I think it was while I was trying to find my way through one of the myriad capitalist catacombs beneath Montreal that I realized that I liked the city.
As with all business meetings, one gets a warped sense of where you are at while you are there. When you spend 80% of your time in and out of hotel conference rooms, you don't get much chance to sample the local color. One of the nice things about Montreal is that the city comes to you. Not in your face, just in subtle ways. For example, one afternoon following 7 hours of meetings I stood outside the Le Centre Sheraton enjoying a cigarette. I was minding my own business when 3 motorcycle cops pulled up to the curb in front of me. They were soon followed by a small TV crew, a convertible and a guy running with a torch. I'm not sure what Olympic style event this was promoting but I soon found myself face to face with the Expos' mascot...and he was belly bopping me. Then as quickly as they had appeared, they were gone. Montreal had appeared, slammed stomachs with me and then bolted. While odd, it was extremely inviting.
Since I was travelling with a bunch of my female co-workers, I was of course offered the chance to visit Old Montreal. This apparently is the old dock area that has been transformed into a giant cobblestoned antique hunters wet dream. A tourist trap, I was certain. I was much more interested in seeing the underground city. As my fried Ros pointed out, it is in fact an underground mall. I knew that but it's still freaking UNDERGROUND! My mind was filled with images of morlocks and hobbits and strange mole-eyed dwarves hatching world domination plots. What I found of course was miles and miles of subterranean shoe stores and fast food. Still cool but not quite the Neil Gaiman adventure I was hoping for.
I had been to the towering behemoth known as Mall Of America only the week before I stepped into the underground city, so it was going to take a lot to impress me. The term "Underground City" is very apt. The Mall is not the only thing underground, but it has become a focal point. Underground parking, train stations, shopping malls, banks, businesses and the subway all intertwined into roughly 80 miles of underground walkways. I can only assume that underground movement began as a way to combat harsh winters. Somewhere along the line someone realized the incredible retail potential. Believe me, they maximize the space.
My first visit to the city ended abruptly when I found myself in a concrete stairwell and then walking through a secret door in the entranceway of a building out onto the streets. I got a much better opportunity to see it later in the week. If you are new to Montreal, it's easy to get lost. This is a blessing in some ways because you have the opportunity to look around. One minute you are in an over heated corridor that looks like an airport concourse with a few travel agent shops and a shoe shine, then you turn the corner and you find yourself in the midst of a brick walled series of literally 15 restaurants with a fantastic view the city's main train terminal. If you double back a way you step out into a huge, gleaming mall that jets up 4 stories to a glass roof where the sun finally pokes in.
The "mall" is really a linked chain of different malls. Some sections are more up scale than others, adding to the allusion to a city even more. As with any mall, it's hard to get your bearings and know what time it is. How strange that even in this age of digital clocks and cell phones, we still feel the need to be in sight of the sun to know where and when we are. Maybe it's just me.
If you are in Montreal, take a day and enjoy this. Montreal is a nice city. I regret that I didn't have a chance to see more of it. I was initially afraid to go there because of the French thing. I think all Americans should have a healthy fear of the French. What I found instead were warm, inviting Canadians in a city of vast diversity...who just happen to speak French.
- Eric August 2001