THE CAFÉ – Ah, yes, a little French music, French soup, croissants, and I can’t understand a word the yuppies at the next table are saying. Is this Paris? No. Louisiana? Not exactly. This is Olive + Gourmando on the corner of some street names I can’t pronounce. This is Montréal, which most Americans also mispronounce. We say mon-tree-ALL. The name comes from that big hill over there, the royal mountain, or mont-ree-ALL, as in Texas’ royal road, Camino ree-ALL. Why are we here? To enjoy the fall foliage, and you can, too, if you hurry. All the leaves are changing from green to red. The Canadian flag has a big maple leaf on it, and the leaf is now red, as well.
A quick tour of this city, which is quite nice – sort of New Orleans’ French Quarter without all the vomit left by last night’s drunk tourists – and it should be on your bucket list. The main attraction is the food, and it is delicious. One of my sons says Mont-ree-ALL has the best food in North America. This café, Olive + Gourmando, for instance, is supposed to have wonderful croissants. I order two. They are sold out of them and it’s only 11 a.m. It seems the bakers get up at 3 a.m., start baking, and lines form to buy out the place shortly after opening. I order some to be held tomorrow. Elsewhere up and down the street there are cafes and restaurants and wine shops almost shoulder to shoulder. Even the Montréal Casino has a great restaurant on top, with a splendid view of the skyline.
The next time you come here, make reservations ahead for Restaurant Lemeac, a short distance from Old Montréal. Order the smoked salmon. Then there is L’express, very crowded and very French. One day my wife and I took a long walk around town and needed a good lunch. We found a very un-French café with no atmosphere, but we were desperate. Wonderful salad and everything goes well with a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon. Between meals, check out some really interesting places, like the Museum of History of Montreal which is currently featuring “Scandale!” — the sordid history of this city from 1940 to the 1960s when it was sort of Chicago North. Some of the biggest criminals were the police and politicians. (A new report said a recent mayor’s administration was corrupt.) Also, the Cathedral of Notre Dame, absolutely beautiful.
Canada almost became part of the U.S. with Benjamin Franklin leading the charge.
Franklin and others thought it was logical the French-Canadians would like to throw off the British grip, and he came to Montréal to make his case. During the American Revolution, the Continental Army invaded and captured the city, but the locals didn’t like that, and after seven months the Americans left. John Wilkes Booth spent some time in Montréal, and reportedly once drunkenly gallivanted throughout the city telling anyone who would listen of his plan to kill Lincoln. After the Civil War, Confederate President Jefferson Davis stayed at a manor house here.
Despite the French Quebecers refusal to become our northern state, since then there have been tensions between them and the Anglos here. During WWII Mayor Camillien Houde protested against army daft conscription, and was put in a prison camp from 1940 until 1944. Even so, at that time Montréal bank vaults were used as the secret hiding place for the gold bullion of the Bank of England and the British Crown Jewels. The face of QE II still smiles from Canadian currency.
After centuries of Montréal being the largest and most important city in Canada, in the 1980s and 90s the Quebec separatists began a drive to leave the nation and make Quebec an independent country. So worried were the Anglos that large banks, businesses and others fled. Between 300,000 and 400,000 Anglos left Quebec, many for Toronto, which is now Canada’s largest and most important city. Maybe the Quebecers should stop pretending they’re French. I’ve told this story before, but it’s worth repeating. Once, when flying back from Paris to Houston, our plane went right over Montréal. I turned to a Frenchman sitting next to me and said, “Do you know that Montréal is the second-largest French-speaking city in the world?”
He nodded and replied, “Yes, and isn’t it a shame.”
A few things we should know about our neighbor to the north: We are each other’s Number 1 trading partners. The 1976 Olympics were held here, and they put Montréal on the map. However, expenses put the city $1 billion into debt. From 1969 to 2004 there were the Montréal Expos major league baseball team. Today they are the Washington Nationals. Montréal is currently the largest North American city without a baseball franchise. Alexander Graham Bell, Rachel Roberts, Barenaked Ladies (apparently a most interesting hockey team), Jim Carey, Michael J. Fox, Celine Dion and Justin Bieber are from Canada. So are/were Art Linkletter, Keanu Reeves and Alex Trebek. Except for the French Quebecers, the Canadians speak a form of English, but they say things like “aboot” and “shed-yule” and they go “on holiday.”
Speaking of holidays, the province of Quebec, which includes Montréal, has a unique event: Moving Day. It began when the province mandated fixed terms for leases of rental properties, and falls on July 1, which is also Canada Day. Today the vast majority of leases are still a year long, and in 2004, approximately 120,000 households moved on or around July 1, about 4 percent of the population. Don’t come here then.
So this young man is applying for a job. The prospective employer says, “Sorry for keeping you waiting but I was just on the phone to Canada.” The young man says, “Canada? All they have are loose women and hockey players.” The maybe-boss replies, “I’ll have you know my wife is from Canada.” “Oh? And what team did she play for?”
Ashby is aboot at email@example.com