By Shain Shapiro
Three years ago, I boarded the Toronto -> Montreal express train to celebrate a friend's birthday. Armed with a backpack full of La Fin Du Monde (The End of the World) beer, a wooly jumper, and a change of pants, I took my seat quietly on the train and began to wait patiently as it trudged through Eastern Ontario on route to Canada's best city.
Then all hell broke loose.
As the train pulled out of its only stop just north of Toronto, an overweight, visually joyous man noticed the empty seat that my bag was occupying, walked over, and plopped himself down, sandwiching me between the freezing window and an overpowering, fetid scent. Then, after introducing himself as Michel in a bawdy Francophone accent, he called the staff over and proceeded to drain the carriage of beer, two cans at a time. A few hours of drinking later, due to the frozen tracks, which was the excuse we were given by the operator, the train stopped in the middle of nowhere. And then the heat malfunctioned.
So Michel ordered us more beer. And more beer. And more beer. Already three hours late and absolutely hammered from the combination of freezing temperatures and warm beer, Michel, significantly more legless than I, stumbled up out of his seat, dusted off some frost congealing on the side of his mouth from spilt booze, and began to sing in French. He sang loudly and out of tune, and he accented his singing hyperbolically with some interesting dance-like accompaniments. With the rest of the carriage already furious from Michel's bacchanalian behavior and unabashed alcoholism, anarchy ensued. As both staff and guests attempted to either throw Michel off the train or tie him down in order to do so at the next junction, the train suddenly sprang to life, flooded the carriage with heat, and started moving. And Michel kept on singing.
I finally got Michel to quiet down, and a few hours later, the train arrived in Montreal, five hours late. As the passengers departed, Michel took a book out of his bag and proceeded to scribble furiously on the inside cover in French, waiting until the entire train was empty to get off. Then, as if nothing had happened, my evening's jovial entertainer thanked me for the company, gave me the book (a paperback copy of The Shipping News), and disappeared into the desolate, freezing concrete jungle of downtown Montreal. After apologizing to my friends and taking a cab back to their loft, we proceeded to decode Michel's message etched onto the front cover of the book. After a few trips to the dictionary, we discovered that not only was Michel a singer, but he was also a songwriter. The five-minute aria he treated us to was an original and was decoded on the front cover, telling the story of an older man in search of a prostitute before going to visit his son in Quebec City the next day. In addition, the back cover of the book contained about fifty numbers of women, all color-coded to organize and inventory service, price, and quality. What Michel had given me was a guide-book on how to get laid in Montreal because he had already memorized each specific sight and sound. At that point, it hit me. This is one special city.
The Arcade Fire
It is no surprise that the best music in the world is coming from Montreal as of late, including The Arcade Fire, STARS, Wolf Parade, Bell Orchestre, Shalabi Effect, and Besnard Lakes. "This is the greatest city in North America," argue many of its inhabitants. It's a storied, bilingual city where you can get four-star take-out at 5 a.m. and a massive Vermonster at Ben and Jerry's a few hours later. Inhibitions are openly explored nightly on Rue St. Catherines, while the summer boasts top-notch jazz and comedy festivals, just weeks apart. In addition, it can get so cold in the winter that limbs go numb after five minutes of trudging through the snow and so hot in the summer that being outside is equally unbearable. This is a city of intellectuals, idiots, and idiot-savants. A city where you can get a pitcher of beer, a pound of wings, and a lap dance for under $15.