Montreal or There’s No Place Like Home
They say Montreal has one month of spring and autumn and five months each of grueling summer and winter. I guess I chose a good time to visit last week.
I made the reservations in the dead of winter. I just cast about for direct flights to interesting places using a fraction of the million frequent flyer miles that had been hoarded up while I wasn’t paying attention.
Why Montreal? I had already booked monthly “free” trips this winter and spring to Madrid, Dublin, Paris and London. I was aiming for Quebec, but it seemed Montreal was as far as I could get for free. Probably “user error” on my part. And I’d never been there before.
I’m writing this on my way home. There are a couple hours to kill in Montreal’s Trudeau Airport. Its code is “YUL”? Why Y U L?
It took a couple searches.
Simple answer. Long, long ago Canada decided to lock up the letter “Y” for its radio station codes, then also applied those Y codes to their airports.
Now to answer part 2, why Montreal is called YUL:
Airports back in the day only had radio beacons for navigation, so the Canadian Government decided to also apply radio station codes to airports. The non-directional radio beacon (NDB) code for Montreal’s Dorval Airport was “UL,” and it continuously transmits the Morse code symbols U and L. Pilots would tune the NDB radio frequency for station “UL” into their ADF radio, and verify the Morse code of dot dot dash dash (for U-L,) or an aural “di di da da,” and your ADF (Automatic Direction Finder) Instrument needle would point to the station, located at the airport.
Makes perfect sense now. Glad I asked.
Monday. May 20. Late morning. I’m in an airport Irish pub that is trying to appear authentic. I’m drinking 1664 French Bière. I have fond memories of it in Evian a few years ago and on other trips out that way long ago. I almost never drink before 5 much less noon—but the place looked comfortable and quiet. I had walked around looking for quiet areas to write in the airport.
In the past when people spoke aloud to no one, it was a sign of madness. Now it is just impolite to spout off into your tiny technology whether it’s in your hand or your ears. Right now some bobo 10 feet away is spouting out about his car repairs and kids in a voice much louder than if someone was actually at the table with him.
Maybe the world has gone mad. I’m too often looking at my “other life” inside the iPhone. Pulling it from my pocket. Clicking it on. Looking at it so it recognizes my face and comes to life. So far I’ve eschewed the ear buds and other things you attach to yourself so you can be in constant contact with…your telephone.
Five nights was too much here alone. Three would have been enough.
The people were very nice. The food was excellent. I went to the same jazz club the last three nights. I saw Cirque du Soleil. I saw the symphony. That’s more nights out than I’ll usually do in a good month.
So, the evenings were fine. The days were long hard pedestrian slogs to find highlights. Maybe I should have planned. I hate planning. Serendipity has always worked so well.
This was one trip I really wanted to look for some books. Most of the time other bookshops can’t offer what I have at home—thousands of fresh books every day—for my eyes and hands to experience. Books that I actually make money on when handling. For all those visual and intellectual impressions to bang off the inside of the back of my skull and…stimulate me.
I figured Montreal must have some good book shops. Its population is 1.75 million. Canada’s second most populous city after Toronto.
By contrast, Buffalo just across the Canadian border to the south, where I was born and grew up has about 250,000 people. 1/7 the size. I know Buffalo has some great bookshops. Old Editions is fabulous. 10,000s of great books. More “fine” books that I could peruse in a day. And there are plenty more great bookshops in my hometown.
I did a cursory search and made a tentative list of Montreal bookstores in the Philadelphia airport prior to departure.
A friend had asked me to find a nice copy of Les Fleurs du Mal.
“No problem,” I replied.
French city. French classic. A very large literary and artistic city. I was confident.
I landed in Montreal about 1pm on Wednesday May 15th. In less than an hour, I was out of the airport and a cab had me at my hotel. I was checked in within minutes. I was out on the streets not long after two.
The Museum of Contemporary Art was shown on the city map only a few blocks away in the Place des Art. I walked down there and circled around and around. I saw signs for it. “This way.” “This way.” I gave up in frustration. Must be me. I checked later that evening and the “Museum is currently closed for installation of its new exhibitions.”
Oh, maybe it was that boarded up building with the construction fencing all around it. I went past a couple more times during the trip. I saw no signs on the building or the fences that it WAS the museum—much less that it was temporarily closed.
I did score tickets in the Arts Center for a “rock” concert that first night. Rachmaninoff, that is.
Then I sought out what searches bore out as the city’s preeminent used bookstore not far away. I didn’t really look into it until after, but it is self-described as “not much larger than a living room.” It is so well known and beloved that it has no sign outside. The owner says apparently it needs none. That is cool! Certainly I’d find a nice Baudelaire in there. I stepped into the old storefront near McGill. It was cozy. I made my way around the short perimeter which is lined with floor to ceiling bookcases. A man and a woman were in deep conversation about her kid’s overseas adventures. I was not acknowledged for the 25 minutes it took to peruse the stock and determine there was likely nothing for me. It was nice curated stock. Mostly English. I didn’t see much collectible—mostly reading copies—hard and paper. There were a couple Les Fleurs du Mal—trade paperbacks with no illustrations. I left having not interrupted the conversation for a hello, goodbye, thank you, may I help you… Of course, I didn’t ASK for help either. I was now officially grumpy. My first few hours were a waste.
I made my way to McGill University which is Canada’s Harvard or Yale or maybe even Columbia. There was a quaint 19th century Natural History Museum. I went to the library and saw the rare book rooms. The William Osler collection is there. My dad was a huge fan of Osler. He was a doctor’s doctor. One of the most evocative items on exhibit was a collection of hundreds of forms filled out on cards that recorded the dying moments of people at Johns Hopkins early in the last century. At their doom, were they serene, panicked…? Apparently Osler had a fixation with death and immortality.
I won’t turn this into a travelogue, but the next four days were spent walking mostly. I saw some cool things. I just didn’t have the serendipitous luck I usually do.
Other sites were closed for refurbishment. The Cirque du Soleil was sold out—until I checked Ticketmaster and scored a second row seat for Thursday evening. Serendipity. That show was just astounding. The Cirque was founded in Montreal.
I went into about 20 bookstores. That is a lot of bookstores for any city. French and English or both. New and used. I found no antiquarian or collectible shops. I was surprised. Some stores had small collectible sections—often behind glass and behind the counter and there fore hard to get to. Some of the new stores were great—large and comprehensive and vibrant. Surely, one of them would have a nice edition of Les Fleurs du Mal. Maybe a facsimile of an early illustrated edition or a newly illustrated one…nope. Almost all the stores—if they were primarily French or bilingual—had large Quebecois sections. They are justly proud of their own literature.
No Baudelaire—beyond paperbacks or reading copies or the near ubiquitous uniformly bound French classics in slipcases—kind of like the Library of America but much plainer.
I wandered out one morning and came across Leonard Cohen—10 stories tall. They also love their Leonard.
The third day I serendipitously came across The Maison du Jazz (a.k.a. The House of Jazz—the stage has two signs behind it.) Its architecture and interior were so quirky and old school. I was to go there the next three evenings.
I was ready to go home. Bookless.
The fourth day my wanderings took me through the quirky artsy foodie neighborhood on St Laurent and St Denis. I came across a French bookstore. It was quite nice. I spoke with the clerk in broken French and was answered in broken English. I asked for Baudelaire. She led me to Poésie and pulled out five books. All paperbacks. I tried to convey “Illustrated” and “Antiquarian” and “Collectible” to no avail. She finally gave up helping me. I wandered around a bit. On an out of the way bookcase, I noticed some 4tos on a top shelf. I found a stepladder and climbed up. They were random books. One was shelved sideways. I slipped it out. It was a copy of Rimbaud in jacket. Looked like it was from the 80s or 90s. My friend might have to settle for Rimbaud instead of Baudelaire. I opened it up, and there was a long inscription from the artist on the title page. Opposite that was a large drawing in ink.
Well, it is pretty cool…not a home run…maybe a double.
My last day I took a long taxi ride to St Joseph’s Oratory. It is a stunning, soaring building on a crest on Mount Royale—which Montreal is named after. It is known for cures. A Brother André who was sainted in 2010 and is credited with many, many miracles. The site continues to draw those in need of some kind of healing. Did I lay my hands on his tomb? Cross my forehead with Holy Water? Light a candle? Etc, etc… You bet! If it doesn’t help, there is no downside. I’m not Catholic, but I felt a great rush of spirituality. I attended an English Mass almost by accident. Two priests in white robes led a procession through the congregation. They flicked Holy Water across the pews using whiskbroom like tools. I didn’t mind the spray. Like I said—there’s no downside.
In the crypt area were huge racks with thousands of devotional candles. One was about 30 feet tall with 2 steps of steps leading to a statue of Joseph at the top. Between the twelve or so stone pillars were several horizontal bars. Hung on these bars were hundreds—maybe thousands—of old wooden crutches and canes no longer needed, apparently, by those who were healed.
When I was ready to leave, I stepped outside where I’d been dropped off. A taxi pulled up and a youngish man with a ponytail struggled to climb out. He had two canes. His lower legs were twisted. He could barely walk.
“You work here?”
“No,” I replied. “But I think she can help you.” I pointed to a nearby guide.
He told the guide he was a paraplegic and asked where was the nearest spot he could smoke.
It was pretty clear what he was here for. I wish him luck.
The taxi took me to the sprawling Botanic Gardens. They were mostly open. It is over a month earlier up there for flora’s spring. Daffodils and tulips were still blooming.
It was wonderful to have a second spring there. Nothing like the first kiss of spring I’d experienced at home, however.
I was at work at the warehouse on Tuesday. Just for laughs I decided to see if WonderBook.com had any Baudelaire. 36 or so results popped up. I had six editions that looked intriguing pulled for me.
Four home runs.
Now the dilemma was which I would give my friend. It’s hard because I wanted them all for myself!
Wonder Book had nearly as much Baudelaire as I’d seen in 20 bookstores. We also had some very cool editions. Exotic French poetry and illustrations in Frederick, Maryland.
I enjoyed Montreal. The problems were in my head. I tried too hard looking for books.
I’d like to go back and see The House of Jazz again. And again…
I wouldn’t waste all the shoe leather seeking out bookstores. I’d let it happen serendipitously—if at all.
Since I’ve returned, two respected antiquarian colleagues have told me their Montreal collectible experiences were similar. One said he’d found an antiquarian shop, but the proprietor wanted to charge him a fee to look at the stock!