April 24, 2008
It’s less than 400 miles from New York City to Montreal, the distance from L.A. to San Francisco. But it might as well be the moon, or Paris — another world.
Last week I spent two days in this other world, at the invitation of former ER managing editor Mary Lynn Lyke, who flew in from her home in Seattle to visit her daughter Elizabeth, a junior at McGill University there.
There’s no better way to get to and from Montreal than by train. Amtrak runs its Montrealer service once a day from Penn Station, leaving at 8:20 a.m. and arriving — barring the inevitable delays from track work and the post-9/11 paranoid Canadian customs inspectors, in a little over ten hours. The fare right now is only $125 round trip. It’s quicker by car, zipping up Interstate 87, but you miss some extraordinary scenery and then you’re stuck with a vehicle in Montreal, noted for its parking hassles and intolerant drivers.
The train trip is as enjoyable as the destination itself — travel as it ought to be, spacious and comfortable, long enough for a good sleep and a good book, a time of relaxation and transition. And mercifully, you’re spared the humiliation of airport security — you take your shoes off to curl up for a snooze in your seat, not because some bureaucrats are afraid they might explode. Unfortunately, the dining car, that most cultivated facet of train-travel in bygone years, has been eliminated, so either bring your own picnic or be satisfied with the meager on-board snack service.
For the best view, pick a window seat on the same side of your compartment each way. Leaving Penn Station, the train snakes along the very edge of the Hudson River on the west for the 150 miles to Albany, affording spectacular views of the river and the palisades of New Jersey across it. North of Albany, it follows the bank of Lake Champlain on the east, another 120 miles of stunning beauty, with aquatic birds and other wildlife cavorting right outside your window.
Arriving at the Central Station in downtown Montreal just in time for dinner is like waking up from a dream — or falling into one. All the signs are in French and there’s French spoken all around you, but your English is still perfectly serviceable. In this almost completely bilingual town, you get all the charm of France with none of the linguistic embarrassment.
While hotel accommodations are comparable to major U.S. cities (more so now, as the value of the Canadian dollar surges), bargains abound. Mary Lynn found an elegantly-furnished two-bedroom condo right off busy Rue Sherbrooke for C$400 a week.
Museophiles both, our first destination the following morning was the Museum of Fine Arts on Rue Sherbrooke. Pressed for time, we reluctantly sidestepped its impressive permanent collection and zeroed in on the special exhibit, "Cuba! Art and History from 1868 to Today," which runs through June 8. Mounted in collaboration with the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes and the Fototeca de Cuba in Havana, it presents works and artists virtually unknown beyond the island. Cuba’s troubled social history, as well as its natural beauty and its once-famed nightlife, are evoked in over 400 pieces of painting, sculpture, and photography. The moderne art of the 1930’s and the agitprop works of the Castro era are particularly enlightening.
Halfway through the exhibit, amazed by these revelations, I blurted out, "It’s great to see things opening up between Cuba and America!" I reddened when I came to my senses: I was standing in free-breathing Canada, not in the repressed and repressive U.S.A.
Following that remarkable morning indoors, we decided on lunch outdoors. After the coldest, snowiest winter in 35 years, the weather had just begun to warm, and the hibernants emerged in dizzy joy to take the sun. On Rue Crescent, a couple blocks from the museum, is a splendid restaurant district with everything from Mexican to Moroccan; most of the establishments have a second floor for al-fresco dining, an arrangement far superior to the usual sidewalk, above the belching tailpipes of buses, great for people-watching below, and inaccessible to beggars, who are ubiquitous in this tolerant town. We selected Pino, an elegant Northern-Italian place on the corner of Rues Crescent and de Maisonneuve, where a huge bowl of mussels in a spicy wine sauce, with a mesclun salad and dessert, cost only C$10. Along with other diners, including a group of McGill students saying to hell with upcoming exams and ordering pitchers of sangria, we soaked up the sun and reviewed our favorite pieces from the Cuba show.
Thus fortified, we made our way to the Museum of Contemporary Art in the sparkling Center City for a very different and unexpected treat: a floor-full of bizarre installations by two young Canadian artists, Geoffrey Farmer of Vancouver and Yannick Pouliot of Quebec. Most intriguing were Farmer’s obsessive "The Last Two Million Years," for which he meticulously cut out and mounted on cardboard hundreds of pictures and sections of text from a book of the same name, a popular summary of human history published by Reader’s Digest in the 1970’s, and arranged them on platforms and inclines taking up a whole room; and Pouliot’s reflections on furniture — Louis XVI-style armchairs placed in a warren of narrow wallpapered corridors, and among other surrealistic living-room items, a set of chairs stuck together and upholstered atop their backs like a Conestoga wagon. Only in Canada.
The following morning, we visited the expansive Botanical Garden at the far end of Rue Sherbrooke, where, aside from a few prescient crocuses, spring had not yet sprung. The greenhouses made up for it though, with their stellar orchid and bonsai collections and a butterfly exhibit at its fluttering best. After a light lunch and brief nap in the refuge of the condo, we took the subway to the Old Town section on the St. Lawrence River, both quaint in its narrow medievalish alleys and overly tony in its fashion boutiques and upscale restaurants. There we met up with Elizabeth and her several friends, flush from exams, who took us to the nearby Chinatown district for a peppery round-robin dinner at one of its many hole-in-the-wall,and wholly satisfying, eateries.
Two days in Montreal, two days up and back: a quick trip to another world.