Each person has a string dangling from their heart, waiting to be tugged and tied to those of others. It is funny how life pulls our strings, knocking us off balance, out of our routine, and ties us up to those we love most in a messy bow in a place and time we didn’t expect. This past May, my family of four found ourselves in Montreal, Quebec, our strings tied in this new city. My parents and I accompanied my brother Jack on this unexpected adventure to support him as he presented his publication at his first International Stuttering convention. The convention was kind enough to allow our presence during Jack’s presentation, but we had to skedaddle for the remaining of the conference, leaving my parents and I plenty of time to explore Montreal. In the 4 days we were there, my family racked up some amazing experiences. These included visiting an interactive art exhibit, exploring an age-old University, strolling through Old Montreal and its Port, tracking down famous Bagel shops, getting acquainted with various neighborhoods throughout the city, and having a picnic in a picturesque park. While each of these activities bring a smile to my face, there were three experiences that left a lasting sense of awe and gratitude within me to be pulled far away to a new land with my mom, dad, and brother.
1. Mount Royal
Cuddled up right next to the concrete jungle of downtown Montreal lays a chunk of dazzling green forest sitting atop a steep hill called Mount Royal. Although this park has beautiful trails to run/bike, open space to picnic, and playgrounds to play on, the main attraction is the panoramic view of Montreal’s skyline from the top of the hill. My family and I started at the base of the hill at Sherbrook and Peele. You can think of this as a sort of “pre-hike”. From this point, the 1st quarter-mile is quite comfortable, despite the gradual yet persistent incline, just wide sidewalks overlooked by historic townhomes and greenery.
When Peel street ended, a lush world of green began. We began scaling the wooden steps lined with black metal rails that would lead us to the picture-perfect view of the entire city. The path led us up, gradual at first then challengingly steep, into the refreshing greenery of Mount Royal Park. The cool moisture in the air balanced my rising body temperature as we tackled each set of stairs. Periodically I’d peek over my shoulder, sharing a squinty-eyed smile with my mom and dad. Wearing a seafoam t-shirt and beige shorts, my mom effortlessly complemented the contrasting viridescent hues surrounding her. “Let’s wake up early and hike this path again tomorrow!” my dad suggested as he panted. Leave it to him to find any opportunity to work out on vacation.
The hike initially seemed like a piece of cake, just a quick walk up to the overview of Montreal. But we came to realize making it up the various staircases without breaking a sweat or breathing heavily wasn’t going to happen. My hands tingled with awe as I looked out at the towering trees and neon leaves that hugged the path, giving me encouragement to keep walking. The dense vegetation had a way of emitting some sort of invigorating peace. A reminder that it was okay to slow down and just admire the natural world, even in the heart of metropolitan Montreal. Huffing and puffing alongside my mom and dad felt calming. I felt a sense of gratitude for their presence that I let swell inside me. The final stretch of the hike led us to a grand building called Mount Royal Chalet that overlooked a tulip-covered slab of concrete that cascaded all the way down to the stone railing at the edge of the hill.
People flocked to the edge, gazing at the panoramic view of downtown Montreal from hundreds of feet up. We could see for miles in every direction. This destination was definitely worth the sweat we broke. I felt like I was looking at a painting as I admired the skinny buildings poking out from behind a bed of bright green leaves. The Saint Laurence River sparkled in the distance under cotton-like clouds that were almost close enough to touch. A view this beautiful rightfully demanded labored breathing, glistening foreheads, and burning calves to be enjoyed.
2. Jean-Talon Market
After sinking our teeth into the warm bread of Montreal’s staple treat, the beloved bagel, we commenced a 30-minute journey through the famous neighborhoods of Mile End and Little Italy in search of the city’s most popular open-air market. As I furrowed my eyebrows at my phone, hoping to absorb the route on google maps better through my squinting eyes, we happened upon a street corner with a large sign announcing The Jean-Talon Marche. We made it!! I wasn’t quite prepared for what we walked up upon as we rounded the corner to this mini-civilization filled with colorful produce, vibrant plants, bustling people of all colors and languages, and food stalls, offering everything from fresh oysters to assorted olives. In awe, I walk down the main aisle, rimmed with vendors chitchatting with market-goers about the freshness of their rainbow of products. Above our heads, thick ribbons of every color dangle from the ceiling, swaying gently from the light breeze that flowed straight through the market’s nonexistent walls.
There is not enough time in the day to thoroughly visit each stand and meet each vendor. The produce vendors may have been the main attraction but the outer edges of the market were flocked with stalls offering an abundance of products, the most intriguing to me being woven plant holders, Middle Eastern sweets, assorted olives, fresh lemonade, and enough plants to create a garden fit for a king.
The rainbow of food, art, and plants delighted my sight. The smell of freshly baked bread and the sound of a variety of languages mingled together hugged me from all sides. The taste of bittersweet lemonade and the cool touch of the ice on my lips cooled my warm skin from the rays of the mid-day sun. “It is probably a good thing I do not live nearby because I would be going home with a wagonload of plants for the front yard”, my dad commentened. Me too dad, me too. My parents and I strolled through the aisles, exchanging excited glances every few steps. They may become farmers’ market people if they’re not careful.
3. Coffee and Pastries
With deep cultural and historical ties to France, it is no surprise that every morning must begin with a steaming cup of coffee and a light airy pastry. This tradition brings me back to the days I spent with my grandma as a child, enjoying un cafecito y pan dulce in the morning. My dad and I are the early risers in the family, while my mom and brother enjoy their uninterrupted sleep into midmorning. Each morning on our trip, my dad and I rose with the sun and walked a few blocks through the sleepy streets of Downtown Montreal to a cafe that would become our go-to spot for the remainder of our trip, Columbus Cafe.
The first time we walked into the cafe my eyes widened with pleasure as they soaked in the sunshine yellow hues of the walls, the natural exposed wooden furniture, the missing wall that connected the cafe to the sidewalk, and most impressively, the array of beautifully crafted pastries, sandwiches, and puddings that sat pretty behind the glass cover. Usually, I am the type of person who loves to try new things. Frequenting the same spots, especially while traveling, was a crime. But something about Columbus Cafe kept my dad and me coming back day after day, even multiple times in a single 24 hours. Although I never really had a taste for coffee, the act of sharing a cup in the morning always made me feel connected with my grandma, and now my dad. Among the multiple trips paid to this corner cafe, we managed to taste the breakfast croissant stuffed with egg and bacon, a blueberry muffin, the chia pudding topped with colorful berries, and the decadent cheesecake that called my name from the second we walked in. To locals, this place may have been just another coffee shop, but to me, it was a little slice of consistency and comfort while in a foreign land.
Just like puppets, we are controlled by these strings that tell us to go here, go there. Divine guidance yanks at these strings that have been making meaningless movements and drags us to where we should be. This trip, while somewhat unexpected, offered me something we do not always get enough of. Time. Time to support my brother and witness his growth not only as a professional but as a person. Time with my mom and dad, joking around, getting lost, and having fun. Time exploring a new place, adding it to my list of travels that I hope one day will be what is remembered of me. Our bows aren’t tied neatly, but they are tied tightly. For that I am grateful.