Montreal – c’est vraiment nice!
As this French-speaking Canadian city turns 375, Hannah Meltzer tunes into its colour, cuisine and some quirky colloquialisms
The first thing I noticed was the pronoun. Montreal, which marks its 375th anniversary this year, is the second-largest Francophone city in the world after Paris, but where its sister city over the pond favours the formal second-person plural vous, in Québécois French, strangers will greet you with the familiar informality of tu. In fact, Montreal is a very tu kind of city.
My visit began, fittingly, with an over-spilling container of poutine – a messy pile of fries smothered in gravy and dolloped with chewy cheese curds. The iconic Québécois dish is ubiquitous and can be bought as fast-food or at trendy specialist vendors such as Patati Patata, my chosen venue, where bearded hipsters chat start-ups over the stodgy snack. It’s all very tu, all very relaxed.
The next thing I noticed was the franglais; highlights of the hybrid lexicon include “c’est vraiment nice”, “c’est chill” and, my personal favourite, “mon chum” which can mean “my friend” or “my boyfriend”. As a sometime Paris resident – and a committed Francophile – my interest in Montreal was first piqued when I noticed the volume of Frenchies deciding to leave the banks of the Seine in favour of the land which they once mocked for its distinctive accent and archaic ecclesiastical swear words: câlisse and tabarnak are both legitimate curse words. Most recent French émigrés can be found in the densely populated Plateau Mont-Royal district, the wideranging strip north-east of Downtown characterised by its colourful residences, criss-crossed with outdoor iron staircases, and punctuated by splashes of street art. The area is overlooked to the west by the imposing cross of Mont Royal, a vast steel construction that occupies the spot where Paul de Chomedey, the city’s French founder, first placed a crucifix in 1643. The settlement became the trading hub of “New France”, before coming under British control after the Seven Years’ War in the mid-18th century, and the two identities have tussled and overlapped ever since.
French was made the sole official language of Quebec in 1976, causing swathes of the Anglo-orientated population to leave. Industrial downturn in the 1990s was followed by a knife-edge independence referendum in 1995.
But as the 20th century drew to an end, an overhaul of the local economy – with a focus on technology and media – accompanied a thawing in tensions, with increasing numbers of Montreal’s young population speaking both French and English. These days greeting people in English won’t ruffle many feathers, especially not in the younger population.
It is in the Plateau district that my orientation of the city begins. I am in the capable and perfectly manicured hands of Carrie MacPherson. Originally from Saskatchewan in the Canadian Prairies and now a lifestyle blogger and guide, Carrie has been an adopted Montrealer for 17 years.
We start out where any tour of this bilingual city logically should, on Boulevard Saint-Laurent, also known as “The Main”, the wide seam that runs across the island bisecting its traditionally French-speaking contingent to the East and anglophone residents to the West. These days, the road bears signs of the many immigrant populations that have come to inhabit it and shape its character. Now 60 per cent of Montrealers speak French at home, just over 20 per cent speak English, while 20 per cent speak neither (the city is home to a thriving Chinatown, as well as significant Portuguese, Arab, Haitian and Jewish communities).
Our first stop is the hip Mile End neighbourhood and the warm bustle of open-all-hours St-Viateur Bagel, considered one of the best spots to sample the city’s signature cuisine. According to the affable Morena family who run the place, their bagels are better than those you might find south of the border in New York. Prepared and cooked in an open kitchen, these honeyboiled treats cost less than a dollar and are completely delicious. The walls are covered with 60 years’ worth of press cuttings, tinged with sepia, and black and white photos of famous patrons, including local Leonard Cohen.
Once we’ve fuelled up on bagels, we’re back in Carrie’s car and heading up The Main to the Mile-Ex neighbourhood, an up-and-coming area where former warehouses have been transformed into social hubs by young creatives, priced out of the area we’ve just come from. We duck into Dispatch Coffee, a garage transformed into an espresso bar and roastery, which could be straight out of Brooklyn, except that we are greeted with a “hello-bonjour” rather than a “hey there”. Hip credentials are prominent in our next stop, too, Dépanneur Le Pick-up, a working corner shop-cum-hip diner serving gourmet burgers and sandwiches, including the classic bagel, a
La Petite Bourgogne district, right; a cyclist passes some street art, left; a Cirque du Soleil performer, below; and the city’s speciality poutine, inset