Sunday, April 23, 2006

more montreal

I walk out from my hotel, not knowing quite where to go. I walk for ages. Later, I end up in Chinatown, which I spot from across a square walking back towards where I think my hotel is. I see that a billboard advertising Christ is framed by the oriental arch behind it. I am momentarily comforted by the fact that wherever one goes, Chinatown is always the same. I take a photograph, patronisingly, of a clutch of buildings, and walk on, staring at the LCD screen on the back of my camera. Immediately I step into a puddle which is at least two inches deep. My trainers, I notice, helpfully contain eight sizeable holes, as if for shoelaces, around the tip of my foot. These holes ensure that no part of my feet or socks remains dry. Thank you, Puma. I trudge on.

It had been a map-less journey where at times I thought I might not end up back where I began and would have to, in my stammering French or heedless English, approach a local with the name of my hotel, and ask directions. In the end I am lucky that my company booked me a hotel which was tall, and I recognise it climbing incongruously and strangely behind a cathedral (or a basilica, I forget which). The mixture of the old and new in Montreal takes me back. It is charming, not a pity.

First off, having determined that rain was no deterrent to my plans, I walked Downtown, realising as I walked through malls and sopping streets the extent of it, the distance from my continent. I had not, naively, expected Montreal to be so French. It's in Quebec, yes. But it's in Canada! Canada! They'll all speak English. Last night when I got a taxi back from the airport I cheerfully tried to engage my cabbie in conversation, and was horrified to discover that not only was his English not good enough for him to understand me, but that his English, however poor, was spoken through an accent so disdainfully French that I could hardly understand it. I had expected him to veer into an accent unfailingly American. Not so. His driving, incidentally, was unbelievably erratic. At one point he sped round a tight corner and skidded several feet through a puddle. While I clutched the seat in horror he expressed his disdain for the weather, entirely responsible, he felt, for the near-accident. Today, despite all the Francophones around me, the rain, it occurred to me, felt English enough - although much later, long after the Chinatown incident, when I had stood in my fourth puddle, I realised that it doesn't even rain that much in England anymore. The sky, however, was Sussex grey, with no variations detected.

I left the hotel early and, it being Sunday, the city was very quiet. It was very similar, actually, right down to the weather, to my first morning in Portland last year. After Portland (the most wonderful city, I thought, but one for which I was hopelessly unprepared) I determined that this year I would investigate a little about the city in advance. Where to go, what to see, where to drink, that kind of thing. I would arrive clued up and leave a connoisseur. I don't know who organises the CHI conferences, but whoever they are they must really love their indie rock. Anyone able to name two cooler cities on the North American continent than Portland (Stephen Malkmus, The Decemberists, Sleater-Kinney) or Montreal (Broken Social Scene, The New Pornographers, Stars)? No, me neither. But I saw little of that side of things in Portland and determined to do so here. Now, of course, I did no research whatsoever, which explains my disorganised wanderings earlier.

Actually, that's a lie. I bought a copy of the Rough Guide to Montreal. All the pages were bound in the wrong order. And the section on pubs, bars and shops was missing. The section on white-water rafting was provided twice, which I was grateful for, but overall felt somewhat cheated.

So having walked down through Old Montreal, down to the river, and back up through Chinatown, I eventually found the more up-market shops below the 'mountain' where all pretence of sophistication and elegance receded and I found what, in my secret heart, I was really hoping for. Yup, a Gap and an HMV. You travel right across the world, I hear you saying. Well, yup. But Gap is much cheaper here. Really, much cheaper.

Gap is cheaper in Canada than in Britain. It's for insights like that that you read this blog, I know. More cultural observations tomorrow, if you can wait.

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