About a decade ago, a friend handed me a DVD of a Canadian gay movie, ‘Mambo Italiano’, charting the adventures of a young gay Italian man trying to break tradition in his stereotypical first-generation dysfunctional family and migrant community in Montreal, Quebec. I have to admit that before watching this movie, Canada’s second largest city wasn’t ever really on my radar.
My perception of Montreal was quite well summed up in the opening scenes of the film, where the hero’s parents told their story of how they came to the city. “Nobody told us there was two Americas, the real one, United States and the fake one, Canada. Then to make matters even worse, there are two Canadas, the real one, Ontario and the fake one, Quebec.”
In my mind before watching the movie, there wasn’t really much of a reason to visit Montreal; it was a city that I only knew as it once hosted the Olympics and because the British media so vehemently and negatively portrayed it as the Queen-bashing, Frenchy part of North America. And then there was of course Celine Dion. Take from this what you must.
But the movie did succeed, beneath its gay storyline, to paint a charming impression of Montreal for me. Set in the romantic ‘Petite Italie’ district, the movie gave some great snapshots of the city: a place where despite being urban, neighbours still smiled and greeted each other, families hung-out in the summer sun on their verandahs or tended their garden allotments, and kids skipped through the streets, whilst teenagers played hockey in its back-alleys. Montreal seemed like a laid-back, village like, cycle-friendly, coffee-cultured, foodie-frenzied, cultural melting pot. And what more, the city had an “Omosessuale Village”. (Mamma: “An Omosessuale village?” / Papa: “On Sainte-Catherine Street between Beaudry and Papineau.” / M: “How come you know so much about this village?” / P: “I know a lot more than you think. But what, you gonna call me a homosexual now?” / M: “He’s got to get it from somebody!). LOL.
So fast forward ten years (yes, it took me that long) and I found myself in the aforementioned village, for the very first time, stood beneath a sea of pink balls, an installation spanning across the street for the entire length of Montreal’s “Le Village”; all 2km of it, apparently the largest dedicated gay village in North America, possibly the world.
The main drag, Rue Saint Catherine, is completely pedestrianised between May and September. A few years back, in an effort to create much more of an event and a centre for tourism in the warm summer days, they closed off the streets to traffic. Traders were up in arms, militantly protesting the City council at how this would kill their trade – but what they actually noticed was in fact the very opposite and their revenues skyrocketed as the village became much more of a destination. Now these very businesses spill onto the streets themselves, with terraces and outdoor seating to people watch. It’s as if it’s gay Pride all summer-long, with a really intimate, community vibe to it all.
At one end is the Place Emile-Gamelin, the site of the Fierte! Montreal LGBTQI celebrations, the usual park-party setup of stage and tents. And the Village is lively and buzzing, people from all over Canada and the world have descended on this strip and its restaurants, bars and shops are heaving. As dusk breaks, it becomes the playground to the city’s diverse gay population and its throngs of visitors. Montreal’s gay institutions are all here, you know them, the ones littered in every gay guide you can find on the city: Stock, Campus, Le Stud, Sky, Unity and Stereo among many others. Between them, I found fantastic restaurants and shops to graze and browse til my heart’s content.
Sadly, there’s not much uniquely special about the gay scene in Montreal. To be honest, I was expecting a little bit more of a romanticised Parisian Marais type feel, or even (cringe) some Euro-disco-pop to give it that somewhat French accent. But alas, the Montreal gay scene is quite distinctively North American. Don’t get me wrong, I still had a blast. I also know that I can’t be expecting the edge and variety of say London or New York, but perhaps it could’ve been more like San Francisco or Melbourne; but I think it’s a shame that there is a ubiquitous, ‘lowest-common-denominator’, gay party formula in place. And where some have tried to push the boundaries, it lacks in confidence. The “Folsom Cocktail” tent at Fierte! was a little tame, less leather, more plastic-bag; and even the Bear party (you’d think if there is anywhere in the world that can do Bear, it’ll be Canada) was like just another night at the bear-bar.
But what it lacked in edge, it definitely made up for in charm. Montreal Quebecois are charming, no doubt about it. You could be in a dance club packed to the rafters and the drag-queen bar-whore will buy you a shot. Locals will turn to you and strike up a conversation, albeit initially in French. They’d tell you about their distant relative in England and give you insiders’ tips on where to hang out. There is definitely a sense of pride for their city, and it’s delivered with a non-stuck-up, laid-back and genuinely interested, “laissez faire” attitude. Fierte, for real.
And charming is how I’d describe the whole Fierte! celebration. It’s all done with a genuine sense of community. The parade was simple, small and uncrowded, inclusive and involving. There was the usual mix of true fabulousness and OMG-WTF? There was a seminal moment where the entire parade came to a standstill to observe a minute of silence. Simple, yet powerful. To close, Montrealers took to the Place Emile-Gamelin for the tea-party, the finale to its weekend of Pride. Again simple, community-spirited and powerful. Kudos to the people behind it all, Jean Francois-Perrier and Lynn Habel; and the people involved that I got to meet – including grand-marshal Gilbert Baker, the man behind the rainbow flag and a true darling John Banks, so dapper in his dazzling ruby Fleur de Lis, a founder of the first Montreal Pride and what came as a surprise, right-hand-diva to Marlene Dietrich for 12 years. (That story, coming soon!)
But there’s a lot more to Montreal than the gay scene – it’s an amazing city to amble in, especially in the long summer days. As you’ll know, I’m not the greatest guidebook sight-seer, I much prefer to go local. And I found everything I had originally pictured about Montreal from Mambo Italiano, even walking right into a street-hockey game.
The old town is majestic, a collision of history, but also very touristy. But go off the beaten track and you’ll find some gems. Check out the Pierre du Calvet Hotel, built in 1725. Drop by and say hello to the parrots in the lobby. They’ll greet you back. Then drop in at Bonsecours Market, the city’s original food market. Alas it’s now all about the designer boutique, but check out the maple stall for a truly sweet Canadian experience.
Wander round local neighbourhoods and drop in to local businesses, don’t miss La Maison Cakao on Fabre Rue. And New York bagelmeisters eat your heart out, wait til you try a fresh St Viateur bagel, only in Montreal, with a fantastic history to boot. The inside track is, the Moreno brothers are soon to release a Poutine Bagel, you can’t get more Montreal than that. Poutine (said like the Russian tyrant President and not like the French swear word) is another local delicacy of fries, cheese curd and brown gravy, great for a post-Village party pick-me-up.
If that’s too heavy, graze a Vietnamese ‘Buhn’ from a hole-in-the-wall at what is quite possibly the world’s smallest Chinatown. It’s so very quaint.
If you are a true blue foodie, Montreal’s fresh markets are not to be missed. Jean Talon and Atwater will have your mouths watering or push your appetite limits. But you can work off some of that food on your Bixi, Montreal’s cheap public bike scheme now rolled out to the rest of the world. Just don’t do it drunk. I’m speaking here from experience.
Window shop the zhi-zhi Outremont or the 20th century vintage shops in Plateau Mont Royale. Avid vintagers can also traverse the Boulevard St Laurent all the way to Mile End. And whilst you’re on the BSL, check out the mothership of North American street-art, just Northwest of Sherbrooke. The canvasses here will blow you away. Rest your bicycle pedaling legs on the chilled-out Rue Prince Arthur, the perfect spot for a Glace or Sorbet. Canadian Maple of course.
However, true hipsters will now tell you that this is all passe. I followed in the footsteps of Montreal’s coolest and headed out to Ho-Ma. Yes, you heard right. HO-MA. Short for Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, once a completely separate town, now engulfed into greater Montreal – the new habitat of the arty gays with beards and skinny jeans. But you can’t deny it, they certainly know where to hang. Another hipster tip is the infamous Piknic Electronic at Parc Jean-Drapeau, every Sunday from yes, you guessed it May to September.
So, whilst Montreal is ‘fierte’, is Montreal “Fierce”!? I guess it depends how you define the word. Montreal is not a big, edgy, hipster city, but it certainly oozes charm in abundance. And I have to say – I really liked it.
Uwern flew Air Canada.