Montreal Grand Prix Weekend, 2003
Friday June 13, 2003
The weekend of the 2003 Air Canada Montreal Grand Prix officially kicks off and the insanity is only beginning. Tens of thousands of people from all over the world flock to Montreal for the Grand Prix. It is a truly international event in a truly international city. Much of the downtown streets get blocked off. Souvenir booths go up. Stages are built. The lingerie show is Friday night. All the posh shops along St-Catherine fill up their storefronts with Ferrari memorabilia. The Grand Prix is the biggest international sports party in all of North America. Italians are here. The Japanese, Austrian, Belgian and German contingents are hitting the bars at noon. I'm surrounded by Japanese girls wearing bright red Ferrari baseball caps, flirting with Japanese tourist men. And I have to mention the gaudy Czech transplants wearing unbuttoned disco shirts, exposing hairy chests and tacky necklaces while they waltz through the drizzle in search of Montreal’s world-renowned adult clubs. Wasn't there a Saturday Night Live sketch about these guys?
The stage at the corner of Crescent and Maissoneuve is rocking. Soon the Formula One cars will come through on display.
To get out of the rain, I slip into a bar called the Madhatter at the corner of Drummond and Maissoneuve, calling itself the “best dive around.” Beer and Sports paraphernalia drown the place and, as everywhere in town, Grand Prix flags abound. I order a steak and fries for $5.99 and two eight ounce glasses of Labatt’s Blue. The bar only has eight-ounce glasses for some bizarre reason. Classic Rock blasts from the jukebox. The far wall is "el muerte wall" -- the dead wall -- with photos of Jimi Hendrix, the Rat Pack, James Dean and more. A wooden crossbeam above quotes a Morrissey lyric: “What she asked of me at the end of the day, Caligula would have blushed.”
I hear that Montreal rings like a European summer, a party for tourists and natives alike, but during the Grand Prix, everything is jacked up a notch. Along with a beer festival lasting five days, this is the kickoff for the summer, with the Montreal Jazz festival coming up in two weeks. It is a city of festivals. After the horrendous winters when people mostly occupy the indoor pathways and mall, along comes spring and then everyone jumps for joy.
Tickets for the Grand Prix are nearly impossible to get unless you book the whole thing a year in advance, or so I’ve heard. I am here on business. Not racing. I haven't owned a car in three years.
The Mad Hatter is a great bar. I don’t dislike a single person here. It’s amazing that more Americans don’t come to Montreal. It’s only a one-hour flight from New York or Boston.
And the Grand Prix weekend is the perfect time to be in Montreal, even if you have no interest in racing, like me. No, I never spent my teenage years endlessly working on cars. I never greased my hair back. I never argued about Edelbrock Manifolds. And rednecks in general picked on me in high school. And college.
But in Montreal it’s different. There are people here form all over the world. Fans from across the ocean call up the pubs on Crescent Street and request the same outdoor tables they had last year. And the year before, and before. The Grand Prix is that intense of an event. And unless you book early, there’s not a hotel room available within fifty miles of the city during the grand prix weekend.
Which is precisely why I couldn’t stay for the weekend and decided to infiltrate Quebec City instead. While waiting for my ride up to that city -- the only one in North America designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO -- I escape to McLean's Pub at 1210 Peel Street, just south of St-Catherine. A legendary Montreal haunt, McLean's used to be the old Peel Street Pub and they have great food. And great waitresses. And great beer.
The front of the pub opens out onto the street, giving me an all-encompassing view down Rue Dorchester Square with the Square itself on the right and the Montreal Tourism Bureau on the left. While the instrumental last half of “Layla” by Derek and the Dominoes softly emanates from the jukebox, I sip a glass of Boreale Rousse, Quebec’s first red beer, and gaze out at the crowds. It’s still raining, but the weather doesn’t stop all the stylish Montreal babes walking by on their way to the shopping on St-Catherine. Since it’s Grand Prix weekend, Ferrari and Mercedes executives can be spotted everywhere. Nothing here seems like North America. I feel like I'm in Europe. The sky is gray and still drizzly as two old ladies walk by speaking French. I immediately spot a perfectly sculpted female ass in white pants crossing Rue Dorchester Square with an umbrella. It seems like every female in Montreal under 30 is required to wear tight clothing. Something about this whole scene -- the final piano-driven two minutes of “Layla,” the drizzle, the gray sky, the ass and the Ferrari execs -- reminds me why I travel. I have a new respect for Derek and the Dominoes.
There’s a unique attitude here that I can’t describe. There’s almost like two completely different histories of this place -- the Anglophone and the Francophone -- well, to be more precise, three if you count the indigenous people that were here first. And everything in Montreal is somehow intertwined with this triangle of history. If you’ve read Beautiful Losers by Leonard Cohen, read it again before visiting Montreal. The whole book is about this particular triangle, a theme you might not even catch if you haven’t been here.
Legendary Montreal author Mordecai Richler, an old crank if there ever was one, carried on endlessly about the city’s schizophrenic nature. Many Quebecois, I'm told, will not recommend his book, Oh Canada, Oh Quebec, as it blasts the hysteria surrounding the separatist movement in the eighties and early nineties. The book is out of print, but I’d recommend it wholeheartedly. My awesome local library owns a copy.
Sunday June 15
Being here for the start of the weekend and immediately after the race was enough. Vieux Montreal (Old Montreal), where it looks and feels exactly like Europe with its cobblestone labyrinth of streets and 300 year-old buildings, comes alive with stages and parties after the race is over on Sunday. Race fans wind up the weekend by flocking to the old town for their final party. Again, if you desire to escape the hysteria, head across town to the Plateau Mont Royal neighborhood, where a legendary brew pub, Dieu du Ciel! awaits.
Dieu du Ciel! is an unpretentious little establishment at the corner of St-Laurent and Av. Laurier in a predominantly Francophone neighborhood. Faux copper tables. A view through the glass of the fermentation canisters. DJ coffin in the far corner. Locals of all ages hanging out. Cheap t-shirts for $10-$12. They have probably 50 bottled beers from around the world, but their own brews are to die for. With names like l’Aphrodisiac, Rigor Mortis III, La Païenne (The Pagan), Résurrection Porter, and beers brewed especially for each solstice and equinox, the creativity of brewer Jean-François Gravel comes shining through. The available selection of brews rotate on an almost weekly basis and you can even visit their website to see what’s available on any given day. Now that’s a microbrewery!
Montreal cannot be experienced without a dinner on Prince Arthur Street, a famous outdoor restaurant row and pedestrian area spanning two city blocks. Most of the restaurants have several rows of tables jutting out onto the street, and the cops will occasionally come by and make sure that the tables don't jut out too far. And at each place you’ll find a sign that says Apportez votre bouteille du vin which means you can bring your own bottle of wine. As a result, several nearby liquor stores offer a wide selection of wine and beer. If you ask a waiter what the beer selection is, he’ll point at the nearest liquor store and say, “We have a great selection of beers. And they’re all at that store right over there.”
And, of course, on Prince Arthur, you’ll have to endure a few jugglers and street performers asking for donations, but that’s what makes it a unique place. Talent is everywhere in Montreal.
On this trip, little did I know that a short blurb would appear on the editorial page of the San Jose Mercury News, dated July 11, 2003, facetiously suggesting that the San Francisco Bay Area should become the eleventh province of Canada because the Canadians are starting to legalize gay marriages, decriminalize marijuana and they were feverishly against the war in Iraq. And they’re tolerant. And that SF Bay Area folks know their hockey. Not as crazy at it sounds, might I add.
Montreal is a difficult place to leave. This cosmopolitan bilingual place, where the Anglophones and the Francophones have somehow managed to live side by side for centuries without going to war with each other again. On one hand, this might seem a wake up call for all those extreme folks in America, railing against bilingual education, saying that no other language but English should be spoken in our dear nation, suggesting that any introduction of another language will eventually threaten our own language. Idiots. All of them.
Of course, it’s not smooth as silk in Montreal. There is definitely a language war going on behind the scenes, but the Montrealers somehow manage to rise above it all and just carry on with life as it should be lived. Or, at least it appears that way on the surface, as I'm only here for a few days.
Back in the MadHatter, it’s 2:55am and I pull out my last handful of Canadian change to buy one last Boreale Rousse. The bartender winces when I tell him my flight back to San Francisco leaves in five hours. Although it’s almost three in the morning -- closing time for bars in Quebec -- the MadHatter is alive. A group of girls come in, none of whom are possibly older than twenty. They order pitchers of beer. Remembering that the drinking age in Quebec is 18, I look hazily at one of them. Her fiery red locks down to the middle of her back make me rabid. Irish? Scottish? She's skinny with a pierced belly button, drop dead gorgeous, even without a pitcher of beer in each hand.
I turn and look up at the ceiling, where that same Morrissey lyric is carved into the wooden crossbeam: “What she asked of me at the end of the day, Caligula would have blushed.” God I love Montreal.