The two cities share a surprising number of things in common - not all of them positive. But there's a saving grace for travelers looking for a compete change of scene.
written and photographed by Hania Kauzman
I travel to escape my routine lifestyle, to escape the bubble that has slowly been forming around me while I linger in my comfort zone. I travel not only to experience the thrill of being somewhere new, but also to enjoy some peace and quiet away from the hustle and bustle of Cairo’s streets. But when my parents told me that we would be going to Montreal to visit family, I was filled with mixed emotions. I was ecstatic to be taking a break from Cairo, but I was not too excited about the destination itself.
I had been to Montreal time and time again when I was younger, and was never its biggest aficionado. For some reason I cannot quite comprehend, Montreal has a reputation of having a “European flair and sophistication to it,” making it one of the most popular cities in Canada. However, my memories of it are quite bland — to me there were no sophistication or flair, nor even any beautiful sceneries or history. It was just a busy metropolitan city with a huge drug scene and striking similarities to Cairo in some areas.
Montreal is basically a hybrid; an even mélange of English and French cultures. This is so perfectly illustrated in the “bonjour, hi” that people are greeted with as they enter restaurants or stores. Since Montreal is one of the most bilingual cities in the world, customers are given the choice to opt for the language they feel more comfortable speaking, although recently, the Quebec government has been pushing for the French language to be used more frequently; ‘STOP’ signs are even being replaced by signs that say ‘ARRET.’ The city’s architecture also portrays this Franco-English mixture: there is an awkward combination of modern downtown areas coupled with old-fashioned pedestrian marinas across the city. It’s hard to quite comprehend Montreal’s general blueprint since some areas are for the most part ‘metropolitan,’ such as downtown Montreal, while the rest of the city has been left intact since the French and British invasions.
We arrived on a Thursday afternoon, excited to be away from Cairo and the stifling traffic and pollution that come with it. We took a rental car and headed out to our house on Rene Levesque Street where we would be staying throughout our 10-day visit. Though the trip from the airport should generally take around 15 minutes, it took us an additional hour because the streets were under construction (realization: towards the end of my stay I came to terms with the fact that the streets of Montreal are always ‘under construction,’ leading to tedious hours spent in the car, just the way it is in Cairo). The minute we arrived, I stepped out of the car to unload our luggage, expecting the “beautiful spring weather” that my cousins had promised, only to feel a strong gust of freezing wind penetrating my cardigan and silk chemise.
Ill prepared for the cold, we went on a quest to find appropriate outerwear. We took the car down to Saint Catherine Street, known as “Montreal’s Times Square.” Times Square is associated with skyscrapers, colorful lights and huge billboards, however, the closest Saint Catherine gets to Times Square is a relatively large sign that read ‘CINEMA’ next to downtown’s most famous movie theatre.
Although downtown Montreal is squeaky clean, without a single cigarette butt on the sidewalks, one striking similarity that it shares with Cairo is the lack of parking spaces. Although drivers in Cairo simply leave their cars wherever they please, regardless of whether it would block a street or disable other drivers from getting in and out of their parking spots, drivers in Montreal don’t really have the luxury to do so or else they would have to pay a $100 fine (give or take depending on the infraction). It actually took us around 45 minutes to find a parking spot: we had to go around the same couple of blocks countless times, hoping to find one of the already parked cars ready to vacate their spots. Oh, the frustration you endure when you see a car about to leave its spot and another car seizes it before you can! During these 45 minutes, I really could not help but think of Am Abdo, the sayes who takes my car and relieves me of this strenuous and tedious task back home.
The next morning, I stepped out onto my dusty balcony, which commanded a perfect view of the Soeur Grise church and convent. The beautiful view of the old gray and green basilica, the bare trees decorating its facade, and the sun shining through the baby blue skies onto my cold face, only slightly offsetting the freezing wind, encouraged me to stop being such a killjoy and go and explore downtown Montreal. My sister and I geared up in our new Canada Goose jackets and set out to Crescent Street, one of Montreal’s most well-known brunch and nightlife strips. We settled on the Sir Winston Churchill, the oldest joint on Crescent Street, owned by Johnny Vago, a Hungarian immigrant who took part in the Cuban Revolution.
After our rich yet scrumptious meal, we decided to go for a walk on Crescent Street, which was getting jam-packed with Les Canadiens fans, Montreal’s local hockey team. Flocks of men and women dressed in red and blue jerseys were glued to the TV screens with their pints of beer in the various outlets, watching an (apparently) intense ice hockey match — though I had absolutely no idea what was going on, I could tell it was intense by the amount of ‘OOOhs’ and ‘NOs!’ voiced in an unprepared unison as I walked by. I couldn’t help but be reminded of the local ahwas in Cairo filled with Ahly and Zamalek fans on derby day. I had thought that it was our culture itself that led sports fans to be so passionate and oversensitive towards a game, but realized that this was also embedded in the Canadians.
We continued our walk up to Sherbrooke Street, where I began to smell something familiar; a few blocks later I realized that this scent was none other than me’asel. Our walk had extended into “Little Egypt” as some people call it — we had entered the Egyptian zone, where the majority of Egyptian expats and students lived. Not only could I smell a familiar Egyptian scent, but all my other senses could also detect home. A sense of pretentiousness prevailed, with residents trying to impress each other with their designer handbags, luxury cars and expensive clothing.
On Sunday we decided to do something different that didn’t involve downtown Montreal for a change, and chose to attend a mass at the Notre Dame church in the old port. The area itself was such a stress-free environment, one that exuded serenity and happiness. The food was also excellent, and did not fail to impress the foodie in me — we had poutines, fries topped with cheese curds and warm, light brown gravy, as well as the old port’s legendary queues de castors, fried dough pastries with Nutella, cinnamon, vanilla ice cream and a drizzle of Canada’s famous maple syrup on top.
The sound of the children laughing and playing with one another in the area was so foreign and satisfying to my ears, and the singers and various bands that played and sung with such compassion and love warmed my heart. This general atmosphere did in fact possess the “European flare and sophistication” that I had dreamt and heard about numerous times, and it strongly juxtaposed downtown Montreal. The hustle and bustle and the tense and routine lifestyle was what I had travelled to escape, yet unfortunately, always found myself getting dragged into in Montreal. If only I had known what the old port had to offer since the beginning, I am certain that I would have had a completely different experience.
This article was originally submitted for Dr. Richard Hoath’s Travel Writing Class at AUC.