It’s coming up to four years living in Montreal, and in that time I’ve encountered many aspects of life that I found, or in some cases continue to find, unusual if not downright weird. Some I’ve written about before, particularly about how the French language is sometimes enforced to farcical extremes by Québec’s Office de la langue française.
There’s so much more though, like police wearing colourful camo pants, the 20th century’s inexplicable persistence, and cats shaved to resemble little lions.
But back to language for a moment … While French is Québec’s official and dominant language, it’s not the same as what’s spoken in France, just as Australian English isn’t quite the same as the English of Canada or South Africa or England for that matter. There are many words and phrases unique to the province, because of the endurance of the “king’s French” after ties with France were forcibly cut in 1760, then centuries of English influence, among other factors. Québecois swear words are famously distinctive and blasphemous, like tabarnak and câlice. Idioms include lâche-moi un wack (let me know) and attache ta tuque avec de la broche (get ready); discover more fun examples here.
Something more noticeably different is that Montreal police, across the board, wear pants that aren’t uniform standard. Camouflage is most common, and not just shades of green (pink camo seems to be trendy au boutte). For some officers, the crazier the pants the better, so plenty of colourful, patterned trousers and leggings are also at the scene of the crime. This look began two years ago in protest against changes to police pensions, but is now so normal that pants have to be really eye-catching for me to notice – like the time I saw a male officer sporting tight leggings covered in big, colourful spots.
Come summer, some cats also draw attention to themselves, though obviously rather reluctantly. Certain Montrealers seem to think it’s a good idea to shave their cats, except for the head, paws and tip of the tail. Consequently, these unlucky felines look like little lions – little, deeply ashamed lions.
A distinctly Montreal thing that’s much more appealing is stairs on the outside of buildings. Most inner-city housing is triplexes from the early 20th century, when it was decreed that new buildings had to set back from the street. Putting stairs on the outside in this set-back area meant that apartments had similar floor space to older ones built to the edge of the property. Stroll around neighbourhoods like the Plateau and Mile End and you’ll see exterior stairs everywhere: straight or graciously curved out the front, and the tight spirals of fire-escape stairs at the back.
Other aspects of the 20th century lingering in Montreal, but in a bad way, include those vintage photo-booths I mentioned a while back. Payphones are even more common, including in banks of five or six at hubs like Métro stations (I think they persist because mobile communications are ridiculously expensive in Canada). DVD rental stores still exist – and I’m not talking sad little shops in the boonies, but large, nice-looking places in smart parts of town. Huh?
Personal cheques are still extremely common (probably because online banking has been slow to catch on in North America). I was dumbfounded when I saw an ad introducing the amazingly convenient innovation of depositing a cheque by taking a photo of it. It’s like a remote control for a gramophone! (Don’t get me started on Canada’s persistence with pounds, feet, inches, ounces and other inefficient units of measure that 99% of the world abandoned decades ago!).
I have a theory about how the much more distant past lingers here today. Women in Québec tend to be short (I’m on the short side of average in Australia, but often find myself looking over the tops of women’s heads here). As the pervasiveness of a handful of family names attest, the majority of Québecois are descended from 17th and 18th century French settlers, so perhaps many of these colonials were short and attractive.
My pet theory is that les filles du roi – young women sent to New France by Louis XIV to raise the colony’s population and tone – were très petites et jolies. Perhaps I’m way off the mark there, but the fact that a king paid for 800 women to sail halfway round the world for the purpose of having babies is certainly weird.
Speaking of travel, flying is expensive for Canadians, especially domestically and to the US (for some reason flights to the Caribbean and Europe are more modest, so much so that it’s cheaper to fly to Paris than Vancouver from Montreal). It’s not uncommon for Montrealers to drive to Plattsburgh in upstate New York to take a flight, as US prices, even to Canadian destinations, can be hundreds of dollars cheaper. This tactic was rife a couple of years ago when the Canadian and US dollars were on par. Thanks to all those passengers from Québec, the small American city of Plattsburgh has an officially ‘international’ airport that’s linked to major destinations and plastered in French signs.
Ah, Québec … It’s certainly weird, and even more wonderful!