Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

August 17, 2017
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Montreal comes alive

There's never been a more exciting time to visit the country's most fun-loving city

So I'll admit I'm biased. After all, I live here. But you can ask any Montrealer who's travelled and probably most who've moved away and they'll all tell you the same thing: there's no place like home. Here's why.

As the various economic booms of the last few decades serenely passed us by, due to many tiresome reasons which you probably all know and which we don't need to rehash here, Montrealers hunkered down and learned -- or perhaps it's best to say continued -- to enjoy themselves anyway. If Quebec and Canada represent Hugh MacLennan's Two Solitudes, it's fair to say that within Quebec, Montreal has always stood resolutely apart.

And now a new wave of optimism is sweeping the city. The economy's getting better; employment hasn't been this high in years and construction, that bittersweet indicator of success, is rattling windows from Old Montreal to the suburbs. The Americans have exhausted most other major Canadian centres in their voracious hunger to make big movies for small dollars and have now landed here, where we're all happy to be exploited, oh yes indeedy we are. Remember those heady days, Toronto? Ring a bell, Vancouver? Despite all this busy busy busyness, Montrealers refuse to give up the one thing that's always mattered to them: quality of life. Work's fine, it's important, even, but it's not the be-all and end-all of our days. In fact, Quebeckers generally, with classic and irrepressible optimism, continue to live life like there's no tomorrow.

Here, in a nutshell, is what makes the city so special.

The good life
Urban living. Thanks to the low cost of living Montrealers enjoy compared to some of Canada's other major centres, a side benefit of the city's absolute lack of economic growth for many years is that we've been able to stay in the city. No two-hour commutes for us! Ask any Montrealer how far is too far to drive to work and he or she will invariably cock an eyebrow at you and say quizzically, "Drive?"

Moral: If you can't cycle to work in 15 minutes, you're living in Toronto.

Weather. Now I know what you're thinking -- no one in their right mind would think of Montreal's weather as anything but a nightmare. Well, it's true that historically we've enjoyed brutal arctic winters and scorching tropical summers. This is changing, of course, due to the charming phenomenon of global warming, which in the next 100 years or so will make Canada, Russia and parts of Scandinavia the only temperate zones in the world. Mark my words: people will be flocking here in droves just to bask in below 50°C temperatures. Fortunately, for the time being there's still enough demarcation between the seasons to make Montreal fascinating -- especially since the relatively short summers make us enjoy them all the more fiercely. That, when all's said and done, is what makes us so much fun (well, having a Latin temperament doesn't hurt either) -- we party all winter to beat the cold and we party all summer because it's so bloody nice out!

Moral: If your winters are cold and your summers hot and you're still not having fun, you're living in Labrador.

Joie de vivre. Admittedly, this is a corollary of the above, but the fact is there's more to a Montrealer's love of life than weather. Take the francophone heart, replete with its Celtic melancholy and boisterous Norman "let's stop here, pillage, eat and drink" paganism and you've got a winning combo. Plus many of us are or were Catholics; don't ever underestimate the soothing balm that confession brings to the soul, making it sparkling white and ready for another madcap week.

Then of course there are the anglos, who've been here a very long time. Those who stayed did so for exactly the reasons we're examining here -- which means that at heart they're just as full of joie de vivre as the rest.

Then sprinkle in all the other cultures that settled here and helped to make Montreal the cosmopolitan city it is. Best of all, the city's remained relatively unsegmented -- we all tend to live more or less together. Keeps things nice and equal, and indeed as major urban centres go, Montreal remains one of the safest in North America. This may change if the rents keep going up, but there you go; I suppose we couldn't avoid the economic boom forever and the annihilation of values it invariably causes.

Moral: If you've got a wonderful range of people from everywhere and from all walks of life in your neighbourhood and it makes you want to move to a gated community, you're living in the US.

Fun stuff. Admittedly, if it's the big shows you're after, there's probably more to do in Toronto these days than there is here. We've suffered in recent years with a lack of big-ticket items where theatre, music and the rest of it goes. What it's done though is forced us to come up with our own entertainment instead of relying on the lucrative kindness of strangers. Montreal's theatre, art and dance scenes are vibrant and exhilarating: small venues offer cutting-edge performances in all the arts every night of the week. This kind of innovative thinking led to the creation of one of Canada's greatest success stories: the Cirque du Soleil (see page 36).

Then there are the myriad festivals which go on all year long, many of them offering free events right on the streets. Travellers from everywhere flock to the Jazz Festival every summer, as they do to Just for Laughs, a bizarre and endearing comedy festival which gives the Comedy Central TV network oodles of programming for the rest of the year.

Finally let's not forget all the grass-roots street festivities that enliven the city all summer long. Since 1967 and Mayor Jean Drapeau's vision of a flowered city, Les Floralies, we've long enjoyed the reputation of being a lush and green town, filled with trees, parks and profusions of bright flowers at every intersection. What better setting could there be for hitting the streets whenever there's an excuse for a party?

(If you're wondering, though, the streets themselves are still ridden with potholes that could, if filled with water, be designated as minor Great Lakes. And no, you still can't turn right on a red light. That's in order to avoid a mortality rate which would undoubtedly skyrocket in a city where drivers and pedestrians good-naturedly continue to regard each other as competing and dangerous species.)

Morale: If you're calling six months in advance for tickets for the new Andrew Lloyd Webber blockbuster Cats wear Dreamcoats at the Opera to hear Evita scream about Superstars on Sunset Boulevard and you still can't get anything better than the third balcony in the back, you're definitely NOT living in Montreal.

Life on the boulevards. Anyone who's ever visited Montreal in the summer is amazed at the amount of street life. The place fairly bustles; it shakes and shimmies; it teems with happy half-naked people. On many tree-lined avenues, every second business is a bistro, a cafÄ; crowds of people spill out onto colourful terraces, sipping cappuccinos and nibbling croissants, chatting animatedly while patient dogs pant gently in the shade of wrought-iron marble-top tables. It ain't Paris but it's as close as you'll get -- so much so that US film companies usually avail themselves of these locales to reproduce French settings. In a city where strolling is a way of life, what's better than a café on every block where you can sit and enjoy the afternoon sun?

Moral: If you're sitting in a French-style café where the waiters are rude and everyone refuses to speak to you in English, you're living in Paris.

Best of all, Montreal's a great town to have fun without spending a lot of money. Here are a few ideas for this summer; note that most of these events and venues take place every year.

Big tickets
Festival International de Jazz de Montreal. "The best jazz festival in the world" according to the Chicago Tribune. Over 500 shows, many of them under the stars, of which 350 are free -- and all of it within easy walking distance in the heart of downtown. Dates: June 27 to July 7, 2002. (tel: 888-515-0515/514-871-1881; www.montrealjazzfest.com)

Just For Laughs Festival. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the world's largest and best-known comedy festival, which brings together artists from around the world to whoop it up for your amusement. Over 2000 performances, including 1300 free outdoor shows. Dates: July 11 to 21, 2002. (tel: 888-244-3155/514-845-2322; www.hahaha.com)

Montreal International Fireworks Competition. Considered by many to be the most prestigious pyrotechnics competition in the world. Prices may seem steep ($31.50 to $42; kids' rates available) but keep in mind you can see the fireworks for free from many spots around town -- if you want a prime spot near the Jacques Cartier Bridge you'll have to stake out your turf early. This year the festival, renamed Le Mondial SAQ, features nine shows, each lasting 30 spectacular minutes. Dates: June 15 to July 28, 2002. (tel: 800-361-4595/514-397-2000; www.lemondialsaq.com)

Montreal World Film Festival. As film festivals go, it's no longer hugely prestigious and doesn't attract big-name stars anymore for reasons which, in my endless battle to avoid litigation, I'd rather not go into here; let's just say poor management may or may not be a factor. A fascinating by-product of this, however, is that Montreal's film festival is now less expensive and more likely to attract smaller, more interesting films which don't have a chance in hell of airing at any of the other biggywig festivals. Note that I said "more likely" and I stand by it. In those instances where the movies stink, it's still fun to sit in the Imperial, Montreal's last remaining palace cinema with a non-descript façade but a still-captivating interior, and boo, hiss and throw popcorn at the screen alongside other amused/bored/appalled movie fans. Dates: August 22 to September 2, 2002. (tel: 514-848-3883; www.ffm-montreal.org)

On the edge
Festival International Nuits d'Afrique de Montreal. The wildly popular "African Nights" festival continues to build momentum -- and draw new fans -- year after year. This world-class music event celebrates the spirit of Africa and the Caribbean and this year's 16th annual edition promises to be spectacular, with more than 500 artists from over 20 countries. The festival also includes workshops, an African market and exotic cuisine. Dates: July 11 to 21, 2002. (tel: 800-361-4595/514-499-9239; www. fest nuitafric.com)

Divers/Cité, Gay and Lesbian Pride Celebration. One of North America's major Pride events, this international festival features a colourful parade, free outdoor events, concerts, parties, amusement park thrills, art exhibits and more. Dates: July 29 to August 4, 2002. (tel: 514-285-4011; www.diverscite.org).

Kicking around
Casino de Montreal. As one of the few "legal" gambling venues in Canada, the casino draws crowds of locals and tourists alike; patrons range from diehard gamblers desperate for their big break to casual folk who visit just to wallow in the lovely gaudiness of the thing. Formerly the French and Quebec pavilions of Expo '67, the casino features floors and floors that fairly bristle with more than 3000 slot machines, 120 gaming tables and a whiz bang ding-ding-ding atmosphere worthy of Las Vegas at its tackiest. It's also home to the Cabaret, a spectacular 500-seat performance hall dedicated to world-class variety shows, and four restaurants that are bound to suit all tastes, including the most refined, surprisingly enough. So -- while you can lose your shirt here, which would make the venue not inexpensive, you can also sail through without spending a dime. (Jean-Drapeau Park; tel: 800-665-2274/514-392-2746; www.casino-de-montreal.com)

Montreal On Wheels. The perfect place to rent bikes, tandems, trailers for children, rollerblades and scooters; you can benefit from guided and self-guided bike tours, free bike-path maps, a repair service and even a place to buy great inline skates. Montreal On Wheels is located in the heart of Old Montreal, right on the bike path which leads to Jean-Drapeau Park, where you'll find La Ronde, Montreal's hoary but gradually improving amusement park thanks to a much needed influx of funds and resources from the Six Flags group. Bikes or skates are a great way to explore these two lovely islands, which along with La Ronde offer pretty paths through gentle woods; you can also visit the F1 race track and the Casino while you're at it -- and all of it for a song. (27 de la Commune Street East; tel: 514-866-0633; www.caroulemontreal.com)

Old Montreal Ghost Trail. Three different theme tours to give you chills: Montreal's Crimes Scene, where you get to relive some of the city's most infamous crimes. There's also the New France Ghost Hunt and, if you just can't get enough of the mysterious, Legends and Stories, which explores some of Old Montreal's best kept secrets. All in all, a great way to explore Montreal's old city, where very little of the architecture (with the possible exception of the brand new and spectacularly monstrous Conference Hall) is less than 300 years old. Reservations a must. Tickets: $12, $5 for children and $10 for students; group rates available. (Promenade du Vieux-Port; tel: 514-868-0303; www.phvm.qc.ca)

 

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