Friday, 20 July 2012



After arriving in Montréal by train from Ottawa, I felt (to the greatest extent since arriving in Korea) that I had arrived in a foreign country. And yet I hadn't even crossed an international border!

It was clear from the beginning that French is the first language in Montréal, although English is certainly widespread, to the extent that the city is functionally bilingual. Suddenly Canada's insistence on bilingual cereal packets started to make sense. Even the "Stop" signs here are in French, which is more than can be said for France.

The French spoken here, however, is not the French I was taught at school.This is Québecois, and even after a month in the province, I cannot profess to be able to understand it perfectly.

In a similar way to Toronto, Montreal is a melting pot, but it has a different sort of quirkiness. There seems to be something of a grungy laissez-faire attitude that gives it a rebellious charm. There is copious graffiti, mostly very creative, which somehow makes the city feel loved and well-lived-in, like an old well-worn pair of jeans.

Montréal has a variety of architecture, and in many parts of the city, the sidewalks are marked with little metal strips which give the dates of the buildings on either side.

Many buildings have staircases leading to the apartments on different levels.

The Jazz Festival was in full swing when I was there - I wandered past a multitude of open-air stages with a variety of bands, and experienced a wonderful late-night jam session with the daughter of "the late, great Duke Ellington" as she insisted on calling him, and some high-energy saxophonists.

Three days was not nearly enough time to get a full appreciation of the city, but I found some interesting aspects of it, and was also there long enough to get caught out in a couple of heavy short rain squalls. 

Québec City

Québec City is a gem. I had been forewarned of its beauty by several people, and I have to say I agree. It is also very touristy. Whether it is touristy because it is a gem or it is a gem because it is touristy is unclear, but does not matter.

From the moment I stepped out of the station, I felt like I could be in a small town somewhere in France. The central area of the city is essentially a fortress perched high on a rock above the St. Lawrence river.

The day I arrived here, the town was setting up its summer festival, which provided many free and ticketed outdoor events throughout the city. In addition to this festival, there are two major evening sound and light shows - one is a presentation by Cirque du Soleil, underneath the road bridges that carry the highway down from the high part of the city to the low part; the other is a historic projection of images on industrial buildings near the harbour.

Québec is a city of distractions, but they seem to be mainly worthwhile distractions. One major drawback of the touristiness is that the busking options here are severrely curtailed: auditions happen in Spring, and the licenses apparently cost a large amount of money. There are street performances going on ALL the time, most of which are focussed on circus tricks and acrobatics with a lot of audience participation; there are also a number of musicians who, even with allotted time slots of one or two hours, were raking in heaps of cash from the plentiful stream of tourists.

Throughout all of Québec province, there is a conspicuous lack of Canadian flags. The flag of choice here is the Québec national flags: four fleurs-de-lys around a white cross on a blue background. Québec, although a part of Canada has been recognized as a nation within the country. In the past, there has been rather a lot of anti-Canadian feeling in Québec, but this seems to have settled down somewhat; this year's protests in Montréal and Québec City seem to be more focussed on frustration with the Québec national government.

Québec is the only city in North America to have kept its full set of city walls.

Like many old towns, it also has a full complement of narrow little streets and intriguing back alleys.

Trois Rivières

If Montréal is Québec's Toronto and Québec city is its Ottawa, then Trois Rivières is its Kingston. Rachelle from Saskatchewan, who I had met on The Canadian train bound for Toronto, was on a French immersion course in Trois Rivières, so I went there for a weekend to explore the town and practice my French. It is also totally francophone - which is why people go there for French immersion courses.

My French immersion started on the road, as I decided to hitchhike there. 

This gave me 4 hours of French conversation. My first lift was with an old lady from a small farming village, who had such a strong accent that I almost had to revert to smiling and nodding. My second lift came from a lady who used to be a French teacher, so made sure I understood everything she said. She was driving home to Montreal the long route, via the charming little village of Deschambault-Grondines.

 Trois Rivières is also full of interesting old buildings: it is supposedly the second oldest European-built city in Canada, and has cottages, barracks, and a variety of churches, seminaries and convents.


My transport back to Québec City was provided by Marc, Rachelle's French teacher. Thanks to his clear way of speaking, I was able to have a full deep conversation with him about Québec's history and politics, and the benefits of living in Lévis, the city just across the river from Québec. (Where else, said Marc, can you go out to a world-class rock concert and return home by ferry?)

Back in Québec City, my main activity became waiting. I was waiting for a boat to come along and whisk me away further East. As I waited, said boat was making it way from the Great Lakes down the St. Lawrence river, which gave me time to pare down my luggage and get back into a sea voyage mentality.


stevieb said...

quote: (Where else, said Marc, can you go out to a world-class rock concert and return home by ferry?)

answer: north vancouver....

stevieb said...

quote: (Where else, said Marc, can you go out to a world-class rock concert and return home by ferry?)

answer: north vancouver....