Montreal Notes

I'm back from Montreal. The net access from my hotel was poor, but otherwise I absolutely adored the city. It struck me as the best parts of New York, Boston, New Orleans, and San Francisco all rolled into one city with all the bad parts removed. I'd be very tempted to pick up shop and move there, but my wife's a lot less enamored of French than I am. Then again, I did arrive during what one cabbie told me was the first decent week of weather this century, and I'm afraid he may have understood that 2000 is the last year of the 20th century rather than the first of the 21st. Two museums I visited prominently featured photographs of Montreal under extreme snow and flood conditions, so this should maybe serve as a warning.


Food in Montreal is very similar to food in New York: that is, a melange of different cuisines from various cultures all mixing together. Beth and I had some wonderful Thai food and some not bad Chinese. Montreal has many different Indian, Vietnamese, French, Italian, Japanese and other ethnic cuisines to choose from.

The last day of my trip I went to the Montreal International Food Festival on Ile St. Helene. It was sort of like the Jazz Fest minus most of the music. I ate oysters, crepes suzette, various kinds of sausage, venison, alligator (at a Cajun-themed booth) and more.

Montreal's also got plenty of the usual chain restaurants you'll find in any North American city including Burger King, McDonalds, and Subway. The signs and menus are all bilingual French/English. Otherwise the main difference between these chains and their U.S. counterparts was the complete absence of shakes.

As well as the Food Fest, we also arrived in the middle of the Festival d'Homard; that is, the Lobster Festival. This festival apparently consists of various restaurants in Chinatown and Vieux Montreal (the old city, essentially Montreal's equivalent of the French Quarter minus Bourbon Street. Montreal's equivalent of Bourbon Street is the Rue St. Catherine, but I'll get to that.) putting pictures of lobsters in the window and offering special lobster dishes. I had a couple of lobsters the day I left at a very touristy restaurant on Montreal's equivalent of Jackson Square, but they weren't as good as what I've had on Block Island in the past.

What's missing from this list is specifically Canadian food, but I had some of that too. I can sum up Canadian cuisine in two words: smoked meat. You can get smoked meat sandwiches, smoked meat instead of bacon with your eggs in the morning, smoked meat platters, smoked meat fried rice, smoked meat lasagna, and more. Nobody ever explained to me exactly what kind of meat they were smoking, but I think it was beef of some kind. It seemed fairly similar to the corned beef you'd get in a New York Deli like Katz's.

Of course a pure-meat diet isn't healthy, so for a little vegetable matter you can add a poutine. This is a mass of hot french fries topped with cold cheese curds and hot brown gravy. The gravy slowly heats up the chesse curds and melts them as you eat them. It's guaranteed to clean out any annoying green vegetables that may remain in your intestines.


Montreal is a wonderful place to learn French because everything's bilingual. When you get on the plane at Laguardia, the announcements are made first in French, then in English. The airline magazine and customs card repeat everything in both languages. Billboards, other signs, and menus are all written in both French and English (though if you get out of the center of the city, you can find areas where the signs are French only.) In the museums, I took to reading the captions in French, then switching to English to make sure I understood it, and to learn any new words I encountered. At night I'd watch French television with the closed captioning on. As well as local shows, they have some imports from France, and a lot of American shows like the Simpsons and Pokemon dubbed into French.

On the other hand, Montreal's a horrible place to learn French because everyone's bilingual. Generally, I could get as far as "Bonjour" and "une billet si vous plait" but past that point the person I was trying to talk to would figure out that my French sucked and switch to English. Still I was doing a much better job of passing by the end of the week.

The only people I encountered that genuinely could not speak English and were therefore willing to talk to me in French were taxi drivers. (Like I said earlier, New York and Montreal are very similar.) On Monday Beth and I got into a little confusion when we gave one of these cabbies directions in French to the Oratorio du St. Joseph (the Lourdes of North America). The guidebook said the Oratorio was a 20 minute walk from the West entrance of Parc Montroyal. We misunderstood that to mean it was inside the park, when in fact it was 20 minutes outside the park. Consequently, although we were able to tell the cabbie that "Nous allons a Oratorio du St. Joseph dans Parc Montroyal" (We are going to the Oratory of St. Joseph in Montroyal Park) we weren't able to follow him when he quite correctly told us that the Oratorio wasn't in Parc Montroyal. Still, with a lot of finger pointing and gesturing at the guidebook we did eventually end up where we wanted to be. However, by the time I left on Saturday, I was able to tell the taxi driver that I was going to the airport and even clear up a confusion about whether I was going to the United States or Canada because that changed which terminal we went to. The driver tried to ask me in English, but what kept coming out was whether I was taking U.S. Air or Air Canada. It wasn't till we switched back to French that he got his question across and I was able to answer him. "Je vais a les Etats Unis."

I eventually discovered that most people were willing to put up with my French, and even encourage me, but I had to identify myself as an American first. ("Je suis desolee. Je suis Americain. Je parle seulement un peu Francaise, mais j'essay apprendre plus.") If I didn't do that, they'd chalk me up as another annoying Anglophone Canadian, and switch to English. But once I identified myself as American, especially as an American trying to learn French, which seemed to be quite outside their experience and quite surprising to them, they were generally helpful and often apologetic about their English which, with the exception of the taxi drivers, was invariably much better than my French.

Once they knew I was an American trying to learn French, many of them spontaneously confessed to feelings of inadequacy with English, often undeserved. This seems to be quite common with the Francophone Quebecois, at least in my unscientific sample. For instance, one woman I talked to who was the product of a mixed marriage (Anglophone-Francophone) seemed particularly concerned about her English and blamed it on the confusion of growing up in a bilingual household. However, as near as I could tell she spoke perfect, idiomatic North-American English with no hint of an accent. She was just never sure that she had indeed said what she thought she said, even though she always did. Others who apologized about their English spoke with varying levels of fluency ranging from good English with a slight accent to a thicker accent, to only being able to carry on a simple conversation with some occasional fumbling for words and perhaps not a great vocabulary (which is still more than I'm able to do in French).

The push to demand, teach, and use French instead of English that's been so tightly enforced In Quebec for the last 25 years is definitely beginning to show some cracks, mostly I think because of Francophones' worries about their children's abilities to compete in the English-speaking world outside Quebec in the next century. Currently, English schools teach French starting in first grade but French schools are only allowed to teach English starting in the fourth grade. In a couple of years, that's going to be moved back to the third grade; and there's a movement to start earlier than that. Even more tellingly, the richer Francophones are now sending their children to private schools that start teaching English in the first grade. The schools have to structure it as an extra-curricular activity, and can't call it "instruction"; but what it boils down to is that the children of much of Montreal's elite, including political elite, are now learning English starting in first grade or even kindergarten. In fact, there's even a large market for English-speaking nannies from French-speaking families who want to start their children off with English even earlier. Eventually I suspect that the less-well-off Francophones will begin to demand the same level of English-teaching in their schools that the richer ones are now purchasing on the sly.

The visit was definitely good for my French overall. My vocabulary grew by leaps and bounds. A week in Montreal is worth a semester at the Alliance Francaise here in New York (though it costs quite a bit more). My French is now good enough to read comic books, watch television with the closed captioning on, and generally make myself understood. However I also learned where my weak spots lie. I definitely need to work on hearing French. I had real trouble with any spoken dialogue that went for more than one sentence, though I was slowly improving by the time I left.

Public Transit

Public transit in Montreal was quite good. There are four main subway lines that sort of form a square around and through the city. Instead of tokens they use paper tickets with magnetic strips. One ride is $1.75 Canadian, which is a little less than a NYC subway ride, and the tickets are even cheaper in bulk. The subway can take you close to most places in Montreal proper though not to the outlying parts of the island or the suburbs.

The strangest thing about the Montreal subway is that it runs on rubber tires. This makes the trains much quieter, and the stations cooler. (In NYC heat generated by subway braking raises the temperature in the stations by 5-10 degrees Fahrenheit over its already sweltering levels.) Although the ads and other signs were bilingual, conductors make announcements almost exclusively in French.

Rue St. Catherine

Our hotel was situated at the corner of Rue Jeanne Mance and Rue St. Catherine, effectively smack in the middle of Montreal's Times Square. To the West, the Rue St. Catherine is one of Montreal's major commercial and retail districts. To the East it's Montreal's night-life. Rue St. Catherine East is full of dance clubs, sex shows, drug dealers, prostitutes, college students, transvestites, homeless people, runaways with neon hair and numerous piercings and tattoos, bikers, missionaries, and other denizens of the night. The one thing they didn't have on Rue St Catherine that you would find on Bourbon Street were gay bars. Presumably, there's a gay section of Montreal somewhere, but I didn't find it.

As the night gets later, the street gets weirder. By 3:00 in the morning, the prostitutes are getting a little desperate and a little tired of fending off drunken college students, and begin physically grabbing hold of any passerby over 25 who looks vaguely straight and with more than two Canadian dollars to rub together, (The smallest Canadian bill is a five. There are one dollar and two dollar coins. Giving your spare change to a homeless person in Canada might actually get them a meal.) and offering two-for-one specials. (I swear I'm not making this up.)

What's most amazing to an American is how little actual violent crime accompanies all this. Although an ambulance occasionally careens down the street with sirens blasting, you almost never see a police car or a beat cop. High school students and senior citizens walk down the street unaccosted and with little concern about their well-being. Women wear three inch heels and ankle breaking six-inch platform shoes that are absolutely impossible to run in. While popular in Japan, these never caught on in New York for precisely that reason.

My last night in Montreal I did finally see some cops arresting somebody. I'm not sure what for. He was probably drunk or high. He was clearly resisting arrest. By the time I walked by the cops had him handcuffed and five or six of them were trying to wrestle him into the back of a police car, where he very much did not want to go. He was struggling and trying to get away, but the cops, mostly smaller than the arrestee, just dragged and pulled until they finally got him in. One cop had to get into the back seat and pull him in, while the other five pushed him in from behind. What struck me was how civilized it all was. Although this idiot clearly wasn't cooperating, the police used the bare minimum of force necessary to restrain him and get him into the car without hurting him. None of them seemed to get particularly angry with him, or even call him names. In New York or New Orleans or Philadelphia or any other major American city, the cops would have had their night sticks out and beaten him until he couldn't resist; then tossed him in the car.

Internet Access

Montreal is trying to position itself as Canada's Silicon Alley. I don't know whether or not it will succeed. There's certainly a lot of cheap office space for rent though, and a fairly well-educated work force. I saw lots of ads for DSL access that seemed quite a bit cheaper than DSL is here in the U.S., especially once the conversion rate from U.S. to Canadian dollars is factored in.

On the other hand. as a high-tech traveller Montreal was definitely not set up to handle me, though few places are. Internet cafes were few and far between, but I eventually found one on Rue St. Laurent. It was also relatively expensive (about $9.00 Canadian an hour) compared to what I've seen in London, New York and other cities.

The hotel I stayed in, the Wyndham, had abysmal access. For $14.95 a day you got web and email access on your TV, but it was so poorly designed and so slow that it was effectively useless. For example, you couldn't delete an email message without reading it first; and every email message took about 45 seconds or more to download. Nor could you download email in batch. You had to work with it one message at a time. There was no telnet or FTP and no way to transfer files between your laptop and the TV. You could use your modem to dial out on the phone, but you'd be paying ridiculous hotel phone charges by the minute. What I really wanted was what I saw at the Courtyard Marriott in Atlanta last month: T-1 access through Ethernet or USB for $10.00 a day.

I tried to tell the hotel staff what was wrong, but they simply weren't capable of understanding. The hospitality industry has a really bad track record of understanding the needs of IT travellers. For years, we had to carry around tool sets to strip wires and build phone jacks just to dial out of our rooms. Now that the world is moving beyond dial-up connections, they've finally decided it's OK to let guests plug in a modem. In ten years when we all have 10 Mbps wireless modems that don't need to interface with the hotel systems, they'll probably get around to wiring the rooms with Ethernet. I picked this hotel because it was where the conference was, and because I got a deal through the conference, but I wouldn't stay there again.

The conference itself wasn't any better. They provided no terminals for anyone (press, speakers, or attendees) to use to check email or otherwise work while at the conference. We need to start telling conferences that this is a must-have item, and that we will not attend, exhibit, or speak unless they guarantee sufficient resources to work. A few conferences with large exhibit floors have decent press rooms, but the only conference I've been to in the last year that really got it right was the O'Reilly Enterprise Java Conference last March. They had about fifteen PCs with full Internet access as well as about the same number of Ethernet drops for people to plug in their laptops available from early in the morning to late at night. But at most conferences, I simply can't count on being able to get email or update my sites with news from the conference.

Exhibitors need to realize that email is a crucial means for attendees to spread the word about what they've seen. This isn't just an issue for the credentialed press, but simply for word-of-mouth reports to mailing lists and fellow employees. If it's easy and quick to send someone an email about an exciting or useful product they've seen, chances are people will. If it's hard to do, then they'll wait till they get home and probably forget to. For example, on Monday I saw a Word-to-XML conversion product that would have been a nice fit for one of my consulting clients. If I could have sent them an email that night about the product I would have done so. Instead, I had to wait till I got home, and now I'm not sure where I put the business card the presenter gave me. Maybe I'll find it. Maybe I won't. There are hundreds of stories like this at any large conference. Conferences need to make sure and attendees and exhibitors must demand that high-speed Internet access and PCs be provided for all attendees to use for as much time as they need.

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Copyright 2000 Elliotte Rusty Harold
Last Modified August 20, 2000