Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Montréal

La Reina and I just returned from a wonderful 5-night stay in Montréal. I'm too tired after our extended train journey back home yesterday to offer anything but a few unorganized thoughts and impressions. Photos are all generic, since we have to . . . uh . . . actually develop our rolls of film.

It felt great to get out of the States for a few days, even if it was just across the border. This trip marked the first time we've been out of the country since we moved back from Spain eight years ago. We loved being surrounded by the French language, and the European feel at times among the people and in the overall atmosphere of the city. (Except for when it felt like New York, which happened to me more than La Reina. I was getting Park Slope vibes at times. Albeit a French version. With cleaner streets.)

Tiger shrimp in Pernod sauce. My favorite meal.

Among many.

The crepe, for instance, made of sweet-corn and sesame batter, filled with asparagus, black forest ham, cheddar and mozzarella cheeses and "Nelson sauce."

That was at the Jardin Nelson in the Old City, where we sat in a funky patio garden area and listened to a jazz combo sing Cole Porter, Édith Piaf, and Rodgers & Hart ("Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered") while we ate. After the meal, in one of my favorite moments of the trip, they did Charles Trenet's lovely tune, "Que reste-t-il de nos amours?" while I sat back sipping my Pernod and smoking a du Maurier - surrounded by flowers and ma femme tres belle on a beautiful, lazy summer afternoon.

We capped off that meal by taking a short stroll down to the Vieux Port area on the Saint-Laurent river, laid down in the grass under a tree and took a nap. It was, in fact, the trip of "naps in the grass after excellent meals." Twice in the park by the river and once at the top of Mont Royal.

Eggs Benedict with Gruyère, served on a crepe. That was a good one.

Montréal is worth a visit for the food alone. Everything we had was excellent. Including the marvelous hot dogs. (No, really!)

And cafe au lait! How in the world have I survived the last eight years without a Spanish cafe con leche or a cafe au lait? Obviously, my heart has hardened over time, and what little civilization I absorbed in Madrid has been crushed out of me by The Man. And, je suis désolé, but a latte at Starbucks just isn't the same.

Though we didn't plan on it, our trip coincided with the last five days of the 29th Festival International de Jazz de Montréal. What a fantastic piece of luck. The Festival is so pleasant and well-organized and offers a seemingly endless number of free concerts. We spent three nights just wandering from one stage to the next, listening to music from around the world, soaking up the spectacular summer evenings, eating crepes (homemade in front of us) or the most amazing hot dogs in the world (no, really, you don't understand - they were in a class by themselves), drinking beer, and even talking to the musicians at times. Ironically, a group we knew from Brooklyn, Las Rubias del Norte, were performing on one of the big stages on Friday night. We used to hang out at Cafe Barbes in Park Slope, where Las Rubias regularly perform, but we had never actually seen them play. This, as it turns out, was our great loss. They were a lot of fun to hear - glockenspiel, bongos, electric guitar, beautiful vocal harmonies . . . doing Bollywood songs, Greek tunes, and a host of Latin American classics, all in a cumbia mix. After the show, we went back stage and chatted a bit.

The only drawback to the festival was, ironically, that we didn't hear much good jazz. I think it's great that the festival includes all kinds of music: blues, tango, African, Latino, soul, rap, etc. But the number of actual jazz concerts was limited, and too often . . . well . . . how shall I put it? I heard "In the Mood" twice in one day. Hearing Glenn Miller twice in the same year is plenty, but twice in the same day, especially at a jazz festival, is just not right. Finally, though, on our last evening, we encountered The Marcus Shelby Quartet, with guest vocalist Faye Carol. They were from San Francisco, and they were the real deal. The trio is great by itself, but Carol has a truly dazzling stage presence. Her vocal style shows traces of Nina Simone, Ella Fitzgerald's scat, and even the primordial wail/yodel of Leon Thomas, who used to sing with Pharoah Sanders. She's incorporated each of these elements into her own unique sound, and all were utilized perfectly in surprisingly powerful and moving version of - wait for it - Kermit the Frog's song, "It's Not Easy Being Green." It was, without a doubt, one of the best live performances I've seen in years.

Suffice it to say, it's a wonderful festival, and if you've never been, consider going. Check out this cool 360 degree panoramic image of the Louisiana Parade (with music) for a little taste of the atmosphere.

No internet for six days. That was a nice break.

No news either, with the exception of watching some French coverage of Ingrid Betancourt being freed. No Obama. No McCain. No failing economy. No cowardly Democrats caving in on FISA. I have no idea what happened in the United States over the last six days.

We didn't do much sight-seeing; mainly we walked around the various neighborhoods. We did, however, visit the Basilique Notre-Dame de Montréal. After five years in Spain, and having done the Camino de Santiago, I'm definitely a snob when it comes to cathedrals and churches. But the Basilique was quite beautiful. And not only did they have real candles (essential), they actually used them more effectively than any church I've ever seen, with four colors - red, yellow, white and a deep purple - and two sizes, all laid out tastefully and in such a way as to play off the stained glass windows and the dark tones of the wooden interior. Also of interest were the stained glass windows, which, rather than showing typical scenes from the Bible, depicted the history of Canada and the "religious and social life of the early Ville-Marie settlement." And the statue of Jeanne d'Arc up at the altar made me think of Leonard Cohen, who happened to back in his hometown a few days earlier, receiving the Montreal Jazz Festival Spirit Award and performing in the city for the first time in 15 years. Too bad we missed him.

We tried speaking French to the good (and friendly) folks of Montréal, but we kept breaking into Spanish instead. You take one year of French back in college, at the end of the 18th century, so naturally, your tongue goes to the closest equivalent in your mangled brain. You start the sentence in bad French and end up blabbing on in rusty Spanish, with the person staring at you without any comprehension. Finally, you say, "Parlez-vous anglais?"

We did get cheeky a couple of times and ask our waiters, "Parlez-vous espagnol?" Pained look. "Anglais?" Relief on the waiter's face. Then they started trying out their bad Spanish on us. One waiter, however, did parle espagnol un peau. We wound up conversing in three languages, all of them poorly. But we were only ordering drinks at a sidewalk cafe.

Montréal is full of incredibly good looking men, including several of our waiters. La Reina told me so. Several times a day. She kept saying how she needed to tell her unmarried sister to move to Montréal. Wish fulfillment or genuine concern for a sibling? Oh, and they're all in great shape. (What, my beer belly isn't sexy anymore?) Just because some guy speaks French, looks intellectual and hunky, and dresses way cool. Geez.

But she was right. There are a lot of good-looking men in Montréal.

I didn't bother looking at the women, content as I was to be with my beloved, but If I had, I would've noticed that there aren't any naturally blonde Québécois woman. Not a single one in the entire city. Some do a blonde streaking thing with their hair. That was popular. But they're all brunettes. Hey, fine with me. (If I were looking.)

Funny travel moment: We're in a bookstore near one of the universities. Lots of philosophy books, literary criticism, cinema, etc. We're looking through poetry in French (I can read a little, even if I can't speak it). I'm checking out the Apollinaire, looking for something newer, like Michel Deguy. La Reina buys a book by a contemporary French woman who does prose poetry. Asian clerk behind the counter dressed in black, wearing black rimmed glasses. Everything feels très intellectuel. Meanwhile, the entire time we've been in the shop, they've been playing ZZ Top. A mix of their early stuff - maybe The Best of ZZ Top, from 1977. As far as I could tell, no irony was intended.

Oh, right, if I talk about food in Montréal, I suppose I should mention poutine. A "legendary" (the waiter's word, not mine) Québécois dish. French fries covered with cheese curds and brown gravy. I'm not sure why anyone would want to take a nice crispy french fry and turn it soggy with brown gravy, but, hey, whatever turns you on. And what can I say? I come from a place that takes a mediocre cut of beef, covers it in flour, fries it up, and then smothers the whole thing in cream gravy. So, I felt a kind of cultural connection, despite my quibbles with the soggy fries. Poutine seems well suited for that food craving one gets at 3 AM after a night on the town. And a great winter comfort food. Though when I asked if it was more popular in the winter, the waiter seemed a bit offended. "No, it's for summer, too," he insisted. "They're putting lots of things with poutine now, like chicken." (Chicken = summer?) One Montréal restaurant even makes it with pate I was told. I'm sure you can find the same kind of fancy-ization of chicken fried steak in some prissy Austin and Dallas restaurants. But it's sort of like putting perfume and a pink bow on a perfectly good hound dog.

The train ride up from New York City was spectacular, though long. (Really long coming back.) You travel through the Hudson River Valley and the Adirondacks, passing by Lake Champlain. A great deal at $61 each way. But long. The Travel Scrabble set we got one Christmas came in handy.

All in all, it was a great trip.

10 comments:

Liam said...

Sounds great. I'm glad you guys had a good time.

Steve Caratzas said...

Superbien!

crystal said...

Sounds like a great trup :) I've never been there, only to Canada by Niagra Falls.

Garpu said...

Montreal is gorgeous. I was there once with a youth orchestra back in high school, and I'd love to go again, when the schedule isn't so regimented. Poutine, however, scares me, as do chili cheese fries.

Jeff said...

Sounds like a great trip. Anne and I went there in October once, back around 1994 or 1995. It was quite cold at that time of year. We liked it a lot, and loved the food. I wasn't crazy about driving there (better than Toronto!!), but the only thing I was disappointed with was St Catherine's Street. I'd always heard that it was quite cosmopolitan, but from what I could see, it was pretty seedy. Lot's of tacky bars featuring marquees full of Vietnamese strippers. Has that all been gentrified since then?

Yes, the gals with the streaky hair... That and all the black leather being worn made it feel very European.

Have to admit, I had quite the sticker shock when I saw all of the taxes loaded up onto our hotel bill.

cowboyangel said...

Liam,

We thought of you guys while we were there. You should make another attempt. The train works well for you.

Steve,

Would love to trade notes one day on good places to go. I have a feeling we may be going back.

Crystal,

You've never been to Vancouver. That's another place I'd like to go. That's a little closer to you.

Jen,

Yeah, the poutine scared us a little, too. But it wasn't bad in the end. We got one order and had it with a salad. Worked well that way. I haven't had chili cheese fries in a million years, and probably won't again. I like my fries straight for the most part. Waffle fries, I like.

Jeff,

We saw part of St. Catherine street quite a bit, because it was between the Festival and out hotel. It was fairly gentrified, but there were a couple of sex clubs along the way. One next to a children's toy store, which I find . . . . ironic. I thought it was going to be a little more "bohemian," but it wasn't that exciting either way. A few good book shops.

pbwiener said...

Sounds like one of the perfect vacations! $61 train? How long is the one-way ride?Now I wanna go. Where'd you stay? How does anyone get lucky enough to stumble into a jazz festival?

Alexandra said...

A well-rounded, sense-filled description of our trip, honey. For the food, I would have also added the poached salmon I had with an indescribable cream sauce and cooked cabbage that tasted sweet and delectable (cabbage!). We had a wonderful time and the air quality and perfect weather capped it all off!! I am missing the cafe au laits right now!

Alexandra

cowboyangel said...

Paul,

In theory, it's an 11-hour train ride. Unfortunately, on the way back, it took 13. For some reason, those extra two hours seemed to make a lot of difference.

Using the Lonely Planet guide to Montreal, we found a humble little Maison kind of between the Old City and the Quartier Latin. Easy walking distance to both, but nothing much right outside the front door. It was fine for us: clean, decent bed, AC, private bath and very affordable. Extremely nice owners. A garden in the back. Complimentary breakfast - simple but decent. Others would probably find it a little too humble.

The festival coincidence was amazing. I've always wanted to go to the Montreal Jazz Festival, but would've thought it impossible to afford or find a place to stay. We booked our train and room. Then, when looking at the guide books, we realized we were going to be there during the festival. Then we found out about all of the free concerts. All within walking distance! I'm not sure why the hotel wasn't booked. We saw a report on TV while we were there that hotel occupancy rates were down this summer in Montreal. I'm guessing gas prices have kept a lot of Americans in the NE away - those who would normally drive there. That may have contributed to our luck in getting a room so easily. And the humble nature of the establishment.

cowboyangel said...

Alexandra,

Yes, I forgot the amazing red cabbage! Who knew cabbage could be so delicious. And your salmon was excellent. that whole meal was amazing. The escargot, my gazpacho . . . . yum.

And the weather was spectacular.