Photo: Marc Bruxelle/Shutterstock

Sketches of Montreal

Montréal Narrative
by Josh Heller Oct 26, 2012
This post is part of Matador’s partnership with Canada, where journalists show how to explore Canada like a local.

A man is screaming out a string of what-you-assume-are-obscenities, but you cannot be sure. You don’t speak a word of French.

As you walk down Mont Royal you pass a Portuguese chicken place, a Jewish deli, a Lebanese shawarma joint, a hipster espresso booth, and a Chinese restaurant that sells “Riz Frit.” You remember from Jean-François’ guided tour that Mount Royal is how Montreal got its name. It’s that mountain behind you. He had warned you not to refer to it as a hill, butte, bluff, or knoll, because if locals heard you they’d crucify you. This is a mountain. Calling it anything else would be sacrilegious.

Sacrilegious, for a place where only 10-12% of the population even believe in religion. Those curse words you may or may not have heard earlier might even confuse a Parisian. Because Quebecois profanity is directly related to the Catholic church. Instead of saying “fuck” or “shit” or “asshole,” Quebecers say things like “tabernacle” or “christ” or “chalice.” Strong profanity is expressed through liturgy.

In the 1960s, Montreal went from being a highly religious place to a highly secular one. The government took over schools and hospitals, to rid the church from state affairs. Quebecois families no longer need the Catholic church to remind them to have 16-18 kids per family. “The Revenge of the Cradle” was a strategy French Canadians adopted early on to ensure that French would be the dominant language of the region. On Quebec license plates the phrase “Je me souviens” (“I Remember”) appears. They remember the English Rose, but never forget the Fleur-de-Lis…. “I remember my roots.”

It’s okay for these guys to dress rehearse because their audience keeps changing.

You remember your own roots by using the voucher that Tourisme Montreal gave you for Schwartz’s Montreal Hebrew Delicatessen. (Because your cheap Jewish ass is eating a free meal, at a Jewish deli.) You wait in a short line and sit at the counter to devour a smoked meat sandwich, “extra-fatty.” Schwartz’s reminds you of the internationalism of the Jewish diaspora. Unified by dill pickles and pastrami sandwiches (though “Smoked Meat” allegedly has significantly less sugar than pastrami).

Earlier, Jean-François told you that Jews arrived from Eastern Europe in the 1880s. Which is about the time that your Eastern European relatives arrived in Brooklyn. When they got here they spoke Yiddish, but toward the end of the century most Jewish Montrealers spoke English. Today new Jewish communities are arriving from across the diaspora. North African Jews spoke French in Tunisia and Morocco, so they continue speaking it in Montreal. Quebec welcomes people from everywhere in the world, but wants to make sure it maintains its place as a French-speaking region.

“Otherwise you are paying for your own assimilation.”

The population of this city is 70% Francophone / 30% Anglophone. But most people are bilingual. On the streets of Montreal you see the kind of interlingualism you see on the streets of Los Angeles (except back home people switch from Spanish to English). People ask a question in one language and respond in another entirely different one. Since 1977, all children have attended French school (unless their parents went to school in Canada). This means that all immigrants are learning to speak French. Most immigrants are trilingual.

On the ground near the metro station you watch a Gypsy band playing tuba, fiddle, and guitar. They’re singing a song in Spanish, but don’t have a grasp of the accent. A man in a leather hat is selling junk. He is hammering leather along with the rhythm to make bracelets for Goths. The band sings a song about “la musique shamanique.” The fiddler keeps stopping to explain to the tuba player that he needs to play it “like this — not like that.” It’s okay for these guys to dress rehearse because their audience keeps changing. Now they are singing in French, even though they’ve spoken to each other in English.

On the corner of Rue Crescent and St-Catherine you are watching pedestrians as they walk in front of Amusement 2000 Plus, which is an arcade. You’re not sure if the 2000 refers to the number of video games they have or was created in the late ’90s to rein in all the Y2K buzz, but called themselves “Plus” so they could remain relevant for upcoming generations. You are standing next to a Venus Palais, a theater advertising “Films XXX” with ’80s tux shop clip art. The Starbucks across the street is called Cafe Starbucks Coffee so that everybody knows what they serve there regardless of native-language. A couple crossing the street simultaneously slap a truck for driving through the intersection before they’re finished walking through it. You pass a man who is using his hockey stick as a bindle. Is he a Hobo-ser?

Please get this man a drink. He is helping us to win the White House.

You’re headed to watch the US Presidential debates with Democrats Abroad. These debates will help you decide if you should return to the country. Obviously you will, but you’d have an edge on all those people who quadrennially say they’re moving to Canada if their candidate doesn’t win. You also have an edge on all those voters who threatened to move to Canada earlier this year if Obama’s healthcare plan passed. (They’d feel pretty silly once they got here.)

You are excited to see Obama speak, which reminds you of that teary-eyed moment at the campsite outside of Grand Canyon National Park, where Obama spoke about the importance of the common good, and knew that style of thinking was responsible for America’s glorious National Parks.

An American from Ohio asks if there are any “swing state discounts.” The idea that a small percentage of people in random states are responsible for deciding elections is well represented in the media. So please get this man a drink. He is helping us to win the White House.

The president of McGill Student Democrats Abroad makes the acquaintance of the president of the Montreal Democrats Abroad in hopes that the two can someday work together. The Democrats Abroad mention that they are taking border-crossing trips to New Hampshire, the swing state, to convince it to vote blue. The majority of Democrat Expats are 50+. Why does it always seems like every expat you ever meet is retired or advanced enough in their careers to be assigned to the international branch of their corporation? It’s not like there aren’t younger expats (you’ve been one before) — maybe they just aren’t organized.

You always seem to think about American politics when you are abroad. When you’re in more developed countries you wish that you had their benefits (like affordable healthcare, or inexpensive education) and when you’re in less developed places you think about how your privileges are often built on the shoulders of these places (cheap products don’t just materialize.) And you think about your own self as a Californian who doesn’t always understand the rest of your country. And you remember that on your tour Jean-François had told you a national study found that people in places like Manitoba identify first with their nation Canada, and second with their province. But in Quebec, people say they are Quebecois first, and Canadian second.

And even though this place is completely foreign to you, something about it seems to resonate with you.

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