September, 1999: The night before I left for Montreal I saw a commercial for a new product: Band-Aid Blister Strips, big band-aids that you put over your heels to prevent blisters. But it was late and I had an early flight...
I shoulda gone out and tracked some down, no matter how long it took.
One square block of beautiful Montreal contains more stairs than the entire state of North Carolina. As you travel the streets of the city (the largest inland port in the world) you notice that the typical block-shaped house has walls composed entirely of stairs. I suppose it keeps the costs of building materials down.
All right, that's overstating it, but this is the city of stairs. Stairs leading up from the street. Stairs leading up to the second-floor flat. Stairs leading up to the third-floor flat. For safety purposes, new legislation is in place that prohibits the construction of outdoor stores on residences, but the houses that are already there remain garlanded in their layers of stairs.
St. Joseph's Oratory, the leargest shrine to St. Joe in the world. It's on the mountain. Too many steps! The guy who built it couldn't be ordained because he hadn't attended university. So he held doors at the school across the street (below) and collected tips, coming up with the $$$ to build this. You can see the central staircase where pilgrims climb up on their knees. Karen's guide book says that once you get inside, it's disappointingly plain. I'll never know! Can you imagine climbing those steps when they're ICY?!!
From , it seemed as if the city were a flat but interesting landscape, with the mountain (Réal, as in Mount Royal or Montréal) looming up suddenly behind the downtown area. In fact, the city begins at river's edge and slants up at a fairly even 30 degree angle until it slants up at a 45 degree angle, which it does so consistently until it slants up at a 90 degree angle and you look above yourself and say, "Let's stop for a Coke."
We stopped for a lot of Cokes. My travel partner, Karen's, tour book said that the average Coke in Montreal cost $1.25 Canadian, which... carry the one... hm... Well, it's about 2/3 that in real, American money. At Place Jacques-Cartier, the main tourist draw in Vieux Montreal (Old Montreal) down by the river, a 20-ounce Coke with ice runs over $3.25 Canadian. In American money, that's highway robbery.
Karen at the Bistro de Paris. That ain't no Coke she's drinking. (The bee behind her has me in its vicious, kamikaze sights.)
Oh sure, Canadian prices for the most part are well below American ones, and the exchange rate is great... for Americans. But watch out. There are city taxes and province taxes and dumb American taxes... Add another 20% to whatever you buy, and you'll be in the right ballpark. (Keep your receipts! Supposedly you can get some of the taxes back from the Canadian government when you return to the US.) And do carry a calculator. I'm not saying that I ran into unscrupulous shopkeepers here and there, but I bought two $7.00 tee shirts and wound up billed $22.00 for them. I paid with a twenty and a ten, and got three dollars change.
Funny money. It's got pictures of Queen Elizabeth all over it, for pete's sake. Lizzie on one side, loons on the other. Lizzie on one side, beavers on the other. Lizzie on one side, a moose on the other. If I were her, I'd be insulted. And if she ever retires, the entire mint will have to be overhauled. People will be thrown out of work for not knowing how to make King Charles look presentable on their money. What will they call it, the "Chuck Buck?"
Actually, there's no such thing as a Canadian dollar bill. I found that out trying to get a crisp new one for a coworker who collects coins. "We don't have dollar bills here," the Canadian told me, to whom I replied, "Whuh, thet's just UNAMURICAN!"
No dollar bills. Instead, they have brassy dollar coins that look like something you'd put in a machine at Chuck E. Cheese. These coins are called "loonies." When the Canadian government came out with a $2.00 coin recently (a lovely silver coin with a gold center, like a rolled-out Breath Saver), they had to call it a "tooney." As for the other coins they offer, they look enough like American money to be easily used by the American tourist, and easily camouflaged with other change once you get back to the States and realize that you've still got some Canadian coins to get rid of.
As for crisp other bills, I never did see any. They all looked as if they'd been in circulation since the fur traders were in town. And while I'm thinking about it, I have one word of advice for the manufacturers of money belts: terrycloth! By the end of a day all the money secreted in my belt had turned to pulp.