NYC Versus Montreal: Another Urban Cultural Breakdown


MONTREAL — This past summer, I took a quick, leisurely trip to the capital of our country for both historical and introspective reasons. D.C. was a far cry from New York; its citizens did not curse at one another, and no one dared to jaywalk. The city was arranged in neatly kept lines with neatly kept traffic and neatly kept people. All of these differences were epitomized in a piece you can find here.

Riding off of that compare-and-contrast mind-set, I spent the past five days up north with our Canadian brethren in the good ol’ city of Montreal. So returning to New York, I have decided to once again do another urban culture breakdown, a la D.C. However, this one is a bit more international, and, on a side note for those predicting a relatively warm winter, it’s already snowing in Montreal.
Now, the Quebec stronghold is similar to New York in a few aspects. The price of food and a night out on the town borders on the line between tolerable and pretty expensive. Also, to maintain a healthy smoking habit is a hefty burden in both cities (unfortunately, New Yorkers are blessed with packs that do not bare the “SMOKING KILLS” ads). Rent is a bit cheaper in Montreal — a friend of mine had a beautiful two-bedroom apartment and only paid $800 a month — but most people know by now that everywhere is cheaper than New York in that area of business.
All that aside, Montreal denizens do things drastically different than us. Here’s a few things I picked up over my stay there:

Like D.C., Montreal’s bike program is on point. Right off the bat, I noticed the long lines of BIXI bikes that crowded every major street corner here. For a small fee of seven Canadian dollars (the currency rate is basically the same as ours), you can rent a bike for half a day and take it wherever you’d like. The sheer abundance of these wheels were accompanied by specially designed pay-as-you-go bike stands, too. And there were bikers everywhere. To bring it back home, we still have no idea when New York’s bike-share program is going to start.

Poutine is the French equivalent of Halal food. Ah, poutine. I had only heard of this dish in passing, and my knowledge of pommes frittes was limited to that small hole-in-the-wall on Second Avenue here in New York. Well, here’s a quick summary of just what it is: Poutine is a dish of French fries covered in gravy and cheese curd. And that’s just the basic version. Topics include . . . everything your heart desires. You can get it anywhere you’d like and at any time of the day. That made me think of halal food’s existence in New York — both are raved about as the drunken man’s delight and the entire spectrum of quality is represented. Like Halal, you can get gourmet poutine (i.e. the Halal Guys truck near Columbus Circle), and you can get lesser quality poutine (i.e., every other lamb-over-rice cart). Bon appetit.
Montreal citizens have a completely different relationship with their homeless population. This was a difference that really stood out to me. Although it’s a bit of a generalization, most New Yorkers are in such a rush to get nowhere that they blow right by the homeless population, acting as if the calls for a quarter are just birds chirping somewhere off in the distance. It’s a sad reality that we all face every day. But, in Montreal, the interaction is much different. On top of other examples I witnessed, here’s one to get a good picture of what I mean:
While I was outside smoking a cigarette with a woman from Quebec City, a homeless woman confronted us to ask (in French) if we could spare one of our smokes. My friend gladly offered one and then the two talked about each other’s days for five minutes or so. I watched in awe — they talked about the weather, politics, what they were doing in the area, and other nuances that make up a daily routine. Imagine that happened in New York.
At bars in Montreal, their worst beer is our best beer. One interesting point to add: Bars in Montreal have a much more pub-y feel (think McSorley’s with a working fireplace). But the beers served there are all of top-notch quality. The brews are local, and the pints are standard. Blonds are lights and reds are darks. Recommendation: the Boreale red. It’s like a fruity Guinness. My fellow Voice scribe and go-to beer columnist, Eric Sundermann, would be in hops paradise.
Everyone says ‘Bonjour’ to you . . . even on the street. There’s a smiles deficit in New York. It’s street etiquette to keep your head down, your headphones in, and your mouth shut. No one would agree to Kramer’s plan in Seinfeld for New Yorkers to wear a “Hello, My Name Is” tag. But I’m not sure if the Canadians would do the same. No matter who passed by, eye contact was accompanied with a “Bonjour.” For those who have seen it, walking down a street in Montreal was like the opening scene of Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie. And this was my favorite difference. Any city where strangers greet you with a “Bonjour” is a great place to be.
New Yorkers, take some notes. Or learn French.