A professor once told me that the purpose of learning a foreign language is to reenter English so that it seems new. The hope is that returning to something with a fresh perspective will open it to consider possibilities it hadn’t before. In travel, the equivalent would be some version of: “Getting lost is a way of finding yourself.” Eating different foods, talking to locals, exploring neighborhoods, taking in new sights — these experiences, without the familiarity of routine and surroundings that home affords us, force us to reorient ourselves at a fundamental level. To be a stranger in another country is an exercise in self-discovery.
I arrived in Montréal earlier this week, just as the leaves were turning. The city has been on my bucket list for a while now. I’ve read countless articles praising its food scene and Old World appeal, as well as its art museums and navigability. Plus, Montrealers speak French, which would be a welcome change. My AirBnB was located in the heart of downtown, next to McGill University, and literally within walking distance of everything on my itinerary. For the entirety of my stay, I avoided all public transportation and chose to walk. Here are some highlights.
Old Port, which some have called a “slice of Europe” for its Gothic architecture and cobblestone streets, was my first destination. Nothing much was happening since it was a weekday morning, but I was grateful that the quiet allowed me to explore the area mindfully. The little streets with the shops — there are too many to name — were my favorite part of the neighborhood. Running parallel down the length of the St. Lawrence River, they feature charming stores that alternate between high-end boutiques and mom-and-pops. I fell in love with the storefronts, both the minimally and lavishly designed.
Google Montréal. The images of the cityscape that appear are most likely taken at some point during a hike up Mont Royal. Signs kept pointing me towards different landmarks: “La croix,” “Le chalet.” I just kept walking up the road for hours.
My AirBnB hosts called Mile End the “hipster” part of the city. Much like Old Port, the neighborhood streets are lined with shops, though they’re less exclusive. The neighborhood is home to thrift stores, hole-in-the-wall bodegas, cafés, and St-Viateur Bagels. Apparently whether Montréal or New York makes the best bagel has been a hotly debated subject. I’ve decided that I prefer Montréal’s better, for its chewy texture, to the fluffier and starchier New York bagel.
La Banquise and Schwartz’s
Le Plateau-Mont-Royal, the neighborhood that lies north of Mont Royal, is home to La Banquise and Schwartz’s, which serve Montréal’s best poutine and smoked meat sandwich, respectively. I got the regular order of “The Classic” at La Banquise. The fries were incredibly flavorful from being drenched in gravy, and the cheese curds tender and not overwhelming or greasy.
A strong waft fragrant with smoked meat welcomed me as I entered Schwartz’s. It has a lot in common with NYC’s Jewish delis: a wall almost completely covered in celebrity photos, long tables, and, of course, the meat. My smoked meat sandwich is the best sandwich I ever had, and it cost only $8 CAD. (A pastrami sandwich at Katz’s will set you back about $20 USD.) The meat was juicy and tender to the point it fell apart in my hands.
I’ve visited many churches and cathedrals during my travels in Europe, but the Notre-Dame Basilica, the last item on my itinerary, stands out to my mind for its vibrantly colored interior. The entire altar appeared to be awash with the colors of a sunset or sunrise, despite the rainy weather outside. Above, the blues, teals, and pinks of the vaulted ceiling evoked the image of an ornate jewelry box or a cavern studded with geodes. I’ve heard that the sound and light show, titled “Aura,” is worth attending, and it’s not hard to see why. (Tickets were sold out on the day of my visit, unfortunately.)
I sat in a pew for a good hour, taking it all in — the architecture, the organ, the stained glass, the hum of French and English being spoken, and the flashes and clicks of phone cameras at work. My mind stilled to quiet. Then, a thought: Rosanna, keep looking. This is art. It’s holy. So I kept looking. I understood that the builders of this sacred place were moved to creation by an idea, by a belief in not just God, but also in the possibility that art is something that lasts. That it is seen and appreciated. That it matters irrefutably. That to keep looking means to carry on and to stay curious, wherever I might be — on the avenues of Montréal or at home in Queens, New York.