Anticipation has now been over for a day and a half, and I’m sitting with the laptop on a bench outside a laundromat on Duluth Street, and it’s a far more pleasant way of passing a morning than it probably sounds. We’ve moved out of the Delta, the giant hotel just up from the convention centre, into a little B&B across town near the Latin Quarter.
The part of old Montreal that’s actually known as Old Montreal is actually back over where we were staying before, and we passed through it a couple of times on the morning walks or on lunch expeditions. It’s the streets around the old port, with lots of grey stone buildings and deep-set windows, all full of a very sombre mercantile Respectability. All that heavy carved stone puts out an air of vague patrician disapproval that one isn’t walking down the street in a top hat and properly glossed boots (although I imagine a pinstripe, bowler hat and tightly furled umbrella would suffice).
The streets we’ve been strolling around over the last couple of days are probably newer, but I’m sure they’re still a century old at least. The feel to them, though, is far more playful. Every little three- or four-storey terrace has its own look – some with a very subdued, rather English plainness, others covered in the sort of gingerbread architecture I associate with illustrations from old European fairy tales. A lot of them seem to be divided vertically into more than one home, and one of the really striking thing is the exterior staircases that go from street level up to the first floor of practically every place we pass. Sometimes they go up to two doors with different numbers, so the buildings must divide down even further than that. It actually makes for a pretty cool streetscape, and I suppose it comes from a desire not to use the scarce interior room of a not-terribly-large building to put a stairwell in, but I also wonder if it’s ever an extra pain in the Montreal winter, which according to our B&B’s landlady can routinely get down to minus 25 Celsius. Anyway, we gave the camera a good workout on the walk back (no longer on the bench, we’ve had lunch, shopped and strolled back, so I’m now on the couch by the big front windows) so hopefully you can see some of what I’m talking about in a post or few’s time.
Actually, I think the big difference in the two districts isn’t architectural. It’s that one is clearly a business district, while the other… well, “vibrant” is a tourist-brochure cliche, so I’ll say that what I like about these streets is that they’re so obviously and energetically lived-in. The buildings are small and personal, with all the scuffing and little home-tinkered touches that show you you’re in the middle of people going about their lives. The mix of homes, shops and offices is enough for liveliness and variety. I have the feeling we’re near a university district, too, since there’s a young sort of tilt to the demographic and an impish, bohemian feel to a lot of the building decoration and the businesses. Lots of casual clothing places, quite a few vegetarian or organic shops, lots of cafes, quite a lot of those sellling art off the walls as well as coffee over the counter. Would you think brie, honey, walnut and spinach would go together in a baguette? Nor I, but they do. For every delivery driver or office worker going past us there’s been at least one raffish strolling sort with nowhere particular to go, usually on their way there with a dog.
(Also, when we were walking along Duluth Street yesterday afternoon, three people in their early twenties wearing odd assortments of clothes and cardboard masks came stamping along the street in single file, backwards, flapping their elbows and quacking to the melody of “Good King Wenceslas”. A block later there were two more engaging in an extravagant slapstick fistfight, complete with melodramatic death scene, while shouting at one another in falsetto French. We didn’t see any of this sort of thing today, so I suppose it doesn’t happen all the time, which is a pity.)
A third element to Montreal, which contrasts in turn with both of the districts I’ve been describing, is the tunnels. There’s a whole under-layer to the central city: many of the big hotels, office buildings, malls and so on go down a level or two below ground, and these are linked by a big gridwork of pedestrian tunnels, handy during those winters I mentioned before. We quickly got used to the useful little route between the Delta and the street entrance to the Palais, where the WorldCon was happening, which alternated between a simple underground thoroughfare and courts with shops and eateries, but only later came across routes that went right under the Palais and uptown to the Desjardins mall. No food courts or anything on those. We were working out a map with a young woman, I think an American, who was coming the other way and who said as we parted “there’s some looong lonely tunnels ahead of you”, and she was right. They reminded me of hospital tunnels I used to use in an old job, wide, clean, bright but empty. It was nice to get back into the ones under centre-ville where there were more patterns and pictures on the walls, or passages paved and walled with decorative patterns of brick, or junctions with high ceilings to deliberately set up a play with echoes as people walked under them.
Conventions are terrible for actually seeing the place you’re travelling to. Unless you’re diligent, the con passes in a haze of airport, hotel room, panel room, dealers’ room, airport again. I’m glad we had this extra time to get away from that, and to see three very different little slices of Montreal. We’ve only seen them imperfectly, and there are a million other Montreals sitting side-by-side with them outside the window. But since I’ll never be able to see all of those, I’m happy to have had the glimpses I’ve had.
More wandering and a jazz cruise tomorrow, then back on the train to New York on the Friday.