In the summer of 2016, I was working hard on the Rio Olympics campaign at work, prepping for how my client would be supporting American athletes at the Olympic Games in Brazil that summer. Anyone who has worked to support any live event knows the amount of pressure, time and effort that goes into making it successful. The days leading up to the event, I spent many hours ensuring a smooth launch for my client and then launched the campaign on August 4, the day of the opening ceremony. I knew I needed a short break and wanted to escape Chicago for a bit, so I thought of where to travel. Surprisingly, I had never been to Canada, despite only the Great Lakes separating the Midwest and our neighbors to the north. What better city to visit than the former Olympic host Montréal? This also was my first international solo trip since interning in London in 2011.
August 5, 2016 – First Steps in Canada
From Chicago through Toronto and on to Montreal I went. This was the first time I stayed in an Airbnb that was shared with hosts. The hosts were a lovely French couple who offered up a room in their place on Rue Saint-Timothée, north of Downtown Montréal. It was relatively late when I arrived, so I grabbed a quick fast food meal, came back to the Airbnb and slept well my first night.
August 6, 2016 – Montréal’s Nature
August in Montréal felt a bit like autumn back home, which meant the temperatures were quite perfect for exploring a new city. Montréal is in the province of Québec and is the second-largest city in Canada. Many people connect Montréal with “French Canada,” which was immediately evident in my tour across the city. The majority speak French as their first language, however, many generally know English, too. I didn’t know French at all, so I was handicapped to at least try. I looked to find a breakfast spot that Saturday, and a place called “Café Ma Fée” caught my eye because I thought it was my name! I had some coffee with a light breakfast.
That morning I walked by the Place des Artes, where a Canadian First Nations (indigenous peoples) exhibit was set up outdoors. This part of Canada has a rich indigenous history, and you can find the influence in local artwork, culture and markers around the city. Near the plaza was Notre-Dame-de-Lourdes Chapel and St. James United Church, two striking exteriors.
I then headed toward one of the most popular attractions in Montréal, Mount Royal, for which the city is named. On my walk there, I saw really cool street art and some colorful neighborhoods. Next to Mount Royal was Jeanne Mance Park, named after the co-founder of Montreal, a nurse who set up Montréal’s first hospital.
The walk up to Mount Royal‘s peak wasn’t too bad, but it was a bit confusing for me to find the most direct route, so I probably ended up doubling my steps. At first, I made it to the Mount Royal cross, a steel crucifix at the top of the hill. I kept walking some more and then found the overlook where all the tourists were gathered.
After some rest at the top of Mount Royal, I walked back down and north to La Fontaine Park, a large park with two ponds and a fountain. Many families and locals were out in the park, relaxing and enjoying the weather and shade underneath the plentiful maple trees. For a while, I joined them and enjoyed the fresh air and people about the park.
Over to Rue Sainte-Catherine I walked, in the heart of Gay Village. The street is famous for its Instagram-worthy bubble garlands that string over the street. This part of the street is often closed off to vehicle traffic during the summer months to make it more friendly for nightlife. I grabbed some quick food and went back to the Airbnb before thinking about going out to a nightclub. I had never really gone to a club alone, or at least gone to a club without meeting people there. This time, I knew no one in a city where everyone is speaking a different language. I mustered up the courage and went out a club; I stood in the queue alone, a bit nervous to go in by myself, but I thought, “Who cares? I don’t know them and they don’t know me.” I went in, grabbed a drink and explored the multi-story club before taking some time to dance among the crowd to the latest in pop music.
August 7, 2016 – Let the (Tourist) Games Begin
East of my Airbnb was the St. Lawrence River, a river that stretches all the way from Lake Ontario through Montréal, Quebec City, New Brunswick and into the Atlantic Ocean. I walked toward the Old Port of Montreal, a historical trading area for French fur traders and cargo. It was a cloudy day, but the sky made the hues of blues along the port even more beautiful (blue-tiful?). Speaking of blue and beautiful, Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours, built in the late 1700’s, sits right along the port.
Next to the chapel was the Bonsecours Market, a two-story public market that led me to Rue Saint-Paul. The cobblestone street felt romantic, European, a walk back in time and a delight for tourists. Many shops and restaurants lined the street with Canadian and Montréal flags flapping in the wind above. A short walk south was the iconic Notre-Dame Basilica of Montreal, one of the most-visited sites in North America. The Gothic-style basilica apparently looked much different at night with blue lighting, so I would later revisit in the evening.
Right next to Notre-Dame is the Place d’Armes, one of the oldest sites in Montréal, and it was bustling with life and tourists. In the middle of the square was Maisonneuve Monument, commemorating the founder of the city.
I walked past City Hall and looked for a light, healthy lunch and ate at Café des Artes before heading out on one of the longest walks.
I generally prefer walking to get places. It allows you to become familiar with new areas and enjoy the sounds, sights and smells of a city. Little did I realize that my next destination was an hour and a half walk away, but what better way to get to see the city?
North I headed through the Hochelaga neighborhood to Montréal Olympic Park, the site of the 1976 Summer Olympics, the first in Canada’s history. It was the perfect time to visit the site, especially with the 2016 Summer Olympic Games going on simultaneously in Rio de Janeiro. There were a few signs and celebratory banners around the city marking 40 years since the Montréal Olympics. The 1976 Olympics was still a prominent topic of debate with locals. Of course, for most, the Olympics were exciting to host, but Montréal became infamous for the having the most expensive cost overrun of any Olympics in history at 720% (for reference, the average overrun is 175%). The Olympics were blamed as the reason for the financial disaster it put the city in for the next few decades and for the lack of architectural planning with the Olympic stadium.
The Olympic Stadium, nicknamed the “Big O” for its shape but also the “Big Owe” for its cost, has the largest seating capacity of any stadium in Canada. At the time of its planning, leadership wanted a covered stadium due to the winter weather that strikes the city for several months in the year, and a dome would allow a baseball franchise to be awarded to the city. However, due to construction disputes and slow work, the stadium was actually not complete at the opening of the Games in 1976. The tall, striking tower and roof were not completed until 11 years later in 1987! After the Olympics, the stadium became host to the Montreal Alouettes, a Canadian gridiron football team, and then later became the home of Major League Baseball’s Montréal Expos before their relocation in the early 2000’s.
Around the stadium there were tennis courts and areas for recreation. Looking closer at the stadium, it appeared still under renovation (to no surprise). Saputo Stadium was just a walk away and is home to the Montréal Impact of Major League Soccer; the Biodome was also within walking distance and hosts an indoor nature museum experience.
On the other side of Sherbrooke Street were the Montréal Botanical Gardens, a vast public space of flowers, plants, greenery, insects and fountains. I sat on a bench in the park for a while to read my book and enjoyed the weather, fresh air and view that surrounded me. After some time and as sunset came closer, I walked back toward the city. There were a couple times when I got lost or ran into a dead end, but I managed to find my way back to La Fontaine Park, where I stopped to continue reading another chapter. This was probably my favorite day in Montréal, a mix of history, sports and greenspace.
August 8, 2016 – Back to Work, in Canada
Monday rolled around, and it was time to go to work… yes, this time in Montréal! Google’s office in Montréal was quite small at the time in both numbers and size. It was an easy walk along Rue Saint-Catherine to the office, which was right in the heart of downtown. Upon arriving to the building, I got to reception, and then all of a sudden, the alarms started going off. I was confused what was going on, and everyone was speaking in French, so I just followed them out of the building to a nearby plaza. I asked someone, and they said there must have been something in the building that set off the alarm. What a first entrance to work here!
I was able to find a small area next to people who perform a similar job function. I continued to work supporting my client on their Olympics campaign, ensuring that projects launched on time. The office itself had a rock climbing wall straddling two floors and an interesting water choice in the micro-kitchen – maple water. Can’t get more Canadian than that! That evening, I went to none other than La Fontaine Park – my home away from home.
August 9, 2016 – Persistent Park Picnics
The next night, I thought, why don’t I grab some cheese, wine and crackers and add that to my time in the park. I brought a blanket to enjoy some (more) solo time on the grass beneath the maple trees. The maple tree of course is iconic to Canada (so much that it’s even on the flag), but to me the tree has a connection to my hometown in Hiawatha, Kansas. My hometown is known as the “City of Beautiful Maples,” as the trees cover the city due to decades of planting and care for the maples that provide shade and beauty, especially during autumn.
August 10, 2016 – Along the Piers
Another day at work, and afterward I explored the downtown area a bit more, walking around past Saint Patrick’s Basilica and then over to the Old Port again. This time, I went out on the pier to Clock Tower, which had a nice view of Jacques Cartier Bridge, a bridge that connects the city of Montréal to St. Helen’s Island. Near Clock Tower was Plage de l’Horloge, a man-made beach – I can only imagine how limited time folks have to enjoy this “beach.”
I continued walking down south along the river. At one point, I could see the unique Habitat 67 housing across the way on St. Helen’s island. Habitat 67 is an housing complex with one-of-a-kind configurations of stacked housing, walkways and terraces.
As darkness settled in, I walked back to Rue Saint-Paul to enjoy nightlife around the Place d’Armes, where I bought a useful souvenir for myself – maple syrup sugar. It came in a spice shaker; something I would later use in my morning coffees.
August 11, 2016 – Closing Chapter
My final full day in Montréal. I of course went to work and spent time walking the colorful Rue Sainte-Catherine before heading back to the maple-covered La Fontaine Park to finish my book and end on a lovely note at my favorite place. That evening, I went out for dinner at an Asian-fusion restaurant. By this time, I was comfortable being alone, doing things by myself and being comfortable with the thoughts in my head.
August 12, 2016 – Au Revoir, Montréal!
It was finally time to leave Montréal after a week north of the border. My first time in Canada was incredible, serene and a nice reset for me at the time, especially after so much effort put toward work. Montréal was such a unique city for me, a European-like feel just a couple hours away by plane. The thought of being alone for a week and not knowing the local tongue at first made me nervous, but I was glad I pushed myself to do this. As I look back, this trip probably sparked my confidence in doing things by myself without depending on others. Lastly, the Olympic legacy continued in Montréal, in Rio, in my work and forever in my memories of this late summer trip.