Montreal, Still Delightful 50 Years Later


Splendid new condos line the formerly industrial Lachine Canal

On Sunday, October 22, by sheer luck I snagged a standby seat on an 80-minute Air Canada nonstop (several hours faster than a connection through New York) from Washington to Montreal – the flight was 45 minutes late, and they rebooked passengers that had tight connections, thus freeing up a chair for me.  As we descended toward Montreal, I looked down on a fascinating rural landscape of varied texture and color, and was reminded of a wonderful thought from Captain Mark Vonhoenacker’s 2015 book Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot:

Looking down in godlike remove from 30,000 feet on the ice sheet of Greenland or the jungles of New Guinea has since lost some of its ability to startle and become as routine as that Earthrise photograph. We now doze through the marvelous . . . flying on a commercial airliner — even while painfully folded into a seat in coach — can lift the soul and inspire an awareness of the wonderfully improbable, of the state of “in-betweenness” in which air travelers routinely hover.

The joy of flight will, for me, never lose its ability to startle, nor become routine:


Look at all the texture: maple trees in full color, harvested and green fields, and the distinctive “long lot” method of land division that the French brought to the New World, originally to give farmers easier access to Quebec’s rivers.

Montreal Airport was empty, and in no time I was through immigration and customs and onto the local transit authority (STM) express bus, route 747, into downtown.  We detoured off the freeway and onto clogged local routes – traffic is often really, really bad in Montreal.  But I was in my customary digs, a suite on the top floor of McGill University student housing, by 2:45, and out the door – almost by formula – for lunch at a nearby Korean-family-run place, Kantapia.  I was seriously hungry and slurped a spicy noodle soup in no time, then walked across Rue Sherbrooke and onto a bike from Bixi, the city’s bikeshare network (the rental transaction is done from a smartphone app).   Many times that afternoon and over the next two days I said aloud “Montreal 50,” shorthand for the fact that my first visit there was a half-century earlier when (as I have written many times in these pages) two 15-year-old pals and I visited the big world’s fair, expo67.  I said “So lucky” almost as often as I said “Montreal 50.”


Kimchee at Kantapia

I pedaled west on the lane-separated bikeway on busy De Maisonneuve Blvd., a familiar route, through downtown and into the old and affluent neighborhood of Westmount, then beyond to Westminster.  Enroute, a Tesla passed me; a nice way to drive, given that virtually every kilowatt of electricity produced in Quebec is made from falling water.  It was unseasonably warm, and sunny, and the maples and oaks were in full color.  Took a short nap and at six hopped on Bixi and rode a mile to the Latin Quarter for some microbrews and a light “Oktoberfest” dinner of venison sausage on red cabbage, pretzel on the side.


The “Superhospital”: McGill University Health Centre, west of downtown


The local economy is clearly strong, judging by new construction as well as sympathetic redevelopment of stately old houses like this one on Sherbrooke.


Dawn from my hotel room


McGill University continues to have budget woes, but has significantly improved public spaces on campus, including a lot of great sculpture; note the wolf behind the red swimmer

Monday morning, again by formula, breakfast at the Tim Horton’s across from my destination, McGill University.  Ambled around the campus, then up the hill to give an annual lecture at the law school’s Institute of Air and Space Law.  Some fairly heated discussion during question time, which was a lot of fun!  Walking downhill on Rue Peel I caught a familiar face out of the corner of my eye, Prof. Mary Dellar, my longtime host at McGill’s B-school.  Like a small town!  We yakked a bit (unlike many autumns, I was not teaching in any of her classes), and I peeled off to meet a newer B-school host, Bob Mackalski, for lunch.

Bob is one of the most interesting people I’ve met in recent years.  An entrepreneur turned academic (not a common sequence!), he’s got a very fertile mind.  After catching up on job and family, we turned to politics.  We lamented the lack of vision among politicians, even the better ones north of the border.  “Canada should be the land fairness AND prosperity, a place that fosters social mobility . . . to me that means the population needs access to health care, access to educational opportunities – schooling and libraries – and a place that feels safe.  But the vision needs to be coupled with a matching of capital and talent, which to me means sensible taxation to reward risk-taking and entrepreneurship.”  Whew, works for me.  He riffed a little on access to education as a vehicle for social mobility: “That means more competition among bright people – smart people of all social classes, not just the well-to-do.”  I wish I lived next door to him.

I worked a bit, then walked back uphill to the law school for an informal seminar on careers in airlines and aviation; students were from the U.S. (an Air Force major), India, Finland, France, Taiwan, and Germany.  Global.  The Institute’s new director, Brian Havel, arrived midway, and we had a brief yak afterwards.  Would have chatted more, but was due to meet Edie Austin of the Montreal Gazette at five.  Edie’s an op-ed editor for the paper, and kindly published my essay on 50 years of visits to the city.  We had a nice yak in Dominion Square, and at 5:45 I hopped on the Metro at Peel Station, riding just one stop.  A long day.


Old and new in the 1929 Dominion Square Building


“Circles” (1966), by Jean-Paul Mousseau, one of many wonderful pieces of art in Metro stations; I liked the piece in 1967, and a half-century and dozens of visits later it still makes me smile.


Here’s my mandatory reminder: every single person in this photo has access to health care as a basic human right.

Changed into jeans, hopped on Bixi, back to the Quartier Latin and a favorite bar and restaurant, Saint-Houblon.  I said “Bonsoir” to one of the bartenders, Michel, who I have gotten to know from many visits. “It’s always a pleasure to have you back,” he said.  The place specializes in Quebec microbrews, and I chose well: an IPA from Mille-Îles brewery in Terrebonne, 12 miles north. “To 50 years in Montreal,” I said as I hoisted the pint.  Surrounded by people one-half and perhaps one-third my age made me smile, and remember the short film I saw at expo67 a half-century earlier: “We Are Young.”  It’s sort of a mantra.  And Montreal makes me feel young.  Saint-Houblon serves burgers and other pub fare, but they also offer some refined dishes, and I tucked into a superb Arroz Caldo, a spicy dish of clams, rice, beans, corn, and potatoes, garnished with seaweed.  It was so good.

I wasn’t speaking until noon Tuesday, so was up at first light and out the door on Bixi, down the hill to the St. Lawrence River, then upstream on a riverside bikeway.  Rain was predicted at 10, but it started a mile into the ride, and continued, lightly, until I got back.  Another breakfast at Tim Horton’s, then down Sherbrooke with suitcase to the B-school.  Worked a couple of hours and from noon to one delivered a talk to the MBA Marketing Association, familiar from my 19 visits to the university.  Ate three slices of pizza and headed to the Metro, bound for the airport.

A little giggle on Metcalfe Street caused an older fellow just in front of me to turn around, which launched a wonderful T-t-S.  Chris Green, American, has been a professor of economics at McGill for 49 years, and we had a great yak.  His Ph.D. (and his wife) were from Wisconsin.  I promised to look him up next visit.  At the Lionel-Groulx Station he headed for another train and I jumped on the 747 bus to the airport, a flight to Philadelphia, and a short ride home to Washington.


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