by Hugh Gilmore
If my doctor told me I had but one week to live, I doubt that I’d plan that week. I like keeping my options open. I like doing things when I feel like doing them. I don’t like hurrying through a park walk, for example, because we have a dinner reservation. Or hurrying through dinner because we have show tickets. And so, because my wife, Janet, and I tend to lollygag and improvise, our recent annual stay in Montreal was over before it ever really started. That’s okay. We had a great time as usual.
Urban vacations are a relatively new experience for us. In the early years of our life together I usually pushed for nature vacations so I could hike and bird-watch (A nice way of saying that I ran about like a madman, or crouched in a viewing blind for hours, trying to see a new bird for my birding life list.) But in 2001 we visited Montreal for the first time together, and we’ve returned there nearly every year since.
My wife’s role, is to plan what she’d like to see, and my role is to say “Uh hum.” As they say, back on the Chestnut Hill Island, “It’s all good, mon.” Especially when this charming equivalent of a trip to Europe is but an eight-hour drive away.
On this visit, Janet wanted to visit Shelley Miller, the sculptor I described last week, buy one of her photographs, and view Shelley Miller’s sculptural homage to the printed word – a nine-foot-tall wheel of books, called “Circulation.” Janet’s list also included the Fur Trapping Museum in the suburban town of Lachine, and the Museum of Laughter. And, of course, the annual wacky fest of Journée de la Lenteur (Slowness Day), celebrated always on the summer solstice, June 21 this year.
We saw Shelley Miller right away. Visited her downtown sculpture afterward. The Trapping Museum in Lachine felt too far to drive, so we didn’t go. (We were wrong. Friends hired a car and driver from their hotel, said it took 20 minutes, and that the museum was small but fascinating, especially since it’s part of the Historic Lachine Canal Works). Strike two: The Laughter Museum closed about two years ago. (Gotta be a punch line here somewhere.)
Can’t miss what you’ve never had, right? For the past six years we’ve stayed at the Auberge de La Fontaine, a charming bed-and-breakfast with a young and delightfully helpful staff, many of whom we’ve gotten to know over the years. This B & B, as its name implies, is situated across the street from la Parc Fontaine, one of the most enjoyable city parks in the world. We started going here during our Montreal Jazz Festival days, but we now time our visit to avoid that festival and catch “Slowness Day.”
La Journée de la Lenteur is still a small festival, takes all day to unwind, and probably draws about only a thousand people to its main events, between 5 and 10 p.m. You can walk from one to another at your own pace and whim, since they’re spread out through much of the west end of the park – tightrope walkers, group hugging exercises, laughter therapy workshops, “Your fate and health read through your feet,” 20,000 shish kebab skewers painted subtly different colors by one artist and arranged in a tight lawn pattern; a choral group singing Beatles songs, every flavor yoga you could ask for, free-spirited dance and movement exercise.
All very sweet, very good-vibe, filled with laughter and even some free food. People drink their own wine or beer, do cookouts, and loft enough free-floating cannabis smoke to get Lindbergh to France and back – all without a single fight, not even an angry word. Love it. this year I stayed after the crowds drifted off and listened to a group of excellent musicians who were jamming South American tunes under a park light. I stayed till near midnight. Not something I’d comfortably do back home in the City of Brotherly Love.
I know you’re thinking: Get to the books part, Hugh. What did you read? Good question. I decided to be a daredevil this year. I took nothing with me. First chance I could, I walked to the Reynaud-Bray bookstore on rue Saint Denis. They have a very limited selection of English-language books, but I figured the small number of choices would make me buy from necessity a type of book I don’t normally read. I chose, for its odd title: “A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian,” by Marina Lewycka (2005, Penguin, a novel). Lucky me. Fascinating characters, an intricate, surprising plot and quite humorous in a wise way.
I liked that book so much I hurried back mid-week and bought another book of a kind I don’t usually read: Dave Eggers’ “A Hologram for the King” (Vintage, 2013, another novel). Quite enjoyable. There’s a lot to be said for having limited choices. I doubt I’d ever have read those two books otherwise, and now they stay with me like memories of enjoyable meals.
And what else is to do when in Montreal, but walk? Our B & B is in the Mont Royal Plateau neighborhood. Whenever our family has down time, I excuse myself for an hour or two and walk. I pick a direction and go. “Gilmore’s rule of camera toting” always applies. If I take it, it merely weighs me down. If I don’t, I see the whole world as one gorgeous photo-op I’m missing out on. The neighborhoods are fascinating in this area. All row housing, mostly three-story, with metal staircases in front, some with balconies. The attractive variety that people can impose on their habitats amazes me always.
And when tired of walking: I head over to the east end of the park, where the athletic fields are, and sit to watch either beach volley ball or bocce (called “pétanque” up here). My favorite bowlers are the old men, who play with amazing accuracy on a rough, gravel surface. I don’t understand a word of their Québécoise banter, but their laughter and mutual ribbing translate universally into a good time.
On our last night in town we met two friends who were visiting Montreal for the first time on our recommendation, and had dinner with them at Toqué, the highest-rated restaurant in town. Absolutely delicious, but better yet was the kick of seeing old friends in new places and comparing stories of what we’d seen and done in our favorite city.
Hugh Gilmore’s best-selling book this summer has been “Scenes from a Bookshop,” based on true stories from when he ran an old-and-rare bookshop on Chestnut Hill Avenue. Available on Amazon and bookshops.