Montreal – Ville de Coeur

Montreal, QC

Francophile that I am, I have somehow ignored the fact that a mere eight hours to the north of me is a city that is seeped in French history, culture and language, but also is a solid part of North America. I am, of course, speaking about Montreal. As you approach Montreal from the highway, whether in a car or on the Greyhound bus, the city rises above the agrarian plain of southern Quebec like a dream. It’s hard to imagine that this far north after traversing the mountains of Vermont and the fields and farms of Quebec, that a city so cosmopolitan and radical is there existing and waiting to welcome those of us weary of the United States.

Bonjour Montréal!

Bonjour Montreal!

While I’ve been to Montreal twice before (and loved it each time), my visit a few weeks ago was the first time I got to immerse myself in a Francophone community thanks to my generous French hosts who were living there for a year from France. I learned quickly that there are three overlapping, yet separate, communities in Montreal: Anglophone, Francophone from France, and Quebecois. Montreal exists at the intersection of these three  groups and fantastic things happen there linguistically. Quebec is a French-speaking Province, but English is a second language in Montreal. By law everyone must utilize French in public until you determine you are both Anglophone and then you switch. This means that everyone speaks some kind of French and no one judges you for your accent. My accent was called “German,” which I found exceedingly charming. Montreal is low-risk French speaking and the French that is spoken is generally tempered with a North American accent. Overall, everyone has a good feeling about Montreal, whether they speak English or French and come from other parts of Canada, the United States, or Europe and Montrealites are very proud of their city.

I count on Montreal for its refreshingly radical politics that always have a sense of humor and artistry

Montreal is a nexus of good eating. I skipped the gourmet options, like Au Pied de Cochon, and went straight for the everyday fare. My favorite by far was Depanneur Le Pick Up. A depanneur (or “Dep” for short) is the Montreal equivalent of bodega, corner store, convenience store, or epicerie, depending where you come from. However, in its magazine rack Le Pick Up carries zines and DIY albums, its coolers are full of natural soda (including a Pine Sol-like tasting Spruce variety), and it includes a lunch counter and outdoor tables and services a killer weekend brunch and huge, tasty sandwiches, including pulled pork in both authentic and vegetarian versions.

Thanks to Aurelie Letizia and Danisha, two lovely blogeuses mode et beaute, I spent a lovely, girly, brunch at l’universal, talking about WordPress, fashion week, and sharing news about other blogueses. The fast friendship and camaraderie reminded me a lot of meeting up with zine pen pals over ten years ago and it is a wonderful feeling to build an international community. The brunch at l’universal is also full of delicious eggs, home fries and comes with a side of fruit salad.

Passage obligatoire / bagel pilgrimage

Bagel breakfast at St. Viateur

Beyond that I couldn’t help but make a stop at St. Viateur Bagles (no one can come to Montreal and miss this!). Montreal bagels are smaller and less chewy then New York-style bagels. They have a lightness to them (for a bagel) that I love. I also had a coffee and sandwich at Le Caigibi, which offers great vegan treats, and sampled Montreal’s response to the cupcake craze at Petits Gateaux.

Petite souvenir douce de Montréal!

Artwork at Petits Gateaux

I also could not miss poutine, which is practically the national dish of Quebec, though somehow I did not eat this Canadian comfort food of fries, gravy and cheese curds the last two times I visited. For a gourmet, Scandinavian twist on traditional poutine we were recommended by one of my Instagram friends to try Cafe Ellefsen.

Poutine Norvégienne! Miam!

Poutine Norvégienne at Cafe Ellefsen

I got a poutine with Swedish meatballs and fresh, local cheese, which made it less heavy than the average poutine and served in a light, airy environment. We also had some lovely drinks at Notre Dame de Quilles, which is either a bar and restaurant that has a few bowling lanes (where you reset the pins yourself and they are candle pins, for all of you northeasterners out there!) or a few bowling lanes with a bar attached, depending how you look at it. “Quilles” is “Bowling Pin” in Quebecois, by the way.

Hmmmm... Bon question Elle Québec! #taco ou #poutine ?

Elle Quebec explores the important questions

Despite promising myself I wouldn’t shop very much, Montreal is a shopping paradise if you like handmade, quirky things and cutting edge fashion. I got my Canada-made fix at General 54 in Mile End, which features all Canadian designers, and has a vintage annex next door. It is owned by Jennifer Glasgow, whose designs I love and whose perfectly on-trend yet timeless shirt I showed off in my last entry. At the very trendy Bubbles Boutique I picked up a fancy vegan wallet by Montreal-based eco-couteuriers Matt & Nat, which I think will serve me well.

Nouveautés de Montréal!

Nouveautés de Montréal! Zines, books, wallet, tote bag and blouse!

While wandering around Le Plateau and Mile End I got my book fix in French and English when I dropped by the Drawn and Quarterly bookstore.  I’ve admired the comics and graphic novels they have put out for years and loved the selection of fiction, theory, graphic novels and cook books they had on offer at the shop. I also went to Librarie Le Port de Tete for art books, mini comics and livres en francais.

Sign for Drawn and Quarterly book store

Mon nouveau coup de cheveux lesbien pour n'importe de qui (j'adore)

Showing off my new “Lesbian Haircut for Anyone”

Montreal is a mashup between languages, people and cultures and because of that it is an extremely open, welcoming place. Identity is strongly asserted, but everyone is welcome to participate. For example, I booked a “Lesbian Hair for Anyone” (or “coup de cheveaux lesbien pour n’importe de qui”) with JJ, who is also a very talented artist and photographer. I also got a haircut from JJ on my last visit to Montreal in 2007 and both of these haircuts have been among my favorites! I also participated in a “Dance Workshop for Anyone” that combined yoga, modern dance technique and improvisation and will culminate in a dance video! Here’s a video of the first workshop and I will be sure to share the resulting video when it’s available.

Kawaii: Don’t the their name fool you, they are punk as f*ck

Finally, I couldn’t talk about Montreal without talking about the vibrant art and music scene there. I had hardly stepped off the Greyhound bus than I found myself at a house party listening to fantastic experimental bands and accidentally insulting a member of Dirty Beaches. There’s also a lot of French from France musicians and artists living in Montreal searching a vibrant artistic community. I was lucky enough to meet Minnie, the talented singer in Eliote & The Ritournelles and see my hosts band Kawaii play (despite their name, they are not cute, they are the punkest music you will ever hear made from toys). Finally, we went to Blue Sunshine, which is a soon to be ending cinema in an apartment building showing everyone from salvaged VHS classics (er, trash?) like “Ghoulies 3: Ghoulies go to College,” or (as we saw the night we went) rare shorts of historical and educational films centered around Montreal. They are closing on May 19, so if you love independent cinema in unconventional settings, go! Now!

I miss Montreal already and can’t wait to back. How did five years pass between my two trips? It hardly seems possible. Also, quick tip for New Yorkers: if you can’t stand eight hours on a Greyhound bus or the prices of flights to Canada try this: fly JetBlue to Burlington, Vermont and then catch the Greyhound to Montreal (it stops at the airport). There’s also an amazing diner, Arcadia, within walking distance of the airport if you have over an hour to wait. They serve real maple syrup with their pancakes at no extra cost. Montreal via Burlington is cheap, fast, and more relaxing.

The Arcadia (formerly Parkway) Diner, Burlington, VT

Breakfast at the Arcadia Diner counter in Burlington, VT

My pictures, sadly, look less than great and I learned an important lesson: even if it takes up a lot of space, if you are leaving home and want to take pictures do not leave without your DSLR!

The Utopia Project I: Vermont Studio Center

Red Mill Building, Vermont Studio Center, Johnson, Vermont

Vermont Studio Center, Writing Studios, Johnson, Vermont

What compels an artist to create art? Is it internal or external? Is it the environment, inspiration from peers and community members, or simply having the space, time and opportunity to work? What environment is most nurturing  to art and what type? Do artists create better in urban centers, buzzing with life, where their daily peregrinations and haphazard meetings can be the source of inspiration? Or do they need peace, quiet, solitude, nature and focus? While I live and work in the first set of circumstances (Brooklyn has the highest per capita of artists of New York’s five boroughs), I’m curious about the second. Specifically, the intentional artist’s community.

Roof of the wood and metal shop, Vermont Studio Center

This summer I am setting out to explore artist residencies, retreats or schools that have consciously built themselves away from urban environments. They are all situated in locations of surprising natural beauty, yet each has a particular history and offers artists a particular experience.

Bird houses, Vermont Studio Center

Swimming hole, Johnson Vermont, near the Vermont Studio Center

Places like MacDowell and Byrdcliffe reach back one hundred years or more, while others, like the Vermont Studio Center, reinvent the tradition. This summer I will be traveling to residencies, retreats, art schools and colonies in Vermont, New York State, New Hampshire and Maine, reaching out for work, but documenting these unique places for myself and for this project. I’m searching for insight into artistic inspiration, ideas about what binds an artistic community, and educating myself about an important tradition in the history of making art in the United States.

Deck of the Trustees House, Vermont Studio Center

Old Town Hall, Vermont Studio Center

Old Town Hall, Vermont Studio Center

My first stop was a seven hour drive north of New York City to Johnson, Vermont, which is practically on the Quebec border. I visited the Vermont Studio Center, which is a relative newcomer to the artist residency scene, and was founded by artists in 1984. Housed in a series of old mill buildings, and even the old town hall, the Studio Center integrates with the tiny town of Johnson. The residency itself is very independent—residents, who are visual artists and writers—come together for meals and studio visits, but that’s about it. Otherwise, they work in their studios and many of them work to keep the residency running. The residents themselves are diverse and hail from all parts of the world and are at all stages of their careers as artists. Serious, community oriented, independent, all set in a very tranquil northern landscape of lush hills, rivers and forests. While I’m generally unmoved by northern landscape (having grown up in one), the Vermont Studio Center felt like an escape for me as well. I hope one day to return as a resident.

Sign on the kitchen door, Vermont Studio Center

Inside the Red Mill, Vermont Studio Center

Night, Vermont Studio Center