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Going Home
  Montreal Travel Tale

by Lorry Patton

montreal_path.jpg Vancouver's lights disappeared as the evening train moved smoothly east through the Fraser Valley into Cariboo Gold Rush country where the Fraser Canyon begins. I looked at my sisters who stared out the window at the shadowy images whizzing by, their faces reflected in the glass. Forty years ago, our family left Montreal and headed west on the train. Now we were going home. What would we find?
Tamara, who instigated the journey, broke the silence. "I did not think this trip would ever take place," she said seriously, as we rattled past traffic held at bay at highway crossings. We waved at the impatient drivers and agreed that daily life does have a way of taking over a wish list. Yet here we were, Maria, Tamara and I, ensconced in a cushy car, completely absorbed in the movie Canada. We stayed that way until the Fraser Canyon plunged the rolling scene into darkness.
A tap on the door, and an attendant poked his head in to ask when we wanted to retire. This was first-class and first-class included sleeping accommodations, all meals, and perks like a nightly turn-down.
Our belongings stowed in the closet, we explored the train while the attendant transformed our sitting room into a bedroom. Outside our door the corridor led to a classy dining room on the right, and on the left to a tiny bar, a comfortable lounge, and a glass-enclosed observation car from which we could see in all directions. It was dark and the observation car was empty. A couple of smokers were partaking of their habit in the air-conditioned bar while the lounge bristled with a group of chattering foreigners. Most of the passengers were international tourists -- the majority on this trip from Germany and Switzerland -- versus the local commuters who traveled from city to city in the coach cars up front.
Our drawing room was small but not claustrophobic. The only thing missing was a place to put our toiletries. Falling asleep was easy. Lulled by the rhythm of the engine, ears tight against the pillow, the 'clickety-clack" of the steel wheels drummed adventure into our dreams. One night we woke to a flash lightening storm in the distance. It was better than any laser show I have seen.
At daybreak the observation car filled quickly as Canada's beauty and vastness rolled toward us. First came the Rockies. They stood guard like border soldiers. Wearing their winter ermine caps and nobly dressed in evergreen, some in dark grey granite, they separated the West Coast from the rest of Canada more effectively than any man-made wall.

via_trip_mountain210.jpg In the valleys, burnt areas by the tracks (purposely ignited to keep the forest cover low) bore newly planted saplings; yonder hills were a mixture of yellow birch and pine. Lakes were shades of turquoise and emerald (created from the glacial silt in the water); the rivers, wide and shallow and deep and narrow, scratched and dug away at the pebbly ground. These scenes were what the world envisions when the world envisions Canada glorious, wild and grand. Naturally, by the time we reached Alberta, our bewitching native land had us under her spell.
The train stopped in Jasper for an hour. For a few breathless moments we got to inhale the fresh air that millions of tourists, four thousand residents, and countless elk and deer enjoy each day.
Most of Saskatchewan was traveled by night; Manitoba, we saw, plain as day. Rain and fog created misty swirls over the endless spent fields and, when the sun peeked through, rainbows framed haystack pyramids. Occasionally, a lonely grain elevator pierced the silver skyline.
As the trained neared Ontario, the autumn hues of birch and aspen cast a glorious blanket of pale yellow and burnt orange across the horizon. Just east of the border, Lake of the Woods, ringed with summer cottages and beached boats, caught our eye. Parry Sound grabbed our attention when boulders in shades of pink, gray and black, towered over the tracks. By now, maple trees had begun making an appearance, however, the most stunning example of Canada's symbol was in Quebec.
Whether by design or merely coincidence, the decor in the dining car was in the same greys, pinks, and greens as was the landscape outside the window. It was a pleasant, carefree, relaxing place, with good food and good service -- and where we did most of our reminiscing. Years had gone by since our journey west, yet each of us had a precious memory to share. And share we did, until the train squealed into Toronto's 1927 Union Station ... or the moving picture on the other side of the glass became too spectacular to ignore.
We spent the night in Toronto, at Natalie's, another sister's home, and continued our journey in the morning with her in tow. Only five hours and twenty-three minutes remained of our four-day rail adventure, yet some of the prettiest terrain plied by the silver ribbons still lay ahead. By chance, we had timed it right, and before long autumn shades of pastel pinks, rusty browns, and fiery reds lit entire hillsides. The sight was exhilarating and nostalgic and brought back memories of Mount Royal, Montreal's namesake park and mountain, where Mom used to take us to get away from the concrete city.
I liked the way the train gave us time to reflect on the past, become comfortable with one another and get in the mood for Montreal. The four of us talked incessantly about the schools we went to, the street markets we shopped at, the snow we played in, the Iceman and his wagon, the singing Ragman, and our parents. Sometimes the memories were sad, but most of the time we laughed at our youthful perceptions. Before we knew it, we were in Gare Centrale, Montreal's Central Station. Forty years, four nights, and four days, had passed, just like that.
When we stepped down from the train, I felt at once separated and attached to the city that helped shape my young life.
Excitedly, maps in hand, we picked up our rental car and continued to the Hotel du Forte, just blocks from where we grew up. We did not waste any time. Shortly after checking in, we were out the lobby door and on St. Catherine Street.

montreal_store210.jpg It was the same and it was different. Lowes Theatre was now a Famous Players theater. Signs of renovation (or was it demolition?) covered the Strand theater -- where Johnny Ray and I "cried" -- in scaffolding and boarded shut the 1924 Forum where we used to go to the circus. Dunn's, the chrome and plastic diner that served the best smoke meat sandwiches in the world, still served the best smoke meat sandwiches in the world; and Olgivy's, a high-scale department store, was more prestigious than ever. They had even hired a piper to play at the main entrance each midday.
It was past nine at night. The traffic was thick with motorists and pedestrians crowded the sidewalks: couples holding hands, lovers kissing, girlfriends arm-in-arm, animated, laughing. I could feel the intensity, the vitality, and the passion I felt as a teenager, but now as an adult, I could feel the seriousness, too.
To the distress of many Canadians, including residents in Quebec, many Quebeckers would like to separate from the rest of Canada. They feel that it is the only way that Quebec will retain its special status as a "distinct society." What "distinct society" means is not exactly clear; however, any doubt we might possess regarding Montreal's distinction compared to other cities in Canada is absolved seconds after arrival. But, is it distinct because Montreal is so French or is it because the rest of Canada is so English? We learned, after speaking with shopkeepers, students, pedestrians and street venders, that most people are unhappy with the political rift, whatever side they are on. "This is an emotional issue," said one street vender, uncertain about his future. "And emotion overcomes good judgement." And therein lies the dilemma, the threat of separation (or promise as some believe) hovers over the city like a cloud.
Meanwhile, tourism is booming. Of course, it is. Montreal is a satisfying place to visit. Its "Old World" atmosphere appeals to North Americans and its well-promoted "distinction" attracts the rest of the world. Its charm isn't all mood, either; the tangible attractions are there. The city is visually beautiful, emotionally energetic and audibly melodious, with its centuries-old gray stone structures, its ornate cathedrals, its active waterfront, its arts and theater programs and its sophisticated hospitality industry.

montreal_building_old210.jpg The next day we pretended we were tourists and went on a guided tour. We visited the award- winning Biodome (four ecosystems under one roof), drove by the pricey Olympic Stadium, explored the Botanical Gardens, and crossed over to St. Helen's Island where we used to go on school field trips. We had lunch at a fancy French cafe‚ on St. Dennis Street, a street of private flats gone restaurants.
To avoid parking hassles, we took the subway to Old Montreal. Block after block of brick-faced buildings and leaf-strewn courtyards lined cobblestone streets, accommodating art galleries, restaurants, museums, historical homes and gift shops. The waterfront market we frequented for chickens and produce when we were kids was under restoration.
The most amazing metamorphosis we discovered was the city below the city. A quick, clean, cheap and an efficient subway connects twenty miles of shopping malls, apartments, and even churches underground.. You could, in theory, live your whole life down there, without ever seeing a ray of sunlight. That would be a shame, however, because the city above blooms with marigolds and other colorful flowers when the sun shines.
Our final day, we drove up and down the residential neighborhoods and soaked in the architecture and the culture like a carload of sponges. We each had our trivial pursuits. Mine was to find the gray granite school I attended and the street market with the pungent smells. The building that was our home for so many years was gone. In fact, the entire block had been demolished. However, the school I went to was still there -- although no longer a school and not nearly as intimidating as I remembered. Similar streets to ours were just around the corner.

montreal_cemetary.jpg The brick flats with their winding outdoor staircases, the stone walls covered in trailing vines, the tall windows with the deep sills, the basement grocers, and the maple and oak trees planted in every available square inch of dirt. I found it all overwhelmingly familiar.
Our last stop was at the cemetery. Our footsteps made a comforting crunching sound on the silvery blanket of fallen leaves as we neared our father's headstone.
If ever I did, at that moment, I did not feel like a visitor.

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