The smell of fresh snow, old snow, dirty snow and clean, untouched snow perching atop branches like the birds that perch atop them. A defining factor of Montreal, to be sure, is its snow. Snow modifies its landscape, and the people within it, as much as they modify and move it.
Moving along the city’s streets, a mixture of snow and salt, pockmarked with half-frozen puddles of white-brown mush, one hears the distinct mixture of Quebecois with French, and of French with English. You might wonder to yourself, “how did Montreal, this city thousands of miles away from France and hundreds of years on from its French colonial roots, maintain its lingual connection with its motherland?
As you walk into the Depannuer at the end of the block to buy Canadian Marlborough Reds (which you prefer because they each come branded with a small black bowtie just above their filter), you turn to the cashier and nod as s/he says “Bonjour” or “Bonne Annie,” since it is New Year’s Eve, after all. When the cashier realizes you’re an American and don’t speak French, s/he might give you a quick scowl or roll of the eyes before putting on a nice face and taking your American money. If you were smart you would have gone to a Canadian bank and changed some American money over to Canadian currency; the U.S. dollar is about 1.3 times stronger than the Canadian dollar, and Canadian banks have the best exchange rates anyway.
Back out into the 10 degree (Fahrenheit, don’t forget, in Canada it’s -5 degrees Celsius) weather. You exhale through your snood (which you bought specifically for and only wear during your annual trips to Montreal) and see your breath turn to vapor and crystalize in front of you. You look up and see the Sun beginning to set (it is 4:00 PM just a few weeks after the Winter Solstice), and admire the golden glow it casts through the scraggly bare oak branches lining Rue Mont Royal. This golden glow is amplified by the misting ice crystals hanging in the air, giving it an almost cloud-like presence. It raises the contrast on the figures 10 yards or so in front of you, walking toward the Sun, so that all you can see is their silhouette. You take out your iPhone to capture the scene: yellow refracted by clouds, expanded by translucent ice into gold, and shuttered by crooked, barren branches within a 4-story man-made stone and asphalt valley, punctuated by a cacophony of languages, dark outlines, and Canada Goose jackets.