My first day here, I was told by a friend “people talk about the weather a lot here” by which she didn’t mean the locals have a penchant for small-talk, but rather it’s often so extreme here it would be weirder NOT to talk about it. Today is the first real day of rain I’ve seen; an absolute deluge. It’s snowed 3-4 inches a day multiple times without derailing anybody’s routine, and the temperature has fluctuated between -10 and 16oC this weekend. Terraces have been enthusiastically whacked up in from of any forward-thinking bar-restaurant, and yet I can still ski 90 minutes away on Sunday! Though it might not sound so, I’m finding it infinitely preferable to London for one reason…it’s so rarely grey. I’m a bit of a sunflower, touched with a little Seasonal Affective Disorder like I suspect we all are, even if I try hard to maintain a certain metaphorical ray of sunshine persona, so give me -12oC with clear blue skies any day.
This does make it all the more shocking however that the level of homelessness here far exceeds that of my homeland (there you go, I’ve finally found something that’s worse here). I wouldn’t be surprised if Montréal alone has more rough sleepers than the entirety of the UK. It’s no San Francisco, which is by far the most out of hand I’ve ever seen that problem, but a 10 minute walk to the shops might bring 3-4 demands/pleas, especially if a tube station is en route. I don’t have a solution, however.
Other than the weather, I’ve also been warned “everyone cares about hockey”. Along with my desire to fit in the aforementioned ski before the end of the season, I also resolved to get a taste of Canada’s favourite sport, and so grabbed myself a ticket, solo, to the penultimate game at the Bell Centre as the Montréal Canadiens (yes…) welcomed league best Tampa Bay Lightning (infinitely superior to the Milton Keynes team of the same name that I enjoyed on mum’s whim this Boxing Day) with the season on the line! It turned out to be a phenomenal first exposure to the NHL, as the HABs (no idea, not an acronym according to the screaming fan I asked next to me) in front of a full house, vanquished Tampa in a 4-2 comeback. Now I wasn’t quite as impressed by the facilities as the San Diego Padres baseball stadium - an absolute craft beer and street-food paradise - but the lights were bright, the speakers were turned up to eleventy-stupid and the national anthems were belted out with such vigour that I resolved not to return without having learned the words. The atmosphere was electric, but unlike the English football world, in which racism, homophobia and general spoiling for a fight often lends the noise, this arena replaced mouth-foaming aggression with a general competitive enthusiasm and getting behind the team. That said, I haven’t actually seen any black or Asian hockey players thus far…
Yet further to my cultural self-education, predominantly in an attempt to understand this tricky accent, rather than some desire to really get the to anthropological soul of the populous, I’ve cracked on with what little Quebecois content is available on Netflix. While Gaz Bar Blues is very much in the French art-house existential misery vein, both Patrick Huart (already one of my favourite actors!) vehicles have been dynamite. Bon Cop Bad Cop seems somewhat of an institution…a cross-border buddy-cop action-comedy focussing on a hockey-themed murderer. It’s both entertaining in it’s on right and insightful into cultural relations (or stereotypes) between this French-speaking province and Canada at large. Starbuck – loosely based on the true story of a prolific sperm donor and his numerous offspring’s legal quest to reveal the identity of their genetic father – really touched me! Huart is a tour de force, the flawed heart of a feel-good film with some added emotional punch, which ultimately pushed me over the line into applying to volunteer at a local youth mentoring association. I’m now about 10% more proficient in deciphering the super-nasal, quasi-blue-collar dialect, but I’ve got a way to go!
The French impact naturally extends to the cuisine, and while globalisation makes all world foods omnipresent in any first world city, I’m very much enjoying the prevalence of tartare de boeuf, I have a delicious pain au chocolat most mornings, and if anyone wants to check out the sheer absurdity of classic French x North American mashups i.e. creamy, meaty, vinous indulgence, I’d usher you to Anthony Bourdain’s (rest in peace) Parts Unknown episode on Quebec….mouth-watering and sickening in equal measure. Poutine, however, is all conquering. My bar does a hearty portion drenched in beer-gravy, with 5 potential toppings including pulled pork and smoked meat, but the Pouti-flette (tartiflette bacon and cream hybrid) at Brewpub Brouhaha this week took the title of best so far. Lucky I’ve has slightly fewer heavy nights of late, as it’s excruciatingly difficult to turn down on a cold, hangover day! Honourable mention too, goes to the falafel entrée at Pub BreWskey in the vieux port, and to the beautiful brunchy snacks at September Café impressively maintaining substance with style.
Naturally my beer tour continues as I show my face around the neighourhoods, and indeed ask new friends to introduce me to their favourite watering holes. This later technique yielded the week’s best beer, as a girl from work, passionate herself about tasting the best of the best, took me up to Rosemont where Brouhaha’s ‘Sergent Ripin’ & ‘Saison Voatsiperifery’ impressed me a great deal. Mabrasserie, a successful co-op of which the former is a member, also offered a tasting of four beer based hot sauces made on site, of which the coffee stout version tickled me the most. I was also kindly lent a smashing beer book “Les Saveurs Gastronomique de la Biere – Gendron & Thibault” which, if they haven’t done it already, I might offer to translate, as to do so like I’m doing right now just for educational purposes, is pure delight. I’ve also, peculiarly, drunk more Jameson’s this week than cumulatively in my life hitherto…people just love shots here. Bartender to bartender, bartender to guest and vice-versa, neighbouring bar staff! God forbid the Canadiens score 8 in a game and our “Hockey Shots” drop to 25c. As if to prove my point, as I hand-write this article in my notebook, a bartender I met on day 2 at Loic in St Henri (who on that day gave me and my friend shots as thanks for recommending him beer books) has just entered this bar on the other side of town, recognised me and…you guessed it…sent over a Jameson’s with a rogue-ish grin…it’s endless. I might have to start a counter-culture where a 5oz galopin of savagely strong beer becomes the new shooter of choice!
So another week down, into the grind of work and simultaneously a conscious ramping up of social activity and friend-seeking, the novelty is far from wearing off and my “working holiday” visa is living up to it’s name. Book your dates to visit ASAP friends, I’m plotting a hell of a welcome tour.