8:30 am. The room feels cooler, it is cloudy outside and there is a cool breeze making its way into the apartment like it lives there. I get out of bed but for all my usual sadistic penchants for ruining people’s sleep, I feel bad about having to wake them up when we fell asleep so late.
I eventually do, and when I walk into Kate and Reem’s room I am taken aback by the beautiful view (not of Reem and Kate a-slumber) – we can look out over the city, with a green hill, Mount Royal, ahead and McGill University sprawled at the foot of the hill. The apartment feels much better.
“Guys,” Kate begins in a voice that indicates she has some worrying news to share: “I’m hungry.”
The menu is in French. This is troubling. “You should have listened to those French tapes in the car,” Reem is smug but she translates and it seems to match up to the pictures so we order away.
I have gotten so used to English as the primary language, I feel a little displaced. Language can be such a handicap. I think of all those old ladies that travel with their old husbands from Pakistan to America and how difficult it must be to be thrown into an environment where all the sounds are foreign, where it takes ages to explain or ask a simple question, where people get annoyed at you because they don’t understand your accents or gestures, and all for their son who works in Phoenix or Dallas.
Reem actually walks with her GPS in her bag, and so we whip out Kate’s IPhone and Reem’s GPS, and walk around in circles till we hit St. Catherine’s. It is an explosion of capitalism, with all the famous brands appearing twice, thrice down the same street so it’s a constant feeling of déjà vu. The restaurants have little patios and the bistro tables and chairs outside coupled with the French signs make us feel like we’re in France. Not to mention the strip clubs and promises of ‘contact danses’ which we could only imagine were R-rated venues. “Erotique massage” read a neon sign that would light up and glow red, blinking on and off as if the words aren’t enough to attract.
All the cigarettes and fashionable hats, the place felt quite European. It was full of people, walking in both directions. The crowd was still pretty young but the last night surreal appeal was gone – for the moment.
The best part about Montreal was how much you have to walk, and it isn’t so much about what you do in the city, it’s more of what you see. There are all these posh silver sparkly buildings, designed to lure you in and convince you that you slave at work so as to be able to buy these brightly colored merchandise, and then suddenly, nestled between all this commercialization will be a beautiful church, its spires not as high as the buildings around it but still managing to draw all the attention, the stained glass catching light at dusk, with people and dogs resting on its steps. There are small kiosks with local art and fruits and baby cacti, short dapper trees draped in red fairylights.
There is a huge block down St. Catherine, before we hit China Town, where the city holds its musical events. They were busy setting up for the International Jazz Festival and although it was a week away, it already looked exciting. One of my favorite parts was the splash pad (lots of little fountains that changed momentum, turning into tiny little spurts like a spring in a forest, and then charging up to jump higher, like rockets, clear water drops you could catch rainbows in). There were always people by the fountains, in the day there were little kids in shorts and diapers running through the water while their parents lounged on the benches nearby, and at night when the splash pad lit up in neon colors, the families were replaced with little groups of guys and couples, the scent in the air became smokier.
China Town was an explosion of color – it was like somebody put rainbows in a blender and then poured the mixture over plastic dolls, straw hats, into paint boxes, and over umbrellas, flip-flops, bobble-heads and all sorts of stuff you don’t really need but you buy because it’s so darned cute. Seriously, there was all sorts of stuff in those streets, from lens-less Hello Kitty glasses to bubble tea to $3 floppy hats.
A few blocks from China Town, the road goes uphill and we see the first signs (literally) pointing towards Old Montreal. It is like walking through an invisible portal. Suddenly we – and a thousand other tourists with hats and cameras and maps – find ourselves on cobbled streets with beautiful buildings rising all around us. We sat in the first square we came across, settling down on the edge of a fountain and out came the maps and smartphones… where is the basilica? The girls spent some time trying to understand the lay of the land till we finally decided to walk around and check out the beautiful structure right behind us, which indeed was the basilica. It was one of those churches you walk into and immediately words are whipped out of your mind and your mouth falls open. It was dim inside with little tables hosting bright little tea light candles that you could light for a lost dream or hope.
I have yet to see mosques in Turkey and Spain and so I might change my mind, but for now it is always interesting to compare the interior of mosques to churches, which are so ornate and intricate and dim. I do love the stained glass, and the one time I heard it, organ music. The Notre-Dame basilica had an incredibly large set of organ pipes, played by one man (some 27 keyboards, four pedals and what not) for over 50 years, I believe.
Hazelnut gelato is heavenly, and the Artists’ Lane is so bright and beautiful, the food is pricey and the three-person bikes are even more expensive. The Old Port is serene. The sun came out so we sought some trees and sat under them, with our legs dangling in the still water.
I wish we had been able to go to Old Montreal again, and we missed it as soon as we walked down the hill and back through the portal. It would be amazing to walk through the cobbled stone streets with its occasional horse carriages trotting by in the night, and in the winter when there would not be so many people all around so I could have the place to myself, quieter so that you could feel the air heavy with the past and the buildings whisper secrets and made-up stories.
We had spent the entire day walking and when we neared the apartment we wanted to cry at the thought of those nine flights of steps. But we stoically (not) climbed up and collapsed on the dusty beds. We wanted to explore the night life so we wore pretty dresses and fixed our faces, and stepped out to take on Montreal. Except we ended up going on a wild goose chase to free ballroom dancing lessons on some island except the lessons turned out to be a private wedding party and the GPS got confused so we went around on the same winding, turning road on the island three times. It was some deserted part of the city with detour signs and scary bridges that made grinding sounds when we drove over, and the GPS still wasn’t ready to cooperate and to top off the stress-cake, we were almost out of gas.
By the time the GPS finally took us to some dark looking gas station, the red light had flickered on, and the station was deserted. Those were some scary, slightly comical minutes, and by the time we filled up the car and came back into familiar territory, we were famished and our makeup showed that it had been two hours since we had started on our quest to be elegantly waltzing. It was late and dinner options were limited but we finally found a diner-ish place where our burgers and fries took forever to come.
It was midnight when we were finally done and we were quite exhausted. But when we stepped out the city didn’t agree. It was up and about, as crowded as if it were noon. Three guys were singing English songs outside on the street. Signs blinked, cars honked and people dressed scantily twirled, so we decided to walk down the brightly lit street and like cartoons levitate towards the smell of freshly baked cakes and bread, we heard Latin music and decided to check it out. Other than Reem, we really did not know any Latin dancing but that is the beauty of being with friends and in a place where nobody knows you anyway!
We reached home past 1 am, which we felt was late enough to appease my resolve to ‘have fun’. The night breeze was beautiful, and it floated in along with the sounds of cars and people and life outside as we dozed off.