A trio of musicians photographed by the author 10 years ago.

by Hugh Gilmore

Part one. Why we go to Montreal every year: My wife’s a Francophile and speaks French well. I’m good at tagging along. Starting in 2000, we first used to stay in the Queen Elizabeth Hotel downtown. After a few years, however, we had seen enough of the museums, shops, quaint “Old-City” attractions, and even the Jazz Festival. In 2006 we found a nice B&B in a residential neighborhood out in the “Plateau,” and we’ve stayed there every year since. Our tourism now focuses on getting to know the lifestyles of the everyday people we meet.

The B&B, Auberge de la Fontaine, is across the street from the Parc Fontaine, a huge and beautiful city park. On the day of our first arrival, before I even unpacked after the eight-hour drive, I walked across the street to the park. I felt an affection for that place at first sight that has never diminished. Safe, clean, beautifully designed, the park is built to entice one to enter and walk and walk and walk, as though there’s something wonderful to be discovered just around each bend.

Which is what happened, almost at once that first day. I came upon an area where people were doing movement workshops and yoga exercises and laughter circles and playing music out in the open air. Many of them were arty-looking. Some of the women were barefooted and wore what used to be called “hippie” dresses. Everyone was relaxed and having a good time. I walked into a public circle that was the focal point of that area and sat down on a low wall to watch. The people seemed very silly to me, but nice. I felt I had stepped back into the sweetest part of the 1960s. Is the park like this every day? I wondered.

No, it turned out – just good luck. I’d arrived at the tail end of what is called “la Journée de la Lenteur” (Slowness Day) in Montreal. Slow down, the movement says, take your time, take it easy. Its symbol is the snail. The enemy: the clock. The closest American phrase might be “Stop and smell the roses.” This festival is run every year on the day of the summer solstice, usually June 20 or 21, the longest day of the year. A musical concert was about to begin, so I hurried back to the hotel to tell my wife, Janet, and son Andrew.

We returned in time to hear a dozen singers billed as “The Smoking Choir.” They stood beneath the statue of Félix Leclerc, a Quebec writer and champion of Canadian French independence, in the big enwalled circle where public events are held. Without amplifying or otherwise raising their voices, they began singing and within two songs quieted the crowd, a mesmerizing instance of the power of the gentle human voice.

The sun slowly set on the longest day of the year with the choir singing Cole Porter’s “Every Time We Say Goodbye.” It was a lovely arrangement of the tune – and the place, the city, and the world. We ambled contentedly back to the Auberge.

For a while. The experience had left me restless. After dinner and unpacking, I felt distracted. I wasn’t ready to settle in yet. I don’t want to sound corny and say the park was “calling” to me, but I started feeling an almost compulsive desire to go back in there. None of my family wanted to go, so I excused myself, crossed the street and reentered the park at night – something I’d never feel safe doing alone back home. Paved walkways, lined by old-fashioned globe-topped lamps lit the way. I felt myself relaxing, enjoying the soft night air and then, for some reason, began following my ears – low voices, joggers padding by, laughter, the splash of a fountain not far away. And then I heard music and I walked towards it.

On a bench under a streetlamp a trio of musicians held sway against the closing of the day by playing a soft, gently rhythmic South American song. One man wore a crushed felt hat Andean-style and played a small guitar, another with short-cut salt-and-pepper hair sat on a folding seat patting a drum, and between the two sat a red-haired woman wrapped in a thick loose scarf strumming a Celtic harp. They looked like a vision – such an image to happen on when walking alone at night! Who were they? They were excellent musicians and their song was beautiful and played with feeling, as though they were all held sway by some soft exotic spirit.

Would they mind if I stayed and listened? I couldn’t tell. Never mind, I sat down a respectful two benches away and tried to make myself invisible, just two ears and a welcoming soul, on a bench in the dark, listening to strangers make music against the darkness.

My life would change for having done that.

Continued next week.