La Canada: All for One, and One for (Montre)al!
Trip Start May 05, 2011
19Trip End Sep 08, 2011
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(Phew. That'll fool those gullible readers into thinking that I have a moderate command of the French language. Now, to work on a way to conceal my subtext more effectively...)
Another week, another exciting barrage of happenings in the grand Dominion of Canada. Grand, because this place is VAST (I've travelled from Toronto to Ottawa to Montreal - all pretty close by Canadian standards, but in actuality about 6 hours' drive apart). And Dominion, because - well, there's an awful lot of excess evil floating around in that area, and once a certain level of evilness is reached, a country technically counts as an evil dominion. Such is Canada.
(Only joking, although the choice of word for the junior British Empire states - 'dominions' - has always mildly amused and perplexed me.)
Anyway, on with my tale. And, the beginning, such as it is, comes in Toronto. I had seen so much of what Toronto had to offer, that on my last day, there was really not so much to do. Nonetheless, I managed to pack in a visit to Kensington Market (SOOO different from London - the sort of place you might go to buy a tunic, or grass; actual grass), a quick tour around the Ontario Provincial Parliament, and a quick plate of Canadian fish and chips. The Canadians, bizarrely, seem to have a pretty good impression of what constitutes the 'fish and chip' meal, even if they tend to eschew cod for (equally indistinct) halibut. Nonetheless, they still feel the need to offer their clientele tomato ketchup with their battered-fish plates. Canada, you stand judged.
After a long day's journey on Thursday, I arrived in Ottawa, the beating political heart of Canada. If indeed such a heart did beat; people here seem a little perplexed by the current political situation in Canada. But more on that later...Anyway, I arrived sweaty, tired, and unsure what to expect from my Couchsurfer host in Ottawa. He had said that he liked to party. I had no idea (at all) what that would mean, but I wasn't really apprehensive. After all, it's Ottawa, how extreme could it get? I knocked uncertainly at his door, heard a bounding in the hallway, and was quickly heartily embraced by Mathieu, a Quebecois politico. Obviously, it's nice to be welcomed. A few moments after entering his house, however, I saw an ornately set table with six places, sensed the sweet smell of quality cooking, and noticed his smart attire. Confused, I looked inquiringly at Mathieu. 'Oh, this?' he said simply. 'We're just having a dinner party in your honour.'
It was good. So good. I sat down (after making myself slighty less sweat-ridden) to a beautiful four course meal, including a butternut soup, a pork tenderloin stuffed with cranberries, REAL cheese...I can safely say that it was the most unexpected couchsurfer greeting I've had to date. Still, if they're all heading that way, you probably won't hear me complaining. The company was also quite fascinating, and included a range of politicos from all ages, though from a distinctly Liberal party bias. No socialists or conservatives here! And it was a great laugh, even if we did commit the dinner party cardinal sin, and talk about religion and politics over the green risotto. How shocking, I know. Really puts the London riots in perspective (!)
I learned a LOT about Canadian politics from my hosts, and Mathieu's friend Vince (who works as the assistant to the Liberal Chief Whip) was kind enough to give me a personal guided tour of the Ottawa Parliament the next day. This was fantastic, because I completed my American mission, to see practically ever legislature in practically every country; it was also fantastic for another reason. For those who haven't been to Ottawa, the Parliament is perhaps the most spectacular building north of the border. I'm not kidding: somehow, it blends British and French gothic architectural styles with a BEAUTIFUL blue-green copper roof to create a marvel of Victorian construction. And that means a lot, coming from a Cambridge-educated Historian, who is usually really snotty about the way in which the Victorians 'celebrated' (read: decimated) our cultural heritage. It is rather stunning inside, too, and Vince was able to give me details on a whole range of portraits and busts, statues and carvings, all of which - of course - hold some quite significant historical meaning. And the ethos of the legislature was SO British - even more British than Westminster. On the plus side, this means adverserial political debate. On the minus side, it means a preposterous raft of traditions that they are unwilling to cast off. Including the changing of the guard ceremony, which I saw before our tour. But hey, it's good for the tourists.
Mathieu, Vince, and their friends are (as I said), all members of the Liberal party, which has historically been one of the two main parties of Canada. Until the last election. Quebec (possibly under the influence of alcohol and a WHOLE lot of apathy) elected a huge number of New Democratic Party (read: socialist) MPs - many of whom were students. One was nineteen years old. One was in Vegas for the elected, getting drunk as she in no way expected to win. Even the Montrealers think this situation is preposterous, and Mathieu and his friends CLEARLY oppose it. Yet, despite how scary this situation is, it shows that in a first-world nation, the whole balance of power can shift dramatically in the course of one elections. Take heed, politicians: don't get too comfortable. I might just bring back some Quebecois spirit with me (!)
Whilst in Ottawa, I was able to traverse the city, and visit some premier museums. The Museum of Art was a specific highlight, and its proximity to my host's house made it an even more attractive goal. I was also able to aimlessly wander in the afternoon sunlight, to my heart's content. However, on Saturday evening I was slightly unnerved when I heard the sound of rustling bushes as I was wandering along the banks of the Ottawa River. Since I'm super daring (and, well, because it was Ottawa, and frankly I don't know of anywhere safer on earth) I stood my ground, and in a second, a random young man jumped out into the path. We exchanged pleasantries, but it was rather odd because he seemed to be dripping wet and in a state of partial undress. In a second, another friend emerged, and explained without hesitation - 'We've been swimming'. Braver men than me. Canada's rivers don't tend to warm up that much, even during the summer...It turns out, they had been jumping off a massive rock, into the river - and only partly to amuse tourists. Honestly, they were a lot of fun, and I got some quality photos of them jumping - 'wellgood', as a Canadian British-imitator might say. But I politely declined their offer to jump too, on the basis that the waterproof integrity of my passport is currently untested and is rather unlikely. Still, it made for an entertaining evening!
Every evening that I was there (Thursday-Sunday morning), Mathieu and I headed out clubbing with his friends. This is rather impressive for a man with a 9 to 5 job, but since this was his last week before he changed jobs, he figured that he could afford to be a little party-focused. The nightclubs in Ottawa are small, but come highly recommended by yours truly, and it had been a while since I had last been able to hit the dancefloor. So it was a well-needed break, and a chance to impress the North-Americans with my highly superior moves.
On Sunday, I headed to belle Montreal, a vibrant, francophone city; the true beating heart of Quebec. Another city, another set of couchsurfer hosts. This time: Laurence and Phillipe, a hilarious, politically incorrect, fantastic combo. Laurence is an actress, and she will soon be appearing in a film screening at the Venice film festival; Philippe is a student, a zen master of sarcasm, and the most ridiculously tall French-Quebecois-man that it has ever been my very good pleasure to meet. Ultimately, we had a great time together (despite the lack of four-course meal awaiting me on my arrival).
Staying with Laurence and Philippe was a bit of a bohemian experience. On our first evening, we cooked Ethiopian chicken, and the sallied out into hipster-town for a drink (getting drenched by a wholly predicable storm in the process). I then retired to their slightly disconcerting, humid and dark basement. Still, they had a drumkit there, so I was entertained...The bonhomie of it all was so Francophone, and quite different to what I had come to know in America. Indeed, it was like falling into a bit of a French indie film after a summer of comedies and blockbusters. But I'm sure they wouldn't thank me for this comparison; after all, they are the greatest opponents of the overrated concept-film that I am yet to meet! Danny Boyle: please stay away. Your presence is not wanted here.
Laurence and Philippe were pretty busy during the daytime, so I fended for myself. But this was great, really, because it allowed me to traverse Montreal to my heart's content! On Monday, I visited the absolutely glorious gothic sensation that is Notre Dame de Montreal (most ornate behemoth of a church in North America - hands down). The startling array of blues, deep greens, and warm, golden-edged oranges exploded before my eyes, sweeping up to the vaulted ceiling before diving again to the basement. And although the church's main claim to fame was - unfortunately - that Celine Dion chose to be married there, hopefully with time this memory will be expunged, and people will begin to focus once more upon its incredible ornate charm.
Next up, I sauntered into vieux Montreal, stopping to take photos of each of the fantastic buildings with aluminium or startling metallic copper rooves. I allowed myself to revel in the francophone culture (the street-performers still tout in English, however - I wonder where their money comes from?), and I got intentionally lost, if only to feel part of the city all the more. I also visited the Museum of Archaeology, which was rather forward thinking and incredibly interactive, and is almost certainly an award-winner. It is also subterranean, which was a bit of an advantage on a rainy day (I have had a couple). By the end of my visit, however, I wanted to throttle the 'City of Montreal' narrator. Nonetheless, I decided that even I could not take an entire city in a fight, and so let the city be. And since the museum was interesting, it was probably for the best...Any latent aggression that remained from my visit was purged in a cathartic shower of violence rather later on, when Laurence, Philippe, and I watched a ridiculously bloody Samurai epic. And thus, I went to bed highly satisfied with my lot, and my view of the city.
I had originally planned to leave Montreal on Tuesday, but by Monday morning I knew that was never going to happen. There was WAYYYY too much to see, and no time to see it in. Unfortunately, Laurence and Philippe could not host me for an extra night, as they had friends arriving. Luckily, I found a rather great hostel last minute. So on Tuesday, I hit the town hard, safe in the knowledge that I had at least one more day to soak up the atmosphere. Despite the ridiculous Canadian August storms (I demand a perfect summer) I climbed a mountain, took a walk through hipster-ville, and discovered a ridiculous and wonderful vintage clothes store. The mountain was the Mont-Royal, a 200m 'mountain' that overlooks the urban expanse of the town. True, it is not a mountain - more of a pimple. But the views were good, the journey there was arduous, and it allowed me to disappear into the wild in the midst of urban Canada - no mean feat. The walk through hipster-ville was also fun, although you can only see so many Portuguese restaurants before the view becomes depressingly familiar. And this amazing vintage clothes store - Eva B - was a cultural experience all by itself. When I entered, a slightly flakey woman approached me and offered me lemonade. Then she offered to take me to their swimming pool of clothes (no joke) where patrons are expected to dive in, sort through a (slightly smelly) pile of dross, and pull out the occasional fantastic find, which they can then purchase at the grand cost of one Canadian dollar. Indeed, it was fantastic. I brought a t-shirt. There is a high probability that I may never wear it again, but hey - it was so darn cheap, and it seemed like an achievement at the time.
As the evening drew on, I became increasingly more aware that I had not sampled the gourmet cuisine of Montreal. With a beating French heart, surely it would be delicious - riotously so. I took advice from mes amis. Poutine, they said - the best thing to have come out of Quebec in a long while. Poutine: sophisticated french fare. Poutine: with a proud heritage, served in the best restaurants. Poutine: ...cheesy chips. With gravy on top. Some things, you can't make up (!)
Last night, I joined a whole host of guys from my hostel, and we hit the town. I'll admit, I was not greatly in need of yet more dancing. But we went to a 70s club, and it was - indeed - ridiculous fun. More fun, because we got lost and wandered aimlessly on the way back. Super-fun, because they played such classic hits as Aha's 'Take on Me'. Which seems totally unreal in the 'cool' city of Montreal, but which allowed me to strut in the most literal sense of the word.
Today has been a chilled, fantastic time. With the outstanding company of Wes, one of my hostel compatriots, I found the Montreal modern art gallery. I found (to my immense thrifty delight) that it was free entry. And I found Montreal once again bathed in sunlight. This was the perfect setting for my last day in Canada. And though its all set for one long trip to Boston tonight (Greyhound at night is AN EXPERIENCE), I find myself with one great affection for this sideways city - one amore for Montreal.