broadsideblog

Montreal, in the snow, swirling with memories

In behavior, cities, journalism, life, travel, urban life on February 9, 2013 at 12:19 am

Montreal — like much of the Northeast U.S. right now — is in the middle of a heavy snowstorm. The streets are thick with snow. Pedestrians trudge and slip and slither, gaze firmly downward, their mouths covered by heavy, thick mufflers. The bus fills up fast, between puffy parkas and oversize backpacks.

A hallway light at the Nelligan

A hallway light at the Nelligan

When I got into the cab this morning to head north from Old Montreal — we’re at the Nelligan — to my appointment, I asked the driver, in French, “How’s traffic?”

“Terrible!”

“Are they plowing the roads?” It was then 10:30 a.m.

“Not yet,” he replied. “They won’t do it until later today.” (We only started to see plows at 3:30.)

I’m here reporting my fifth New York Times business story. It’s been interesting, since I lived here in 1969 and from 1986 to 1988 when I was a reporter at the Montreal Gazette. Jose is here with me, my husband, and he’s loving the crazy cold as much as I am.

As I move around the city, on foot and by bus and by taxi, so many memories! It was here I flew kites atop Mount Royal with my Mom and took a freezing cold caleche ride with my American beau, the man I would later marry (and divorce.) It was here my Dad took me to Expo ’67; the grey concrete cubes of Moshe Safdie’s Habitat still stand, a few blocks from our hotel.

It was here I lost a tooth — yes, really — at the Ritz-Carlton, when my father was staying there. Jose and I later took refuge there, at bargain rates, after we both reported on 9/11, terrified and exhausted. We came downstairs for breakfast and wondered who the raspy-voiced, long-haired guys were at the next table — Aerosmith.

We drove past the Royal Victoria Hospital, an enormous gray Victorian stone pile on a steep hill — and I remember the day I slipped and fell on the ice outside my hotel and tore all the ligaments in my left ankle. It took six hours to get a pair of crutches. (I was on assignment then for The Globe and Mail, and [of course] kept working, in snow and ice, on crutches.)

Here’s a photo of what was our 1969 address — now transposed to a glam condo tower from the gray limestone apartment we lived in, since torn down.

former home

It’s 3432 Peel Street, a block north of Sherbrooke. We were here for a year — my Mom had a TV talk show and I attended a private, co-ed Catholic school. It was a hell of a shock. I’m not Catholic and I had not attended school with boys since third grade – this was Grade Seven and all the girls were a year older and hopelessly sophisticated in comparison.

I promptly developed a huge crush on a pink-cheeked boy named, of course, Michel.

I love how French are this city’s aesthetic choices and offerings; I bought heavy stock Lalo notecards the exact color of raspberry coulis and an opera-length black bead necklace at Agatha, a Paris-based jewelry company. And I always enjoy Montrealais’ consistent chic — even in the bitter cold, one young woman on the subway platform, swaddled in her coat, sported a gamine pixie haircut and bright red lipstick.

We have been utter gluttons on this trip, as some of it is vacation. Yesterday we indulged in a 2.5 hour lunch, with wine at La Chronique. The restaurant, ironically designed with a menu that looks like a newspaper and a ceiling design that mimics a printer’s tray, had only four tables filled, people staying away because of the weather. It was silent, the food fantastic.

Gravlax appetizer at La Chronique

Gravlax appetizer at La Chronique

We ate one night at Lemeac, a neighborhood restaurant for affluent Francophones, and the couple at the next table were intriguing. She wore a gold signet ring the size of a grape, a leather skirt and expensive manicure. She sent back her food because they brought her a steak — not steak tartare, which is essentially uncooked ground meat. The picture of polished, wealthy, mid-life elegance, she sounded soigne en francais, and crude in English. “He’s a fucking idiot,” she snapped to her companion of someone they were discussing.

He was Asian and they slipped easily back and forth, as so many people do here, from French to English, like otters slipping in and out of water. I miss living in a place where language is so fluid and thinking done automatically en deux langues.

I took Jose to one of favorite haunts from my time here in the 1980s, Stash Cafe, whose apricot crumble is a thing of magnificence. Here he is, post-stew.

jose@stash

One major difference between Montreal and New York is that so many people, here, wear fur — trimming their parka hoods or full-length unapologetic mink and sable that sweep to their ankles. There are boutiques selling fur in a variety of forms.

It was also here, on a face-punchingly, nostril-shuttingly frigid day in February 2007, that I bought mine. (Fur horrifies many people, I know.) It is also both light, non-bulky and extraordinarily warm, making it perfect for this sort of unforgiving cold. It is nice to wear it here, and be completely unremarkable — in New York, some PETA fanatic might well douse me with red paint in fury.

Caiti:winter

People mocked us for heading north in February  — again! — for this holiday.

But, as my most Canadian friend — a former wildlife biologist — reminded us: “Cold is not the problem. Improper clothing is.”

  1. Looks fun, delicious and cold ;)

  2. Thank you! I have a friend working in Montreal until July and now I can send him restaurant recommendations. Your fur hat looks terrific and I know it’s toasty warm. Cheers, V

    • Thanks!

      We just ate at the hotel bar and the bartender casually mentioned that La Chronique is considered one of the best resto’s in Canada. I can certainly believe it.

      What I love about that hat is that it’s really just a headband — so you don’t get hat-head but it’s warm and pretty.

  3. I would love to visit Montreal again, and you just helped construct that fantasy for me, My mother and stepfather lived across the river in New York state when I was a boy. It was while drowning in the St. Lawrence I learned to swim. In the summer of 1993 I spent three days in Montreal. I loved the city, a whole different world had existed across that same river so many years before.

    • You must return! I think you would so love the art and architecture and the slanting, bright winter light. When we stepped out yesterday morning, it was so beautiful as it snaked along the stone walls and cobblestones of old Montreal. Jose says he feels like we ‘re in Europe.

  4. I love your hat! If I was in cold like that, I’d need one too. There’s a big difference between a Canadian buying fur and a Floridian doing so. I have always wanted to see Canada, it sounds so exotic to me.

    • Thanks much. My husband loves having a Canadian wife as he also seems to find that a little exotic. Canada is an amazing place and very well worth visiting — whether the cities of Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver (or others) or gorgeous natural spots, from the Rockies to the Arctic to the Alberta Badlands. Only a 2 hour drive outside of Calgary you can be in the Rockies. Astounding!

  5. That sounds like a lovely trip! Freezing, but lovely. Montreal is on my list of places to visit, and I’ll have to keep some of these locations in mind! And perhaps learn some French …

    • We’ve really enjoyed it. I like certain places in certain seasons. I think Montreal in the summer is lovely, but winter feels right to me here…all those gray stone buildings. This morning I stood in front of one built in 1769. That was amazing to me. And, yes, it’s cold but if you have warm boots, hat, mitts and coat, you’re fine. That’s not difficult to find here.

  6. Yikes, that is some cold! I want to visit Canada some day… but I will do so in the summer. While improper clothing may be more the problem than the cold for those of you used to it, those of us from very warm climes need a more gradual easing into that sort of frigidity :D

    • Really not that bad IF you are covered with wool, cashmere, leather/suede and/or fur. Feels a little cave-man-esque!

      I had a friend who grew up in Jamaica and is in NY. She freaked out when it was below 60 degrees. :-)

  7. Lovely, a great slice of Montreal. I’m glad you’re enjoying–and staying warm :D

  8. I am biased because I am half French, but I adore Montreal!

  9. Fantastic pic! Cosmo in a ‘Burban Winter.

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