This is what you have to know: in winter in Quebec, Montréalers brave the streets; they don’t walk them distractedly as if the bitter cold was not biting at the cheeks and making alarming conductors of the metal buttons on a fella’s Levi jeans. No, you can’t be a flâneur in Montréal in winter unless you’re some sort of weird performance artist making a point of hibernal Canada.
And so, come spring, you stick your head out the window and read the salt marks on the street excitedly, as a cowboy might the signs of a subtle prairie trail. You see there’s moisture on the tarmac one day—and rejoice, smell the air. Then, by June, the windows are thrown fully open—summer’s here—and Montréalers, knowing just how short and in a hurry the season is, move outside and live extended lives on the city streets.
Sit on the wooden steps of those outdoor staircases, unique to the city and said by some to have been built that way so that the diocese’s once all-powerful Catholic priests could keep an eye on the goings-on between apartments. A lost game. For summer here is about love and joy and celebration—which is why the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal, and the “Just for Laughs” Comedy Festival that runs in the same month of July, are such hits.
You’ll want to know just where you are in this historic, charming city—where peering down just about any street or alleyway is an invitation to imagine how cool people live and the possibility of your own bohemian life. The patisserie at the corner, the bistro up the street. The North African coffee shop where groups of friends of all ethnicities do the newest thing to have arrived with the country’s constant waves of immigrants, and draw the smoke through bubbling hookah pipes amid the steady, genial chatter.
It’s easy, really. Look for the mountain and the cross. Downtown Montréal is built at a corner to it. Old Montréal and the port lie south of the mountain and the festivals and where you are, the Main—the Boulevard Saint Laurent—runs north and perpendicular to Sherbrooke, de Maisonneuve, Ste. Catherine and the busy avenues of what used to be a predominantly Anglophone downtown, but is no longer.
The Main is Montréal’s great artery, and along it are the vestiges of all the people that arrived and settled in this great city—the Jews, Italians, Greeks, a host of Asian peoples and now the Somalis, Serbians, Croats, Ethiopians, Russians and Vietnamese. Walk—as Montréalers do—up from Ste. Catherine and the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal and past the home of Just for Laughs and the microbreweries and restaurants.
Then it’s on to food shops and the nightclubs and the famous Schwartz’s Delicatessen, home of the world’s best smoked meat, and past the square where Leonard Cohen still keeps a house; and on to Marché Jean Talon and the market that is still the port of entry for all the summer produce that comes in from the Laurentian Mountains to the north. (The equally historic Atwater market provides the same agricultural cornucopia as the city’s southern end.) In summer here, for a short and blissful season, it is possible to forget the cloistered winter and live, in joyous headiness, outside.