Montreal – Bright Lights, Big City

As I mentioned in the previous installment, many cities outside the US were largely unknown to me when I was a kid. What I knew about them either fell into the categories of the stereotypical understanding of the city or if the city had been touched upon in my grade school history or social studies classes. I have to say that Montréal fell under the radar. My recollection of my early knowledge of the city may be clouded by my more recent introduction to the city by my future wife. I don’t even remember if I knew it was French speaking.

And oddly, I didn’t even realize we very briefly stopped in the city during a family roadtrip of the Northeast in 1990. (Also during this trip we missed going to Nova Scotia due to the time involved or the price of the ferry.) We were heading back to Chicago after staying in Acadia National Park and decided we would drive back through Canada. We stopped near Montreal and tried to get a room for the night, but the proprietor refused to give us a room (there was some french-english friction involved). So in a huff, we continued on to Ontario and spent the night there. I was only reminded of this after finding a little 120 film photo that I must have taken from the Champlain bridge as we continued through.

I met my future wife in Oct 1993 and I made my first real visit to the city that Christmas. I have returned once or twice a year until we moved here in 2003. Before 2000, the visits primarily revolved around the south shore with occasional visits to downtown. We did not have access to a car, so we were limited to the infrequent suburban public transportation and the Métro in the city. My knowledge of the city was basically bounded by the Old Port, Westmount, Mont-Royal, and the Plateau. I became very familiar with the downtown core and the underground city. Mainly because we always came back around Xmas so it was cold and there was shopping to be done.

As far as the character, although I knew it was a bilingual city, 95% of my time here was among francophones. And in Ste Julie where we stayed, anglophones seemed to be non-existant. In the city, I would catch people speaking English here and there, but I still did not know any English speakers. But it wasn’t just language. I didn’t see as much diversity as I had been accustomed. There were people of different races downtown, but when you see almost none by where you are staying, you wonder how diverse it can be.

I cherished every chance to visit downtown. Partly because it usually only happened once or twice a visit. But also because I saw an energy along Ste-Catherine that interested me. And I found it very open-minded to have strip clubs across the street from urban malls. There’s a dynamic downtown in the mix of offices, stores, universities, and leisure. A vibrancy that would not come to downtown Chicago until a few years later.

My view of the city was expanded when we came up to plan our wedding in 2000. We drove up during the summer and needed to criss cross the city in order to prepare. First it was something to see the city again during the summer. Second we had a freedom to visit different areas and explore a bit more. It was then that I got a much better understanding of the city. We needed to visit some of the outlying areas to choose different aspects for the wedding like photographers and cake. In many ways the surrounding city was similar to areas in Chicago, just with a different style. They have both been influenced by French culture and style. But Chicago seemed more influenced by German and northern French architecture, whereas Montréal has more Mediteranean tastes. This are mixed with the vernacular unique to the place and influences of climate.

We have now lived here for almost four years, here is my take on the city. It is a large city that is big enough to offer metropolitan culture, yet it is small enough that it still does not have many of the major drawbacks of very large cities. It has all major cultural institutions (modern art, dance, opera, symphony, plantarium, botanical garden, amusement park, zoo, major concerts, etc) along with a fairly diverse population in the city. Though at the same time, a 24/7 world at your fingertips is not available except in limited areas. But compared to almost all the cities I will talk about in this series the city lacks the major problems that come with a larger and denser city. These include traffic, crime, high cost of living, and just the limited personal space.

The character of the city is predominantly French. From what I have seen, the British influence is here, healthy, and significant, but is still distant second. And people of other cultural backgrounds do make up a sizable portion of the population. Though the diversity drops significantly off island and away from the metropolitan area. This really leaves Montréal as an anomally among the French dominated province. At times the difference in culture between the island and the rest of the province is surprising. For instance I was quite surprised to see the diversity and bilingual nature that is here after years of experiencing a largely unilingual and homogenous culture within a 15 minute drive from the city. And so far my travels around the province have been continued to confirm this difference.

As far as the feelings I’ve sensed among the people I’ve come across, they toggle. At times I feel like there is a real openness and an upbeat willingness to try new things. But I’ve also sensed apathy about what can be done along with a closed minded protectionism. I suppose it depends on the mood and the season.

The difference between the extremes of rich and poor are less which I really like. But people are generally tight with there money. Likely due to the high taxes. So I haven’t noticed many super rich or many super poor people. The rich are modest by American standards and the poor are much better off thanks to the social welfare system and strong unions. But in general you don’t have the same consumerism you have stateside that seems to cross all economic levels. There is less marketing and people seem to be frugal.

I could go on and on about my impressions of the place, but these are some of the major ones as they relate to this series. For more info, see the life in Montreal tag or the Chicago/Montréal comparisons tag.

Next up: New York City.


~ by Frank on May 12, 2007.

2 Responses to “Montreal – Bright Lights, Big City”

  1. Diversity is one of the top three reasons why people in the regions dislike Montreal. Lack of tolerance is one of the top three reasons why I wouldn’t choose to live in the regions.

  2. I always wonder if it is a combination of naivete, fear of the unknown, and limited exposure to diversity as opposed to pure hatred. Sadly, I’ve seen it firsthand.

    Maybe they should have something like they have in Australia where ever young adult must spend a full year abroad. But instead of only touring Europe, they must be required to stay someplace between Africa and SE Asia for six months. The world would be a better place.

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