Places to Go: Montreal destroyed my liver, broke my heart and gave me hope

The first time I visited Montreal was in the dead of January. I still remember the pilot cheerfully announcing that a blizzard was inbound as the plane bounced along the tarmac. Seasoned passengers around me pulled impossibly massive jackets out of their carry-ons as they gathered their luggage. The frozen air hurt my weak West coast lungs, and within a few hours my face was a bright, painful red.

But Montrealers are impossibly, almost hilariously tough. Every bar was packed and every high street filled with crowds. Joggers easily climbed the ‘mountain’ at the city’s heart dressed in only the bare essentials. I had never been to a Canadian city that seemed so alive in every way.

Naturally, I couldn’t wait to go back.

Montreal in the summer is a different deal. There’s no more snow covering the bright murals along St. Dominique in the city’s Plateau and Mile End neighbourhoods, which now shine in the hot sun. The city’s stunning Musée des Beaux Arts and its countless exhibits are packed with crowds, tourists and locals alike. The bars are crowded, but there’s not a line-up in sight.

Montrealers laugh and chat on patios and in cafés, and throngs of students share bottles of cheap wine in Parc Jeanne-Mance — a quiet luxury that any self-respecting Vancouverite envies.

The people, too, are something else. I’ll confess right now that I stayed with McGill students, who are far from an effective barometer of la vie Montrealaise. But once I picked up on the habit of switching rapidly between English and French in a rapid dance of franglais, I was able to trick most residents into thinking I was bilingual — or at least Belgian.

Every person I met, Quebecers and transplants alike, seemed to be in a bizarrely good mood. Maybe that’s just my West coast malaise showing. Before arriving here, I’d spent a summer working two jobs and fielding summer school classes, and the burnout had seeped into my clothes and skin like my province’s smoke storm.

But a friend of mine has a theory about it. The constant threat of the cold in this city makes the summer just that much better. The possibility of a blizzard or a hurricane makes staying out until 4 a.m. or visiting a museum or getting a coffee with friends less a privilege and more a desperate but effective rebellion against the hard-ass despot that is winter.

I joined in. My five days in town were a blur of tipsy conversations, picnics in parks and long days spent wandering the city’s eastern neighbourhoods and quiet galleries, with nights spent walking along St. Laurent and making last-minute runs to the depanneur.

On my last day, two friends who I hadn’t seen in a long, long time climbed the ‘mountain’ with me in a haze of heat. Looking over the city, where a mural of Leonard Cohen stared right back at me, I wondered if I could ever live here.

Four years ago, I came incredibly close to coming here for university. Sipping on an espresso in a café along Avenue Mont-Royal and watching the throngs of Montrealers wander past, I couldn’t help but think this could have been my life.

But things happen for a reason, right? I have no illusions about this place. Living in Montreal is a lot tougher than my little vacation could ever show me. But knowing this place is here, a little pocket of crazy life that persists no matter the season, makes me feel that much better. I left this city happy that I came here at a point of my life when I can still enjoy it, before the winter comes.