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A lot of Gaul in Montréal

Years ago, after time away in rural Québec, I drove past the towering buildings of Montréal and kept going. Arriving in Québec City that same sunny morning, I was dazzled by the glistening charm of the political capital of the province, and stayed all day, putting off my scheduled drive across the border. Little did I realize then what I had missed in the cultural and economic capital of Québec, but I made up for it this summer while accompanying a group of students on a French study abroad trip in Montréal.

Why bother with these programs? While taking a required language course my first semester in college, with plans of becoming a bio-medical illustrator, suddenly something clicked about how untranslatable poetry in a foreign language really is. That led to the people who speak those languages and their cultures.

Ultimately, it is a privilege to accompany students as they learn in this kind of setting. It is heartening to watch youth walk, so to speak, in the words and ways of being of others. A dynamic foreign language program needs strong ties to partner institutions abroad and the people who can make textbook material come alive. I had heard that there would be plenty for students to do in Montréal, and then an email from the director of a solid summer immersion program crossed my screen.

We are called neighbors, given the quick flight. Yet Montreal offers a way of life different enough to make it worth exploring. The first pedestrian we encountered called out “Félicitations” (“Congratulations”) to another and greeted her with a French bise. “This is so cool!” exclaimed one of my students.

Half a block down the street from where we were staying, in the arts and entertainment district, we passed a jazz session; we would be back for many more, with four of the free concert stages nearby. Among those from the francophone jazz world which justified this as part of French immersion were Sophie Alour (France, saxophone), La Petite École du Jazz (Québec), Guy Bélanger (Québec, harmonica), Susie Arioli (Québec, singer), and Khaira Arby (Mali, feminist singer).

One of the activities arranged early on by UQÀM, our university partner, was audience participation at a taping of the TV talk show in French hosted by Pénélope McQuade at Radio-Canada, featuring representatives from the International Jazz, the Just for Laughs (Juste pour Rire,) and the African Nights (Nuits d’Afrique) Festivals.

My students, about to start intensive French classes, set out for Vieux-Montréal our first Sunday evening, and succeeded in tearing me away temporarily from the jazz. Old Montréal turned out to be a twenty-minute walk up Rue St.-Urbain, past the lively Rue St. Catherine and the Chinese quarter on De la Gauchetière Street. Suddenly, we were surrounded by riveting architecture, including Notre Dame Basilica, which features free concerts and a sound and light show.

Dusk drew us to the magical port, where we spotted the colorful Cirque du Soleil tent, then made our way up to the narrow streets filled with restaurants, including Rue St. Paul, decked with the work of artists. At the Place Jacques-Cartier, we discovered the area’s live animation, as well as shops offering poutine (fries, gravy and curds of cheese), maple taffy…and Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, again reminding us of proximity to New England. Just beyond, we stopped by the governor’s house (1705), Château Ramezay, and its lovely garden, as well as the stately Hôtel de Ville.

Two days later, we absorbed historical knowledge during our walking tour, but we did not regret the way we stumbled onto this romantic glimpse of what was once the New World; Jacques Cartier, Breton navigator, made his way here in 1535 by way of the St. Lawrence River. The following week, innocently crossing this same plaza, I bumped into the live taping of a Kathie Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb show. Besides their white dresses, poutine was spotlighted, as well as Montréal as the Paris of Canada (with a much better exchange rate right now, she adds, hastening to reassure of undying love of the Paris of France, worth every sou).

Besides tales of battles (the statues of French and British military heroes face off publicly), banks (the lavish Bank of Montréal) and French foundresses (St. Marguerite Bourgeoys established schools for Indian and French children, and eventually the Congregation of the Sisters of Notre-Dame; Jeanne Mance cared for the sick and established a hospital), we took in everyday sights. The local Québécois stop by the dépanneur (in French, someone who helps out of difficulty), a sort of 7-Eleven. We admired the exterior spiral staircases on three-storied row houses, a desired feature for saving space and maintaining private access. Nearby, cyclists zipped by the bicycle house and onto a path along one of the many beautiful parks of Montréal; the bixi system costs about $5.00 for 24 hours. Bikes are the main mode of transportation for 14% of cyclists on this fairly level island.

Still, there is no lack of breathtaking views and cityscapes. By the time we got to the “highest leaning tower”, aka the Olympic Park Tower, we passed it up to spend our last moments in places like the lovely Botanical Gardens, having already taken in the view from the top of Mont Royal by day and the 737 Club at night. A navette, or little bus, takes passengers up to the Oratoire St. Joseph, which offers a panoramic terrace view, and a boys’ choir on Sunday. Frère André, a humble and hard-working emigrant in a textile mill in New England until the Canadian Federation was formed in 1867, became a doorkeeper at the Collège Notre-Dame (high school), and was later credited with miraculous healings; he envisioned a chapel named for St. Joseph, patron saint of Canada. Construction of the Basilica began in 1924 near the Chapel; graffiti signatures cover his statue there. A complementary sort of spiritual experience, the multi-cultural tam-tam drums and dancing session, spontaneously erupts on Sunday afternoons at the base of Mont-Royal.

All of these sites are accessible by the metro/bus system. We also took public buses for daytrips to Ottawa (a little over two hours) and Québec City (about three hours), where we sampled tarte à l’érable, maple syrup pie, in the restaurant Aux Anciens Canadiens, where employees wear traditional dress and serve typical fare.

Back in Montréal, we made it to the stunning Jean Paul Gaultier exhibit at the Musée des Beaux-Arts and the fascinating film at the Musée d’archéologie et d’histoire. In the evening, we encountered costumed beings and giant puppet heads, as well as their antics, wrapped up in the gift of laughter. One weekend, it was possible to take a dip at the beach on Sainte-Hélène Island, and stop by the cultural festival at Jean-Drapeau Park, featuring among others, a Haitian concert taking place near the Biosphère, or the Geodesic American pavilion from Expo 67, now featuring exhibits on the environment. The Biodôme does the same with animals and a film talk.

When record heat swept across North America, reminiscent of the sub-Saharan countries represented, the African Nights concert opened with a parade, dancing and drums; that evening, the Côte d’Ivoire concert overflowed, and participants waved handkerchiefs to the music, with a cheer for the liberty and peace that engulfs and surpasses strife. Since spending a year in Africa as a Fulbright Scholar, I have missed the drums, and had very much anticipated hearing Oumou Sangaré from Mali sing on the last night of our stay. And like everyone else in Montréal, she delivered. But my thoughts turned to confirming airline tickets and to wrapping up, and so I left.

Yet Montréal is one of those places, I soon realized, that you don’t leave behind easily. First, because of the storms in Chicago that delayed us. Then, because of the culture, language and people you can’t forget. So until the next time,“je me souviens”, I remember…

Katie Madigan is Chair of the Dept. of Modern Languages at Rockhurst University in Kansas City. She teaches modern languages, literatures, culture and film, was a DAAD fellow for a year in Hamburg, Germany, and collaborated with writers on a volume of short stories depicting inspiring women, while teaching as a Fulbright Scholar in Dakar, Senegal. Her diary about this experience, Senegal Sojourn: Selections from One Teacher’s Journal, was published in 2010. She has been leading study abroad trips for students since 1983-84, when she assisted with a study abroad program in Montpellier, France and taught at the Université Paul-Valéry.

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