May 5th, 2007


Rue St-Denis, Montréal, May 5, 2007, 3:00 pm.

A group of teenagers with dyed hair marches up the sidewalk carrying a huge banner emblazoned "BLOC POT". "Support cannabis!" one of them yells, to the applause of the others. As I sit at the Café Croissant de Lune, another group led by a man dressed like Fred Flintstone in a leopard-spotted furry outfit carrying a white plastic bone, marches several circles around the block, cheering and encouraging the passing motorists to honk their horns. I can't figure out what cause they're protesting.

My crêpe arrives, stuffed with apples and Swiss cheese, and it smells delicious. It comes with a little jug of maple syrup. I think it would be difficult to be vegan in this town. People float by on the sidewalk above me. Some are talking on cellphons, some are walking their bikes, and a few have ice cream cones. An old man reaches up behind his head and combs his hair en route. The people walking by speak English or French, but mostly French. I quietly imagine that I can tell from afar which language they are speaking just by watching the way their mouths move.

Montréal has a strong European flavour, not in the least because of the mix of languages. It certainly loves its food; I think the whole city has a sweet tooth. The sensible place to be on a sunny weekend afternoon is outside, relaxing on the terrace of a café like the one I'm sitting at now. Smoking is very common; it is astonishing that they were able to enact a ban on smoking in restaurants and bars here. Buildings are old. Road works appear completely disorganized. Streets have improbably complicated names like "Avenue de l'hôtel-de-ville" or "Chemin de la côte-des-neiges".

On the way home, I pass by the lobby of a government building where groups of old Chinese men are gathered around paper chessboards. They're playing Chinese chess — slapping the pieces down on the board, gesturing vigourously, and talking trash about each others' moves. As each player thinks about his next move, the spectators argue loudly about what he should do, pointing out places on the board, urging him on what move to make, sometimes even moving the pieces around.

I can think of a few people, including myself, who would be driven nuts by this kind of distraction while trying to actually play the game. I have to say, though, it's pretty amusing to watch them bickering when I'm not one of the players. The arguing takes place in a mixture of Cantonese, Mandarin, Taishan, and Québec French, with each person speaking in their own favourite dialect as if expecting everyone present to be quadralingual were the most natural thing in the world.