Monday, September 26, 2022
It’s a bad news, good news story, which is pretty much life, these days. This was my first Montreal tour since I moved back home in 2020, six weeks ahead of COVID. The city is finally open again, but all is not as it was. I must admit, it was always a construction site, but now, it’s worse. There are a lot of unfinished projects from years ago, plus the new ones, that spring from urgency, or were already planned. They all go on at once and the city is full of cones, blocked streets, one lane bypasses and all.
Add in the labor shortage. A lot of people don’t want to work anymore, unless it’s from home. This helps keep the traffic still flowing. If the office buildings ever fill up again, it will be gridlock for miles, all day, every day.
Every store, hotel and restaurant has a sign outside saying “we are hiring” And service is way down from what it was. Carol Berg and her sister Cindy Clot checked into Le St Martin Hotel Particulier, across the street from me, on Sunday night, after midnight. Monday morning, they were looking forward to the hotel’s great breakfast, that was still being advertised when I was on hold with them the day before. What they got was a rude awakening to the fact that the kitchen wasn’t open in the mornings anymore due to staffing problems.
Luckily, that was fixable once I got wind of it. I met them in the lobby and walked them across to Au Pain Doré in my building. They had croissants and quiches and hot chocolate and coffee and felt a lot better. They did a little shopping in Les Cours Mt Royal and took the rest of the day to rest.
My very good friend, Denis Mavrias, had volunteered to be our driver in exchange for being a full participant in the experience. I was grateful as that left me free to concentrate on talking about the city. Denis had been helping me plan the routes we would take and helping me test restaurants and attractions. He knew how good this was going to be. Denis came by at three o’clock and we walked over to Hertz to sign the van out and register both our driver’s licenses. Our branch of Hertz now closes at 4:00pm, for lack of staff. We had rented the van from 6pm Monday to 6:00pm Friday, you see, so we would go back later to pick it up.
Denis went back to take care of his own business. He has a business brokerage and a take-and-bake Pizza place. He reappeared at Chalet BBQ around 8pm. We had one of our favorite Montreal meals and picked up a chicken, fries, sauce, and coleslaw to go for Geri Randall and Mike Donigan, whose plane we were meeting.
The plane from SFO docked on time and Geri was soon out, but Canada customs saw fit to detain Mike for a bit. It turns out he had crossed the border once in Windsor, without his passport, about ten years ago, and it was still on his record. Because he remembered the story and had all the right answers for them, it wasn’t too, too long, but it sure wouldn’t have paid to have attempted anything else but the whole truth.
Back at my apartment in Cours Mt Royal Geri and Mike had the same meal Denis and I had had four hours earlier and pronounced it just as good. Then Mike walked across the street to Le St Martin to bed. Geri went to my office, not as swish, but closer, free and there’s food in the fridge.
Tuesday, September 27, 2022
Mike was up early and did the Pain Doré run for everyone. Denis was back at 10:25 am to start the tour as planned, but with all the late arriving, we didn’t get our act together quite so quickly. So, when we got to Pointe à Callière, which was the first planned stop, there were six school buses parked outside. Of course, no one had told me about those, either. But the staff were very helpful. We got our stickers, which were good all day and they told to come back in the afternoon, when it would be quieter.
I called the tour “Megan’s Montreal – Rosemount to Westmount”. I had wanted to start at Pointe à Callière because it’s where Montreal started in the early 1600s. It was actually discovered by the French Explorer, Jacques Cartier, in 1534, when there was an Iroquois settlement on the island. When he returned a hundred years later with settlers, the entire colony and its buildings had disappeared. The French moved in, started farming and building homes and churches. They ran the place until the English, under General Wolfe, defeated the French in 1760 at the Battle of the Plains of Abraham. Then Montreal, was colonized by English, Scotch, and Irish settlers. The Scots were heavy into trading and soon turned the place into a major gateway to North America. By the late nineteenth century Montreal was almost as important as New York city, and when Prohibition started in the USA in 1920, it became a lot more fun. You can imagine what went on. Lots of partying, entertainment, jazz clubs, whore houses, the really good stuff. It was a city of churches, too, but this is my tour.
My father was born in Montreal 1896 and my mother on a boat in 1902. They grew up in the glory days of Montreal. At that time the population was split 50/50 between English and French speaking Canadians and the city was divided down the middle by St. Lawrence Blvd, which was known as “The main”. The money was concentrated in the hands of a few clever hard-working Scots, who had known how to trade. There is a section of the city, known as “The Square Mile”, where they lived, and where there are still a few mansions for us to see. Over the years, it became the Commercial center of the city, and I live in it now. But I didn’t always.
My mother’s father was Hungarian and tailor to the ladies of the Square Mile. My Irish grandfather was a Cop. My own father was a Commercial Traveler, which means he was a salesman but to big businesses, rather than individuals. So was I, now that I think of it. He sold containers, I sold mainframe computers. I was brought up on the French side of the line. It was good for me. It gave me a second language and more tolerance, because I grew up a minority in my neighborhood. I learned French quickly, because then I could pass for one of the majority.
So, off we went towards my old neighborhood. First, we drove around Old Montreal, where it all began, but is more of a tourist area now. There are still quite a few buildings from the 16 and 1700s. And there’s construction, some of it has been going on for a long time. The vines have had time to grow through the scaffolding cover.
From Old Montreal, we went up the Main, through old and new, often ethnic, neighborhoods. When we got far enough east and north, we picked up St. Hubert Street, where the whole city still shops for dresses for proms and weddings. We had lunch at a very old restaurant called “Le Roi du Smoked Meat”. Montreal smoked meat is unique. It is served the same way as pastrami in New York, but the meat is different. It is brined, while smoked meat is rubbed with curing salts and spices and smoked. Smoked meat always starts as brisket. Denis has a PhD in Food Science. He knows these things.
We continued east for another ten blocks or so and turned back south on the street I grew up on. An interesting feature of the ordinary people’s housing in Montreal is an outside staircase. I had been wondering about this all my life, because it is just plain stupid. Montreal gets a lot of snow and you have to shovel it off the stairs. I had heard them called “widow makers” more than once. Our Quebec tour guide was able to explain how they started, so you’ll have to wait for that one.
These two are the buildings I grew up in. It’s a very ordinary Montreal neighborhood, but it’s clean and pretty, with nice mature trees. We lived upstairs on the right in the stone one and downstairs in the brick one, which is twice as big. These are triplexes, one flat on the ground floor and two on the second floor. When we moved downstairs next door, I was fifteen and knew a lot of sixteen year old boys. I think the move cost us a couple of cases of beer and a bunch of burgers.
We worked our way back, past Lafontaine Park to Old Montreal and Pointe à Callière, where they have a nice sound and slide show depicting the history of Montreal. After that we toured the ruins below the building, which are very interesting, and skipped the sewer this time. We needed to get across the street to the Museum shop before it closed.
We had dinner that night at Diese Onze on St. Denis Street, one of the few jazz clubs still in operation. The food was good, the jazz excellent, if a little loud. It was a 12 piece band in a very small space. We want Charlie Biddle’s back, but he’s dead and so is his wonderful club.
Wednesday, September 28, 2022
Denis wasn’t available this morning so the gang had to put up with my scary driving. I don’t know how he does it so well. He’s a Montrealer, too, but they sure are happy he does most of it. This morning it was the typical HopOn-Hop Off bus route, circling the mountain, up to the Oratory thing. We didn’t go into the Oratory because we were running late and, anyway, they have ruined it. I liked it when it was a humongous old church, filled to the rafters with all the crutches people had ditched after their miracle cures. Now it’s all nicely set up as a tourist trap, with a small chapel, gift shop, Brother André’s heart and all. Easy to get in and out of, all modern inside and, well, fooey. I decided it was more important to focus on our lunch stop because it was Duc de Lorraine.
Right around the corner from the Oratory, Duc de Lorraine started off as a pastry shop. It was good, and it grew, and one day someone had the bright idea to add a restaurant. Denis and I saw it when we were testing the HOHO bus to see if it was worth doing. We could see the crepes from the top of the bus and decided we needed to have them. Ya think? I then had trouble convincing anyone we should ever eat any place else. But it’s Montreal, and there are plenty more good places to eat, wonderful as that was.
After lunch we went to Maison St. Gabriel, which was built in 1668 as a farm. Like most of the land in Montreal, it was owned by an order of nuns. Margarite Bourgeoys was their leader at the time, and it was to her the King of France turned when he received a request for women from the French settlers. All these guys had gone out as pioneers and they were doing pretty well but very few of them had brought women with them. After twenty years or so, some one noticed something was missing. So the king had the orphanages emptied of any girls over fourteen and a few French citizens volunteered their daughters, and lo and behold, came a boatload of “Les Filles du Roi” or the king’s wards. In the house we visited, they met the men looking for wives, who were mostly about forty. The next thing you know there were kids all over the place. First they had large families just to have more workers for the farms. Later, to get back at the English for making all the money, the French Canadians staged the “revenge du berceau”, ‘berceau’ being ‘cradle’. They had huge families, 12 to 20 kinds being not uncommon and ran the population up so that by the time I came along, Montreal was 70% French.
Most of the building burned down a very long time ago and was rebuilt on the footprint, so it is still an excellent example of the rural architecture of New France. The interior displays everything needed to sustain life in a tough climate. I love this place and show it to everyone. The gardens are lovely, too.
That night we went to see the sound and light show at Notre Dame Cathedral, in Old Montreal, where my biggest Tandem client had its office. We ate where I used to take my clients to lunch and what became Elvon’s favorite Montreal restaurant, Bonaparte. We had the tasting menu, 6 courses with wine pairings for under $225 US, including tax and tip. It was very, very well worth it.
And now for the Commercial:
I just took on a new hosting assignment that a few of you might like. I sold it to a couple in Montreal, then asked to host it, as it’s a Distinctive Voyage. They gave it to me, as they usually do. It’s a Princess CruiseTour in Alaska. 11 days, total, starting in Anchorage on July 25, 2023 and ending in Vancouver on August 5. One night in the Hotel Captain Cook in Anchorage, one in Mount McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge, two in Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge and seven nights aboard the Majestic Princess, starting July 29. Tours and most meals are included for the land part, including the Husky Homestead Tour, where we can see the puppies in training. You know how I love that part. I’m on board ship at the moment and can’t get to the link, but I’ll put it in the next issue or you can fish around the Princess site yourself and likely have better luck. Princess was first into Alaska and its Lodges and tours are the best. I have the full itinerary and will share it when you show interest.
I’ll be in California for at least a couple of weeks before and Robbie will be looking for staff for most of July and some of August. He would prefer one person or couple to take the whole assignment. July has Montreal’s very best weather.