My love affair with Montreal began in May of 1996, back when I was in high school and on the cusp of becoming the man I am today. Montreal, like Newfoundland, continues to have a great influence on the person I’ve become and like all great love stories, this one too has a beginning.
It starts like one of those Tim Horton’s commercials that we’re all too very familiar with. A yellow school bus rolls down a dimly lit road in the early morning just as dawn is breaking. The lights in the kitchens of the small outport community begin flickering to life as tired parents wake their tired children to get them ready for the biggest adventure of their lives. In our house, as I pack up the last few things I’ll need for my trip, I see the worry deepening in my mother’s face. She’s trying to hide it but for me the excitement of the day is manifesting quickly, even as I try my best to extinguish her worry. When the bus driver stops in front of our gate I run out past my dog, who gets a quick kiss on the head, before jumping onto the bus where I wave one last time to my mother. She will be watching from the kitchen window until we are out of sight. By the time the bus rolls around to the last of the houses to pick up the last of the 12 kids, the sun had crested over the Newfoundland town and we were on our way to the place that will change my life.
This particular trip was significant for us all in many ways. Like a number of my classmates, it was my first time taking a plane and my first time to ever leave Newfoundland. As this trip was the beginning of an exploration of a larger world for us, it was also the punctuation of our time in high school. In a few short weeks we would be part of the graduating class of ’96 and from that point we would be off to build our futures. Little did I know, this trip was leading me directly to my future. Our school trip had three scheduled stops. We would land in Ottawa for a few days, then travel by train to Montreal before taking a bus to Quebec City. We were traveling in the name of culture, the point being to learn about our country’s deep rooted French heritage. The 12 students taking part in this trip were the senior French students of Fatima Academy and we had been planning it for over a year.
Our arrival in Ottawa after the flight was awe inspiring because it was so new to us. For many of us the biggest city we had seen up to this point had been St. John’s so being awe struck, for me, was an understatement. Living on an island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean didn’t give us much of a chance to visit neighbouring provinces so anything new was going to be exciting. We were staying in a high-rise hotel (at the time it was called Les Suites) that connected to a mall and for the first couple of days we visited Ottawa and took in the sites of our Capitol City. When the time came to leave we were saddened that the first leg of our trip was already over.
The two hour train ride to Montreal gave us a chance to see a countryside completely unfamiliar to us. The flat, treelined farmland that connects Ontario and Quebec is significantly different than the rugged cliffs and sea-worn coastline that we grew up near. It was beautiful to see it with our own eyes for the first time as the train moved quickly out of Ontario and into la belle province.
If I had thought that the tall buildings of Ottawa were big, my mind was about to be blown by Montreal. The train slid silently into Central Station and we climbed out of the depths of the train platforms up into Place Ville-Marie and (yay!) another mall. We were warned by our principal, Mr. Hubert McGrath to stay close to the meeting point, his voice as bombastic, rolling and fear inducing as the sea itself. We were allowed to wander but not too far. While a few of us shopped, I walked around a little until I saw a door that led to the outside. I pushed the door open and a breeze of cool air hit me. It was still early morning and the shade of the tall buildings kept the sunlight from warming things up too quickly. I stepped out onto Mansfield and walked to the corner where a giant red tomato was posted, advertising Movenpick, a restaurant that once occupied space in the building. Alone, I was standing on the corner of Mansfield and Rene-Levesque and I was overcome by the immensity of where my wandering had taken me. I looked up to see Place Ville Marie, the Queen Elizabeth hotel and the Sun Life Building all towering over me and I felt suddenly at peace. I also felt entirely frightened because no one knew where I was and it was time to go back inside. That was the first moment in my life where I knew I loved Montreal and it only took a second. Every now and then when I’m downtown and I find myself on that same corner I remember this moment like it was yesterday. I remember being 18 years old and filled with wonder about where my life might take me. 20 years later and that moment still stands as one of the biggest in my life.
After exploring downtown for a couple of hours we descended back into Central Station but this time we went further down into the Bonaventure métro station. Yet another first, we clamoured onto the blue subway and we were off in the direction of Champs-de-mars. We exited the metro and walked up into the beautiful stained-glass covered station that cast colours of red, blue and purple across the sun drenched floor. Our next stop in the city was Old Montreal and our first real brush with French culture. We walked along Square Jacques-Cartier where I bought a drawing from an artist selling them for $5.00 each. Some of us got our pictures drawn by caricaturists and some of us did a little more shopping for souvenirs for our friends and family back home. We walked along St-Paul Street and came back along de la Commune and we even ventured out onto the quays of the Old Port. If downtown Montreal hadn’t made me fall in love with the city, Old Montreal certainly did the trick.
After only a few hours in Montreal we were on our way again. The bus that was to take us on our 3 hour trek to Quebec City was packed and ready to go. Mrs. King, our French teacher and organizer of the trip, had us on a very tight schedule and we couldn’t be late. It may have been naive of me at the time but my heart broke when we pulled out of the parking lot in Old Montreal. I didn’t want to leave and during a spilt second I thought of not getting on the bus but then Mr. McGrath would have found me and my mother would have had him kill me. The brief time in Montreal had been the taste of freedom that I had been craving since we first started planning the trip and five years later, on August 1, 2001 I returned to make Montreal my home.
The bus trip to Quebec City was still rather exciting even though we were all quite exhausted. When we arrived we checked into our hotel inside the walls of the old city. The hotel smelled like roasted chicken and the rooms were small and warm. It was a far cry from the fancy high-rise in Ottawa but it was charming and very French. We were a stones throw from Chateau Frontenac and well within walking distance from the rest of the attractions. We spent our time in Quebec City visiting the Montmorency falls, walking the boardwalks, learning about the city, eating maple butter at Chez-Marie and visiting a very cool light show in an old church. We ate crepes in restaurants and spend the mornings sipping on coffee and orange juice while eating butter croissants and growing easily accustomed to the the savoir-faire of the fine people of Quebec.
Returning to Newfoundland wasn’t easy but it was inevitable. Our trip had completely changed my life and opened my mind to a much bigger world. Leaving St. John’s airport we climbed back onto those yellow school buses and returned to our homes that were dotted along the coast of the Avalon Peninsula’s Cape Shore. The next day I visited my grandparents and told them about my trip. My grandfather laughed and said I was going to end up a Frenchman after that and I can’t say he was wrong. Shortly after my visit I took my dog down to the beach where he annoyed me until I threw rocks in the ocean for him to chase. My face tingled as spray from the cold Atlantic washed over me. Sitting on the rocks with my dog I remembered a moment during our trip where I was exploring old Montreal with my friends Thelma and Tania. I remember them telling me as we walked along St-Paul that Montreal suited me and thats where I should be. They may not be right about much but they were definitely right about that. 20 years later we’re still friends and I am still enjoying my freedom in Montreal.