Le Familier et Le Nouveau
We woke up late, the black-out curtains betraying the actual time. I glanced out of our tenth-floor window, bleary-eyed. Since we had arrived so late the night before, we hadn’t really caught a clear glimpse of any of our surroundings — and I was spell-bound at what I could see. It felt new and old at the same time, slightly foreign but very comfortable.
It took us a while to get ready and get downstairs to check out. We lugged our bags to the valet to hang onto them for the day, and we wandered out into downtown. Our traveling companion, Esley, was due to arrive in the afternoon so we decided to meander south of the city center to just get our bearings and start to understand this new place.
Down Rue Saint-Antoine, to Rue du Square-Victoria, to Rue Sainte-Catherine — through the heart of downtown. As we walked, I read the French signage to myself quietly under my breath. “Sortie. Trottoir barré. Stationnement interdit.” They were instantly familiar from our time in France — but somehow different. I eavesdropped on passersby, trying to ascertain what they were talking about. Their French was, dare I say it, lazy? It was relaxed, informal, casual — something totally foreign to me. Every time I speak French in France, I get corrections — sometimes friendly, most often not. “Eau petillante? Non, ‘gazeuse.’” Here though, I could understand most of what was being spoken! C’est excitant!
We made it to COS on Rue Sainte-Catherine (yes, again), and then headed across the street to La Société for lunch. When we walked in, I had an instant flashback to our trip to France in 2015. We had a late dinner at a brasserie across from Gare Saint-Lazare in Paris with Nana (my grandmother) and our friend, Henri. It was called Mollard and was famous for its old-fashioned atmosphere — it was truly like stepping back into time. Walking into La Société was sort of like walking into Mollard, and it snapped me into France — Hôtel Costes on the stereo, velvet banquettes, Art-Deco mosaic floors, dark wood paneling, backlit stained glass ceilings. We eased into a banquette and sighed with satisfaction.
“Ça va bien?”
The waitress smiled at us, as we froze. My brain fired neuron after neuron across its synapses, finding the proper response in Japanese, Spanish and Chinese — but not French. Perhaps all of those stern waitresses in Paris made the French portion of my brain lock itself away.
“Ah, English. I was wondering if I had said something wrong!” She laughed and we laughed with her. We ordered steak tartare, a giant caesar salad to split and two Marrakesh mimosas (preserved lemon / orange juice / rosewater / prosecco) — slipping back into France one bite at a time.
After lunch, we headed down Rue Sainte-Catherine. We stopped at Hvmans, a new cafe just a few blocks down for iced almond milk matcha lattes.
One thing that struck me as we walked and explored was the absolute juxtaposition on nearly every block. There would be a gorgeous 1920s apartment building, complete with a shady courtyard and fountain — then a 1970s Brutalist tower with giant terraces and béton-brut slabs. Social housing straight from the banlieues of Paris would be right next to hundred-year-old townhouses. I loved it, intensely. It was a real city — gritty and beautiful at the same time. Depanneurs next to cozy restaurants, tiny bike repair shops next to giant supermarkets.
As we walked down Boulevard de Maisonneuve, our destination began to peek out from behind the other high-rises — its black glass and steel facade forming a floating shadow in the sky. We were headed to Westmount Square, a massive city-block development designed by Mies van der Rohe in 1967. Two office towers, two residential towers and a massive underground shopping mall — linked with the then-brand new Métro system.
It was the first Mies building I’ve ever seen, and I was entranced. As we wandered the deserted plaza, I took hundreds of photos and mentally paced off the nesting arrangement of grids. Plaza grid, column grid, facade grid, sub-facade grid, lighting grid. It is eternally elegant — a complex that feels incredibly new and modern to this day, 50 years after its construction. After exploring the entire plaza, we headed down into the shopping mall.
The mall itself has been extensively (and poorly) renovated — a 1980s monstrosity in an elegant Mies envelope. Wrought-iron chairs and chunky mauve cafe tables cluttered his perfectly arranged hallways, and Tuscan planters overflowed with pothos, water stains marking the pristine limestone floors. There are little shining moments left, though — the stairwells are perfectly designed, and we were obsessed with the Mies-designed benches at the entry. We loitered around one of the stairwells taking photos, which prompted a woman to walk over and peer down quizzically. She looked at us, puzzled.
“We’re designers. …We do this a lot.”
After measuring the Mies benches with our hands, we descended into the Metro to head back into downtown — and to meet up with Esley. We bought our Opus cards and walked through the turnstiles, heading northeast on the Green line towards Place-des-Arts. Once we boarded the train, I was once again transported to Paris. Down in the bowels of Montréal, everything is in French. Advertising, the stop announcements, all notices and maps — French, period. It forces you to pay a little more attention — you have to listen carefully to the scratchy speakers for the correct (and sometimes unintelligible) pronunciation of your stop.
After disembarking at Place-des-Arts, we got a text from Esley. “I’m on the bus to Lionel-Groulx? It was the one that was leaving when I got to the stop at the airport.” You can get to downtown via a meandering bus with a bunch of stops, or an express line straight to the Lionel-Groulx metro stop — and she had ended up on the latter. We checked the metro map and realized we were on the right line, just six stops in the wrong direction. We walked over the tracks, and hopped onto the next train.
Lionel-Groulx was a masterpiece of Brutalism — we had arrived fifteen minutes ahead of Esley, so we puttered around taking pictures. The lighting and signage was particularly interesting — we re-imagined it as a modular lighting system for homes. The above-ground skylight structures were truly beautiful — their pre-cast facades nestled amongst raised landmasses of lawn.
After our reunion with Esley, we headed back down to the metro — and into downtown to retrieve our bags at the InterContinental, then into the metro again to check into our AirBnB in the Plateau-Mont-Royal neighborhood.
This is where the city became really something new. We emerged from the Mont-Royal metro station, and walked the three blocks to our home for the weekend on Rue Saint-Hubert — past some of the most beautiful and interesting houses I’d ever seen. These townhouses were three to four floors, with elegant exterior staircases reaching to the upper floors. Stone, brick, concrete — all gorgeous. I kept nearly tripping on the uneven sidewalks, my face turned upwards in study. They were oddly familiar, but new all at once — somewhat like the townhouses in D.C. or Brooklyn, but somehow French.
We walked up to our AirBnb — one of the townhomes I’d been admiring. The staircase proved difficult with luggage, but I was still in love. Arranged like a shotgun house, it was massive — and the floors creaked as we moved in. We claimed our bedrooms, washed our faces and locked the door — back out to explore.
After a bit of Yelping, we decided on Le Majestique — a little spot on the main drag of Boulevard Saint-Laurent, perfect for happy hour snacks. As we walked, we took in the neighborhood. Grand old churches, hole-in-the-wall bars, neon-lit fast-food joints, community centers.
Le Majestique was perfect — we had a few pints of blonde ale with fries, pâte, and duck tartare. We caught up on Esley’s life — her job, life in D.C. après-Trump, stories of old friends. Esley is one of my favorite travel partners. It’s sometimes really hard to travel with friends — just ask me about France in 2015 — but every time we head somewhere with Esley, we have an absolute blast. She’s down for literally anything, no matter how weird or off-the-wall — and most importantly, she loves to eat as much as we do.
After Le Majestique, we decided to walk down Saint-Laurent until we found something else — a refreshing departure from my usual uber-planned itinerary. We walked and walked and walked — heading further east into downtown, as the sun was setting behind us.
We ended up by chance at Cadet, a little restaurant I had bookmarked before arriving — partially because the logo is a simple brushstroke of chartreuse, and nothing more. We ventured in and persuaded the hostess to lend us three reserved seats at the bar for an hour until the reservation holders showed up. The bartender was very sweet — “Til 8? Oh, you have plenty of time. Relax!”
We ordered the focaccia with spicy oil / the fingerling potatoes with chimichurri and mayo / the broccoli with spätzle, labneh and pistachio / the beef tartare with mushrooms and allegretto — and loved every bite. We drank a few more blonde ales and were out the door promptly at 19:50, stuffed and deliriously happy (and maybe a touch buzzed).
Back down Saint-Laurent, all the way to our cross-street — but we weren’t ready to call it a night yet. So we walked one more block to Bar Darling for a nightcap. We ducked inside, and were seated at a back table — it was slammed. The atmosphere was cozy — mismatched chairs, giant plants and the dim glow of the eccentric overhead lights made it a perfect last stop. We ordered cider sangria and settled in. One pitcher became two, and maybe a side of lemon-thyme olives… Time slowed and when we decided to leave, we’d spent almost two hours there.
As we left, Esley had a grin on her face. “…Dessert?” We knew we’d lose any argument to the contrary, but more importantly, it still didn’t feel right to head home yet. After a quick detour to a pharmacy for some turmeric capsules (I didn’t want to wake up unable to walk, thanks to the alcohol and sugar), we made our way to Cacao 70 on Avenue du Mont-Royal. It was packed, loud and bright — a buzzed person’s worst nightmare. But there was chocolate to be had, so we bravely soldiered on. A round of sugar-laden waffles later, we stumbled onto the dark street — and slowly made our way back to the apartment.
As we walked by dimly-lit dive bars and the darkened facades of the townhouses that lined the street, I felt strangely at home. I felt as though there was no better place I was supposed to be in that moment — walking towards our cozy home with two people I love dearly. The newness was still there, but the familiarity and the sense of warmth overruled any anxiety, leaving me drowsy and excited — ready to see more, and explore more.
“Bring on the new day,” I thought, gazing out into the darkened courtyard from our bed. The dim bulb of the lone light on the brick wall outside flickered against the reddening leaves of the vines, as if to acknowledge me.