The Last Time I Was in Montreal
The last time I was in Montreal was over three years ago, when my then-boyfriend was hired at Bombardier Aerospace. Over the course of two years he worked in Quebec, I flew in and out of Canada three to four times. But I loved Montreal long before we met. I loved that it was quasi-French and it was a stellar substitute for Paris, the place that could never be.
My then-boyfriend rented an apartment in a low-income neighborhood while he drove a luxury car from Enterprise to his $300,000 (CAD) a year job. He grew up, as he likes to say, “in the ghetto,” and even though it’s been a good long while since he’s been poor or been mistaken for poor, he held on to certain aspects of his former impoverished self because he didn’t want to be called a “sell-out.” Thus, the pretense of a broke-down apartment with communal decaying washers and dryers and weed-infested hallways. (Yes, this is the boyfriend who accused me of not taking advantage of my privileges.)
On weekdays, he put in 12 hours at his job. I brought a stack of books with me, since I was always left alone in whatever hotel or apartment in whichever city he found himself in. I spent the days reading, watching Canadian snowboarding drama Whistler and French HGTV, and eating everything in the fridge to stave off any existential questions of why I was with a man whose great loves were work, drink, and money?
Eventually, I decided to get out of the apartment and check out the shops. I didn’t care that February in Montreal meant a thousand feet of snow — I walked anyway. I couldn’t watch another Whistler episode or read any more internet stuff; besides, I wanted to tell my co-workers how awesome Montreal was and not tell them I spent most of my vacation like a newborn: eating, sleeping, waiting for the grown-ups to come get me.
I went to a diner in the neighborhood and even though the waitress didn’t speak any English, I managed to order pasta sans cheese. I liked that the diner’s menu offered cheaper versions of their entrées, usually $2 less. So I drank my diet soda, ate my meal, and smiled at the waitress who kept eyeing me. I tipped generously and then walked across to Jean Coutu to window-shop beauty products and Canadian candy.
I’m a sucker for buying food gifts for friends and co-workers. By the time I left Jean Coutu, I was heavy with candy that I chose for the distinct honor of the labels written entirely in French. I also bought Canadian shampoo and conditioner because the whole darn bottle was in French, even though it was about $7 a pop, much more than the usual $3–4 that I spend on haircare. I was already out $30 on candy but I didn’t care. I was on vacation and I wanted proof that I was here, and sometimes the only proof you were anywhere is a name and a number in your checking account.
If my days were filled with diners and aimless window shopping, my nights were thick with excess. My then-boyfriend got home after 7 p.m. most nights, and I was dressed up and desperate to leave the apartment. I can’t digest alcohol, and in the rare moments I drank, the most I could ingest was about 4 ounces of light beer, or maybe half a glass of white wine or a really subtle red. The boyfriend, however, rewarded himself with alcohol after completing another 12-hour workday, and I dare anyone stop him from drinking himself into cirrhosis.
The problem was compounded by the fact that he got paid around $10,000 bi-weekly. He’d go to the bank every payday to take out meatloaf chunks of cash to spend at the bar, on his friends, or wherever he goddamned pleased. At some point, the cold shower of approaching penury jolted people from sleep-spending at the bar, but not him. It felt like his money was endless — as endless as getting $10,000 bi-weekly paychecks can be.
He always wanted to go somewhere cool, even though I preferred reasonable mom-and-pop places where you didn’t have to be somebody to dine. He wasn’t having any of that, so we ate multiple times a week at fashionable steakhouses with equally fabulous waitresses. The bill was fabulous too; steaks were upwards of $40 and if he saw me venturing towards lower-priced menu items, he’d snatch the menu from me and order me a ribeye or a porterhouse — whatever was more expensive. He’d also order me a cocktail or glass of wine which I would nurse for hours while he tirelessly plowed through the libations menu. A cheap outing with him would be $100, and that would only be because it was lunchtime — he thought it was déclassé to drink during office hours.
Still, it can be fun to go to expensive restaurants I would have never ventured into on my own. One of the best times I had in Montreal was at O.Noir, where diners eat in total darkness. A three-course meal was $41, drinks not included; I suggested the two-course meal but it was vetoed because he hated any implication of frugality. Then I offered to pay—$41 for a three-course meal wasn’t that bad, especially after eating $40 steak—and he suggested we invite friends.
Nothing prepares you for the experience: the immense darkness, how your lack of vision amplifies your hearing and tasting, and how much you can learn about anyone when you’re forced to pay attention. We opted for the “surprise menu,” so we had no idea what we were eating, which added to the mystique. The food was unexceptional and I’m not sure if it’s because we didn’t know what we’re eating and couldn’t assign certain flavors to a dish, or because it just wasn’t great. Five three-course meals, one diet soda, and enough alcohol to drown the restaurant later, I was out over $400. It was too much money for a pedestrian meal and booze I didn’t drink, but I liked being generous to the neighbors. I liked that when we left O.Noir we went to their local dive and they bragged to their friends that they’d eaten the best meal they’d had in a long time.
Later in the trip, I saw billboards for Cirque du Soleil’s Kurios. (Montreal is Cirque du Soleil’s birthplace, which only adds to the city’s sparkle.) It was a limited run; they were testing the show for Montrealers before possibly going global. I booked tickets for the two of us; the absolute last tickets available were also the worst seats, but it didn’t matter. For $88 a ticket before taxes, we were in.
I was in love — the performance was in French (which I wish I spoke) but art, music, and dance don’t need words to inspire. Mark disliked the show and sat petulantly in his seat, complaining that it was “a kid show” and it was a “waste of money.” It was my money, I corrected him, and didn’t let him ruin an otherwise beautiful memory. After the show, I bought a couple of black Kurios t-shirts for $25 a pop.
I went to a Value Village the day before I returned to the U.S. and found a pair of Seven jeans with tags on for $10. I spent another $10 getting them tailored, and they’re the only thing I’ve kept from that trip—not the shampoo bottles, not the Kurios T-shirts that eventually went to Goodwill, not the relationship that brought me there in the first place. The boyfriend is long gone, but I’ll always have Montreal.
Ruzielle Ganuelas is a writer, baker and PF nerd in Washington State.
This story is part of The Billfold’s Vacation Series.
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