Perhaps Montrealers should occasionally take the trouble to squint through the thicket of new high-rise buildings for a reassuring glance or two at Mount Royal, their own Olympus. Known grandly as "The Mountain," it is actually a maple-lined affair that rises no higher than 763 feet. Yet it stands smack in the middle of the city, looming up like a kind of elevated Central Park to remind beholders, as American writer T. Morris Longstreth once observed, that "the world is not wholly made up of brick and prices."
From Mount Royal the city gets both its name and its bearings. If you stand at its southern foot, where the terrain begins to slope more gently toward the St. Lawrence, you are—in every sense—downtown. Travel among the two-car garages and nicely kept lawns west of The Mountain and you speak English. Venture eastward among the redbrick row houses with their corkscrew outside staircases and you speak French. Buy a haughty $200,000 stone palace in predominantly English Westmount or heavily French Outremont, rarified communities occupying the heights leading to Mount Royal's summit, and you have made it, able to look down on your conquests.
Montreal has led a charmed existence, and one must believe The Mountain has had something to do with it. The Breton sailor Jacques Cartier named it Mount-Royal upon discovering it in 1535 and Paul de Chomedey, Sieur de Maisonneuve, who founded the first settlement in 1642; is said to have gratefully planted a cross on its heights after menacing floodwaters had spared his colony's wretched cluster of log huts. In the years since, Montreal has survived Indian attacks, fires, epidemics and desertions; for some reason townsfolk always seemed to be dashing off to found other cities, LaSalle to Chicago, Cadillac to Detroit, the Le Moyne brothers to New Orleans.
Mount Royal is still crowned today by a cross, a large, illuminated successor to Maisonneuve's original, as well as a 500-acre park. If that seems to commit the city simultaneously to piety and pleasure, it is just one of the little tricks up Montreal's sleeve. Tension between the city's French and English citizens can be reminiscent at times of Cyprus and Northern Ireland, yet Montreal makes its uneasy biculturism such a tourist attraction that hotel occupancy last year was 70%, second in North America only to Las Vegas. Located 1,000 miles from the Atlantic on a river clogged by ice five months of the year, Montreal nevertheless became one of the world's great ports. That done, it became headquarters of the International Civil Aviation Organization and International Air Transport Association and proclaimed itself "the air capital of the world."
At first glance, it might seem to be merely one more of its sly tricks that Montreal manages to maintain a Gallic flavor in what amount to subarctic surroundings. But Charles Bronfman, president of The Seagram Company Ltd., a Montreal civic leader and an expert on the agony and ecstasy of living there—he is chief owner of the Expos while cousins Edward and Peter Bronfman control the Canadiens—feels the weather is largely responsible for the city's uniqueness.
" Montreal has joie de vivre, like everybody says, but it's mainly because of our harsh winters," Bronfman explains. "In winter we burrow into our houses and never see our neighbors. When it gets warm we go into the streets and everybody is friendly. I think that's also why the city is clean: after the mush and muck of winter, everybody wants to keep things tidy."
Something like eight feet of snow descend on Montreal each winter. To combat it, miniplows are used even on sidewalks, and the roadways are thick with salt, which falls into the category of a necessary evil. Car buyers spend an extra $100 or so for "rustproofing," which only partly prevents salt-caused corrosion, and carpets suffer, too. In the 11-story Drummond-Medical Building the signs on office doors attest to an unsettled etiquette, some of them instructing visitors to leave boots in the hall, others announcing that mats are provided for boots outside, still others promising paper slippers. All agree:
PLEASE REMOVE OVERSHOES
S.V.P. ENLEVEZ VOS CAOUTCHOUCS
Montreal has been hit with 10-inch snowfalls well into May, but this does not prevent newspapers from greeting spring's official arrival with giddy editorials (IT'S SPRING—GIVE THANKS!) and displaying ads for the kind of above-the-ground backyard pools that the Olympics almost had to use for swimming. And before long, sure enough, gray, potholed Montreal blooms with candy-striped awnings, and the sidewalk cafes on Place Jacques Cartier begin filling with tourists and bearded students. Then, too, the shopgirls, those leggy, dark-eyed clothes ponies—a French city, after all!—break out their reflectors to steal a little noon-hour sun.
Writing about his changing hometown in The Favorite Game, Montreal-born novelist and poet Leonard Cohen comments: "The Victorian gingerbread was going down everywhere and on every second corner was the half-covered skeleton of a new, flat office building. The city seemed fierce to go modern." For Cohen, Montreal's women were the only comfort: "They were beautiful. They were the only beauty, the last magic. Everything else was fiction."