Friday morning, 7:30am: We hop in a cab. The driver is laughing his head off, the kind of laugh where you worry a little pee might come out. We start giggling along with the radio program he’s listening to and it instantly becomes one of those New York moments you hope for. The cab doesn’t smell and the driver is delightful.
8:00: We’re headed to Montreal for 3.5 days to celebrate our third anniversary. We almost went to Niagara Falls until we realized I could only look at falling water so long before my bladder yells uncle. I’m very excited to visit Montreal, and am still amazed we can go to another metropolitan city in another country speaking ANOTHER language and it’s only an hour away. They speak a lot of French in Montreal which should be interesting for me since I sound like Clark Griswald on his Pig in a Poke European vacation when I try to pronounce French words. It’s kind of like my dad in Spain, when he just added an “a’ to the end of every word and called it Catalan.
I have always been intimidated by people who speak French, and have been known to look at French toddlers with befuddlement, for how can someone who can’t toilet independently understand the nuances of such a beautiful and sophisticated language? I always assume French children are smarter than me because they already know something I don’t. I’m pretty sure my sister-in-law is teaching our twin nephews a bit of French and I am already bracing myself for future intimidation. They already dress better than me, and they’re only one.
8:40am: I’m wearing a Montreal appropriate outfit because I try to imbue my clothing with local flavor wherever I go. Texas, I bring boots. California, tank tops. I’ve never visited Montreal, but in my head the locals are tidy and very chic. I am basing this simply on the fact that some of the buildings in Montreal look a bit like Europe, and Europeans can dress. As such, I’ve taken care to outfit myself in a way that suits the weather and my location for the next four days– distressed jeans, a cream cable-knit sweater, tall black boots and a beige trench. My trench is snug and a bit too short in the waist because I bought it in the children’s section of ZARA to save 30 dollars, then shrunk it in the dryer because I am both fiscally conscious and domestically incompetent.
The real star of the show is my new tan fedora, which lends me the appearance of both a sophisticated North American traveler and my mother shopping for pork chops in 1983, when she could often be found at our local Kroger’s hiding a head full of sponge curlers with a glamorous wide-brimmed hat.
8:55am: We have checked in at La Guardia, and are now at our first authentically French stop for the day—the airport Au Bon Pain. There are six women at the counter getting lattes; one is wearing a bachelorette sash and all six are wearing floppy wool hats in a variety of colors ranging from eggplant to cocoa. I look like their cast-off friend, the one who didn’t get invited to the party and is now stalking them at the airport. I get myself coffee and a chicken noodle soup which I accidentally ladle all over the formica counter, then attempt to sop up with those flimsy plastic sheets you’re supposed to use when picking up corn muffins. I hide my eyes under the lip of my hat, leave the mess there and scoot away quickly because I’m supposed to be better than this. I’m dressed neatly and traveling to a city where the dominant language is French. I am supposed to be an urban sophisticate.
9:30 am: On the plane, Vin and I joke about our imaginary second spouses–the people we’re leaving behind as we run across the Canadian border together. I don’t know why we find this so amusing, but we do. Vin is married to a lovely Nigerian woman named Gwendolyn with three children; they spend most Saturdays at the farmer’s market in the country. Gwen loves Sports Center and can stay up all night playing video games and listening to old records. My alternative husband is Persian and extremely wealthy. I never greet him by name, referring to him only as “The Sultan”. We don’t fly coach and my closet looks like Mariah Carey’s. I wear expensive lingerie and lacy corsets but sleep on the other side of the house because I hate him. I assure Vinny that our marriage is based purely on love, which is why I sleep in the crook of his arm wearing dollar-store underwear and pajama pants with a hole in the butt.
10:25 am: The flight is over in 55 minutes and I’m in another country. That’s amazing. My friend Aimee’s recent trip to the DMV took longer than this (sorry Aimee, that le sucks).
10:40 am: We scoot through customs into an airport so bright, airy and modern it looks like we just stepped into a dystopian movie. Everyone is completely silent. Everything is sterile and ridiculously clean. I can hear my own footsteps. It’s kind of freaky. We step into our own little kiosk and essentially check ourselves into Canada. We no longer have to wait in a long line to scan the paper ensuring the country we didn’t smuggle in firearms or bushels of fresh produce.
“This is the greatest machine in the world!” says Vin, who loves technology only slightly more than me, and quite a bit more than that whore Gwendolyn. “It’s a thing of beauty,” he marvels. A woman in her mid to late sixties is at the kiosk next to us, talking herself through the frustrating process that used to be handled by a real person in a metal booth. She mutters: “Ugh, why is everything computerized now? I hate this.” Vinny helps her scan her passport, and she flashes him a wan, tired looking smile. She looks grateful, but sad.
11:40 am: We check into the hotel. Vin locks our passports in the room’s safe. Adding this detail means nothing now but will make perfect sense later.
12:30pm: We walk from our downtown hotel into Old Montreal. The buildings are cute and predictably old, but there’s nothing to indicate that this area isn’t strictly for tourists, which is a shame because Montreal residents should get to enjoy this pretty street but I’m fairly certain they have little use for tiny grizzly bears and decorative bottles of maple syrup. I refuse to eat on the main street here because I know how the world works and assume this area involves mediocre, overpriced food cooked up special for suckers. Here’s a tip for people visiting New York City. Never get duped into eating in the following places: Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., Jekkyl and Hyde Club, Serendipity 3, Sbarro pizzeria, the Times Square Olive Garden (or anywhere in Times Square PERIOD), the M&M store, Manhattan’s Little Italy, Restaurant Row, from a kiosk in Manhattan Mall, or anything on or near South Street Seaport. Cancel your reservations and tell them Jenn didn’t send you.
1:00pm: Vin finds a real local’s joint called Olive & Gourmando, where everyone is speaking French and eating pressed cheese sandwiches. This place bustles with energy, and makes us excited to see what the rest of the city has to offer. We finish up then walk around, smiling, sun on our faces, nothing on our agenda. A nice change.
The first thing I notice about Montreal is that it is almost unbelievably clean. I don’t see trash anywhere. I don’t see trash cans or street cleaners anywhere either. I think the people of Montreal are so clean that they don’t even produce trash. I slipped on a piece of pizza coming down the subway stairs last week. I routinely dodge puddles of vomit and old chicken bones on my walk to work. Where am I?
2:15 pm: I twist Vinny’s arm until he agrees to pose in a small pumpkin patch. Vinny’s signature season is autumn and he dresses for it all year long. V’s a team player and complies. An older lady walks up and smiles at Vinny, “Do you come with the pumpkin patch?” She asks playfully. He replies that he’s only visiting the patch, then she asks if she too can take his picture. Vin grants her wish, so if you come across this photo on your aunt Helen’s Facebook wall, now you know how it got there. The woman’s husband walks behind Vin, grabs an apple and takes a big bite.
2:30 pm: We turn a corner and spot the six girls from the bachelorette party on bicycles, pedaling one by one down the narrow street. One girl take her hand off the handlebars, points at us and yells “Hey! You were on our plane with us!”
“I recognize you too!” I yell back. In hindsight, this seems like a pretty dumb thing to say, but really, what was I supposed to say? “Hey guys! Wait up!”? None of us are wearing hats now because the wind is too strong. I chased mine down the street twice before I finally gave up and stuffed it in my tote bag. But we recognize one another all the same because we are more than just dumb Americans in floppy hats. We are English-speakers in a French-speaker’s world. We are bonded.
3:00 pm: We check out the Basilica. It’s stunning, gorgeous, overwhelming. Its size is humbling and the detail in the architecture is just remarkable. Half of the people are snapping away with cameras; the other half look annoyed by them. Some pray, some genuflect, many send text messages. Suddenly, someone begins playing an organ from up in the back and it’s not a religious song, it’s a dark, haunting classical piece that boomed though the alley of the cathedral like a thunderstorm. It was amazing.
Vin was captivated. He also looked a bit like Jesus in a fedora, just hanging out in the middle of a church in Canada on a breezy Friday afternoon. I keep waiting for the lady from the pumpkin patch to pop out with her Samsung and ask “Do you come with the organ music?” The guy behind Vin is all, “Eh, is okay, I’ve heard better.”
7:oo pm: Lipstick, concealer, cab to another part of town for dinner. The cab driver is wearing a beautiful wool blazer, a nice hat, a lovely scarf and a smile. “Bonne soirée”, he greets us, then turns on the radio and begins listening to opera music at a completely pleasant volume. The cab smells like a Strawberry Shortcake doll, not takeout Chinese or Halal meat, and I’m again reminded that I am a foreigner in a foreign land.
We are dropped off on a cute little street with a few tiny cafes. Our table is sandwiched between two very young couples. Vin orders a delicious and attractively presented goat cheese salad that the average 22-year-old would have Instagrammed. I leave the phone in my handbag because I’m 38 and starving.
The couple on my right and Vin’s left is on their first date together. The girl is so loud, and the guy is so bored. She is the queen of questions: “How many dates have you been on?” “How did they go?” “Why haven’t you dated more?” “Are your parents still married?” “Do you think they still love each other?” “How did they meet?” “What does your Dad look like?”
The guy chews his steak. Drinks a sip of water. Drinks a sip of wine. Nods. Dies inside. Dreams of going back in time and swiping left.
“Do you think your parents settled for one another, or were they like, actually into one another?” “Can I give you some advice? Don’t go for the hot girl all your friends are into. You need to go for the girl you actually, like, really really like. Life’s too short, you know? Never settle, never ever settle.” I glance over at my husband, and feel gratitude for having reached the point in our relationship where we can easily sit in silence at a dinner table, where the only truly important question left is, “You gonna finish that?”
9:30 PM: Uber, hotel, yadda-yadda, bedtime.
8:50 am: I run downstairs because when we checked into the hotel the lady at the front desk smiled and said they serve free coffee from 6-9 am. I pull my little paper cup to the lip of the dispenser and it comes out in sad, tired little drips as if to taunt me and say, “Really? Ten minutes before closing? Get your shit together and come down earlier next time if you want a piece of this.”
“I’m on vacaaaaaaaation”, I whine inwardly. “I need coffeeeeeee.” I am happy to note that no fewer than three gentlemen are furious on my behalf. Two of them are members of an (English-speaking!) couple, and another is the French-speaking gentleman in a wool blazer who works in the fancy men’s suit shop in the lobby.
“Oh my God– is it gone?” one of the English-speaking guys says. “Are you sure? What do we do? You’ve gotta get your coffee!” Without having said a word, these people understand me. I feel loved.
“Ugh, I really do. I tried tipping it forward to get the last of it out, but the handles were really hot. It’s not worth scalding myself for. Or…maybe it is?” I try tipping it forward again and almost cry it’s so hot. But then someone runs to me with a tiny silver pitcher full of coffee and we embrace and I can start my morning like a kind, benevolent person instead of one with a withdrawal headache and a heart full of hate.
9-9:50 am: I hang in the lobby writing and drinking coffee while Vin is upstairs showering. I’m always ready to go earlier than Vin, but my new system is to just wait outside doing something else rather than waiting in the house and getting impatient chanting, “Vin are you ready yet? Vin are you ready yet?” This way I get to enjoy my morning and people-watch in a lobby where many people speak French and several will literally run toward you with hot coffee. These are good people. I may stay here all day.
10:30 am: Before we do anything today, I have to buy a coat because it’s freaking freezing here and I didn’t bring the right clothes. I did this somewhat intentionally since the American dollar is stronger here, so anything I buy will essentially be 30% off, right off the bat. I find a coat at a Canadian store called Simon’s which Vinny compares to JC Penney but I’m thinking more like Macy’s and will tell everyone is the Canadian Saks Fifth Avenue. We walk through a few blocks of construction and down some back alleys to a place Vinny has located by phone to eat our breakfast.
10:50 am: We land in a café that’s so us it’s scary. The walls appear distressed to the point of almost crumbling. The tables are heavy old wood. There are plants hanging from the ceiling. Brass fixtures. Oh, my…we love this place. I am served what is probably the best breakfast I have ever eaten. A perfectly poached egg with a light hollandaise sauce served on top of a huge hash brown cake atop a mound of roasted brussel sprouts and chunks of thick, salty bacon. If this sounds as good to you, come over next Sunday for brunch because I will be recreating this dish every weekend until I outgrow all of my pants.
12:00: We take our first trip on the Metro. I will never become impatient with NYC tourists again for not understanding how metrocards work because it takes two different pe0ple for us to figure out how to purchase cards and where to put them in the turnstile. All the directions are in French everywhere, so we are mostly going by context clues, which we apparently suck at.
12: 50 pm: We enter the Botanical Gardens because I saw on pinterest that they had these unbelievable topiaries of dragons and wizards and shit and it looked completely magical. When I ask the ticket girl about the magical dragons in her yard, she informs us that those were part of a traveling exhibition that hasn’t been here since 2013, and if we really want to see them we need to go to the Ottawa Botanical Gardens in 2017. We mark our invisible calendars–next Sunday: brunch with poached eggs and hash browns, 2017–Ottawa.
1:15- 3:30 pm: We traipse around the gardens learning more about plants. I am genuinely surprised by how much Vin seems to be enjoying himself, as taking a walk through nature is not generally his idea of a good time. “Jenn, look at that tree. What kind of tree is that? Wow– look at this plant. I love it. ” He wants to continue walking, taking the long route. This is typically my role in the relationship, and things are completely off-balance cause I’m ready to go roll up in a ball in front of a Canadian TV program. Is You Can’t Do That on Television still on? My feet are just killing me. The tall black boots were a terrible choice, and my occupational hazard of day- long sitting has not primed me for this much continued walking. Also, I’m just not sure what’s happening here. It’s as though I married a stranger. This event opens up a lot of questions for me. Do we ever really know who we’re sleeping next to in our cheap underpants and threadbare pajamas? Maybe Vin is a wealthy Persian and I don’t even know it. That would actually be awesome.
3:45 pm: We’ve arrived at the Jean-Talon food market. Stop the presses. Hold the phone. Jump back, honky cat. Drop me off here, leave me forever, I’ll make out just fine. Aisles and aisles of gorgeous, impeccable, abundant vegetables and fruit. Broccoli in four different colors– FOUR!, piles and piles of luscious leeks, bushels and barrels of juicy red and orange tomatoes, peppers, pumpkins, squash, herbs, garlic. A woman snapped a fresh okra pod in half and gave it to us to try and I wanted to take a bag of it home with me to make a fresh salad but I couldn’t because I was staying at a hotel with $20 club sandwiches and no kitchen access. This place was my heaven, the kind of utopic wonderland that makes me want to hug freely and pass out high fives. I feel suddenly homesick. I want to go home and play with my cookbooks.
5:00 pm: Head to the Mile End neighborhood. Eat an authentic Montreal bagel, different than New York bagels. Less puffy, not chewy. I’m not going to tell you which one I like better (cough, cough, of course I am… NEW YORK BAGELS RULE); the only thing I’ll say is that they both beat Lender’s by a landslide.
5:30 pm: My feet are in agony. It feels like someone took a cheese grater and rubbed it against my toes. They hurt so badly I am no longer enjoying myself, and that’s a shame because it’s a lovely day otherwise. I don’t know exactly what’s going on inside my shoes, but I’m terrified to find out. I am picturing a podiatric apocalypse, like maybe there’s not even feet in my shoes anymore, but shrapnel or a quarter-pound of ground hamburger. In the meantime, poor Vin is researching places we can sit and hang so I can drink coffee, rest my patties, and spend the majority of the late afternoon whining.
5:45 pm: He finds a tiny cafe called Croissanteria, which is charming and adorable and looks like it could easily fit into any Brooklyn street. We sit, we eat pastry, we rest. An older woman with a cane walks in with a younger, attractive man. It’s evident that the man is not her son or nephew. The waiters look nervous, and rush to get her to her favorite table, currently occupied by a sweet-looking family with a young daughter. The lady with the cane shoos them out of her table, and the family moves to some lowlife booth in the back of the restaurant. The cane lady slides into the bench with the handsome man, then leaves for 15 minutes, so he sits there bored and alone, gazing out the window at the rustling leaves. I don’t know who this lady is, but assume she is either the cafe owner or the mayor of Montreal.
9-11 pm: We have one of the best dinners of our lives at a chic Italian restaurant called Impasto. Vin has porchetta with pear and broccoli rabe, and I enjoy a pasta with lemon and cream that shaves two years off my life but is completely worth it. The dessert is a homemade ice cream with strawberries and pistachios and it feels like an angel is kissing me square on the mouth when I eat it. There are two guys next to us–one looks like a miniature version of Joey Tribiani; he is tiny, tan and muscular, and has come to a great Italian restaurant to only drink black tea. His friend, however, has an incredibly robust appetite in every sense of the word– he orders a charcuterie platter and two pasta dishes for himself while chatting endlessly about his social life. You’d think hearing the phrase “anal sex” no fewer than six times would make me less hungry, but you’d be wrong. I’m happy for this guy’s active sex life, but my one true love is food and I hope we get to spend many happy years together. Unlike him, I do not fear commitment.
DAY THREE/ FOUR
10am- 4:30 pm: More walking, exploring, crying about my feet hurting. I feel as though I have shin splints and I am scared to see what’s lurking beneath my sock. Every step hurts. Somewhere in there we eat poutine at an open air spot in Old Montreal. Poutine is apparently the official dish of Canada and it consists of french fries smothered in gravy and cheese curds. I find it utterly gross, and am also weirded out by the fact that there’s an enormous sculpture of ET lurking in the corner of the room.
4:45 pm: Return to hotel. Take off boots. My poor precious little baby toe has an enormous bubble on it. It is tender to the touch and looks very much like a planetarium. There is no tub in our room, only a fancy shower, so I climb up onto the bathroom counter and give my feet a soak in the sink. I will not tell you what I do next, but will explain that it involved some very hot water, the hotel sewing kit and gentle, rolling tears.
I crawl into my fluffy hotel bed and read. It’s a book called 12 Patients, and it’s an inside look at the inner workings of Bellevue Hospital in NYC. Reading about real medical problems makes me feel like a baby complaining about my toe blister, but it also doesn’t stop me from whimpering softly to myself. Vinny has left the hotel and is combing the streets of Montreal searching for emergency supplies to cushion my aching foot.
5:30 pm: Vin comes back with a spool of gauze, medical tape and a package of three little wraparound bandages designed to cushion corns. He takes my left foot in his hand and begins to gently bandage me. My heart swells even bigger than my toe, and I gaze at my husband with pure love and bottomless gratitude. “The sultan would have never done this for me,” I whisper. I have always known that I married up, but it’s acts like these that show me how far.
8:30 pm: We have scored a reservation at a place made quite famous by Anthony Bourdain. They specialize in things I don’t eat like liver mousse, pickled tongue, and foie gras served about 20 different ways. Our waiter looks like a character actor, the kind that would be cast as a jaunty but evil villain who sneaks around in a silk scarf and black beret while twisting his thin mustache and making creepy shapes with his mouth and eyebrows. I am fairly certain he is high on cocaine because no one is this excited to yell meat specials. The restaurant’s specialty is “duck in a can”, literally two pieces of duck and foie gras shoved in a soup can, boiled, then poured onto your plate at the table in a river of sauce and vegetables. It sounds repulsive and costs nearly $50. A place like this is sort of wasted on us. Vin orders the Happy Pork Chop (it’s covered in sauerkraut, that doesn’t sound happy to me), and I order an endive and apple salad with an entree of tuna tartare. The waiter says “Yes! Perfect!” but is probably thinking, “Why did you come here?” The table next to us has just acquired their meal– it’s an entire hen, resting on a bed of raviolis swimming in cream sauce, and it is served in a full-sized dutch oven. My stomach hurts at the sight of it.
the next day: We check out, and head back to our favorite cafe where we start off with pastries and end with lunch. We cab back to the hotel, pick up our bags, and jump in our last cab to head to the airport.
“Bon voyage! Thanks for visiting Canada!” says our lovely driver, before disappearing into the clean, litter-free street of Montreal.
We pull up to one of the kiosks and begin checking into our flight. It asks for a credit card, so we swipe. It asks how many bags we are checking in, so we hit ‘none’. It asks us to swipe our passports and I yell “FUUUUUUCK! We forgot our passports!!!”
We quickly discuss our plan of action. We almost hop in a cab to go back to the hotel and procure our passports in person, but instead decide to call the hotel and ask if they can help us skip a step, go unlock our safe and have someone bring the documents to us here at the gate.
We call the hotel, explain the situation and they send a cab driver to our arrival gate with our passports in a manila envelope. “Fast! Fast!” the driver says to Vinny when he finally makes it. We breathe a sign of relief, and go check in. Anxious and overwhelmed, we almost enter a secured section of the airport instead of proceeding forward to our gate. A guy at a table eating a hoagie calls over to us, “Read the sign, guys”, and I already feel like I am back in America. Ah New York sarcasm, how I’ve missed you!
We exit Montreal, and 45 minutes later fly over our own city again, the place where Vinny was born and I have grown. From up here, the whole place looks like a Lego set, a movie scene, a Woody Allen love letter.
Now we’re in New York. The Big Apple. The city that never sleeps. The concrete jungle where dreams are made of. We have made it here. We can make it anywhere.
But we really wouldn’t want to.