Montreal — Je Me Souviens*

on the ferry
Steve, Stella and me on the Essex-Charlotte Ferry crossing Lake Champlain from New York state to Vermont.

We’d been talking about going to Montreal for over a year and it was either going to happen this summer or maybe never. So Stella, Steve and I set out on the 466 mile drive girding our loins to pay the $4-plus per gallon gas prices. I had never been to Vermont which is kind of sort of on the way so we decided to touch down in Burlington, VT just to see a little bit of the other state that chedder cheese made famous (Wisconsin being the first and foremost, ahem).

Essex-Charlotte Ferry boat from Essex
Essex-Charlotte Ferry seen from Essex

That little deviation through Vermont from the normal route up I-87 provided us a water challenge since Lake Champlain, that long finger of water, stood in the way of getting between upstate New York and Vermont.  Steve found us the quickest and, according to one experienced person we talked with, the most pleasant lake crossing via the Essex-Charlotte Ferry. The 20-minute ride was fantastic.

Even the trip from the interstate to the ferry was great– a little county road through rolling farmland, quiet and pristine. Stella — who as a child said she wanted to be a ballerina/farmer when she grew up — was smitten and wanted to know if we could move up there. Probably not.

We arrived at Essex at about dusk and a big full moon — pink in color — was rising in the East, the ferry ride in practically perfect weather was a summertime high.

Lovely little ferry on a lovely night in July.

A very sweet man on the ferry whose car had Vermont plates struck up a conversation about where we were going and when we told him Montreal his eyes lit up and he proceeded to tell us all about the town, everything from the huge crushes of cars going over the Champlain Bridge over the St. Lawrence river into the city (avoid rush hour if at all possible); how there was an international fireworks competition every summer; how there was a stand-up comedy convention that weekend…Obviously the guy was in love with the city.  When we finally got there we fell in love too.


Mermaids sitting on rocks
Downtown pedestrian mall in Burlington, VT., where big rocks sit on the brick walkway with people lounging on them like mermen and mermaids. Very cool.

Once we crossed the lake we knew we were in another zone. Big solar panels on barn roofs and other buildings along the little road that leads to Burlington said we were in a seriously green state. We stayed overnight in Burlington which was too short a time for me to say much about the town but we did have breakfast in a darling (and very popular) Penny Cluse cafe. That was pretty great. Stella had buckwheat pancakes with blueberries in them. Our brief walk around the downtown area told us this was like many college towns (the U of Vermont is there) a summertime playground for young people. That’s meant as a compliment from one who spent eleven years in Madison, WI, a premier Midwest summer playground.


We crossed the border into Canada at Highgate Springs/St. Armand, QC where a Canadian border guard at the one kiosk perused our passports, noted Stella’s hair change (blonde on passport, black in the real world) and smiled knowingly like she had a teenage girls too. Just beyond the border a sign welcomed us to Quebec!

Unhappily, our return drive took us through the big, 10-lane border crossing at Lacolle, QC/Champlain, NY where we were greeted with a sign saying we were being videotaped and with citations from statutes under which we would be prosecuted for bringing in illegal things. We waited roughly 40 minutes in line before going through and there was no welcome to the United States sign anywhere. It made me sad and mad. Among other things it’s just bad manners to greet your guests as if they’re criminals.


Even though we were entering Montreal in the middle of the day the Champlain Bridge across the St. Lawrence River was backed up with traffic. But we got accross and found our hotel, near McGill University, quickly enough.

Montreal lights
Old fashioned street lamps in Montreal.

The weather was warm and for the two days we were there we had an almost Monsoon-like downpour in the late afternoons, something we hadn’t expected and got caught in once without umbrellas.

Montreal dollar store
Montreal dollar store, Maison Dollar. It was huge and very well kept.

Montreal dollar store
Maison $

Stella was pleased with Montreal because it has a cosmopolitan feel a little like Paris and because the drinking age is 18 (she’s 19). We had a couple of reasonable meals but didn’t really have time to explore the restaurant scene which we did hear was great. I wondered about how bilingual a place Montreal was, and found out fast when time after time people in shops and cafes greeted us with “Bon Jour Hi” all together like it’s how they think, in French and English simultaneously. So we started out with a Bon Jour and often lapsed into English feeling a little but not too sheepish.

happy Stella
Stella, drinking legally at a restaurant in Montreal

Dress seemed less casual than in Philadelphia with many women wearing dresses and many boutiques focusing on the pretty and soft look. Steve and I went to the Musee d’Art Contemporain de Montreal to see the first Quebec Triennial, a huge show that was pretty amazing. I’ll tell you more in another post.

Jean Talon Farmer's Market
Steve, happy with his hand-made strawberry popsicle at the Jean Talon market

We all were eager to go to the outdoor food market Jean Talon which we’d read about in a Burlington, VT newspaper.

The onion display at Jean Talon market was almost better than the nearby flower displays
The onion display at Jean Talon market was almost better than the nearby flower displays

A short metro ride involving two train lines got us to a place that felt a little like Reading Terminal without the walls (roof only). Jean Talon is one of three big and several small public markets in Montreal and not only was it colorful and the produce great but, like Reading Terminal, there were lunch vendors galore making sandwiches, shucking oysters, serving up coffee and pastries.

Of course we weren’t cooking on this trip so didn’t want to buy vegetables but it was great to look.

Montreal grafitti
Grafitti art at a business in the Latin Quarter

Grafitti art was much in evidence.

Montreal grafitti
Grifitti art at a parking lot.

spray painting a store sign
Spray-painting a grafitti-art sign for a store on Rue St. Denis.

Our trip got cut short and we never got to the other things we wanted to do like walk along the waterfront, see the fireworks, go to the Musee des Beaux Arts, explore the parks, look at McGIll University. That will wait for another trip.  Meanwhile, I’ll remember.

* Je me souviens — I remember — is the motto of Quebec and you see it on all the French Canadian car license plates.