Although I have often said that travel with children is more a change of scenery than an actual vacation, we managed to see new sights and experience rest and recreation during our recent trip to Montreal and Ottawa with four children: our own, plus John Tyler, Eli’s 17 year old best friend. It turns out we had much of our fun off the beaten path, which is often how things go.
Vieux-Montreal (or the old city) spreads out along the seaway. It’s great for walkers, bikers, tram riders, and Segways, which Jimmy and the three older kids tried on our last day in town. The food there was not great on the low end, as my sister Em had warned; I can vouch for that. French fries and ice cream abound.
We did *not* go to La Ronde, the massive amusement park that is across the seaway and impressively visible from the boardwalk. No one in our clan likes roller coasters and other rides (which also explains why we, as a family, have never been to Disney World).
Of the touristy things we did in the “new” city — Biodôme, Insectarium, Jardin botanique, and Parc olympique — what we enjoyed the most was the Olympic swimming pool, which seems to attract more Québécois than visitors. For $3, a person can swim all day. We did that one day, and we liked it so much we went back again the next. As I sat on the side and watched the kids swim, an athlete (heading to the Beijing Olympics?) was practicing her dives off the highest platform and a team of synchronized swimmers, all wearing white caps emblazoned with the red maple leaf, practiced their routine on deck.
Because we were with kids, two of whom are vegetarians, we ate in a lot of pasta restaurants in Centre-Ville, where our hotel was. Groan. The food was forgettable at best. On our last night we drove north on Avenue du Parc on a hunt for Fairmount Bagel, billed as a Montreal institution. I pictured a sit-down deli, sandwiches, Dr. Brown’s cream soda. It was a storefront that sold good bagels indeed, but was not a deli. It was almost 8 o’clock and we had to eat somewhere. We parked. We walked around. Finally we found Le Petite Ardoise on Laurier Ouest. It was a delight. We sat on the terrace out back; the waiter spoke mostly French but was very kind and willing to try some English to translate the menu; the crêpes were just right for an outdoor nighttime meal. Later I apologized to everyone for dragging us out for bagels. Lydia said, “That’s okay. If we hadn’t come here, we wouldn’t have found the little French café.”
We had one why-are-we-doing-this? moment, at Oratoire Saint-Joseph, which is a pilgrimage site and the largest dome in the world after Saint-Peter’s in Rome. It was really late, and we had already been to a lookout at the top of Le mont Royal. At the cathedral John, Eli, and Lydia bounded up the granite steps, and Jimmy and I goaded Grace to keep going, up and up, 100 steps or more. She fell and banged her knee cap, hard, on a granite step, and then she fell apart, crying. Gently I tried to soothe her, and then get her start climbing again. (What was I thinking?) She sniffled, stopped, climbed, sniffled, stopped, climbed, and so on. I tried to distract her by telling her about this healer — Father Ralph DiOrio — who for a long time had an office in my hometown when I was growing up, and the stories of how he healed the sick and injured were dramatic and fascinating. Grace kept crying; I kept talking. Meanwhile, other visitors are walking up the stairs or down the stairs, passing us. We finally made it to the deck, to look out as the boys took their pictures, and then had to persuade the still weeping Grace to walk down. Really, it was an act of persuasion, not force, but still: What was I thinking?! The next day, Jimmy told me that another visitor, a woman, happened by us on the steps, just as I was telling the story about Father Ralph. She looked at Grace and then us, as if to say, “What are you thinking?!” Good question.
The next morning I told my roommates — Jimmy, Lydia, and Grace — about a dream I had in the night, in which I went to a religious retreat at a huge campground. Many of the people there were members of families that we used to socialize with as children (the Newcomers, the Fisets), and many were strangers. We were all waiting for the healer, who was taking his time coming. People were crying as they waited. I tried to comfort them. I kept saying the same phrase to them, over and over, and embraced each one. Grace wrote it down in her notebook, and today I came across the page, which she must have ripped out of hers and tucked into mine. This was that dream phrase:
You’re a stranger to me, but I love you, and I want you to know everything will be fine.
And so went my only vacation-time dream.
In Montreal I was not only a monster to Grace. On the last day, just hours before we were set to head to Ottawa, she and I went skating for a few hours on the indoor ice rink at Atrium Le 1000, a huge office tower at 1000 de la Gauchetiere Ouest, which was only one door away from our hotel, a Marriott. Why it took us until the last day to discover this, well, that’s the nature of vacation. As we whirled around the ice, with a assortment of skaters, I had that feeling of perfect rightness: This is where I want to be, now. Grace did, too. Usually a timid skater, she ordered me a couple of times to stand still at the side while she skated solo once or twice around the ice. Then, she ordered me to take a solo turn while she waited and watched.
I have less to say about Ottawa, and yet we enjoyed it more. It was our first visit. My mother recommended it as a destination, and yet when I told this friend or that about our plans to travel there, eyes would either narrow or open wide with skepticism. “Oh…. really? How… nice. Are you sure?”
It rocked. Canada’s capital, it’s lovely, walkable, outdoorsy, English, artsy, interesting. You can walk right up to government buildings — Parliament, for example — and not have a machine-gunned guard try to inspect your bags or keep you out. Hmm, how unlike another country I know well.
We had the same bad luck with food that we did in Montreal, but that’s not because there were no good restaurants; there are plenty. It’s just that our kids don’t want to eat in any of them. We did walk 18 blocks one night to Pancho Villa, at 361 Elgin, and we all loved the freshly-made Mexican food and the cheery waitress.
Our hotel was on the corner of Sparks Street, home to the city’s pedestrian mall, and the annual Buskerfest was going on while we were there. We saw more fire-eating acrobats in three days than any of us had in our lifetimes. And still, we kept going back for more…
Every night in the summer around 10 o’clock there’s a weird, yet affecting sound and light show at Parliament. Actually, it’s projected *on* Parliament. Lydia and I went. It’s very patriotic, and I tried to imagine myself as a Canadian. I felt proud.
During the day, we walked through Byward Market and passed by restaurants, food stalls, souvenir vendors, flower and vegetable farmers, and coffee and ice cream shops. Kind of like Fanueil Hall in Boston, times 10.
Jimmy and my favorite spot was also the place we had the least time in: the National Gallery. This may be the most beautiful museum I’ve ever been in. The way it uses its site and honors the art inside enlarges a person’s experience of a building. I can’t describe it. I wondered, as I walked through, if what I felt was akin to what people walking through those ancient, massive Greek temples felt, in their times. The art, especially 20th century Canadian, was something, too.
We hoped to visit, but did not, the War Museum, which we drove past on our bus tour. The guide told us that its building is the only one in Canada that is not visible from the air, because of how it is designed, like a bunker, with sloped sides and planted on its roof with grass.
Now that I’m home, I keep meaning to check this on Google Satellite.
Pictures by Eli Guterman.