The Nine Hour Tour: Montréal
As of this writing, I’ve been awake for nearly 24 inglorious hours, traveling from a music event on pastoral Prince Edward Island back home to the glistening concrete confines of Los Angeles. I’m so exhausted that I’ve actually come right back around to being completely wired, and if not for a steady stream of caffeinated beverages throughout the day, would be teetering dangerously close to the edge of some sort of systematic collapse.
I woke at 3:45am after a fitfully short sleep fraught with weird dreams and a burning desire to pee. A scant 15 minutes later, I slumped my way down to the hotel lobby, greeted by a glum crowd of fellow travelers who informed me that our 6am flight was delayed. I considered crying, but being far too tired to muster tears, made a few small, maniacal cackles instead and hopped into a waiting taxi bound for the Charlottetown Airport.
At said airport, I slouched in line with the zillion other zombies waiting to be rebooked. When my time finally came, my flight was re-routed to include a 9-hour layover in Montréal. After the slightly crabby check-in lady suggested this was the only option, I simply replied, “NO.” And then I said “NO” again, just for good measure. Perhaps out of spite, she offered an alternate itinerary that would have meant an even longer layover and even later arrival into Los Angeles, to which I once more replied, “NO,” unable to dislodge any other word from my cranky, sleepy brain. As a conciliatory gesture, she suggested that I could spend the day shopping in Montréal along the famed Rue Ste-Catherine. As an equally conciliatory gesture, I did not punch her.
New, aggressively inconvenient boarding passes in hand, I breezed through the anemic security area and proceeded to commandeer a corner of the waiting lounge, which was also the airport’s restaurant and gift shop. In my delirious state I considered buying something called “Potato Gloves,” but instead decided to get a bunch of work done and was almost perversely productive.
Several mind-numbing hours later, we were on our way to Montréal. I wedged myself in for a scant 20 minutes of sleep, buffered by an additional 50-60 minutes of that uncomfortable head-bobbing thing that happens when you try to actually sleep on a plane. Once on the ground and roused from this non-slumber, I yanked my suitcase out from the minuscule luggage compartment and debarked into a glorious ocean of French. Paris, je t’aime!
After a refreshing visit to the ladies’ room, I found the concierge, checked my bags, and purchased a ticket on the 747 bus headed into downtown Montréal. On a related note, I spent bits of most of my day wondering if I were to get lost, would I ask, “Oú est la bus sept quatre sept?” or “Oú est la bus sept quarante-sept?” I never came to a concrete conclusion. In fact, when I had a legitimate opportunity to use either of those phrases later in the day, I instead shrugged my shoulders, waved at the air around my body, and didn’t use any real words, English or French. More on this later.
The upside of our excessive wait for the morning’s delayed flight was that I had time to suss out a plan for my 9-hour tour. I knew that I wanted to see some old stuff, so I hopped off the bus on Boulevard René-Lévesque, intending to walk towards Nortre Dame, but instead instinctively veered towards the positively autumnal lump hovering over to the west – Mont Royal, the city’s answer to Central Park. En route, I stopped for breakfast and was palpably disappointed when my server insisted on speaking perfect English. I still said “merci” after ordering, just because.
After devouring my eggs and talking myself out of an ill-advised pain du chocolat, I began walking towards the park. By “walking,” I mean, “moving ahead two feet, taking a picture of the foliage, making quietly excited noises, then moving ahead another two feet, repeating the scene.” It was electrifying.
Eventually, I spotted a sign that read “Lac-aux-Castors,” and if there’s anyone who thrills to the idea of wandering around in ankle-deep piles of Technicolor leaves to a sparkling lake, it is most certainly moi. I skipped through the spectacular foliage in an advanced state of wonder…until I came across the somewhat disappointingly construction-choked puddle that passes for Lac-aux-Castors.
It may not be an alpine watering hole, but it was autumn, and I was in Montréal, and that is all that really mattered at that particular moment. Continuing my mini adventure, I wandered over to a stone building, where I bravely, boldly walked up to the gift shop clerk and stuttered, “Avez…vous…une…carte…du…parc?” Knowingly, she placed her index finger ever so gently upon the English-language park map and replied, “En Français…ou EN ANGLAIS?” Out of a mixture of shame and convenience, I chose Anglais.
With my newfound guide to parkland freedom, I took to the paths like a seasoned pro, weaving around strollers and dogs and scads of unemployed Canadians. I strolled through the Cimetière Mont-Royal, a serenely gorgeous swath of rolling green hills, then made my way up to a lookout perched high above the city, marveling at the weird fortune of being right there in that spot at that very second, an accidental tourist if there ever was.
Puffed up by a foliage-induced second wind, I bounded down a set of infinite stairs to the streets far below and commenced a power walk to Vieux-Montréal, home of the city’s old stuff. Upon arrival, I realized that as lovely as the area might appear at first glance, all quaint storefronts and crumbly masonry, it’s actually a tourist magnet of the highest order, studded with cheap souvenirs and Americans wielding unnecessarily large cameras. Every object in every window featured a maple leaf stamped, sewn, drawn, painted, etched, or otherwise emblazoned onto it.
Here, the tide shifted.
I was exhausted. I was hungry. I was thirsty. I was hitting the wall.
I sat down on a park bench and upon taking stock of my tired feet and my tired brain, figured it was probably time to head back to the airport lest I pass out and wake up smothered in newspapers and surrounded by empty Molson cans. Recalling the advice of the smarmy airport check-in lady, I decided to wander back via Rue Ste-Catherine, her favorite shopping area in all the land. Turns out, this magical lane is nothing more than your typical urban street, filled with your typical urban shops, and your typical urban undigestible foods. It was time to go home.
Feet screaming, I lumbered my way back to the intersection where the bus dropped me off hours earlier. I looked for a stop on the opposite side of the street and finding none, began to wander around in search of those three magical numbers. 7-4-7. 7-4-7. Where the hell is the other stop for the 7-4-7?!
In the midst of my existential crisis, I saw the very 747 I sought heading straight towards me like some sort of multi-axeled unicorn. My heart filled with glee! As the bus stopped at a red light, I ran across and waved at the driver, who waved back at me with a smile, as if to say, “Hi, old chum!” But, we were not chums. Stymied, I waved again, using both hands in a modified version of the classic “Help! I’m drowning!” motion. My mustachioed friend waved back, with an even larger smile this time.
He was playing games with me, taking some sort of sadistic pleasure in my distress. I did not like this.
I made one more attempt, this time plastering a confused look on my face, gesticulating wildly at the air around me, mouthing, “Where? Where? Where?” until he pointed towards the back of the bus and drove off in a thick cloud of snark.
I found the correct stop two blocks down. Jerk.
Once on a much nicer bus, I propped my eyelids open with my index fingers and thumbs, and managed to stay generally awake until deposited at the airport. I found my way back to the luggage room, which to my horror was completely shuttered. A sign read, “Retour a 1:15,” yet it was almost 4pm. I suddenly felt like a bit player in some sort of Lynchian dystopia. Was I at the right terminal? The right airport? Was I even awake? What if this is all a dream?
After deciding that I was, indeed, in the right place and of sound mind and body, I began calling through a gap in the metal curtain, “Bonjour? Monsieur? BONJOUR? MONSIEUR? ALLO????” which alerted a nearby security guard to my presence.
“MADAME?” he inquired, with a faint hint of alarm.
I pointed to the metal blockade and pulled together a sentence that at the time, I thought communicated, “My luggage is inside,” but upon reflection, realized was probably more like, “I have books on there.” Regardless, by some miracle, he understood and ran off to fetch a key. In fact, he ended up fetching several keys, none of which seemed to work. While this was going on, a crowd began to amass and I was questioned repeatedly, in at least 3 languages, as to what was going on with our collectively imprisoned luggage.
Eventually, my hero returned with the golden key and unlocked the metal gate, which caused me to spontaneously, loudly proclaim my very Americanness with a resounding holler of “WOO HOOO!”
In the midst of my celebration, a very grumbly old woman nudged in front of me and began hurling a strange stew of words towards my face. I gathered that she was a) Czech, b) in a hurry, and c) cranky. She pointed to me, then pointed at the security guard / my savior, and loudly announced in both French and English, “I WAS HERE FIRST!” The security guard pointed at me and responded, “No, she was here first,” to which the Czech lady responded even more loudly, like a multilingual toddler in the throes of an escalating tantrum, “NOOOOOOO, MONSIEUR – IIIII WAS HERE FIRST.”
I believe she was still proclaiming her firstness as I walked away with my luggage, which took the guy all of 55 seconds to procure.
Reunited with my worldly possessions, I dragged myself over to the security line and waited and waited and waited, until I finally reached the actual security point, where I was summarily denied entrance. When I asked where I was supposed to go, the security lady spoke to me very sternly, very Frenchishly, and asked where I was headed. I mumbled something about voyaging to the United States and she told me to walk about 20 more miles to the complete other end of the airport, which I did.
I waited in many more lines until I reached the customs area. There, on the cusp of freedom, I made my way to the window, where the attending agent asked for my paper. “What paper?” I asked. “This paper,” he said, holding aloft one of those blue customs forms that they usually hand out on the airplane. Looking back at the unbelievably long line I’d just emerged from, I swallowed and said, “Um, I don’t have that paper.” A pit of despair bloomed in my growling stomach. I feared being sent back from whence I came. Feared never being able to board my plane. Feared never getting home.
His response, in these post-9/11, ISIS-fearing, Ebola-ravaged times?
“Ah…it’s okay. Don’t worry about it. We don’t have to follow the rules all of the time!”
With that, he winked at me and stamped my passport and I was free to leave, prompting the reminder that sometimes the best part of traveling is going home.