Here's a partial list of what I saw during my first 24 hours in Montréal: fire-breathers and flaming-baton-twirlers; an exhibition involving five or six fantastic drumming troupes from all over Africa, attended not by a small group of novelty-seekers but by an estimated 100,000 people; a seminary built in 1685, still standing next to an incredible Gothic cathedral; belly dancers who weren't incredibly authentic, but were so sexy nobody cared; five minutes of Beverly Hills Cop dubbed into English (Eddie Murphy isn't funny at all with a different voice); a licorice-flavored cocktail named for moviemaking pioneer Georges Méliès, served in the bar of an art-film multiplex; irrepressible young men convincing delicious women to take rides on their bicycles.
Those beautiful people were everywhere, it seemed. I can't remember visiting another city with such a high-class gene pool — and they all had sexy French accents and unusually body-conscious clothes. But I wasn't in Canada's French province to check out chic chicks. (Like any good feminism-friendly writer, I refer to women as "chicks" only when an alliterative opportunity demands it.) I was there for the 14th annual FrancoFolies de Montréal, a music festival devoted to French-speaking artists.
The festival is staged by the same organization behind the justly famous Montréal Jazz Festival, and gets going soon after that one ends, making the most efficient possible use of all the infrastructure such events require. By the time FrancoFolies begin, you'd think the volunteers and staff had been doing this as a full-time job for years: Shows start promptly; there are maneuverable pathways through even the biggest crowds; schedules and maps are everywhere (and accurate). Most impressive for those who have experienced walkie-talkie-carrying, panic-stricken staff at some other music fests, everyone here is calm and friendly, acting as if the festival runs itself and they're just observing it.
Another difference from many festivals is that tourists and locals can enjoy it without spending a dime. For every intimate club show that requires a ticket, there are three or four free outdoor shows, on multiple stages devoted to various styles. That's especially good for those going in cold, having little familiarity with most of the acts. Don't care for the alterna-rock this band offers? Walk half a block and check out the accordion trio backing up a cabaret singer, or the Afropop band a hundred yards away from that. It's a sampler's paradise; with no effort at all I could hear every band on the menu for long enough to know which I liked best, and still get to hear a half hour of that group's set.
Sampling, in this case, was a good reality check. For a fan who's generally dispirited by the state of the American music industry, it's a nice pick-me-up to see that other cultures can make crappy pop music, as well. Like the hyper-enthusiastic rendition of "Old Time Rock and Roll," coming from a band who seemingly had no experience with the music to which Bob Seger was paying tribute, and instead thought Seger, not Little Richard or Chuck Berry, was where rock all started. Ditzy dance-rock and painful folk-pop are made en français as well as in English, it seems — but hardly an hour went by that there wasn't someone worth hearing. (In those rare cases, a crêpe stand was a novel distraction from the familiar hot dogs and pretzels.)
On the flipside from open-air events, the ticketed shows were held at venues well-suited for planting yourself for a couple of hours. Montréalers have a huge formal concert hall for the biggest stars, but two of the more intimate venues were clubs I'd like to uproot and plant in Texas; the Spectrum and the Music Hall both offered tons of seats with good sightlines to the stage, meaning sloths like myself could sit down without being blocked by the standing-room crowd slightly closer to the performer.
Frankly, I needed to sit down, because the city itself was keeping me on my feet. During the days, before the concerts started, I gave myself a tour of a city that was far more fascinating than I had expected. Although most individual sights are within walking distance of each other, I rented a bike to cover more ground. Montréal is a cyclist-friendly city, with many bike lanes and lots of reasonably flat terrain. (Well, it's bike-friendly if you're not a numbskull; one day, heading out to the museum, I struggled halfway up Mont Royal before I realized that the street I was trying to reach was one I'd passed long before. By the time I got inside the museum's pristine walls, I was a sweat-soaked affront to high-class art lovers.)
Aside from that little mountain trek, my bike took me effortlessly through a city that's one part post-modern urbanity, one part Old World. The Old Montréal area, which dates back in part to pre-English French settlers, has a concentration of European architecture so dense that it has doubled for Europe in many films. Beautiful churches, grandiose public buildings, and sidewalk cafés are packed elbow-to-elbow along the waterfront, where an old port has been converted to a too-commercial tourist destination. (Note: The key to biking on cobblestones is to go sslooowwly.) Cycling along this shore, I stumbled across something cool I'd heard about long ago on National Public Radio: Some artsy individuals wired an old waterfront grain silo with microphones, and there's a freestanding spot on the hike/bike trail where you can make sounds into a microphone and hear what the sounds do in the echo chamber. (Check it out online at silophone.net.)
Between expeditions, I whiled away afternoons in restaurants where entire walls were opened up to facilitate watching (and hitting on, one imagines) pedestrian traffic. Considering that you can buy a Canadian dollar for just over 64 cents, I didn't feel too bad indulging in exotic duck dishes, haute cuisine appetizers, and wines above the level of Gato Negro. (No offense to the Black Cat intended.) It was often easy to pretend to be in Paris, but I hardly met anyone under 40 who didn't speak English fluently when necessary; fortunately for my fragile ego, nobody gave me grief about speaking my tongue, and they actually brightened up when I told them I was a Texan.
All my adult life I've intended to visit Paris, but combinations of finances, linguistics, and schedule have kept me away. Montréal offers a cheap and unique way to acclimate to a foreign culture while having a safety net of Anglophones around at all times. Given that the town has some kind of first-rate festival going throughout the summer, you can get a hell of a show while brushing up on those long-forgotten French classes.