It now turns out that some of the hamburger and most of the pepperoni served at Expo 67, Montreal's world's fair of nine years ago, contained diseased beef and horsemeat. This probably should have been discovered at the time, since at least one local pet-food company experienced telltale disruptions in its normal meat shipments, but the scandal came to light during public crime hearings only last year. It was a case of what you don't know won't hurt you, sometimes. Unsuspecting Expo-goers happily stuffed themselves on hamburgers and pepperoni pizza and the event was, by common consent, a smashing success.
Next week visitors to Montreal are being asked to overlook embarrassments they do know about and enjoy another extravaganza, the Games of the XXI Olympiad. The hoped-for spirit is nicely exemplified by Jean Lesi�ge, a natty young man who works as a counselor in the city's tourist and public relations department. The pre-Olympic news from Montreal consisted mainly of construction hassles, soaring costs and word of unprecedented security arrangements. Lesi�ge has been personally discomfited by the fact that his bachelor flat is across from Loews La Cit�, a newly opened 500-room hotel that was rushed to completion in time for the Games.
"The construction was unbelievably noisy," Lesi�ge says. "The cement trucks went by at two in the morning, and I could hear every one of them. The dust was awful, too." Then he brightens and adds, "But now that it's finished, I can say it. We need new hotels to handle all the Olympic visitors."
While Lesi�ge is a booster, be forewarned that so are most citizens of the Olympic city. They never tire of pointing out that Montreal is the world's second largest French-speaking city and that it fairly crackles with joie de vivre. Even the most cynical of them describes the place as "livable" (never mind that apprehensive Olympic-goers really care only whether it is visitable), and words like "sophisticated" and "civilized" are also freely tossed about. And every last bellhop seems prepared to ramble on about how Montreal succeeds in blending the old and the new, the European and the North American.
All of this might be insufferable except that it is largely true. Take the business about blending the old and the new. Montreal is a city on the make in the best North American tradition, its once-drowsy downtown having been transformed into a forest of lean glass-and-steel office towers. But it is also a city that goes on anachronistically dividing its beer-drinking emporiums by law into "taverns"—which are set aside for men only—and "brasseries," where ladies and gents may guzzle together. "If a woman comes in here, I'll throw her out," says a bartender, polishing glasses in a tumbledown tavern called the Mansfield. It all seems rather quaint, but, then, what are French-speaking people doing drinking beer anyway? Or for that matter, sitting there talking about Johnny Bench? The feeling grows that there would be a slightly unreal quality about Montreal even without the added attraction of a $1.5 billion Olympics. Crowning a 30-mile-long slice of land in the St. Lawrence River, Montreal is less than an hour's drive from the U.S. border and it has much of the brawling, cosmopolitan flavor of that other island city called New York. But Montrealers are friendlier than New Yorkers and they keep their city so clean that newspapers tumbling along their gusty streets are invariably today's editions. Montrealers hang pots of fresh geraniums from their lampposts and are able to get taxis even in the rain. They believe in the eternal verities, especially now that the Stanley Cup is back with les Canadiens, where it belongs.
"People in Montreal are neatly dressed, and I'm not saying that just for business reasons," says Sam Bensmihen, owner of a men's clothing store in the city's predominantly French-speaking North End. "And they're polite. If you ask a question, they'll stop and answer." In the worldly surroundings of Big Syl's, a downtown watering hole where visiting National League ballplayers congregate in quest of a bit of soul, Sylvia Foster, the statuesque Barbados-born proprietress, says, " Montreal reminds me of Barbados. It's a warm, friendly sort of place." And, of course, on an island, too.
Such talk goes on even in the face of the acknowledged big-city problems that Montreal has lately endured. Alarmed by the local construction boom, many residents fret about shrinking green spaces and complain that too many of the stately Victorian mansions along Sherbrooke Street are going under the wrecker's ball. Others argue that the fortunes spent on the Olympics should have been applied toward sewage treatment and public housing, both of which are inadequate. Meanwhile, Montreal has been succeeded as Canada's commercial and financial capital by Toronto, its long dull but now bustling rival. Alas, it even appears that Montreal can no longer find comfort in its self-proclaimed role as "restaurant capital of North America." This past spring Henri Gault and Christian Millau, France's sassiest culinary critics, took potshots at such venerable institutions as the Caf� Martin ("distinguished banality") and L'Habitant ("very beautiful and very bad") and concluded that Toronto offered "much more sophisticated, elegant and brilliant restaurants than Montreal." It was an attack that Eddy Prevost, former managing director of the Quebec Restaurant Association, did his best to shrug off. "You can always find fault with anything," he said. "Why, some people even criticize the Pope."
These recent troubles mock the lofty efforts of Jean Drapeau, the mayor for 19 of the last 22 years, to make Montreal "the first city of the world." This was a laughable boast, Montreal no longer being No. 1 even in Canada, but nobody chuckled when Drapeau brought major league baseball to town, staged Expo 67 or erected such wonders as the Place des Arts, the city's stunning cultural center, and the Metro, a subway as quiet (it runs on rubber wheels) as it is clean. And indeed, nobody guffaws today when Drapeau goes on talking about landing an NFL franchise for the Olympic Stadium.
But the Olympics are no laughing matter, either. Of the aforementioned $1.5 billion cost estimate, more than $1 billion is debt—and for what was supposed to be a $310 million, deficit-free affair. Amid fears that runaway Olympic costs might plunge the city into bankruptcy, post-Games investigations are planned into What Went Wrong and Whose Political Cronies Made How Many Millions. But hold it, wait a moment. The swimming and gymnastics and pole vaulting are about to begin, and Montrealers, remember, would prefer Olympic-goers to overlook gloomier subjects.
In the offices of Le Devoir, the most influential of Montreal's five French-language daily newspapers, Editor-in-Chief Michel Roy says, "There is the feeling that life in Montreal is becoming more difficult. People are worried about strikes and the Olympic financial mess. They are worried that our relaxed atmosphere might be disappearing. But they also know the reasons they are having these troubles. Because of the charm of the city, because of the special ethnic fabric, Montreal is a place where people, dare to try difficult things."