Montreal comes up a lot in my songs. I’ve had some intensely emotional experiences there, especially in the winter. In fact, I’ve definitely vowed several times to never go back again in the winter. That being said …
It was December 1, 2017 and I’m barreling to the end of the year trying to finish all of the songs, articles, photos, artwork and videos for my “Raw Emotions” that just released in January. I had two weeks and could not focus in NYC for some reason so I got on a plane and went to stay with my friend in Montreal for two days. The daytime was spent with nonstop writing and finishing music but I did have some pretty interesting experiences. I’d break down the highlights into three main takeaways from my Canadian mini writing retreat: kindness, food and vibe.
I arrived in the morning and there was a water main problem at my friends apartment, which meant I needed to find and buy a bunch of bottled water if I was going to be holed up writing for 12 hours. I’m in downtown Montreal walking around in the cold rainy weather thinking to myself, “Why did I come here in the winter when it’s freezing cold, snowing and raining? I knew it was going to be like this?” As I’m getting lost in the depths of my mind a guy comes up to me and asks if I need any help. I tell him that I’m in town from New York City and that I need water. Then he says, “You know what … I have some time. Most of the places around here are sold out of water, because of the water pipe issues, but I’ll take you to a place I know and drive you back.”
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Now, the neurotic New Yorker in me was like, “No way am I getting in a car with this random guy and letting him drive me to an empty lot so that he can kidnap me, pull out a gun and take all of my money.” Then I kindly remind the insane voice in my head that this is Canada and people might just actually be nice, caring people that genuinely want to help. And … he did. We got water, talked about music, life, school and I didn’t get kidnapped. Canada man … people are really kind. Lesson one.
After a long day of writing I went to a late dinner with my friend at the top of one of the tallest buildings in Montreal. The restaurant was called “Les Efants Terribles” (I’m pretty sure this means the terrible babies). It was crushing rain with high speed winds knocking into the window, but it was providing a pretty unique view of the entire city of Montreal. The restaurant was good, not great overall, but … the poutine … the poutine.
I’d never had this food before, and I’m angry at myself for missing out on this glorious mix of cheese, french fries and gravy that definitely added a bit of completion to my life that I didn’t know was missing. The restaurant was known for their poutine, so when I asked my normal question, “What would you get if it was your last day on earth?” The waiter exclaimed in a very confident french tone, “Poutine.” And, they delivered. Honestly, maybe go to Montreal just for the poutine.
I’m also obsessed with bagels. Not just the food itself, but the history and technique. The fact that a bagel type bread has existed in every major culture around the world, and the meticulous care it takes to make a great bagel, amazes me. There are really only two places in North America for great bagels: New York City and Montreal. I knew this coming into this short trip and wasn’t sure if I’d have time to test the notorious Montreal bagel myself. So, I take a break from my writing for 90 minutes and go test out St. Viateur and Fairmount, the two most famous bagel spots in Montreal.
Although deceptively similar in looks to a NYC bagel, the Montreal bagel is a completely different beast. The main differences? Honey and a wood fire oven. The Canadians put honey in the water they boil the bagels in, and sometimes in the dough itself. They also LOVE sesame seeds; the go-to classic Montreal bagel is the sesame. These old school shops also only serve bagels. No cream cheese or butter on the bagel like in NYC, you have to go to a cafe for that.
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So, I went to these two places, asked tons of questions, was awarded free bagels for my enthusiasm and … St. Viateur wins for me by a TINY bit. The bagels are pretty similar, but St. Viateur won with its consistency of sesame seeds and overall great vibe in the store. Ok … I also quickly stopped by the St. Viateur cafe to try a full lox, cream cheese and bagel sandwich. New York smokes Montreal in this category, but that comparison is a whole other story. Montreal bagels are excellent though, I was impressed.
© Christian Barrette
I didn’t have too much time in this city, but I left wanting more. As an artist – the landscape, the old buildings, the charm of French culture pulsing through the city, the depression deeply ingrained in a Montreal winter – was all very inspiring. It felt right writing music in Montreal, I’d love to do it again and I know there’s so so much more to see. I’m a New Yorker to the bone, and it’s hard for me to find other cities I feel have a completely unique vibe of their own. Montreal has that. Maybe that’s why it keeps showing up in my songs.
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