Saturday, July 3, 2010

All That Jazz

Montreal--We're here for a long holiday weekend, occasioned by the scheduling tomorrow (Sunday) of a wedding of one of Eileen's friends. I'd never spent much time here--in fact, I'd been here only once before, on a quick run up from Vermont way back when I was doing some court studies there. A friend insisted on taking us then to the famed Schwartz's deli to have smoked meat, the Montreal answer to pastrami or corned beef. Since everything here has to be labelled in French, Schwartz's has become Chez Charcuterie Hebraique Schwartz officially and I haven't been there this time because I didn't especially go for the smoked meat then either (it doesn't taste good, like pastrami and corned beef)--or, for that matter, their version of bagels, which are sweeter and smaller than the home variety.

But enough about Mordecai Richler's Montreal, which is as far gone today as he is. Montreal, in every other respect, is one great place. The weather has been fantastic, cool and sunny. The city is amazingly attractive--old and new buildings, lots of nice parks, a wonderful botanical garden, and as fine a range of restaurants as you will find anywhere. The standard there is very high. We've gone in three days to Greek, local French, and Portuguese restaurants--all three were superb, each in its own special way. The Greek place had a delightful Greek salad, lots of cucumbers and truly ripe tomatoes, and good octopus and fish generally; at the Frenchd one, Eileen had a top-notch steak frites and I had marvelous field greens salad with chives and venison done in osso buco style--oh yes, there was this chocolate mousse concoction too; and lastly, the Portuguese, Ferreira--one of the finest places in town, we were told--where we had a cataplan, which is a bouillabaise Portuguese style cooked in a pan with a cover called a cataplan, and black cod with porcini and a port-based sauce, preceded by grilled calamari and a tomato, melon, and arugula salad. A number of places we passed on Boulevard St. Laurent and environs were having a Lobster Festival, which I haven't managed to try out yet.

We're here in the middle of the Montreal Jazz Festival and last night went etto a large theater in the Place des Arts to see and hear Laurie Anderson, Lou Reed (her husband as well as the originator of The Velvet Underground and Walk on the Wild Side), and saxophonist John Zorn in concert doing improv. She played violin and a keyboard, Zorn only his sax, and Reed all kinds of guitars and banjos, but wildly amped with a keyboard and synthesizer and who knows what other electronic gear. I wanted to give it a chance and Eileen really wanted to bug out about three minutes into the barely more than a hour-long program but we stuck it out...and it didn't get any better. It was incredibly loud, but I sort of expected that--I didn't figure, however, how it fits into anyone's definition of jazz or even music. Most of the audience applauded and seemed to like it all right, but one dissatisfied customer shouted out that they should play music, to which Zorn responded--in the group's only spoken words onstage--that if he didn't think it it was music, he should "get the fuck out of here." Today's Montreal Gazette review said that everyone was a loser: those who didn't like it and even those who did, because of the short set.

The Atwater Market has wonderful comestibles of all kinds and the Jardin Botanique (botanical garden) is huge and very engaging. It contains Chinese, Japanese, and First Nations (Canadian tribes) gardens, amid all kinds of other gardens--aquatic, plants grown for food and fiber, roses, lilies--that are in bloom now that it is really summer here. The French language law seems to be honored in that every sign and label is in French but everyone speaks French and English, except, it seems, the Metro, on which everything is in French. It figures, since the whole operation could readily be switched to the Paris original without anyone noticing the difference. I think the French signage, despite views to the contrary, is good for visitors in that it emphasizes the difference that underlies the whole society in Quebec--this isn't like visiting any other place nearby in the U.S. or even Toronto or Ottawa.

I didn't mention yet that we travelled here (and will return) on the Adirondack, Amtrak's 11+ hour special from New York's Penn Station to Montreal' s Gare Centrale. I'm not sure the train is always packed as it was the other day with Jazz Festival-bound riders from New York, but the trip is spectacular, as you first travel all the way up the Hudson east bank to Albany, on the old New York Central main line as far as Schenectady, then it's the old Delaware & Hudson route up past Lake George and Lake Champlain. It's a day train--which means all day. The cafe car is standard Amtrak. The trip takes as long as it does because the track alongside the lakes and the Champlain Canal is both curvy and probably not the most up-to-date so speeds get slow. We also killed almost 1 1/2 hours at the border with Canadian customs, who probably take as long as they do because I assume their U.S. brethren do the same. By comparison, it only took an hour each way at the border between Greece and Macedonia, where we all had to get off the train and give them our passports, and those countries aren't on good terms; it took even less when we crossed the old Iron Curtain by train west of Pilsen in Czecho back into then-West Germany.

We also managed to be the last on your block to see Billy Elliot on Broadway as we passed through New York. The show is a bit slow-paced, probably runs too long as well, and has just average music by Elton John and unmemorable book and lyrics, but--the cast, especially its dancers, make it work and leave the audience on its feet. We were right up there applauding with them. It was great theater.

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