I was lucky enough to visit my best friends Ali & Samah in Montreal, Canada this summer (2015). My family and I spent a wonderful time with the greatest hosts in the world who helped us experience the Quebecois life and build great first impressions of this beautiful country.
I believe in the saying “there is nothing called second impression” so I tried to capture my impressions on my phone and summarized them here.
The Quebecois Cuisine
An essential part of every trip we make is the eating experience. For someone to embrace the culture of the country he is visiting, few things help as much as eating does.
Whenever I told my Canadian friends that I am visiting Montreal, I received many recommendations on where to eat. However, one name stood out as the go-to place and it was Schwartz. A small vintage restaurant near a hipster side of the city called Le Plateau. Schwartz is an old, tight and smelly yet its smoked meat attracts celebrities from all over the world! I
was even told that Celine Dion sat on the same table I used! Another famous thing about Schwartz is the waiting time in queues diners endure as they stand in the cold weather of Canada. The service was relatively good and definitely efficient/effective. The bilingual waiter asked if I was a first timer – something easy to spot with the gestures of disappointment of the layout of the place. Once I acknowledged that I was a newbie, he told me that there was no need to read the one page menu and offered me the classic smoked meat. He complimented it with a medium-rare steak and some homemade pickles. Schwarts does not only offer a great taste but a unique experience as well.
On the dishes level, it seems like the flagship of the Quebecois cousin is dedicated to Poutine. This extremely unhealthy and ugly plate of French fries covered with gravy and melted cheese proved to be dangerously delicious. I was very disciplined to try it once only near the an amazing part of Montreal called the Old Port.
In Montreal, the tables in Italian restaurants are mainly waited by Italian staff. The same was evident in other restaurants like Mexicans, Brazilians and Greek. This is something very uncommon in Abu Dhabi – except in luxurious outlet where you pay the monthly salary of the waiter as part of your pasta bill!
Open buffet dinner has always been my favourite for various reasons – no limited to eating guiltlessly. However that “all you can eat Sushi” evening taught something really interesting. In Montreal the Sushi restaurant had a policy that you can order all you want, yet for every piece you do not finish a dollar is added to you bill. While I obviously did not have any issue with leaving food behind, the policy made complete sense. I wonder how much more money restaurants here would gain out of food left after those lavish Ramadan Iftar meals!
The Rambos of The Streets
I rarely drive when I travel due to my lack of adaptation to the new rules. This time I was encouraged to drive by my friends who needed to make the 6-hour trip from Montreal to Toronto more tolerable. However, I have to admit that behind the wheel I felt like a savage coming out of the jungle on the inner streets of the French speaking city. There, the pedestrian is a king and cyclists have a blind faith that drivers will acknowledge their priority. I know, it sounds very alien to drivers in many parts of the world. Another Montreal first to see was per minute parking meter! You do not have to pay for the full hour if you are staying 15 minutes near Jean-Talon.
On the outskirts of cities and on highways the experience was different. The first thing that caught my attention was the importance of GPS navigation to the local themselves. The highways are intertwined and connected like a maze. For a resident in the UAE another important aspect was the absence of the Rambos of the streets on the highways – no tailgating stunts, no blinding flashlights and no F1 mind-set behind big trucks.
According to Ali, Montreal is a student city and the home of four huge universities attracting more than 100,000 students. This made the population visibly young and vibrantly energetic especially on St. Catherine Street – the bustling hub of downtown Montreal. The identity of Montreal is influenced by its students who are generally active, ambitious, fun and their positivity is definitely contagious. They bring their talents from across the globe and invest it in Montreal later on as professionals and researchers.
The population is so young that I was easily spot on within their loud groups. It might have been the strands of white hair in my beard or simply my imagination but I genuinely felt that in few years girls will stand up and give me their seats on the metro!
Throwing a Canadian tantrum
Travelling with kids proves to be a serious test for all stress or anger management techniques one can ever learn. In one of the many events, Maria threw one of her Oscar winning scenes in public, which forced a police officer to intervene and ask me about my relation to her! According to the police officer my conversation with Maria is considered violent on the Canadian scale of violence – or the UN’s human rights one for that matter!
On another incident, I left Maria with Ali in a big store to be able to get the items we needed. The rising Meryl Streep started shouting at Ali “do not take me, I want my daddy!” That was enough to attract half of the population in Quebec who all assumed an undercover role in the child protection agency! With the worried looks of the shoppers examining the situation, the only thing that crossed my mind was to silently whisper in Maria’s ear Russel Peter’s “Somebody gonna get hurt, real bad!”
Two Seasons: Winter & Construction
I was told that a classic joke about the weather in Montreal is that the city has two seasons – Winter and Construction. It might be a political joke to justify the unlimited sites of construction around the city.
Visiting Montreal in the summer was an excellent choice. The marvellous fresh breeze, light casual rain, the many sunny days made the trip exciting! Walks in the park of Mount Royal and running in West Mount were a great change from the burning heat of the Arabian summer.
Obviously when Canadian weather is mentioned, winter shines like a star in any conversation. While nice people warned me of freezing winter that spans six months of the year, mean friends invited me to come in February! (Hassan and Lara)
In Canada people come from all over the world to live and stay enjoying their diversity and uniqueness. They all fit in a nice collage of cultures, ethnicities backgrounds making the community a nice assortment of differences that draws nice picture of inclusion. The citizens do not dissolve into a common melting pot; rather they create a collection of unique differences of the Canadian Mosaic!
The Canadian inclusion phenomenon is an incredibly humbling experience for anyone who assumes race or ethnic superiority! Everyone is Canadian or yet to be. Many come to Canada with long term plans to stay, invest and grow.
The inferiority complex of some Arabs towards the superior Caucasian race can be resolved smoothly in Canada. Just by seeing how the “white man” of the first world is filling the regular job across the spectrum of the labour force is insightful. This becomes more impactful when contrasted with the Arab World where nationality and race play a huge role in deciding the remuneration of the staff!
Tu parles Français ?
Like many non-native speakers of English, I always question my fluency and my accent. My trip to the smaller towns of Quebec phenomenally boosted my confidence. They do not only speak with a thick French accent but they also use make affirmative statements sound like questions pushing my brain to look for an unneeded answer!
On another note, I regret every moment I was the clown of the class in those French sessions in high school. At least it would have come in handy to ask about street names and metro stations! The only name I managed to pronounce correctly was Place Jacques-Cartier near the Vieux-Port (I did not get this one right!).
Moreover, it was interesting to see the impact of language on demography and how French was a huge barrier to entry for many migrant communities. For many francophone nations the language was a ticket to the Quebecois party.
Whenever we travel, friends from the country visited claim that their fellow citizens are beautiful and friendly. In Montreal this was an understatement by all means. Colourful in their exaggerated revealing summer outfits, the montréalaises were energetically attractive.
An Old Friend from Dubai
Meeting an old friend in a “café trottoir” on the other side of the world is always interesting. Meeting Hadi who lived for a long time in Beirut and Dubai and now lives in Montreal was a truly insightful episode of my trip. The common experiences we had made the conversation more relevant and persuasive. This offered me a refresher on what really matters to me, what is beyond career progression, savings or possessions. something I tend to miss while living in a transient environment like Abu Dhabi. A funny yet thought provoking comment Hadi made was that he was still grappling with understanding the motives that made him spend 3000$ just to get fancier tyres for his Wrangler while he rarely did an off-road! Another interesting comment was the fact that in Montreal he developed friendships with types of people generally invisible in the consumerism lifestyle of Dubai. His friends are not limited to his social/intellectual groups but they are waiters, carpenters, students and others. Such comments are food for thought for me and moment of realignment and calibration.
Landing in Canada:
Living in the UAE added an intuitive question to every first conversation with almost everyone I meet about what they do and what company they work for. I swiftly noticed that in Montreal the equivalent question was “how long has it been since you landed as a PR?” PR stands for Permanent Resident and Landing is an unofficial legal term indicating the start of process to get a Canadian citizenship. Obviously this is according to my consultant on the Canadian issues – Mr. Ali Dirany J
Producers and Consumers
In many bureaucratic 3rd world countries, companies hire 4 people to do the job of two and they end up doing it poorly. In Canada only one person is hired to do that job, he is overtaxed until he dreams of moving a 3rd world country.
My friends work for leading corporations are an example of how hard a Canadian citizen has to work to make means for an end. They compete with the best brains in the world in a tight job market to create the global products we – third world citizens – sell and consume.
Palestine Is Closer In Canada
It was heartwarming to see how my friends made Palestine look closer. It was in their conversations, attitude, and values. These types of conversations are uncommon in countries where Arabs live.
Airport “Random Check”
While I appreciate the global measures against potential terrorists on planes, it was very odd to be the only person “randomly” checked within a queue of almost 50 others. This happened not once but twice towards the same gate which made me wonder if ISIS leaders have my hairstyle!
Toronto was a huge shock for us with its never-ending traffic jams, big crowds everywhere, and metropolis rush hours. On a very short visit, I can confidently say that Toronto did not make a great impression on me.
On the contrary, Quebec City was a piece of art in terms of architecture and landscape. We visited the city on a Sunday which is ideal to see the street performers and tourists. The narrow streets, the magnificent paintings on the buildings and the fabulous water front all made the city worth visiting.
While I was impressed with the sense of safety in Montreal, the residents of Ottawa told us that it seems the capital is even safer for family raising kids. The place seemed more relaxed with fewer high rises and less cars on the streets. We were also told that public services are better and taxes are lower compared to Quebec.
The power of nature, the magnificence of beauty, and the futility of photography can be all witnessed once you are near the Falls. The nearby parks were not less impressive at all and the
closes by attractions were tempting. The best part of the visit was the boat trip under the falls with the mist of water. An important note to self was “If everyone is wearing waterproof coats, there might be a chance that they are not all wrong!”
A Pious thief!
We booked a furnished apartment in downtown Toronto through a website dedicated to small B&B’s. Our host was a very pious and virtuous looking gentleman. He was very keen not to make eye contacts with the ladies and to take off his shoes (and ours) as we entered his apartment. It was very obvious that he dedicated his life to good deeds and to avoid stealing, cheating, lying…
This became completely ironic when he explicitly told us that what he is doing is illegal (tax issues). He was even more satirical when he requested that we lie to the security officers of the building about our connection to him.
The Lebanese Migrants: They Just Impress Me
I cannot but notice the attitude of Arab communities in every country I visit. Apparently the Lebanese diaspora is among the easiest to spot with their French tone to their English accent and an Arabic flavour to their French – among many other noticeable attributes.
According to my anthropology advisor Samah, the Lebanese immigrants are among the biggest communities in Montreal. They seem to be very successful business owners or at least the spend as if they were. Unlike the Lebanese in Brazil, the Canadian Lebanese are still tightly connected to their homeland, they visit their country very frequently, and their restaurants offer authentic Lebanese cuisine.
In a very telling incident about the general attitude of the some Lebanese groups in Montreal, I met two mothers with their kids waiting for the elevator. They probably did not recognize that I can speak Arabic and started complaining about the electrical elevators punctuality. This seemed hilarious to me because it included in one sentences two very rare currencies in Lebanon – punctuality and electricity.
As a father travelling with my 3 year old daughter, safety is a paramount concern for me. I read reviews, I ask friends and I plan carefully. Yet keep on looking for alarming signs or actions while on the streets. Montreal is a definitely one of the safest cities I visited – it is not Abu Dhabi, yet very safe. The fact that metro stations are not filled with jobless youngsters looking around for an easy prey of pickpocketing (like in Paris) was a very good indicator. Another sign that made me feel more comfortable was the fact that teenagers and college students were comfortable walking around the streets texting and looking at their phones without worrying someone will snatch it from their hands (like in Sao Paulo). Finally just noticing that people were wearing their backpacks on the back was something that reminded me of Barcelona where this would be sheer stupidity in Las Ramblas.
The Arab Brain-Drain
Once an Egyptian friend of mine told me how the cashier in a supermarket in Winnipeg expressed her appreciation to his nationality by saying “All the doctors in my town are Egyptians.” I honestly thought he was being patriotically poetic.
During my trip this year I understood what he meant when we visited old friends from Egypt who live in Toronto. The father in the family is a seasoned healthcare professional, the mother is an elegant and experienced educator and their two sons are both majoring in leading fields of sciences. They all left the Arab world to subscribe to a country that embraced them as legitimate citizens.
Tabbouleh and A Lot Of Love
What an amazing feeling to have family in Canada! They have the overwhelming Arab generosity fused with the genuine Canadian kindness. A Lebanese get together is never complete without a barbeque in the backyard, home grown veggies for the Tabbouleh, an upsized plate of Kibbeh Nayyeh and an unlimited stream of memories and old times tales.
They genuinely just wish you stay longer, eat more and visit again soon. Famille Chaaban, merci beaucoup et à bientôt.