The drive from the farmhouse in New Hampshire to the center of Montreal takes exactly four hours. The other day, we loaded Dingo and some bags into our Subaru Outback, the official, mandatory automobile of northeastern New England, and set off, northwest on the Kankamagus Highway through the White Mountains into Vermont’s ludicrously picturesque landscape, over the windy, lonely border (we had to talk Dingo’s way into the country, since the tourist bureau lady I spoke to neglected to tell me we needed papers for him). We rolled along the flat bare reaches of southern Canada, past wind farms, alongside miles of enormous electrical wires. We crossed a long bridge spanning a huge bend in the St Lawrence River, and there we were.
It’s shockingly, astoundingly cold in Montreal this time of year. The city sits atop Lake Champlain and is typically buried in snow and scoured by icy winds from October until May; the wind comes straight off the polar icecaps with nothing to stop it. Although the city didn’t really remind me of anywhere else, in a superficial, visual sense, I had the impression of a colder, bleaker, less crowded south Brooklyn, the streets all around Prospect Park. But this is apparently erroneous, because during the other five months of the year, according to Brendan, the city explodes into colorful, decadent, exuberant life, festivals abound and the streets are packed with people, the parks alive with musicians, fire throwers, and dancing, drunk revelers spilling from bars onto the sidewalk.
We had come to Montreal to meet our friend Rosie. For an essay on the great bars of the northeast, she was researching one of her favorites, a bar in the Plateau called Else’s – which also happened to be Brendan’s old haunt when he was a music student at McGill. We arrived at Else’s and hunkered down around a little table with red wine and hard cider. Rosie emerged from a cab outside the plate-glass window and swashbuckled into the crowded room in an elegant, hand-knitted poncho, looking foxy and puckish. She ordered herself a Guinness and a Jameson’s, neat, and we got down to helping her with her research. After a few preliminary rounds at Else’s, we went for dinner at l’Express to keep up our stamina – oysters all around and then steak frites for them and steak tartare for me — and concluded our night’s work with a nightcap back at Else’s — actually, two; we broke Rosie’s 1-nightcap rule and ordered another round while she was out having a smoke.
The next morning, Rosie went back to New York on the train. Without her ebullience to shore us up, we fell freely into the fugue state that had been awaiting us since we’d got here. All afternoon, we walked with Dingo through the thick snow around the city, past the conservatory where Brendan had spent most of his waking hours for four years, past a burger joint called Mama’s, where we looked in through the window at the TV screen on which he’d watched the Twin Towers fall, past the balcony of the apartment where he’d once spied his soon-to-be ex-girlfriend making out with another guy across the street, past all the places he’d lived, old familiar cafes and bars, the Anglican church where he’d sung every Sunday in the choir, hung over and pale.
Brendan was abstracted, flooded with memories on every corner; it was the first time he’d been back in 8 years. I was likewise abstracted and taken up with the past, but only from writing about it so much recently, totally unconnected to anything there. The only thing connected to my own history was hearing French spoken again, but the Canadian accent is to the French as Scottish is to English. I could barely understand it, and when I spoke in French, I got looks that said clearly, “We don’t care for your Parisian pidgin around here.”
It was a relief for me to forget my current preoccupation with my own past. Intermittently, Brendan talked; I listened and asked questions. He was, unsurprisingly, wildly depressed most of his time in Montreal. He drank beer all the time, smoked too much, didn’t eat enough. He wasn’t cut out to be a classical guitarist, or rather, it was not his passion, and by his junior year, he knew it; he got his music performance degree anyway and did his writing in bars and cafes, outside of school. He had one strange, lonely relationship after another. Most of the school year, it was winter – I could feel viscerally what it must have been like. If it hadn’t been for his best friend, Richard, he told me, he might have left.
That night, after Dingo had been fed and walked and left to sneak up on our bed again as soon as we were gone, we went to eat Basque food a block up from Else’s. When we got there at 6, they were just opening. We sat at a table in the window and ordered a bottle of rioja and the degustation menu – 3 pinxtos and a main course each.
The food emerged from the kitchen over the course of the night in a warm, savory blur. We were hungry from walking all day in the cold. We ate everything: torchons de foie gras, shot glasses of creamy pureed cauliflower soup, hot figs stuffed with warm Serrano ham and mahon cheese, cassoulet of duck, chorizo, black pudding, and white beans, and braised beef cheeks, so soft they were almost melting, over mashed potatoes.
Finally, after that long day of near-silence, navigating banks of snow and slush with a city full of other people doing the same thing, all of our heads ducked into our hats and scarves against the frigid wind, not making eye contact, we thawed out and talked. After dinner, somehow still hungry, and still talking, we ordered a plate of mild, nutty Spanish cheeses and more wine. When we found ourselves outside on the sidewalk again after almost five hours, we didn’t feel the cold at all anymore.
My mother’s vegan cupboard soup
During his junior year, Brendan lived with three macrobiotic Canadians in the Outremont neighborhood of Montreal. They lived on barely steamed vegetables with brown rice and seaweed and the bread one of their roommates brought home from the bakery where she worked. Brendan wasn’t thrilled with this diet; he supplemented it with Canadian cigarettes, all the beer he could drink, and the occasional, gluttonous cheeseburger and smoked meat poutine rampage.
My mother recently went (voluntarily) on an all-vegan diet, purely for health reasons, but she found it agrees with her; when I got home from Montreal, she had emailed me the following cheery, good-sounding recipe:
“I just made an amazing soup. Truly amazing. It’s what I had on hand: I browned 5 onions, then covered them and let steam in 1/8 cup water for 1/2 hour till all soft and creamy. I cooked up 1/3 cup of arborio rice in 3 cups of veggie broth for 12 minutes, then added a whole bunch plus 1/3 of a bunch of chopped celery, and the onions, plus 2 cups more broth, and cooked that till the celery was just barely soft, 10 or so minutes. I added only salt and pureed the whole thing – a very thick creamy absolutely delicious tasting soup! Now eating it with slices of Tuscan peasant bread filled with chopped olives, covered with a tiny bit of almond butter. I’ve made this before with mustard greens instead of the celery, also v good. This vegan diet ROCKS!”