Monday, October 22, 2007

Montravels in Montreal

We're in Montreal for a long weekend. Montreal is a lovely mix of
European and North American city life, full of cafes, ethnic
restaurants, mixed languages, and wanderlust-inspiring parks. Okay,
more European than North American (though we could get the American League Baseball Championships on tv to see how the Red Sox/Indians series wound up). We get up here every few years and
always have a great time. However, there is one aspect of Montreal
which gets me every time: French (the language).

I'm generally adept at languages. Tourist-level language comes
quickly and easily, and I tend to remember basic phrases for a long
time. French, however, has a bizarre opposite effect. I can't recall
basic French phrases. Even worse, when someone speaks French to me, I
lose the ability to speak at all, even in English! This happens all
the time: some addresses me in French and my mind goes totally blank.
Waitstaff will say something (to clarify my badly slaughtered attempt
to order) and I'll just stare at them trying to figure out how to talk
again. Shriram has seen this often enough to believe me, and we are
slowly learning that letting him order for us both spares much family

From a scientific perspective, I find this fascinating though.
Experience has led me to believe that I have a default "stammering"
language: when in a foreign language situation, my brain defaults to
the current "stammering" language. For a long time, that language was
Chinsese (which I majored in as an undergrad). That's been replaced
by German due to my many conferences there over the years. How is it
then that one language (and only that one language so far) causes me
to lose language ability entirely? Surely there's an interesting
explanation for this -- pointers to any relevant theories?

Fortunately, the language of cycling is nonverbal, so I've been able
to get around quite handily on two wheels this weekend. Montreal is
often hailed as a great city for bicycling. Last time we were here,
we brought our bikes and rode the Lacine canal route, which runs along
the St. Lawrence River. Or so we hear. The day we did the ride was
so foggy that we never saw the water, even though we rode alongside
it, over it, and around it for several hours. Still, the biking
infrastructure seemed good enough that we brought the bikes again for
this trip. We spent yesterday on and around Mt Royal, the main
vantage point over the city.

Today, I ventured along the lines marked as some sort of bicycle route
on the tourist map. Biking lanes here are fairly sophisticated. The
biking lanes run between the sidewalk and parking on the side of the
road, sometimes separated from the cars by short concrete walls.
Biking routes are well-marked, and clear marking indicate when biking
lanes will cross one another. I usually don't like city riding, but
the lanes here are quite enjoyable.

A short spin in the bike lanes highlights, however, that cars and
bikes follow two different road protocols. Cars behave as cars
usually do: traffic lights, signaled turns, and the usual degree of
city aggression. Cyclists, in contrast, follow Indian road culture
(as I described in my earlier Indian travelogue): traffic lights are
suggestions at best, and plowing through perpendicular-moving traffic
is par for the course. Even as a pedestrian, I've felt more at risk
from the cyclists than from the taxi drivers (which I'd heard warnings
about on local cycling pages). The craziest cyclists are invariably
riding helmetless (as are most cyclists here). Casual observation
suggests that helmet wearers are much more likely to be men than
women, and spandex seems reserved for touring cyclists rather than
weekday riders. Quite a change from home, where most cyclists are
exercising rather than commuting and seem aware that they are
violating car-based road protocols, rather than asserting a vehicular

Vegetarian visitors should check out Cafe Lola Rosa, on Milton street
near McGill. We had two delightful meals at this little veggie cafe
on this trip, as well as a fine Tibetian meal at Shambala on
St. Denis. Montreal is very veggie friendly, though with less
elegance than veggie restaurants in France. Dishes here are both
North-American- and French-inspired, but generally fairly light yet
filling. Attempts to locate fine croissant on this trip didn't work
out too well, but that gives a goal for the next time we make it up
this way.

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