Mad as a Hatter – Montreal

Crossing into Quebec was the moment I fully understood how far my journey had taken me.  Quebec’s official language is French and had about 200 years more western settlement history than I had become used to.  My first impression was fascination with this city.  I took a rideshare, arriving in the evening to the house of my couchsurfers.  I had only a few minutes to introduce myself before I needed to commute across the city to get orientated for the festival I was to spend the weekend volunteering at.  The first person I spoke to at the bus stop spoke three languages interchangeably, not unusual she remarked.  From bus to metro, to changing lines was seamless, a system not unlike London or Paris, so despite having just arrived I rushed from stop to stop like a local before emerging overground at Parc Jean Drapeau.  The festival was Osheaga, the star studded event of Montreal’s summer and it was to start the next day.  The orientation flitted from French to English, just like the other travellers on the subway who would begin their argument in French before a brief English Interlude, then back to French.  One guy exclaimed in my general direction, “you are very happy aujord hui” not even bothering to stick to one language for the duration of his remark. 

The next morning I made my way back to the park for shift one.  A very different volunteering vibe as most people were local and had been many times before, surprised I was from out of town and had been less than 24 hours in the city.  From its viewpoint, you could look across the St Lawrence River at the cityscape.  I met some super interesting people as I manned the Ferris wheel, luckily only entrusted with queue control.  To each new friend I asked, “do you love poutine?”  Its kinda a Quebec thing!  Chips, gravy and cheese curds signify one of many dishes that are famous in this province, however some people admitted that they didn’t eat it as often as they were stereotyped to, at least not in summer!

That hot evening, we ran through the water fountains to cool off, then remained by the main stage to watch the music, headlined by the Lumineers.  Each stage was in a pair so that as soon as one act finished, the next would start on the adjacent stage, something I have never seen before that was really cool.  The festival outfits were amazingly daring and colourful.  The band were amazing, each so musically talented but with an incredible show.  They ended their performance with a Leonard Cohen song, significant to the city as he was a Montrealer, celebrated by the people for doing his part to unify French and English speakers. 

With my next day free, I explored the city which is on the island of Montreal.  Place d’armes is the old town, settled first by the French religious mission, Ville Marie comprising of 49 settlers, only 4 women, and the base of the city when it was formed in 1642.  It has artefacts of settlement by Iroquian people for 4000 years, however in 1642 when the city was formed there was no Iroquoians here.  It is believed that the permenant village of 1500 people which was here 100 years before when Jacques Cartier landed was wiped out in the interlude by European diseases spread by the introduction of farm animals.  As up to 20 families lived in long houses, diseases such as chicken pox would have spread fast and been fatal.  In fact, the name Iroquois which is now accepted as the tribes name is not what they would have named themselves.  It means killer and is what they were nicknamed by the neighbouring tribe, however the name they called themselves translates as people of the long house.  They were a matriarchal people, with the men who married into the family moving in to the female house, and the sons and brothers moving out to live with their new spouses. 

This fertile land at the meeting of the St Lawrence and the St Peter Rivers now has beautiful architecture which feels straight out of Europe.  Small cobbled streets and tall stone buildings, now nestled with cafes and artistic shops.  Its original economy would have come from the fur trade, where French settlers would have traded knives and steel with beaver pelts to supply the fashions of Europe.  Catching on quickly to the needs of the Europeans, the first nations began trading at a higher price the pelts that had only one length of fur, the ones they had worn all winter and the longer fur had worn away.  These probably smelly garments were cut off at the end of winter and washed in Mercury.  Unbeknownst to the hatters of Europe, it was making them mad.  Mad as a hatter.  Mad Hatters disease coming straight out of Montreal. 

The 49 settlers had a hard time establishing their new home.  They were attacked extensively by the neighbouring Iroquois people and eventually established the Fort of Montreal to defend themselves, the remains of which were only recently discovered, protected as a parking lot had been built over the historic site.  Montreal also claims North America’s first sewer.  It was once the St Peter river where people would empty their chamber pots, however they would also use this source for drinking water.  An outbreak of Cholera caused them to blame bad air for the illness spreading fiercely and they built a brick fortification over the river, inadvertently solving the problem as it was no longer able to be used for a drinking source. 

New France also claims to have had a large part to play in shaping world history.  When the 7 years war broke out in Europe, the colonies of UK and France in North America were quickly involved.  The King of England sent 10,000 troops to fight the 1,000 that the King of France sent.  The UK was victorious and in the Treaty of Paris, France ceded their territories in North America to the British crown, about 1/3 of modern day North America.  The King of France saw this as a poisoned gift however as the expense of the colonies led to heavy taxation at home and abroad, a big catalyst for the American Revolution.  The King of France however heavily supported the American Colonists call for independence and followed in the footsteps of the UK, heavily taxing at home during a time of economic distress in France, et voila, the French Revolution followed.  

So for a time, Montreal was English.  The English side of the city dominated the economy and many banks began to spring up, eventually spilling out into the newer downtown of Montreal.  For this reason maybe, Montreal is very cosmopolitan.  Whilst 90% of Quebec has French as their mother tongue, that is only true for 50% of Montreal.  15% is English and 35% from other origins who arrived by ship.  Montreal was, until 1967, Canada’s biggest city.  The English and French resided in different sides of the city, the French heavily controlled by the demanding French clergy who pressured families to produce a child a year and focused little on education and economy.  In the dividing street, Main Street, immigrants made home buffering the two sides of the city.  

The immigration has brought many amazing delicacies to the city.  In the Jewish area of mile end there is 2 bagel shops operating for over 60 years, where people line up to pledge allegiance to bagels straight out of the woodfire oven.  Both simple in decor and outlook, and reasonable in price, they appear quite unpresumptious to a passer by.  Ella first told me about the two stores, encouraging a blind taste test, however it appears those who grew up in the city already have their allegiences.  As Rachel and I queued outside St Viateur Bagels, open 24 hours a day, on the street of the same name, a woman overheard our conversation and turned around laughing.  She apologised for eavesdropping but went on to confirm the reality of the rivalry, that many are loyal to just one.  Inside a huge wood burning brick oven was filled with many bagels, each turned and moved using a giant spatula and bagels were churned out to be sold individually or by the dozen.  We took our bagels to the park, pleased to be doing the Montreal thing to do.  Naturally, having enjoyed one bagel, we had to head to the next store, Fairmount Bagels on a street sharing the same name and queued again to try more of the chewy, sweet delicacies.  Inside a narrow corridor was left to walk through as each side was towering with bagels to supply the cities stores.  Next door, small windows served gnocci, ice cream and other delicacies, each with a queue to demonstrate its popularity.  

As we walked around the Mile End and Plateau area, we headed towards the water.  Every store had international, vintage or independent feel to it, and every wall seemed to be splashed with colourful murals, which Ella explained was added to each year during the 10 day mural fest.  The houses were fascinatingly individual too.  There were turrets and outdoor metal staircases winding up.  Each street was lined with greenery.  The running joke in Canada is that there is two seasons, winter and construction, and nowhere does this seem more true than Montreal.  Every route has orange cones and ‘Rue Barrée’ splashed all over it, so much so that it has become an icon of the city.  Terraces fill every pedestrianised space as people spill outside to enjoy the short but humid summer.  It had an addictive feel to a place, knowing you could eat out forever and still not run out of inspiration.  Another of Montreal’s famous delicacies is the smoked meat sandwiches, and again, if you get a good reputation, the lines run down the street with tourists and locals alike.  


In the evening we joined a walking tour to understand the symbolism this city is rife with.  Its contested French and English past is cemented in stone with statues of rival pasts facing each other.  One particular pair of statues shows the English man and the French woman, noses turned up against each other whilst the English man stares at the beautiful French masterpiece of the Basilica de Notre Dame, and the French lady eyes up the Bank of Montreal and the finances which arrived with the English.  The dogs they hold symbolise the younger generation looking to forget the past and play together happily, with the younger generation becoming increasingly bilingual and integrated.

Montreal has many other histories to talk about.  It hosted a summer olympics and a world fair which have also left their mark on the skyline.  It has a few remnants of the old port which brought so many people to the city, although now it is lined with food and art.  The Clock Tower stands across the water, a sister to Big Ben with the same maker.  The downtown of St Catherine’s street has a much different vibe with little room for terraced seating areas in the shadow of skyscrapers.  There is however, beautiful churches and parks in-between the modern glass and steel.

With my brief interlude in festival life over, I headed back to the island for another day of Osheaga madness.  This time my job was at the Yoyo, the merry go round style swings, and I had to check seatbelts.  I felt a little like an air hostess at times, but I think fairground life suited me.   Once my shift was done I enjoyed more main stage music with Jules, a friend from the ranch who I had miraculously managed to bump into.  Childish Gambino had amazing stage presence and energy and the lightshow was incredible, a cool thing to witness.

On my final day in the city, Joe, Jess and I went to Montreal’s cat cafe to hang out with some feline friends, before tackling Montreal’s namesake mountain, Mont Royal.  The whole of this part of Canada was once under a 2km thick ice shelf, until around 4000 years ago when Mont Royal was the first thing to poke through.  It was also important to the first settlers of the Ville Maria mission as one winter the city flooded and they feared for their lives.  As the waters retreated, fulfilling the vow to Virgin Mary, the city’s founder placed a cross on the top of Mont Royal in 1643.  The current cross has been there since 1924.   The view over the city is one surrounded by water and with a very prominent mural of Leonard Cohen to celebrate him in clear view.   

I felt so lucky to have crossed paths with so many people in Montreal, but the goodbyes were getting more and more real with a lot of people reaching the end of their visas too.  Montreal was certainly a great place to do it though, a fascinating city with plenty to see, do and eat, and if the length of the blog posts are anything to go by, it was clearly a favourite.


One comment

  1. Wow what a fascinating place. So colourful and wearing its history at every turn. It looks like a wonderful pot of languages, colours and cultures all mingling to make something unique. Thank you for the history lesson. xxx

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