Travelog Part 9 – Outremont & Ste. Anne de Bellevue

On the next day our long walk to Outremont reveals more of the hard-luck side of Montreal. We pass through boarded up, grafittied, grass gone missing, dead plant, skinny cat, lonesome dog, broken railing, paint-peeling, housing. Through little Cuba and the rest of Latin America. Up to the park near Mont Royal. I’m looking for a bathroom. Nothing in sight. Finally we spy a McDonald’s and I tell Duane that he has to buy a cup of their shitty coffee so I can use the bathroom. Relief. We’re off again. We’re in Outremont where Duane’s grandmother mostly grew up. It is a genteel neighborhood. Large old homes. Most are made of stone or brick. In many yards the bushes are wrapped with white cloth to protect them from the snow, I think. Down the streets toward the commercial district we see a Hassidic Jew across the street and then several more. A grandfather in skullcap with white ringlets takes his grandson by the hand to help him up a flight of stairs. There are Greek businesses and restaurants here also. It is a kind of ethnic mix, mostly mediterranean. We take lunch at a deli. You can have “votre choix” of “deux, trois, au quatre” kinds of salad.

After lunch we head back up the hill. It is time to find the catholic cemetery. A hike up a steep street brings us finally to the gate of a cemetery. This is the English/protestant graveyard. We wander along the one-car width asphalt path. Along the way grave-diggers are draining water out of an open grave, further up green outdoor carpet covers a pile of removed dirt next to an empty bier, before or after the funeral? This is a graveyard still in active reception. Now and then a car speeds by us. As pedestrians it is hard to guage how fast they are going, but surely faster than is proper or safe. By the end of our journey through this vast repository of the dead, we have decided that people take this route as a shortcut from one side of Mont Royal to the other. We reason that if you live here and know your way among these winding paths it really would be worth it as opposed to going all the way around the Mont and having all those pesky signals. It is just a bit disconcerting for the casual visitor and, I expect, for those who have come to bid farewell to the dearly departed.

On and on we walk. No sight of the French Catholic graveyard. Finally we see a map and realize that we have to backtrack a little. At last we come to the fence that separates the two graveyards. We come across a remarkable sight; rows of graves with the exact same tombstone on both sides of the fence. These are dead WWI soldiers, some protestant, some catholic on opposite sides of the fence. What was that war about? How strange they could fight, side by side. They could die, side by side, but they must be separated by this fence. On one side ground hallowed only for the Catholic. On the other side ground hallowed only for the protestant. I am once again bewildered by religion and the mental gymnastics people must accomplish in order to maintain faith in such a perplexing, unyielding, self-contradictory system of belief.

We come to a place quite near the top of the Mont and once again I am beset by the need to relieve myself. There are several large crypts built into the side of the Mont. The all appear to have Italian names. One of them looks like a replica of the depictions of Joseph of Arimethea’s crypt the one he loaned to Jesus for a few days a couple thousand years ago. I climb up behind the next crypt over and find a place out of the line of sight of the people up above me who are visiting another crypt and pee. Then we keep walking. We wander down the hill again, this time among the mostly French names. Some Irish, Italian, Polish, and other Europeans. Closer to the bottom of the hill are Asian names, as well. We come to a chapel and it is apparent that a funeral is in process. We sit and rest for awhile. We have not found any of Duane’s family and the graveyard is so immense, we find it daunting. There is still some ways to walk before we are out of the cemetery, but finally we are on the street again. We have walked quite enough so we catch a bus and ride downtown. We have gone just a few blocks when we see the building housing the cemetary records. If we had gone there first we would have been able to find the graves we were looking for—perhaps there will be another time.

The bus lets us out quite far from our hotel, pretty much in the middle of Montreal’s business district. That’s okay. We mosey along until we find a place to pop in and rest our feet and have a little refreshment. Then we are off again. This walk takes us past an Anglican church which has been eaten by commerce. The part of the church visible to the street is its spire, the front door and its pointed archway and a sign that says Church of St James. The rest of it, if any there is, is hidden, is covered by a flat concrete wall, two tall stories high, with a row of window in each story. It is quite plain that there are shops and offices behind these windows. Some are clearly empty. The wall is as grimy as any I have ever seen. It doesn’t look like the coal dust has ever been cleared away. After I have snapped a couple of pictures I realize that a banner runs up this concrete wall and across the top around the arch across to the end and down again. This banner is printed with a dotted line which is interrupted now and again by a graphic of a pair of open scissors and the words “coupez ici”, cut here. A sign at one end of the building does indicate that renovation will soon remove the imposed wall and the church will be revealed again. I expect there will be Hosannas.

Next day we went looking for the University. We walked the wrong direction, but we found a really huge park and walked through it. In the afternoon we got in the car and drove out to a highway that pretty much circles the island. It was our hope to find some wildness. On the map were nature preserves and parks, but we didn’t see anything that would give us a feel for what it was like four centuries ago. We did pass a prison, several mansions, some “prestige” homes, some new middle class developments. We stopped in St Anne De Bellevue, a small town where some of Duane’s relatives lived for awhile and there was a garage with the name of one of them, Charlebois. This little town was like most coastal towns even though this one is not on the ocean, the St Laurent is a wide, wide river and since it takes the over flow from the great lakes and drains this eastern part of Canada it carries an enormous amount of water. St Anne does have the feel of a resort and because it is only April it has the feel of a resord in the off season, just a few hardy souls out walking the boardwalk. We find a bench to sit and watch the river flow by us. I makes some notes in my trusty notebook. I see chunks of ice and get out the camera. Both Duane and I take photos of the ice floating down the river. These are not big chunks, just left over pieces. The major ice break up is over. We wander up and down the street a bit. Go into a very small restaurant, have a pleasant little dinner. It is nearly 5 pm.

In the bathroom, which is very small and crowded with supplies for the restaurant, I notice a cartoon, possibly from the New Yorker the style is right, of a couple in bed making love. It is partially hidden and I can’t read the joke. It gets me to thinking about why you would put it on the wall in the first place, if people were not going to be able to read it and understand why they were looking at these lovers. Suppose there were a man who worked in a restaurant, maybe his wife owns it, or his girlfriend. He has a picture on the wall in the bathroom, but it is completely hidden by boxes of toilet paper and tomato sauce. He doesn’t mind about that. It doesn’t matter that he can’t see it, that no one can see it. What matters is that the picture is there and he can see it in his mind. He can see the nipples and pubis, the round thighs, flat knees, the curve of ass and shoulder. He knows it’s there on the wall and it doubles him over sometimes. Just doubles him over laughing to see people going in and coming out and them not knowing about the picture on the wall behind the sauce.

By the time I realize that I have left the notebook on the bench beside the St Laurent in St Anne de Bellevue it is far too late to go back.

But that does not happen until after we drive through Lachine and Duane reminds me of how Lachine got his nickname. He was one of those fellows intent on finding a passage to Asia and he though the St Laurent might be it. Planes come in low over our heads heading for the airport, Dorval. There are some real classy condos that they are flying low over. But they do have a magnificent view over the water here. Take the good with the bad. I still haven’t realized that the notebook is gone when we take the wrong turn and end up on the wrong side of the canal. Eventually we get ourselves situated correctly and head on back to St Hubert Street. Then in the hotel, I realize that I don’t have it and all those days of writing down so carefully all our adventures, the weather, the lack of spring, where we stay and all those receipts, are gone. I am very upset with myself. But I can’t let it last. I really do want to have a good time and moping over the loss of the notebook would put a real kink in the rest of the trip. I am resolved to make the best of it. It is not long before I realize that keeping notes was a distraction and now I am free to just look around and enjoy.

Travelog Part 8 – Montreal

The Hotel d’Elysee is blue with a red awning. It is located in a row of hotels and apartments, all virtually one building. Former row-houses. Three steps down lead to the door lead to a door below street level and several steps up lead to a double glass door, this is not the entrance. The entrance is the one below the street. Inside the lobby is small, painted a wheat gold. There is a small leather couch, a coffee table a chair on the left of the entrance. To the right are two café tables with chairs upended on them. The front desk is separated from the lobby proper by a wall with a cut-out that is so large that the wall may as well not be there. The hotelier says Bon Jour, we reply with a cheery hello. Immediately he switches to English. We get signed in, find out where to park our car—just back it up a few feet. It’ll be fine until Tuesday when we must move it to the other side of the street.

Our room is on the third floor. No elevator. The stairway is narrow, just room for one person at a time. We have two keys, one for the lobby door and one for our room, 302. This is a very small room. Just big enough for the double bed, a night stand and a small round table with two slender iron chairs. There is a private bath. The room is painted a pleasant orange-brown, the bed is comfortable. We get our things situated in the room and head out to explore. Our primary concern is some supper and we are keeping an eye out for an internet café. We find a place called Creative Vegetarian Restaurant. It is Taiwanese. It doesn’t look very big at first, but then I notice that there is a store in a room off of the back of the room we are seated in and when I go to the toilette, I pass through a room similar in size to the one we are in and then through another, larger room where the tables are low and there are cushions for seating. The food is exceptionally good. We ordered inari, sushi, and what we have always called sushi, but they called it something else.

After we have watched Law and Order in French we turn off the TV and snuggle down. I comment that it is certainly quiet. Why did I do that? Duane is off snoring and I’m pretty close to sleeping when I smell cigarette smoke. I gave up smoking years ago. This I don’t want. I get up and get a towel from the bathroom and stuff it under the door hoping to block the smoke. It does cut it down. Our smokers down the hall are listening to TV and wrestling around. This goes on for a long time. Then they are quiet for a little while and I sleep some. Then they start up again laughing, giggling. Finally, it must be 5 am, it is getting light out, I get up and go to their door, “So are you ever going to go to sleep?” I ask. “Sorry.” and they quiet down. We sleep.

The next day we walked to “old Montreal”. Near the water, old Montreal is a section of town that has been preserved from the wrecker’s ball and modernization. There were other tourists, but it was not really crowded. The buildings are stone. The walls quite thick. All restaurants and shops. We weren’t interested in buying anything so we just strolled, took photos and poked our noses in where we could. We encountered an archway through which a grassy courtyard could be seen. It seemed to be unoccupied so we entered the archway. The structure is U shaped with the arch in the center of the bottom of the U. Thick vines cover the walls. It felt very old. A plaque indicates that most of the rooms are occupied by professional offices, lawyers and so forth. There is a restaurant facing the street and next to the arch. It felt like we had stepped out of the 21st century into a much older time. Even the presence of another couple who came in after us did little to dispel the feeling.

Our walk took us to the waterfront. This is a canal and a small port. A ferry dock, I think, with some shipping. There is a customs facility. The most amazing thing we encounter here is a fantastic apartment complex on the far side of the wide canal. At first we have no idea what we are seeing. It looks like a ruin or a long low pile of stones. Then we get it. This is an apartment complex. Somehow reminiscent of Mesa Verde, yet not at all like it. The apartments seem independent of one another, but stacked on each other, but offset so that they all have some roof and most have skylights, sunrooms. There are large openings scattered throughout where the sky can be seen as if the building is built around the opening. These are holes in the building. It is organic in appearance. At first, I am repelled, but now looking at the photos I realize that it is probably a really great place to live and that it looks like a pile of boulders is actually a plus.

There are so many cathedrals in Montreal. Every few blocks another concrete and stone cathedral. Not a single one is Notre-Dame de Montreal. Duane’s grandmother’s family attended that cathedral and we want to find it, but we never do. We do find a catheral that is morphing into a modern brick and glass building. At first we think that the cathedral is behind the brick building, but no it is combined with it. It really does look like the building is in the process of transforming into something else. Like it was a cathedral, but it wants to be an insurance company, but it still serves a parish so it has kept its spires and its front door and façade, but the sides are all boxy and brick and glass and definitely insurance company. Later, I realize that this building epitomizes Montreal for me. The old was being consumed by the new to the point of being nearly obliterated, but late in that process of consumption someone said hold on we can’t tear it all down. People like this stuff. We have to keep some of it. So old Montreal sits there near the water with cobbled streets and quaint old signs swinging from iron lanyards and all around her the city is in love with modernity. Some of the ugliest buildings I have ever seen are in Montreal. Still everywhere are pockets of lovely old buildings sitting like grandmothers hiding their bewilderment behind simple graceful dignity.

She’s a bit dirty, too. At least in the Latin Quarter, where our hotel is located. Lots of paper floating around the streets. A prostitute or two discretely plying their trade on St Hubert. If there is any drug activity it is more subtle than the streetwalkers. There is a greyhound bus station just down the street from us and this is like most big-city bus stations in that among its customers are some of the less law-abiding citizens, as well as alcoholics, down on-their-lucks, and the country kids come to the big city drawing the usual predators.

This night, the kids from the night before have left and we have a quiet night.