Not Precisely Iceland, More Like Montreal

I would like to revoke the claim I made in my introduction about being a seasoned traveller, because I have made an embarrassingly rookie mistake. Today I write you from a vibrant cultural hotbed, as per the plan. Unfortunately, it is not Reykjavik – my expired passport has necessitated that my three-day layover in Montreal turn into nearly a week.

That said, I am stranded in what might be the best city possible for such a situation. This is my first visit to Montreal, and I have no intention that it be the last. This city is incredible. Everywhere you look, the streets are graced with winding, spiral fire escapes, elegant churches and cathedrals – even the storefronts and apartment faces boast curlicues of whorled bronze or graceful grey stone.

Old and new do not jostle for position in this place, rather they complement one another; crumbling brick juxtaposes angular steel siding, while gothic steeples and towers lend quiet dignity to the modern apartments and skyscrapers surrounding them.

A local told me that the government commissions and finances the street art here and it definitely shows. Wildly colourful murals sprawl across exposed alley walls more often than not, in styles ranging from elegant to weird, bohemian to punk and everything in between.    

The people are staggeringly friendly. My strangled French elicits only mild amusement before they kindly switch to English and they are welcoming in the extreme. Last night, walking home after the (very apologetic) rejection of my expired passport by airport staff, I heard music. It was jazz, very French jazz, coming from a corner window one storey above the street.

My ears led me to a nondescript white door, with a small sign above it: “L’escaliers,” meaning The Stairs. These very same led me upward through a psychedelically painted hallway and I stepped into a scene from 1970s/’80s San Francisco. It must have been an apartment, converted into a bar – four or five rooms, no doors, a stage in the living room and a small bar and tiny kitchen in the middle. The walls to the right were neatly wallpapered with pages of black and white woodcut-style scenes of the medieval ages, leering skeletons and bird-mask plague doctors. Past that, quietly coloured walls displayed local art and large groups of people sitting in mismatched chairs around kitchen tables.

My wondering wander attracted the attention of one of the bar staff, who approached me and asked if it was my first time here. I shyly nodded and within minutes, I was seated at the bar with a beer and a whiskey in front of me, shaking hands with most of the staff. The bar, they told me, was a converted foster home for teenagers; it’s now open seven nights a week, with three live music acts per night. I was given a tour through the rooms, including one at the far back that was all couches and cushions (“This is the ‘no shoes’ room, you understand?”).

The band was young, but talented, their brand of jazz was rocky, eclectic, frenetic, electric. At least 10 people were dancing, with everything from sophisticated swaying to wild abandon, and all without an ounce of insecurity.

I could ramble on forever about the special atmosphere and people of L’Escaliers,  but word counts and passports wait for no man. Tomorrow I fly to Iceland, but tonight I will definitely be returning to climb those stairs.

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