Much To Love in MTL

Tuesday, February 4, 2020 | Montreal, Canada

Dépanneur: Even for French speakers, visiting Montreal can expand one's vocabulary and horizons alike.
Spend enough time in the francophone world and you hear lots of hype about Montreal.

Nina had never visited Canada, and both my previous visits had come amid blistering December weather, so while en route from Algiers to a week in the mountains of Colorado last summer, we slipped in a 36-hour layover in Canada's second city.

Visiting in August sure beats the winter. Back in 2013 I had spent a few days in Montreal shuttling an Algerian study mission between meetings—and did my best not to leave the network of tunnels underlying the city's downtown. On this trip, by contrast, we wore shorts and t-shirts and spent all day crisscrossing the city, strolling from trendy brunch spots in the Vieux Port to street markets in Chinatown to an outdoor art expo in the Gay Village. We scarfed a massive platter of poutine (the local delicacy, if you can call it that) from La Banquise, on the Plateau, and tried maple-syrup-flavored coffee, ice cream, and more.

Montreal was covered with exquisite street art and filled with gourmet boutiques. But more than anything else there were restaurants—seemingly more per square mile than anywhere I've ever been. "Does anyone eat at home in this city?" Nina wondered aloud as we walked past yet another block of nothing but fusion cafés,
French-style brasseries, Korean barbecues, world-famous bagel shops, and trendy bistros.

The city was also remarkably cosmopolitan, filled with speakers not just of English and the (almost incomprehensibly) twangy local French but also Vietnamese, Spanish, Portuguese—and even Algerian Arabic. Estimates vary but there are tens of thousands of Algerians in Montreal, which is sometimes called Canada's "Little Maghreb." The Algerians there are numerous enough that they regularly hold their own hirak protests in solidarity with those that began last winter in Algiers. It's hard to find anyone back in Algiers who doesn't have a cousin or two in Montreal, and many of our Algerian friends have worked or studied in Montreal themselves. While exploring, we encountered more than a few couscous restaurants (but needless to say, our appetites led us elsewhere).

Worldly Montreal is iconic of Canada's diverse population and the ethos that produced it; one in five Canadians today was born abroad. The country's openness to immigration has led to an economic and cultural flourishing and sharpened the contrast with its southern neighbor, which seems more seized by self-destructive nativism by the day.

If, as I wrote on my last visit to Montreal, the US is never far from many Canadians' minds, the implicit comparison must look increasingly pleasing to them the further we Americans drift from our founding ideals. Let's put it this way: if I were looking to move back to North America anytime soon, a place that leans into its diversity like Montreal does would be at the top of my list.

My Leica Q2 photos from Montreal are available here: 2019.08 Q2 - Montreal.

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