Day 41: Saturday 22nd April
After Vermont, we started driving North – to the Canadian border! We had been a little worried about crossing the border in our rental car because the guy at the Alamo outlet in Dallas had told us that while Alamo allowed you to take rental cars into Canada, the Canadian border guards wouldn’t. According to him, they wouldn’t allow US cars into Canada unless they had special permits – which only cars from states closer to Canada had. So, he said, we would need to go to an Alamo store in Maine or somewhere and swap our rental car. The more we thought about this and researched it, the more it seemed like bollocks, so we decided to chance it.
As we rolled up to the border window, rental documents in hand, we were asked to hand over our passports. They asked us a few questions – how long were we going to be in Canada? Where were we staying? Did we have any alcohol or tobacco in our car? We answered, the guy stamped our passports and welcomed us into Canada. He didn’t even glance at the car. So, if you want to drive into Canada, rent from Alamo and don’t listen to sales assistants telling you that you can’t. No matter how confident they seem.
We arrived a few hours before our Couchsurfing host was home, so we parked the car near her house and realised that we were in Canada. This meant that we didn’t have internet on our phones, and we didn’t have cash. We had pre-loaded the route onto Waze (a cool GPS app) so that was there, but nothing new could be loaded. Oops! Fortunately, I had pre-loaded some semblance of a map onto my phone – you can do this by scrolling around on Google maps when you’re online, because the GPS (blue dot) still works when you’re offline and have no phone signal, which is pretty impressive. We wandered down through the Chinatown area until we eventually found a mall – Complex Desjardins – where we were able to connect to their Wifi and look around for places to get cash.
A lot of banks were nearly closed, as it was already 4 or 5pm, but luckily we found an ATM and were able to get hold of some Canadian money – shiny, plastic banknotes with the Queen’s face on them! We wandered around a bit and decided to stop at a café – Java U – to catch up on things. We got chatting to a couple of the staff members, who were very friendly (as I’ve been led to believe all Canadians are). One of them was going to Prague in June, a day or so before we would be back, so I gave her my contact details in case she needed some advice or someone to help (haven’t heard from her though, alas).
We walked around a bit and found this interesting statue, which is apparently called The Illuminated Crowd. As you get closer to the back, things start getting weirder and weirder.
The main thing people tell you to try in Canada, food-wise, is poutine. Poutine is basically chips (aka fries) covered in gravy and cheese, with some other sauce in there and – if you fancy it – bits of chopped up sausage. Perhaps I’m an unsophisticated savage, and food connoisseurs and Canadians will tell me that it is much, more more than cheesy chips and gravy, but that’s to give you an idea. We found a poutine-heavy restaurant called Jerry Ferrer, where you could order from a variety of poutines. We tried a couple of different ones. It was good, satisfying and tasty but… well, let’s just say that Thai food is in no danger of being bumped down my list in terms of favourite cuisines.
It was finally time to meet our Couchsurfing host, and as we didn’t have Canadian SIM cards I had to use the restaurant’s Wifi to call her from my Skype account. Fortunately, we were able to arrange to meet in her lobby. Our hostess was a 60-year-old Romanian lady who looked amazing for her age – barely a day over 45. With a short, dark bob and eyes full of life, she turned out to be far healthier and more active than I am even now. I managed to remember a tiny bit of Romanian, but given that I lived there for 9 months and had studied it quite a bit, I was disappointed by how much I’d forgotten.
It was a Saturday night in Montreal and I’d researched a bunch of bars and clubs to check out. However, travelling takes it out of you a fair bit and we found that we were too tired to do anything but have a quiet evening in and go to sleep early.
*RUSSIAN to me… ahahah… gettit?!?
Day 42: Sunday 23rd April
The next day, our hostess made us a huge breakfast – porridge with almond milk, will lots of fruits and nuts in it. She started telling us about how she was vegan, had done a course in nutrition and sometimes went on these retreats in Romania where they taught people about vegan food. She was pretty passionate about it! My attitude has usually been that I try to minimise the amount of meat in my life, although I still eat it a couple of times a week. I mentioned something about missing Romanian food, and how there was actually a lot of good Romanian food that could be made vegan, and she started to talk about making us lunch, going for a walk around Montreal and inviting other people along. Before we knew it, we were signed up for a 2pm walk with some other Couchsurfing friends of hers.
Before that, we escaped for a while to wander around some neighbourhoods. We walked around but didn’t really feel that excited or impressed by anything. It was cool that we were suddenly in a city where everything was in French, but we didn’t feel that Montreal looked quite as cool as we’d hoped. (We changed our minds about this later though.) To be honest, we’d hit that point in the trip where we were both a bit fatigued, and we didn’t really have the energy to socialise with our Couchsurf host, let alone a bunch of other people. We just wanted to sleep for a few days, catch up on the blog, watch Gilmore Girls etc… so after a token look around, we found a café and set up shop.
The café – L’Insouciant – was actually perfect. It had loads of space, almost nobody in
there, plugs, wifi, and the best cappuccino I’d had in ages. Perhaps it was the French influence. (Anna: the guy working there was also very nice and responded in kind when I tried out my very basic French rather than switching to English, so I guess the Québécois are less snobby about foreigners speaking French than the French themselves have a reputation for.) After a while, I decided to go and look for a place to get hold of a Canadian SIM card – we had a few people to meet up with, and it was going to be hard if neither of us were able to text or call them. So I walked around for a while to find out what deals I could get. The first phone shop sent me to another company, because they didn’t have the deal I needed. In the next place, I found out that for $20 I could get a month of unlimited texts and 25 minutes of calls, which was all I needed – and, conveniently, the end of that 30 day period was the end of the second time we were popping into Canada. However, after a long chat he realised he didn’t have any SIM cards, so I had to go to another branch.
It was time to go back to our host’s house, where we met some of her friends. It seemed she was a bit of a local Couchsurfing community hub, and knew loads of people. We chatted to a guy who had moved over from Turkey (Anna: actually there’s an interesting story there – he was a Turkish diplomat who had been stationed in Costa Rica, but during the attempted coup in Turkey in 2016 he lost his job and was ordered to return to Turkey. But he thought, ‘fuck that’, understandably, not wanting to live under a military dictatorship, and escaped to Canada before his passport was frozen. He hasn’t been able to go back to Turkey, even to see his wife, since then) and a Korean girl who was travelling in Canada for a few weeks, and we were all treated to an amazing lunch of mamaliga (polenta), salate de vinete (sort of like baba ganoush, made of aubergines/eggplant), salad, and sarmale (stuffed cabbage rolls). It brought back some Romanian nostalgia for me, for sure. Some Couchsurfing hosts have fed me in the past, but this lady took it to a new level.
Our walk started at Parc du Mont-Royal, where we were lucky enough to see a common Sunday ritual there – the Tam-Tams! We’d read that every Sunday, people flocked to the park to play and dance to Tam-Tams, which are like bongo drums. It had been quite rainy and grey the day before so we hadn’t thought we’d get to see it, but today was sunny – the first day of nice weather they’d had in months, apparently. People of all ages and races were dancing together to the drums, and we naturally joined in for a while.
Watch a video of the action here: https://youtu.be/PfcEq3Q5vMA
It reminded us of Berlin – Anna lived there for a year, and I’d only visited on one weekend – but the park she showed me there (Mauerpark) had a similar feeling (and a guy doing karaoke). The vibe was very cool, and Montreal suddenly started to show the colours we’d been told about – quirky, friendly, diverse and vibrant. I would have been happy to hang out at the park for a while, but our host had other ideas.
We walked up Mont Royal (Mount Royal), the mountain (or large hill, rather) after which Montreal gets its name, for a very long time, through trees, up and up until my legs started to hurt. After a while, we stopped and took in the view of the city. To be honest, when you live in Prague, city views have to be pretty breath-taking, so I admired the view dutifully but, inside, I was thinking “I miss Prague”.
Then there were stairs – so many stairs! Up and up we went, me complaining like an old lady that my hips hurt while this 60-year-old bounded ahead of me. We reached a plaza at the top, where we were able to check out some more city views.
The others carried on, up to the Mont Royal Cross, an iconic symbol of Montreal, but I was already tired. This was after a good two hours of walking, at least. I sat on the grass for a while and waited for the others. Here’s a photo that Anna took:
After descending a million steps, our host showed us around some more – the Place des Arts, the salon where she works, the underground city. Montreal gets so cold in the winter that they have built shops and malls underground, connected by a series of underground passages so that you never have to brave the icy wind. We walked around this a little before meandering through Chinatown, where we watched a chef through the window making noodles from lumps of dough.
By the time we got back to the apartment, we were broken women.
“Let’s check out the gay district,” I suggested. Anna looked horrified – because it was a 25 minute walk away and we could no longer walk. So, I found a Japanese restaurant that was a 3 minute walk from us, and we dragged ourselves there. It was called Sumi Dojo, and it was great to get some takoyaki, okonomiyaki and other izakaya delights.
Day 43: Monday 24th April
I’m ashamed to say that we were supposed to stay a third night with our lovely host, but we were just too exhausted. It seemed that she wanted to do everything with us, feed us, show us around, and we just wanted to vegetate and have our own space. Besides, we both had some Skype appointments that evening and we were staying in her living room where we didn’t have any privacy whatsoever. So, we found a nearby cheap room on Airbnb and made some excuses to leave a night early.
After hanging out at a café for a couple of hours (Café Replica, because L’Insouciant was closed) we checked in and decided to try joining a walking tour that started at Place de la Dauversière. It would take us around the Old Port and the historic old town area of Montreal. However, I failed to realise that you were supposed to contact them 24 hours in advance to book it, and we were too late. So, I grabbed a map from a nearby tourist information shop and decided to give Anna a walking tour of my own.
We walked past a few historic buildings and areas, some dating as far back as 1968. I jest, I jest! It was more like the 17th Century; we just like to be knobs and mock the North Americans for their relative newness. Who knows why – it’s probably the same strange mentality that leads us to mock them for driving automatics instead of manual cars, as if this somehow makes them lazy and stupid – even though, now that we’ve driven an automatic, we can tell you we’re never going back!! Anyway:
It was in Place d’Armes where we hit the Notre Dame Cathedral. Now, I’m not really one for cathedrals, but we had both heard that this one was really stunning. And it is. Just take a look at some of these pictures.
After that, we walked along the Old Port area a little before finding a place to grab some late lunch/early dinner. It was a bistro inside La Magasin Général du Vieux-Montréal, and we had some very tasty pizza and coffee. I seem to recall the waiter being really cute, too, but I couldn’t tell you for sure.
One of the people we had originally contacted through Couchsurfing had a friend in common with me – someone I knew back in Japan. We’d originally sent him a Couchsurfing request, and although he had been busy he offered to meet up with us. It was only then, after looking at his profile, did we realise that he was a famous Québécois actor! We looked him up on IMBD and found that he had been in a bunch of French films, as well as 40 is the New 20 (which I’ve never heard of) . We got quite excited. Sadly, by the time we’d finished our Skyping, it was around 9 or 10pm and he didn’t have the energy to come out and meet us. So, we were *this close* to meeting someone famous. Anna did see Al Gore in New York though, so all is not lost.
The plan had been to check out the gay district – we were staying right in it, and it was meant to be pretty fun. However, it was a Monday night, and despite some random blog I’d found telling me that Montreal was banging on a Monday night – it was not. We walked past a lot of dark, empty bars sporting rainbow flags, wandering whether we should go into one and have a token drink.
“You know,” I said, suddenly realising, “we COULD just buy a beer from a local supermarket and go back and watch Gilmore Girls.”
Anna’s face lit up, we looked at each other for a moment, and more or less simultaneously started sprinting back towards our Airbnb. We bought a can of beer each and went back home to catch up with Lorelai and Rory.
Day 44: Tuesday 25th April
The next morning, we headed to a place called Café Resonance for lunch. They served chilli bowls and other salad bowls that were pretty good and reasonably priced, with avocado, kimchi and other delights. Then, it was time to spend the day in the car, driving to Toronto. It took us a while to figure out how to get out of Montreal because we didn’t have internet data – just GPS, and we somehow ended up circumnavigating the same roundabout and ending up on different wrong roads about five times before finally thinking to actually read the signs instead of relying on reading a tiny map.
I had some friends on the way to Toronto – the beautiful Georgette and Nektarios, who I’d met a couple of years ago when I did a kayaking trip in Lesvos, Greece, which you can read about through this link! They had moved to Canada now, and it was wonderful to be able to stop and see them, even though it was only for an hour or so. By the time we got to Toronto it was already about 11pm, so we just hung out on the sofa with the friend we were staying with for a bit and then went to bed.