Thursday, August 9, 2012


I recently came back from spending a week in Montreal with my best friend. He was there on a two-week reconnaissance mission, as he and his BF are emigrating from the UK once all the final paperwork is in. The plan was to capitalize on the fact that we'd be not only on the same continent for a change, but a mere ~2 hours by plane apart, and grab some catch-up time.

The last time I'd been in Montreal was right about the time of the 1976 Olympics, when I traveled there by bus with a junior-high-class contingent. All I remember was lots of Olympic souvenirs and being the only one in the entire group willing to admit I liked brussels sprouts. For some reason, the memory of incredibly self-conscious me taking a stand and refusing to back down on that important issue, finishing every last globe of delicious sprouty goodness while my peers made gagging noises, has stuck with me.

Cut to the present: The Olympic Stadium and I are a little worse for wear, still gamely holding our chins high despite being less shiny and new than we once were, our parking lots holding fewer visitors.

OK, I think I've brutalized that comparison as much as I need to.

Montreal is a French First city. As in, French First is the law. Starbucks Coffee cannot be Starbucks Coffee; it has to be "Cafe Starbucks Coffee." You see how this works? So yes, I was expecting an attitude that was pompous, condescending, and unjustifiably self-important. In other words, a French attitude. One that sneered at my attempts to pronounce "Rue" (Roo!) and made me beg for a dry croissant (Cwassint!) while pretending to not be able to understand me through my crude, disgusting American accent.

I shined up my own attitude to a blinding gloss, checked it with my bag, and headed to The City Formerly Known as Mount Royal. And you know what? The people were absolutely freaking cool.

Here's what I noticed about the people of Montreal, and I mention the following for no particular reason other than their contrast with what I'm used to made them noticeable to me.

Women in Chicago: Fat. Loud. Fashion sense of a prison matron. Shittons of bad makeup, and long hair worn either back in a ponytail with a hair elastic, or straight with no style whatsoever. A preponderance of That Color Blonde.

Women in Montreal: Small, slender, generally fit, all ages. Often with no makeup, or with very little. Hair generally long, usually pulled up and held in a loose coif with a decorative hair clip or colorful scarf.  Friendly.

Men in Chicago: Fat. Loud. Baseball cap/T-shirt with sports logo. Big sneakers originally designed for athletic activity, which in their case constitutes trotting from the hot-dog stand to the stadium toilet.

Men in Montreal: Small, slender, wiry. Great legs. Plain clothes, no logos. Polite, friendly, well-spoken.

Coming from a city where the Holy Trinity of cultural activities is Sports, Beer, and Overeating,  and where adolescence seems to have no definitive end, I was pleased to see that my notion of adult behavior wasn't some Utopian fantasy. (Disclaimer: I'm not saying that the city is perfect, or is without its jerkfaces. But the fact that only two people in an entire week stuck out as jerkfaces says something, because I interacted with a LOT of people, and even the jerkfaces were probably unbalanced. I actually had a panhandler apologize to me for his terrible English. Not that it wasn't part of his goal of getting cash, but still.)

French: I can read signs in French. I can usually parse the meaning through a combination of my knowledge of Spanish, the single semester of French I took in college, the Latin I took in High School, and context. No problem. However. Understanding spoken French is tough, and pronouncing it is just awful. I'm a great mimic, but trying to figure out whether that e sounds like an a or a u results in me sounding like I'm having a stroke while choking on jelly babies.

Fortunately, there is something about my "bon jour" that signals instantly that I'm not a French speaker, and the other person would immediately and cheerfully switch to English. No attitude, no condescension. All I had to do is utter two words, and the Pity English was whipped out. (Although there was the unfortunate incident at a cafe where I was not with Sven -- who speaks excellent French--   and persisted in speaking French, after which the cashier took my debit card and made "sorry" gestures while rattling on in French. I didn't know whether there was a minimum, or what, but I grasped that I needed cash, which I didn't have.)

"I do not have cash. I return, thank you," I said in French, and left.

I did not return. Hell, no. Embarrassment, c'est moi.

Other Things:

People did not walk around on cell phones or texting from handhelds. These were very rare.

Most bike-friendly city in North America. I wasn't beeped at once on my rental bike, which was one of 3,000 - three thousand - available at bike stations all over the city.

Men flirted with me. As in, smiled at me from across a cafe and gave me The Nod. Young baristas came by to make sure my coffee was OK, smiling at me meaningfully and saying "awesome" into my eyes when I assured them it was delicious.

"What the heck is going on?!?!" Sven asked one day. "You have been checked out three times just walking along this train platform!"

"I don't know," I said, "but I'm not questioning it."

There seems less of a generation gap: women stay fit and dress in decidedly un-matronly ways, and young people didn't ignore me. At a used-clothing boutique staffed by twenty-something women, I was shocked to have them invite me to the festival they were having at the store that weekend, with live music and performances. In the U.S., the most I get from that age range is a stiff "let me know if I can help you," and then a decided avoidance. The generations seem to mingle and enjoy each other more.

No logos on clothing.

Black folks were African, Haitian, etc. The women tended to wear their hair natural, so no elaborate plastic pineapple hairdos. No prevalent obesity. The men were likewise fit and attractive and I did not once see any one's underwear, praise God.

Montreal was not that exciting, to be sure. I'm not into French pop culture, etc., But it showed what can happen with a more mature, courteous sensibility.

I approve of this for Sven. I approve very much.


karen said...

You. Need to immigrate to Canada. Stat. (Or, you know, Seattle or somewhere.)

Glad you had a good time. Sure we have our issues in the Great White North, but I think you'd make a great angst-ridden Canadian. Heh ...

JC said...

Oh, I'll be angst-ridden no matter where I go; it's genetic. :-) The weird thing is, I don't mind Chicago as a city to live in: it;s big, it's pretty, and there's tons to do. I just don't look to it for a connection with people. It's like the city os what I connect to rather than is residents. Odd.

JC said...

Oh, I'll be angst-ridden no matter where I go; it's genetic. :-) The weird thing is, I don't mind Chicago as a city to live in: it;s big, it's pretty, and there's tons to do. I just don't look to it for a connection with people. It's like the city os what I connect to rather than is residents. Odd.