Hi folks–FYI, Beth’s recovered nicely from her little ordeal, though Whitney’s testing her a little bit. Thanks for all the good wishes, I’ve passed them along to Beth, who seems to
be taking full advantage of the solitude and unplugging herself.
Now, let’s see. Before Roger Ebert died last week and before Beth was diagnosed with that staph infection we were in…Montreal!
Our three nights/two days in Montreal were magnificent — starting with our cab ride from the airport. You know Beth’s not shy about talking to everyone, especially cab drivers, and we got a cabbie who was articulate, extremely well-educated, well-informed, and talkative. Ethiopian by descent, he and his family immigrated to Montreal from Israel more than 20 years ago. During our half-hour or so drive, we got a taste of Canadian history and the politics surrounding the Quebecois separatist movement, of the state of Montreal’s economy…and pointers on where to walk, what to see, where to eat — and why fast food doesn’t fly in Montreal, only good food does.
He dropped us in Old Montreal — the oldest part of the city — at our hotel, called Lhotel, housed in a hundreds-year-old former bank building. It was formerly known as Hotel Xixe Siecle (Hotel 19th Century) — and some friends who had stayed there years ago recommended it to us. About three years ago, though, it was bought by Georges Marciano — a cofounder of Guess Jeans and art collector. He moved into the hotel — with his collection — which hangs in the lobby, hallways and rooms. We were in the Chagall room (and yes, there were Chagall prints). From an article about him in Macleans:
Guests wandering the halls of the five-floor hotel are treated to approximately 250 original works by A-list artists like Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Rauschenberg, James Rosenquist, Jasper Johns, Frank Stella, Jim Dine, Ed Ruscha, Christo, Claes Oldenburg, Willem de Kooning, and Robert Motherwell. Most are prints with their Sotheby’s or Christie’s stickers still on the bottom right corner, but some are paintings, like After by Jasper Johns and Night Clouds by Michael Gallagher. A portrait of Marciano created by Andy Warhol hangs over the sortie sign at reception.
Out front is one of the LOVE sculptures that Robert Indiana originally created for the Museum of Modern art in 1964. If you go back far enough, you know that sculpture — and variations on it — became ubiquitous during the late 60s and into the 70s.
In all, it was like living in a museum — one night after Beth went to sleep I just wandered the halls to take my time taking in the work. But the artwork was equalled by the staff — in particular a young woman with the absolutely appropriate name of Summer. The evening we arrived we were zonked and only wanted to eat and retire. Summer gave us what proved to be a perfect recommendation for a Bistro-ish place called Holder, only a few blocks away.
It was packed and bustling but not so noisy that we couldn’t have a nice conversation and Beth, as is her wont, got some good eavesdropping in, testing what was left of her French at times. (And there was no TV to be found, even behind the copper-clad bar!) Every person we encountered — in stores, restaurants, wherever — spoke French and English, and many so well that I swear I wasn’t sure what their first language was. I think because in some cases, there was no “first.” If there is tension about the language, we didn’t see it. There had been no succession, but French — language and culture — lives, and in my view, that’s for the better. The people we encountered were very attentive, but not in that corporate “I had to take human being lessons and introduce myself as your server” way. They were playful and charming.
By day we walked. And walked and walked. Whitney did quite well on Old Montreal’s streets, where she masterfully threaded Beth through crowded and very narrow sidewalks. I just lagged behind an marveled. We headed up St. Laurent, which years ago marked a separation between French and English-speaking Montreal. We walked miles passing through distinctive neighborhoods — Chinatown, through a Portuguese section, then a more gentrified section filled with high end kitchen and furniture shops.
And we landed at a little bakery recommended by Summer — croissant, coffee, and Rioppelle cheese, a Quebec specialty. (Get some if you can–imagine a soft cheese, like Brie, but with a full, nutty flavor). Beth and I ate slowly — comparing the offering to our morning’s croissants at the hotel breakfast. Ahhh. I felt like Joni Mitchell’s Free Man in Paris. Unfettered and alive. But in Montreal, not Paris.
There were two places recommended to us that we did not make it to — Schwartz’s deli, for its signature smoked meat (that’s what they call it–just smoked meat) that is apparently like pastrami on steroids. We walked by but the line was more than we wanted — the weather was beautiful and we were enjoying our walk too much. Plus, we had to burn off the morning croissant to make room for the afternoon’s.
We also intended to go to Au Pied du Cohcn for what sounds like a pork fest, but we failed to land a reservation. Summer came to the rescue. She put it this way: “We have lots and lots of places that will make you feel like you’ve been transported to Paris, but if you were thinking Au Pied Du Cohon, I’d recommend L’Original. It’s very Quebeccoisehttp://restaurantholder.com/en.”
L’Original it was. I had boar shoulder that had been braised and then coated in some sort of divine demi glace. Think pork with more flavor and succulence. Beth had Halibut. Beyond that, we had too much good food to catalog, but I will say that the mussels and frites, yes, they transported me.
On our last night, a Brazilian jazz trio played in our hotel lobby bar. And they were good! Think Gilberto, but they also did some regional styles that we’d never heard before but fully enjoyed.
I can’t really do it justice — I will say that if you get a chance, go! It has much of the kinds of appeal that New Orleans has — it has the energy and texture and variety that only a cultural and historical crossroads can create. In fact, I’d say it’s earned a repeat visit for us.
P.S. — Summer and some friends made a short documentary about their trip across Canada. Which is really big. So check it out: www.vimeo.com/smyc or email firstname.lastname@example.org