City's attractions triumph over culture clash


August 18, 1991|By Ellen Bartlett | Ellen Bartlett,Boston Globe

Among the myriad signs of the change that has come over Montreal in the last two decades is the one over the entrance to Schwartz's, one of the city's great, if obscure, institutions.

At Schwartz's, 62 years in the delicatessen business on the Boulevard Saint-Laurent, loyal patrons sit elbow to elbow at shared tables, the service is poker-faced and perfunctory, the smoked meat is incomparable.

Anyone who has had a plate of it thumped on the table in front of him or her would find the name outside incongruous with the atmosphere inside.

But Chez Schwartz is a sign, literally, of the times, required by Bill 178 (previously Bill 101), the Quebec law prohibiting outdoor commercial signs in any language other than French. "As long as it's got Schwartz in it," the cashier said, "we can live with the Chez."

The transformation of the Montreal Hebrew Delicatessen to Charcuterie Hebraique de Montreal, however superficial, says something about the state of the city. Montreal may be finding its fundamental French self, but it still is suffering an identity crisis. Any place that says the Mister Donut chain has to go by Monsieur Donut cannot be feeling very sure about things.

Indeed, Jan Morris writes in her book "City to City," Montreal "is above all an inconsolable city -- it weeps still for that clash of distant powers that, two centuries ago, first tossed it from empire to empire, culture to culture."

Forget the weeping; the clash continues. The issue is rooted in language, but language is inseparable from culture; both have become hopelessly entangled in politics. There was a time when everyone assumed the issue was dead, or at least in hibernation. There had been the sturm und drang (sorry, wrong language) of 1976, when Rene Levesque and his Parti Quebecois came to power on a platform of separatism and Quebec nationalism. But when "sovereignty-association" -- Quebec's version of independence from Canada -- was brought to a vote in 1980, it was resoundingly defeated.

Without going into details of Meech Lake and the constitutional crisis, suffice it to say the issue has returned with a vengeance. A poll, published by the French-language La Presse, is predicting imminent Anglo flight from Montreal -- 29 percent of Anglophones said they did not think they would be living in Quebec in five years.

The only question is why there has to be this war, when by appearances the French already have won all the battles. Nowhere is it more apparent than in the district, east of downtown, known as the Latin Quarter.

Boulevard Saint-Laurent once was regarded as the entrance, the great divide between the French east and the English west. In fact, the street was, and remains, a glorious polyglot of French and English, plus Portuguese and Jewish and Greek and Slav. And French-speakingMontrealers long ago spilled out of their old neighborhoods in the east.

The change in Montreal is almost physiological in nature. If the city were a body, its heart would have migrated, to beat just east of center on the Rue Saint-Denis.

Saint-Denis always was lively -- the later in the evening the better -- but it is more so now, with cafes and restaurants, bookstores and theaters. At the midpoint is Square Saint-Louis, one of the great city gathering places, particularly on sunny days when gossiping gray old men and pigeons mingle with young mothers and babies out for a stroll.

Not only does the Latin Quarter contain the essence of Montreal, it abounds in reasonably priced places to stay. Montreal's hotels have the same problems of hotels anywhere: They are expensive, removed and essentially soulless.

Instead, I stayed in a lovely restored row house in the neighborhood once known as the McGill University "student ghetto," with a couple and their two children.

The student ghetto has gone so far upscale that few students can afford it anymore. They migrated to Plateau Mont Royal, a French working-class neighborhood to the east, and their old haunt now has some of the best loveliest bed-and-breakfast quarters in the city.

You can find them through the Downtown Bed and Breakfast Network, conceived of and operated by Bob Finklestein, who came to Montreal from New York for a two-week vacation in the 1970s, and ended up marrying a French-Canadian woman and settling in Montreal. His network includes more than a hundred reasonably priced rooms (from $35 U.S.) in private houses throughout downtown.

Bounded roughly by University and Saint-Denis streets, the bed-and-breakfast district is an area of stately gray stone houses in long rows lining quiet streets. The fashion in architectural circles early in the last century, when most of the houses were built, was to construct stairs outside, saving precious room in the interior and, with the stairs' wrought-iron construction and ornate design, creating a filigree effect on the street.

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