and drove up one of Montreal's longest and most fashionable streets - Saint Laurent Boulevard - to little Italy, where we fought through the icy wind and into the Jean Talon market, a local indoor (in the winter) hangout for all ages, filled with fresh fruits, vegetables and flowers, handmade chocolates, pastries and cuisine of all origins. We sampled Turkish, Argentine and Quebecois delicacies before purchasing some jars of homemade chocolate sauce with porto for friends back home, and watched locals on their way from work stop in to buy groceries.

As the snow began falling more heavily and rush hour reached its peak, we thought it would be an *excellent* time to do some driving of our own, and we headed out to the West Island to visit our good friends Abby, Mike and baby Lora. Abby and Mike recently made the decision to move to Montreal after years of commuting to Manhattan from various boroughs and suburbs. Mike is an English-speaking native to the city and he has plenty of stories of the fierce rivalries, nay, downright hatred, between the Francophiles and the Anglophiles that permeated his youth. For example, don't try and wave a flag on Canada Day, he warned, unless you want a beer bottle to the head...

At least that's how it used to be. But back home after nearly a decade, Mike says that the tension between the two dominant cultures of the island has faded into, if not total acceptance, at least a grudging tolerance. And while he and Abby still feel they receive occasional resentment for their tongue, they appreciate the fierce loyalty the French-speaking population maintains to their language and way of life. When then city's hockey team recently fired their long-time coach for performance issues, they temporarily replaced him with a unilingual, English-speaking, assistance, and the province rose up in arms. Despite the fact that the NHL conducts all of its business and training in English, its viewer base in Quebec is largely French speaking, and many people, including the English speakers, felt the slight. "It's the fact that he's not even really trying to learn," said Mike as he shook his head sadly. He recently signed up for French classes himself to brush up before applying for jobs.

If, by wishing for 'real Canadian winter,' I thought I would get only snow, I was mistaken. Our last day in Montreal began with temperatures of zero degrees…Fahrenheit, with a wind chill of -17. Nevertheless, after a last post-Christmas brunch, my plucky family and I bundled up and hit the near empty streets, dreams of exploring other enticing neighborhoods - the Plateau Mont-Royal, or Mile End, for example - on hand. And we would have gone there, if my father had not needed to purchase something from a seemingly generic looking department store, and we had not discovered what had happened to all the inhabitants of Montreal. They were underground.

We stumbled an underground mall, a place you could normally not pay me to stay in, what with there being fresh air and sunlight to consume elsewhere. But being there, I suddenly had an acute need to shop...Because strolling through masses of Boxing Day bargain hunters was highly preferable to the discomforting feeling of frozen eyeballs. And I wasn't alone.

Underground malls are a staple in cold northern cities and Montreal’s is no exception. But, what we had yet to realize, is that this particular mall was no mere hidden shopping center. It was part of a literal underground city, 4.6 square miles large and containing over 20 miles of tunnels. Not only does it provide endless hours of weatherless retail, it links to shops above and below ground, along with apartment complexes, office buildings, hotels, museums, universities, subway stations, a bus terminal, and even an amphitheater. A metropolitan ground hog’s lair. And what a lifesaver it is. On a winter's day, one can share tunnel space with up to 500,000 people.

To refuel after the 15 blocks we had spent in the winter chill, NT and I thought the most appropriate meal before heading home would be one of the Montreal classics: smoked meat, poutine or pigs knuckles. The line for smoked meat at the famous Schwartz's on Saint Laurent Blvd. had been prohibitively long when we passed by the day before, so we settled on an imitation, half-way back to our apartment, which to our gluttonous delight, sold a sampler platter of all three of the dishes we had been hoping to try.

This photo cannot adequately display the true and amazing fact that pigs knuckles are really quite delicious... not to mention that they look nothing like pigs knuckles... We did notice, when we finally gazed up from our over-laden platters, a young Quebecois couple at the table to our left, politely sharing a small, single serving of poutine… Perhaps we were not meant to consume so much smoked meat and gravy on our own, we realized... but never the less, we left Montreal full, warm, and satisfied.

A link to Alain’s HomeAway property is here

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Return to the world

Having been in grad school for the last three (million) years, life hasn't had much time or money for traveling. And somehow, I didn't need it to. Being absorbed in a project or goal can sometime be enough to keep you distracted from wanderlust. I had begun to feel like perhaps the travel bug had died within me. NOT SO!
As soon as I graduated I realized it was time to get out of dodge. My grad school fatigued self pushed through a 27 hour travel day to fly train and bus from Seattle to Villefranche de Rouergue in the south of France, to visit my partner, NT's extended family, where I saw, what I believe was a large, and incredibly realistic Disney movie set...

Met the world's sweetest grandparents,

and hung around small streets and farmer's markets as much as possible.

From there, we trained to the Paris suburbs, where NT's high school friends happily entertained us with a night of drunken revelry and cheese tasting* at the home of an old friend.
We made a quick stop in Paris, where I saw Montmartre for the first time, and met the world's cutest one-year-old.
And then we sped away to Eu, Normandy, where I met more family, learned the true meaning of the word "cliff," and found out just how many mussels and fries a person can eat in one sitting.

From France we took Easyjet to Bratislava, and then a short bus ride from my Aunt's home in Vienna. I was thrilled to show NT my favorite farmers market and eatery - the Naschmarkt,

my favorite flea the Naschmark,

and my favorite park... at Schonbrunn...(not the Naschmarkt).

I also got to spend eight lovely days with my Grandmother, who braved heat waves and stormy weather in fast determination to be with us and feed NT as many Wienerschnitzels as possible.

Here are my Aunt W, Grandma and NT, on WS #2, in Heinburg an der Donnau. While my partner didn't get to choose his menu, I got the venison goulash with dumpling and currents, which was the second most amazing meal of my life (after this one).
NT headed home after four days, and I stayed on in Vienna, eating apfelstrudel in café houses with my grandmother, noshing on ever present street food,

and taking in the pace of the city.

I also visited some more of my favorite haunts from the summer I spent there years ago, and saw the 2011 World Press Photo show, which never ceases to amaze me. (My favorite photo is #14.)
Refusing to head home so early, I popped in to the east coast, to see my family in beautiful western Massachusetts and in the city - the city of course being NYC. I didn't know it but that would also be my last visit with my wonderful Aunt E., my confidant and NYC lunch date since I've been old enough to get to the city alone.
When you close your eyes sometimes, and then open them, the world sometimes seems clearer and brighter. Seattle certainly seemed more beautiful when I returned.

* i.e. introduce the American girl to your smelliest cheeses, then watch intently as she tries them. Hilarity ensues.