I should have expected people in Montreal to speak French. I should have expected to see French on menus, municipal signs, coffee lids, etc. But all that French language still seemed ridiculous to me, a bit pretentious put-on. Like Montreal spent a semester studying abroad at Ithaca College’s sister school in Paris and returned home with an unearned superiority complex, complaining about the inferior quality of croissants at Dunkin’ Donuts and stocking their cupboard with Nutella. Maybe it’s because the people of Montreal don’t look especially European, at least according to my own fairy tale idea of what Europeans are supposed to look like, as informed by the films of Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Pink Panther cartoons. Instead, French Canadians look like Americans with interesting noses and restricted access to contemporary hairstyle techniques.
But, after spending a couple of days vacationing in the city, Lisa and I noticed that Montreal is probably closer to a European city than an American one. That’s because in Montreal no one seems to do anything. All day long. Apart from eating very long lunches, or quietly drinking beers and smoking cigarettes in darkened pubs or on sun-exposes terraces. (Which they pronounce “terr-AH-sess.” That’s class!) It’s nice, really, if you like that sort of thing. And I guess I mostly like that sort of thing.
There is also a distinctive lack of self-consciousness I noticed here and there, something I’ve seen before in other European cities. In Barcelona, I saw heterosexual men walking arm in arm, wearing matching pink tanktops with overalls buckles attaching the shoulder straps to the torso, their girlfriends walking 2-3 steps behind. In Paris, cool kids see nothing unusual about pairing band-collar button-down shirts, pleated shorts, tennis shoes with navy blue argyle socks, and then wearing the entire outfit to go jogging, and later to eat at a fancy restaurant. In Montreal, there is Mt. Royal Park.
Lisa and I had heard it can get pretty weird there on weekends, so we decided to check it out last Sunday. At Mt. Royal park, we witnessed two large, wildly divergent but concurrent group activities within about 500 feet of each other. To imagine either of these things happening in Central Park without attracting any kind of ridicule or abuse is simply inconceivable.
First, as we were entering the park along Ave du Parc (Park Avenue, guys. COME ON!), we noticed people all around us, carrying all kinds of crazy Africa drums. The kind you put around your neck with a strap, the kind you snuggle between your legs in a standing-birth stance, and the kind that are shaped like regular Africa drums but are really tiny and designed for junior Africa drummers or for novelty purposes, or maybe for cats. And you know how you see one thing, and then it opens up your other senses to things that should have been incredibly obvious to you? Like you suddenly have a slight, acidic taste of vomit in the back of your throat and then you realize, “Holy crap, I am tied to a motel bed and a German businessman is squatting over my chest and vomiting into my mouth…and this is how I’ve been earning my salary for the last fifteen years! This is quite a wake-up call–literally.” Well, that’s what happened to me when I finally heard drumming and shouting coming from just up ahead, and then smelled patchouli oil, and saw a huge swell of people dancing, including a 50+ year-old white woman performing elaborate “pull up the roots” African dancing deep knee bends. And that’s when I suddenly had a slight, acidic taste of vomit in the back of my throat.
It was truly strange and honestly not altogether awful to see all those people dancing and playing drums with unwavering intensity. (In both the dancing and drumming departments.) Young and old people danced side-by-side. A kid with emo bangs and skinny jeans danced less than one meter (Hi, Canada!) from one of those hippie guys who’s always using a free hand to loop his long hair behind an ear. A balding, forty-ish man in a sports jersey performed a series of short, jerky hops along with (well, really it was more out of sync with) the drumming. I was pretty drawn to him because he reminded me of a 1960s square trying to “drop out” for the first time–like Peter Sellers on pot brownies in I Love you, Alice B. Toklas. And even as I watched him and invented stories of his life, he freely entered and exited the throng of dancers without even a hint of rebuke. The amount of love and tolerance was pretty remarkable.
Actually, “pretty remarkable” is a bit of an understatement, especially considering that not 500 meters (through-line!) from the percussive love-in, on a large, dusty clearing where no grass seed may find purchase, was a group of at least 40 guys beating the living shit out of each other. And they were administering the beatings with oversized broadswords swords, shields, battle axes, spears, scimitars, and daggers made of plastic or tension rod heavily wrapped in duct tape. Some participants wore full body armor, including custom-fit chainmail, tunics, and iron face masks (or, in one person’s case, a Halloween wolf mask); others were perfectly content in low-slung jeans or sweatpants, Nikes, and bare chests. Amazingly, the entire affair was conducted largely without the presence of humor. (That isn’t to say that they weren’t having fun. They just weren’t there to goof around, as there was very serious sword-touching to do.)
Ordinarily, there’s a word for this kind of medieval sport act-em-out: LARPING. This wasn’t larping, though, because only about 40% of the participants were full-fledged knights and magic users. (Not coincidentally, it was mostly the older and ponytailed men who had invested a considerable amount of ingots or Linden Dollars on their suits of armor with matching gauntlets.) The younger majority were, as best as I could tell, some kind of cross between skate punks and heshers (L7s can get an imperfect definition of heshers here) who were just out for the physical thrill of getting down low in the dirt on a Sunday afternoon and swinging a duct-tape sword at older dudes probably spend way too much time home-brewing chocolate stout.
There were clearly rules, and everyone playing seemed to inherently understand them. I guess if you go to the trouble to build a four foot-long sword and haul it across the city, you have probably also taken the trouble to memorize a few rules of fake-sword conduct. Either that, or they just applied the basic rules learned from the video game Ghosts & Goblins. Whatever the case, there was an interesting order to it all, and a quiet respect between kids who were way too cool to be doing this, and older guys who were exactly cool enough to be doing this. Lisa and I practically had to be pulled away, and not because we were concerned about the fate of The Noble House of Doofendork. It was just really hard to register how all of this could be happening on a typical Sunday afternoon in a city as large as Montreal, without a hint of irony. In fact, I think that departure from meta-criticism and self-consciousness was like a second vacation wrapped around our planned getaway. I liked it a lot, even if Montreal really does need to get over its bagels.