Saturday, April 19, 2008

Montreal notes from a broad

Cocoa Loco
It isn't often that one meets a brownie worth blogging about. But I encountered (and inhaled) just such a specimen on my quick introduction to Canada, via Montréal. Based on the photos and descriptions found in my Eat Shop Montreal, I made it a top priority to swing by Cocoa Locale. Come rain or shine. It ended up being a shockingly cold day, made all the more frigid by an icy and persistent precipitation. But I made it to Cocoa Locale in one wet piece, just before closing. My choices were an entire key lime pie or two slices of the much touted (per my pre-trip research) Valrhona spicy brownie. Being that it was my birthday weekend and I'd already had more sweets than was either healthy or warranted, I opted for the brownies in luau of the pie (Mais oui - that luau was for you, Jenny.) Oh man. Score. The taste, the texture. The spicy kick! Far more delicious than a brownie should be and gone before I was ready to stop savoring. You must go to Montréal and have one. You simply must.

Airport Encounters
As per usual, the airport proved the place to make the acquaintance of friendly strangers: A new mother and her happy daughter (the little girl of 6-months smiled so much that I smiled so much my cheeks cramped up!) on the way to Montréal; a Venezuelan mother taking the first plane trip of her life (well the second, technically, because she didn't arrive in Canada by osmosis) after visiting her grandchildren in Montréal, on her way back home via Toronto (where I met her). The new mom was Italian, born in Lucca, now living in Napa. Though she'd love to return to Europe sooner rather than later, her family and friends still in Italy assure her the best opportunities to be had remain Stateside. With so many people out of work and unable to afford homes (even those like her best friend, a lawyer), la vita isn't so dolce as it should be for many Italians (and Spaniards, and, and, and) per the move to the Euro, which has made the gap between rich and poor only the grander (or more grandiose). Just because the Euro is up and the Dollar down does not spell wealth and celebration for all those paid in the favored currency. On the contrary. People are struggling now as ever and perhaps even moreso. Unable to find work. Unable to afford property. And all the while the cost of basics like bread and milk and eggs rises. As for the mother from Venezuela, she attached herself to me immediately based first on the assumption that I must speak Spanish (Hablas español, sí? Pero usted es de México o de América Latina, sí? No? Negra? Qué?) and then out of sheer nueva-traveler fear and the fact that I can in fact speak Spanish. Kinda. Painfully poco though. Loco poco even (particularly after spending the last three months brushing up on the French I'd last studied as a student some 15 years ago; as for el español, it's been about 12 to 13 years). And her Venezuelan accent didn't help any. I may not be Mexican, but it is Mexican Spanish one learns in California schools (makes practical sense, ?) So I think the misunderstanding went both ways. I can't think of an example to use, but on words I knew that I knew, her pronunciation was vastly different from the Spanish I'd been taught. Reminds me of learning Spanish at UCLA and my mother asking, "What the hell am I paying them to teach you?" Being a Spanish teacher herself (and shame on the woman for not raising me bilingually, or trilingually; she also teaches French) she didn't understand the benefit of one's learning Spanish in California with an Argentinian pronunciation or dialect. It's true it was pretty useless given the circumstances, but it was fun and I did learn basic Spanish, in the end (I also didn't continue on with that particular professor.) Anyway, back to my lost in translation experience at the Toronto airport. Every time I tried to think of the Spanish I'd deliver a French-Italian-Spanglish fiction that only made sense to me and caused my new friend's brow to crinkle in confusion. I'd try again and eventually put together something loosely reminiscent of the desired language in that it finally made the vaguest of sense, I think, because she'd relax a little and Sí a lot. I got her on the plane and to her connecting flight in the end, and that's all that matters. Sí?

Cafe Culture
I found the cafe life in Montréal to be among the friendliest and most open anywhere. Though I was only in town for three full days, I felt like a fixture in an old haunt from the moment I set foot in Olive + Gourmando. On my first visit to this most delightful of cafes, just down the street from where I was staying, I met a New Yorker who has a flat in Old Montréal. My little piece of Europe, she called it. Our conversation threaded from travel, to reality TV, to the cost of living and the growing gap between rich and poor, to the economy in general, to bankruptcy, to art, and back to travel. Nicest New Yorker I've ever met. On my second visit to the same cafe the next day I met a native of Montréal. We chatted. We watched the passersby and took note of the impeccably chic clientele who glided in and out of the posh boutique across the street. Before I left she gave me her cell number, a few city tips, and invited (and treated) me to coffee (I had a hot chocolate, actually) the morning of my birthday at Cafe Olympico (another cafe with a very friendly, all-in-the-family feel) in Mile End. How nice was that?

Bilingual Bliss
Well before coming to Québec, I'd cooked up a romantic notion of it based on nothing more than the knowledge that both French and English are spoken here. Being something of a rudimentary Francophile, not nearly fluent in the language, there is a certain coolness and comfort factor in knowing that one can use either language and likely be understood (rather than laughed at, the way one's less than commanding grasp of French can sometimes be received in the environs of say, Paris.) My imagined Montréal did not disappoint, in this regard. It was wonderful. I'd been brushing up on my French for a month or three and it proved to be worth the effort. I could read signs and menus and descriptions of things with little difficulty. When people spoke to me directly I think I fared alright. But eavesdropping on conversations of two or more people proved fruitless. I blame the Québécois accent and dialect. Not the French one leans in school, but we'll come to that later. The Montréalaise woman I met at Olive + Gourmando who treated me to a birthday hot chocolate seemed to mirror my sentiment about the uniquely Franglais culture one finds only in Québec. She spent some time living in London and noted that, "I really missed the French." A marvelous Montréalais man I had the pleasure of talking with explained that, "Québec is a separate country, whether it is officially recognized or not." He pointed to the language for support; "How can you claim to know a place if you don't speak the language? I am modest enough to say that while I know something of English-speaking Canada, I do not know it. My English is okay, but it is not my first language." He makes a good point. Even if one knows or speaks some French, unless one also knows Québécois specifically, one can never truly know Québec.

Fun with Québécois
I studied up on my French, when I should have been learning to Speak Québec! I had no idea there are so many distinct and nuanced differences in everything from pronunciation to structure. I suppose I should have guessed as much; judging from how English is or can sound worlds apart within the U.S. itself or as compared to the various dialects of Mother England, Australia, etc.) Oh well. When I go back I'll have a native phrase or two to kick around like a local. Learning beaucoup from my souvenir copy of Speak Québec! by Daniel Kraus. If you can't find one at home, there'll be plenty for sale au Canada. It's a great little livre and one of the only English-Québécois (as opposed to French-Québécois) resources out there.

A few of my favorite entries:
  • An?- The Québécois equivalent of, Huh?
  • Atchoumer - To sneeze. From the onomatopoeia, "Atchoo!"
  • Avoir un face de boeuf - To be in a bad mood. Literally, to have a face of beef.
  • Avoir les baguettes en l'air - To gesticulate wildly.
  • Avoir juste le cul et les dents - 1. To have no personality. 2. To be extremely thin. Literally, to have just an ass and teeth.
  • Avoir le feu au cul - A rude expression meaning, to be furious. Literally, to have fire in one's ass.
  • Avoir du fun - To have fun, to have a good time.
  • Avoir vu neiger - To have experience. Literally, to have seen it snow before.
  • Baptême! - Shit! Literally, Baptism.
  • Chat sauvage - Chat is cat. Chat sauvage is raccoon. What a great way to describe a raccoon.
  • Être game - To be game, to be willing.
  • Faker - To fake, to pretend.
  • Flusher - To purge, to flush, to dump. Ils sortent plus ensemble, elle l'a flushé il ya a trois mois. They're not going out anymore, she dumped him three months ago.
  • Il n'y a pas de trouble! - No problem!
  • Kodak - Camera.
  • Kossé? - What is it? A condensation or deformation of the French, "Qu'est-ce que c'est?"
  • Oreilles de Christ - Fried pig ears.
  • Parlure - Slang.
  • Péter de la broue - To brag about one's abilities. Literally, to fart suds.
  • Pis - 1. And, next 2. "So?" 3. "What's new?" Pis toi? And you? Et pis? And so?
  • Quessé? - Another form of "What is it?" from the French, "Qu'est-ce que c'est?"
  • Questa? - What do you have? What's wrong? From the French, "Qu'est-ce que tu as?"
  • Shafter - To give someone the shaft.
  • Swinger - Nope. Not the noun. A verb. To party, to dance, to have a good time.
  • Tiguidou - Okey-dokey.
  • Tourlou - Toodleoo. Used as "goodbye".
  • Trippant(e) - Impressive, amazing.
  • Tripper - To dig something, to find something cool, to really like something.
  • Zozo - Idiotic, foolish.
Snow Pants
Is that a dog? No. OMG. It's a cat! I met a girl walking her cat on a little harness and a leash. The cat was stopping every few feet to window shop. Yes, to window shop. A long-haired orange beauty, "Mooshe" looked like a lion up close. A lion with snow pants. His fur was so long that it swayed and billowed in the breeze like a pair of pants one might sport in the dead of a snowy winter. Much like the snowy winter he was plodding through right then, on the streets of Montréal. His owner kindly gave me directions to the street I was seeking and she swooped him up and began to carry him. "He gets tired of walking sometimes. Especially today. We've been walking for nearly two hours." "How'd you train him to walk on a leash," I wondered aloud. "It's easy if you train them from when they're kittens. I've done it several times before." I would have never believed it if I hadn't seen it firsthand. And unfortunately you'll just have to take my word for it since I didn't snap a picture. Anyhow, something to remember for when and if I ever find myself on the market for kittens.

A special merci to Liz for turning me on to the term, snow pants. Parfait man. Parfait.

Mall Mania
Montréal boasts an underground city spanning some 19 miles of passageways with 11 subways, 2 railway stations, over 10,000 parking spaces, 37 movie theaters, and 18,000 businesses. Over 500,000 people traverse this subterranean city beneath the city each day. I don't know exactly how many malls they've got down there, but I can say that it's a whole bunch of them and that on a Saturday afternoon when it's raining ice outside, the mall situation below is absolute mayhem. I browsed a bookstore at street-level, exited the same store two floors down, and wandered through three distinct malls before deciding I was completely lost and that there were far too many people to enjoy myself. The first Metro sign I saw I bolted and made my way out of Hades shopping hell. It's a nice idea, but not my idea of fun. Something to see on your first trip to Montréal though. I'd never seen anything like it before (and hope never to see, again.)

If the dollar continues to dip and you find yourself craving a trip to Paris for the cafe culture, la langue, or l'architecture, hop on a plane to Montréal instead. Or Québec City. I'm told that Québec City's old town is far larger than that of Montréal with architecture that is even more quaint and charming and French-European. Québec City is also said to be more conservative and traditionally French. Many people there do not speak any English.

Airport Security and Other Jokes that Aren't Amusing
Why is it so difficult to uphold consistent security rules from airport to airport, or even in a single airport? I flew from San Francisco to Toronto with the same stupid little ladies' Coach pocketknife key chain that I've had on my keys for years. Meaning, it's flown with me to Hawaii, Los Angeles, and Europe multiple times post-9/11 without ever having been confiscated. Truth be told, I didn't even know there was a legitimate blade on the damn thing. When the security person at Toronto showed it to me, I was genuinely shocked, but pointed out that one would be hard-pressed to do any real cutting with the pathetic-looking thing. Scissors and nail file in the event of an emergency is all I'd ever used it for. It was a gift. Would I like to check it for C$7 or lose it? I'm going to miss my flight. Happy birthday. It's my birthday, but keep it. It's yours now lady. The two gentlemen behind me weren't quite so curt with their security situation. A special lighter that they'd specifically been told could be brought on the plane no more than 10 seconds earlier by another security type was now an issue. "You should have checked with the rest of your baggage, sir. I don't care what that woman told you. She's wrong. Check it for C$7 or lose it. Your choice." Being that they were also about to miss their connecting flight, they opted for a loss. But not after losing it with the security guard pretty heatedly (though briefly), first.

Sí, nevando.
On the way home, waiting for my flight from Montréal to Toronto, it started snowing pretty convincingly. "Nevando?" I asked my friend from Venezuela. "Sí, nevando." I don't know how I remembered the Spanish for that. Thought it was one of my muddled, made-up words.

Extreme Passenger
I don't know the how's and why's of it, but I'm continually blessed with making the acquaintance of nice (if not plain interesting) folks when I fly. The flight home didn't pan out any different. Though this was certainly one of the more interesting people I've met on a plane. Extremely interesting. A fellow "mutt" (with a far more interesting mix; thought his last name was Portuguese but he said no, Spanish-East Indian and that his roots are a melange of French-Egyptian, Spanish-East Indian, Caribbean-Canadian, and who knows what all else) and self-proclaimed "extreme traveler", the man in the middle (I had the window) had gone sky-diving, bungie-jumping, mountain-climbing; you name it. Next on his list? Swimming with sharks and night-diving. No joke. He was dead serious. Anything sporty and dangerous, he's all about it. Sharks or scuba-diving in the dark. Hmmm. I can't decide which is more terrifying or insane, or both. What a nice guy though. Offered to show me around Toronto if I ever get out there for a visit. Total sweetheart. Assuming he hasn't had an extreme accident of some kind (which wouldn't be a shocker), I look forward to the (terror-free) tour.

On est Back
In Québécois, rather than using the typical French nous form for we, the on form is used with verbs and conjugations. Thus, "On est Back" rather than "Nous sommes Back". The use of the English word "back" is très Québécois. According to my copy of Speak Québec!, English words are folded in with the French to enhance an idea or to express an extreme. And now, I leave you with some Québécois hip-hop. Note, I didn't say it was good. But it's what's popular at the moment, unfortunately. Perhaps when je suis (pronounced "chwee" in Québécois) back one day, something a little more flavorable will be in fashion.

Questions? Ask away! Please use the comments feature to ask questions rather than contacting Marisa directly. That way everyone can learn a thing or two, too.


  1. Thanks for sharing your Montreal travel adventures. It's such a lovely city, and the food!! Yum!

  2. Thanks for checking it out! I'm very much missing the food right about now ...

  3. ... those brownies. Specifically.

  4. Thanks for checking out my blog and for your comment! You cover a lot of ground in your blog and add good photos to keep people interested, nice work!

    As far as money... im using far less cause it included flight and rail passes. Maybe getting a loan. Ha.

    Take care!

  5. Thanks for surfing over to mine, too. Are you an iStocker? If not, you should consider it. Your travel pictures could make you an extra buck or two while you're away. Or when you're back (too). I'm an iStocker and I love it. My handle there is also "risamay" and my home on their range is if you're curious. Tons of (paid) fun. Great creative community and outlet. And a place to learn (especially for the self-taught artist type).



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