A group hug on a slow day in Montreal.

by Hugh Gilmore

MONTREAL – We tried counting at dinner last night and we think this is our eighth trip to this lovely city since 2001. We took Amtrak the first two times, hoping that an effortless ride and the chance to read en route would be a swell thing to do, but it wasn’t.

As the old Borscht Belt joke goes, the food was awful and the portions were too small. Most of the conductors were rude. And the ride, which is scheduled as a 12-hour jaunt, usually takes 14 hours or more. One return leg took 20 hours when the engine broke and the crew treated the situation as unprecedented. So now we drive.

When we did take the train we stayed at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel, largely because the train terminus is beneath the hotel. Just hoist those bags and escalator yourself into the hotel’s grand and classy lobby. Tres cool. Besides, John Lennon and Yoko Ono once held a “bed-in” protest against the war in Vietnam there in 1969. And in room 1742 John composed “Give Peace a Chance.” You can rent the room yourself now as a special guest suite.

Two stays at the hotel were enough, though. Center-city vacations are not our style, though we were easily able to walk to most of the attractions, including the Jazz Festival that we wanted to see.

After poking around on the Internet, looking for a B&B, we lucked into finding a small, charming place we really enjoy. By our reckoning, our current stay is our sixth at the Auberge de Parc Fontaine. The rates are reasonable – though not cheap – the staff is friendly, and a continental breakfast is provided. What’s more, the kitchen is available all day and it’s possible to duck in and make up a small plate of fruit and cheese (and a cookie) at any time.

Those features are nice, but a major pleasure of staying here week comes from living in a neighborhood – the Plateau de Mont-Royal – where 99 percent of the people we see or meet every day are residents and not fellow tourists.

One edge of our block provides the greatest delight of all: le Parc Fontaine. This city-designed, 40-hectare (about 98 acres) park contains two linked ponds, a waterfall, a fountain, bicycle paths, playing fields, playgrounds, grassy slopes for picnicking, an outdoor theater, a cafe/catering hall, splendid overlooks and miles of intertwined walking paths.

From sunrise to near midnight, the park is used by thousands of people every day. Many come there to sun. Some pitch day tents. Others cook. Many people have beer or wine with their picnic spreads. On some days you can’t walk 50 steps without hearing another small group of musicians playing.

Sometimes there are planned events, but of such a whimsical nature you suspect they’re like flash events. Last Thursday, the summer solstice, was given over to “La Journée de la Lenteur.” (Slow Day, i.e., slow down, take it easy.) The schedule was posted on trees and poles all over the park. We walked over. Leisurely.

Picnics everywhere. Tents pitched. Art installations punctuated the landscape. Tightrope walkers had strung their wires between trees. Next to them a photographer was slowly and carefully arranging volunteer strangers for a big group hug portrait he would take.
Nearby, a group of about 20 people were engaged in laughter yoga. That was hard to peel away from, but we moseyed over to the central oval to listen to a choral group. This gathering place seemed like an auditioning zone for a human Noah’s Ark. People of every description stood or danced, enjoying the day.

The chorus, all white Canadians, was singing the American Negro spiritual “Go Down Moses” with such corny conviction it was quite moving. As the crowd cheerfully applauded them, they segued into one of those Brazilian songs without words, just: La la la la la la la la … to a samba beat.

Everyone in the oval was singing, smiling, feeling good. A couple of long-haired female flower children in tie-dye dresses and bare feet, carrying cherubically chubby babies, danced to the music – everyone was nodding and tapping. The not-so-vague smell of grass came wafting in, sent right from Central Casting.

Janet turned and said to me, “Well, we didn’t miss Haight-Ashbury after all.” It reminded me of the original “Be-in” on Belmont Plateau in Fairmount Park years ago. And the first Earth Day celebration in downtown Philadelphia back in 1970.

Our son, Andrew, is here with us again this year. We three always go into the park at twilight and seek a particular bench where a small group of very good musicians work out together. Their leader is a Peruvian man who plays a small guitar and sings softly in Spanish, accompanied by whoever has come out that night. Sometimes it’s Marie-Eve, a friendly redhead who plays a small harp, together with a percussionist who always has at least three different kinds of hand drums.

Last night the Peruvian man was joined by a different rhythm man, another fellow with a mandolin, a young female violinist, and a young Russian man who played what I think was a pocket trumpet. After feeling one another out for a bit they joined together to play “O Sole Mio.”

Boy, I thought I knew that song, but the experience of hearing it played in near darkness – just a faint street lamp showing the musicians’ outlines – was beautiful. The sweet, haunting lines of the melody lifted gently into the cool night air. I was moved to that point where you just want to sigh and vow to remember the joy of listening to this impromptu group forever

As we listened, people walked or rode or jogged by, going through the paces of their lives as though accompanied by the soundtrack of a documentary movie that shows how sweet life can be. I love being in that park. Being there is worth more than any kind of paid entertainment I could imagine. I actually feel a bit wistful on nights when rain keeps everyone away, or when my favorite performers have not come out.

Coming from Philadelphia, where one must walk, even in Chestnut Hill, with street smarts, it is such a relief to walk through this park – even at night – and feel safe. I never see bands of young men down from another neighborhood, looking to get drunk and smash the heads of other young men. No one is screaming. No one is breaking anything. And (dare I say it) all dogs are on leashes. You have the feeling that probably no one is carrying a gun. Escaping Philadelphia’s predators, even for a few days, feels like a vacation unto itself.

Hugh’s back today and selling his well-regarded “Scenes from a Bookshop” through leading bookshops everywhere and on Amazon.com.

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