*to Hanlon's razor: Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

Friday, 29 July 2011

Visiting Montréal, from Toronto, from Tokyo.

This is a follow-up to my re-impressions of Toronto, sadly as close to a home-city as I have, after I went to Montréal for a few days, which is where I spent five university years.  Talking about these cities, I mean the oldest parts of the city: within 5km of their city-halls.  Everything else is just a fucking suburb.
Toronto is an American city.  Torontonians aren't going to like to hear it, but there is nothing in Toronto you cannot find in a dozen American cities, including right-wing populism in the inner and outer 'burbs, no idea how to pursue 'city-building' and a focus on car traffic to the expense of anything intelligent.  I take that back: I should not slander American cities, many of which are fixing those things and passing Toronto by.

Montréal is called 'European', but it isn't: but it isn't American.  It isn't ROC ('rest of Canada').  Neither is it 'Québécois': it is what happened when Anglophones, Québécois, Natives and Allophones spend a few hundred years as the gateway to the interior of Canada, layering the palimpest.  A reason Toronto is boring is that the palimpest is thin.  When you say Montréal is 'European', you mean it is interesting, long inhabited and worth knowing.  Can you think of a novel where Toronto is a character?  New York, sure.  LA, if it is dystopian.  Montréal?  Yes, in both French and English.

This time out, I am going to look at Montréal in light of Toronto, but also of Tokyo.  "I will not get into the politics or planning, which most visitors are happily ignorant of."

- Montréal looks about as messy on the street as Toronto, but it does not stink of garbage as badly, probably because they do not collect the garbage on the curb.  The best thing is that the urbane areas of 'Atwater' through downtown, 'the old city', 'the Plateau' and 'Mile End' are contiguous, along with 'the Mountain'.  Toronto, no: a frustrating drive, dangerous bike ride, or unreliable streetcar ride.

- The streets are as poorly paved and full of parked cars as in Toronto, but there are more people on foot and on bicycles.  This, more to do with the fact that Montréal drivers are not as incapable and selfish, than with infrastructure.  However, most cyclists are riding very old bicycles, which leads me to think there is a theft problem, so nobody wants to invest in a newer bike. 

- I only took transit once, the Métro.  I had forgotten how dark the stations are, how rattletrap and narrow the cars.  I never used it for the daily commute, so I cannot say much.  And yet, the ticket takers gave us no help at all with our baby carriage, and  closed up the booth when I approached: similar to Toronto...

- It ain't Tokyo, but food is cheaper and less pretentious than in Toronto.  Plus you can get a decent freaking bagel.  The line to Schwartz's is too long to bother now.  The coffee in Montréal is not so much better, so much as more rarely poor.

- There is far more street life.  It is a city where people look alive to serendipity.  Nobody in Toronto makes new friends on the street, or in a bar: work, church or university is it.  The people I know who have moved to Toronto often complain about this; coming back from Tokyo I have made a few friends: 'friends of friends' who I knew from school...  In Toronto, you can tell everything about a person's character by their complexion, the way they dress, what they drive and where they are found.  These signifiers only take you so far in Montréal, because people are individuals.  In Toronto, even the 'inter-marriages' never deviate by class, education, wage or age.  I was uplifted by the odd-couples I saw in Montréal: guys with older women, younger Francophone women with older Jewish men, homely women with metrosexuals.  You just never could tell.  Makes you think they might be in love.

So yes, I regret leaving Montréal for Toronto at all.  It was a poorer, more linguistically divided, Montréal then, and you can never tell the future.  Alas.


  1. Before I visited Toronto I was quite interested in living there (someday). After this recent visit, I don't feel that way anymore.

    -The food, as you said, is terribly pretentious AND unhealthy. The amount of healthy options were slim.
    -The service, for the most part, is quite poor.
    -The streets, floors, public spaces et al. are littered and dirty.

    BUT, one thing that I did like though, was that "race" was not such a factor for establishing peer groups. A lot of people were intermixing. The biggest factor for establishing peer groups seemed to be body weight; people of the same weight (or body type) flock together.

  2. Very interesting last comment, and largely true... but not entirely. The objection to make is that such mixing is largely:
    - limited to downtown*
    - limited to university graduates
    - limited to people of similar income/class/status
    - limited to groups which do not include people of African/Caribbean, Native or Punjabi heritage, among others.
    It should also be said that people socialize more than they consummate, more than they marry and conceive together.

    *The suburbs are far more balkanized than the city: even if there are various groups on a single street, they have little interaction with people not 'their own'.

  3. Interesting takes! I like the Canadian focus, which seems ever so rare. We seem to be neglected and to neglect ourselves a bit in the global community. (Does that make sense?) Ever been further west?