Montreal, the Last Trip for Awhile

The splendid dawn view from “my” apartment


I was up way early on Sunday, March 8, on the short hop to Philadelphia and a jump to Montreal, for lectures at McGill University.  It’s a familiar routine, the superb public transit bus into the city, to a Metro station west of downtown.  Had a nice T-t-S with a young Quebecker as we walked from bus to train.  I started talking to myself as I navigated patches of ice on the sidewalk, and he turned to see what the old guy was saying.  I laughed and said I grew up in Minnesota and hadn’t lived there for 30+ years, but still remembered how to navigate ice with a suitcase.  That launched a pleasant conversation about other places we lived; he was just returning from a temporary job in Vancouver.  Nice to engage.

Left, Quebec’s colonial system of “long lots,” laid out to maximize access to roads and rivers, is still evident 350 years later. Also prominent in the province’s cities and towns are Catholic churches; the church dominated Quebec life for centuries, but lost its way, and its grip, in “the quiet revolution” that secularized the province beginning in the 1960s.

Down the stairs and onto the Metro I first rode 53 years earlier; but instead of getting off at the McGill station, I rode one more to Place des Arts, because I was not staying at my usual digs, the university-owned accommodation called La Citadelle, but in the deluxe studio of a new young friend.  I met Ridha on my last trip to Montreal five months before; a swell guy, works in aviation, and is a long friend of my pal Fabio in Geneva (who also grew up in Montreal).  I was dumbstruck when Ridha offered me his apartment on Blvd. de Maisonneuve; he explained he would be in France visiting his in-laws, his wife returning to her homeland with their young daughter and new baby.  Whew, that was generous.

Got the key from the lobby attendant, zipped up to the 22nd floor, and, wow, was that a cool place to stay (I had been in the apartment briefly last October).  Dropped my stuff and zipped around the corner for a late lunch at that signal Canadian coffee shop and café, Tim Horton’s.  Donned shorts and a T-shirt and visited the building gym; sadly they only had a spinning bike, not my workout device; managed, just barely, to crank out 10 miles before giving up.  Took a nice nap.

Above, on the Metro Sunday night. Below, a common warning sign; as a former McGill host, a lawyer, once explained, in Montreal you don’t win a lawsuit if you fall on ice and hurt yourself; here, he said, the thinking is “you should have known it was slippery!” At bottom, a busker belting out Celtic songs at the Place des Arts Metro station (her clogs struck me as brave footwear!).

At 5:45 I hopped back on the Metro and rode two stops east to my fave Montreal bar and eatery, Saint-Houblon, on Rue Saint-Denis.  I’d normally spend a couple of hours for their own beer and dinner, but at 6:00 I met Chris Read, newly-minted MBA from Imperial College Business School in London.  My Imperial host Omar was his thesis advisor, and Chris and I did some phone interviews.  He works in strategy at Air Canada, a fellow airline guy, so I was expecting good conversation.  And it was: we yakked for more than three hours across a range of aviation topics.  Just fascinating.  It had been a long time since I had a session like that, and it was super-fun.  Chris peeled off at 9:15, I walked up the street for Thai takeaway, rode the Metro home, clocked out.  A good day.

Up Monday in cold rain, ambled across downtown to McGill, pausing for an oatmeal and muffin breakfast at – where else – Tim Horton’s.  Spent a few hours working in a student lounge, grabbed a quick lunch, and at 1:05 met another long host, Mary Dellar, and presented to her undergrad services-marketing class.  Great kids, great questions.  Peeled off, back to the apartment, marveling yet again at Ridha’s generosity.  Did some work, short nap, and at 5:15 hopped on the Metro, east and north to Dieu du Ciel, a brewpub in the Plateau neighborhood.  As on my first visit in October, I was the oldest guy by a factor of between 2.5 and 3, but the place exuded the friendliest vibe.  Hopped on a stool in a corner to give maximum view of the place, and just watched the crowd like others might watch a TV show, occasionally tapping out an email or text.  In retrospect, although their menu is limited, I should have stayed on for dinner, but instead walked a block north to another brewpub with a bigger menu, but not the same vibe.  Friendly, but way less soul.  Tucked into slightly soggy fish and chips, then hopped the Metro home.

Above, after Monday lunch, this Transport Geek stumbled upon a small exhibit in the McGill main library about Quebec bridges; just fascinating stuff. Below, two photos to trigger memories of my first Montreal visit in 1967: the distinctive ceramic tiles at the Peel Metro station, and a ketchup bottle. Huh? Let me explain: my two friends on that trip said the city was “just like home except the ketchup bottles were in French; alas, I didn’t see it that way back then, and still don’t. Vive le difference! At bottom, scenes from Dieu du Ciel.

Up Tuesday, rinse and repeat Monday, back over to McGill.  From 10:45 to 11:15 I did three short video interviews for my other McGill host, Bob Mackalski, then walked next door to present to his MBA class, an engaged small class.  Bob said it was my best performance ever, but I try to make them all the best.  At 1:15 we walked through cold, steady rain to Universel, a fave restaurant, for a laugh-filled (and filling) lunch with Mary and Bob.  A lot of talk about U.S. politics – like a lot of Canadians, either of them are better-informed than me about what’s going on in my country.  They are, simply, great people.  And regular readers know how much I love Canada.

Detail, mask from a Pacific coast (British Columbia) native artist, in the business school at McGill



At three I reversed course from two days earlier, Metro, bus, flight to Philly, flight to Washington, home.

Wonderful public art in Montreal airport

As I unpacked my suitcase that night, I could not have imagined that the short trip to Montreal would be the last journey for awhile.  I left my Ziploc bag of toothpaste, shave cream, and stuff in the rollaboard, fully expecting to repack in 11 days and head to Zürich, London, and Copenhagen.  But that didn’t happen.  In the intervening days, Coronavirus intensified.  I resisted for days, but four days before flying across the ocean, it became clear that if we were to collectively get control, I needed to hunker down.  And that is what I’m doing right now, as I tap out this message.

I pray we will, together, succeed.  For a highly mobile person who has never taken movement for granted, immobility is difficult, at times emotionally painful.  It’s hard not to fly.

But I know this: when things return to something like normal, when I fasten my seat belt, when the jet begins to roll down the runway, it will feel exactly like it did the first time I took flight in June 1966.

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