From our Window.... in Montreal
By Helen and Joe Bergstein
Several months ago we contacted a home listing on Digsville.com hoping to swap our Hoboken, NJ apartment for one in Montreal. The member of Digsville residing in Montreal specified New York City as one of her choice destinations. Because Hoboken is only a ten minute train (or ferry) ride across the Hudson River, we thought it was worth asking about a home exchange.
Initially, the Montreal home lister, Joan, was hesitant because of the size difference in the two homes. We assured her that her one-bedroom apartment in the french district of Plateau Mont Royal, one of Montreal's hippest neighborhoods, would be plenty big for our family of two adults, Helen and Joe, and one child, Lily, age 4. We were primarily seeking a place to hang our hats while enjoying the annual JazzFest event in Montreal, which was scheduled from June 29-July 9 this year.
After many emails concerning proximity and accessibility to New York City, questions about the one-mile square city of Hoboken and whether our mutual needs would be met, we agreed on a one week exchange in early July. Virtually all of the correspondence between Helen and Joan was done by email and the message boards on the Digsville.com website, with neither feeling the need to pick up the phone. Many logistics were hashed out through email communication: how the keys would be transferred; dates and times of arrival and departure; phone and Internet usage; and, parking rules in each location. Additionally we learned about the best roller blading areas in our new neighborhood, and where a few out of the way second-hand shops were located for old jazz and blues recordings. We in turn, informed Joan about our home town, the wealth of eating spots, the stunning view of Manhattan from the Hoboken waterfront parks, and also about some hot events in New York City occurring during her stay, such as the OpSail and the awesome July 4 fireworks display on the river.
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Preparing for our Exchange
About a month before we were to leave, we began to organize our home. We weeded through closets and drawers for items that no longer fit and packed them up for the Salvation Army. Next we took a critical look at problems that needed closer attention, using the home exchange as a reason to repair and replace many items throughout the house and yard. First we tackled the yard, patching our old cement patio and painting it a cheerful color. We filled our flower pots with an assortment of geraniums and petunias. We made certain that our phone, cable and utility bills were paid, and that there were plenty of basic supplies in our home for Joan and the two friends who would be joining her. One week prior to our trip, we commenced a thorough cleaning of the house and framed a few prints we had been meaning to get to for a long time. We inventoried our linens and decided it was time to treat ourselves to some new sheets and towels. Lastly, we collected some local maps, event schedules, and favorite take-out menus for Joan and her traveling companions to enjoy.
Montreal or Bust
Our house in Hoboken passed our inspection at 11 a.m. on the day we were to depart for Montreal. With the car trunk and back seat over-packed as usual, we called our dog Sam to join us as we left the house. He had a gleam in his eye in anticipation of a road trip. In fact, Sam would be having his own mini-vacation staying with personal friends of ours - also Digsville members - in their terrific lake community home in Putnam Valley, New York.
In our eagerness to get out of the house, we forgot to take along our picnic food for the six hour car ride to Montreal, and we felt a little awkward leaving a phone message from Putnam Valley to let Joan know that the leftovers in the refrigerator could be eaten or thrown out. We also apologized that Sam's dish was still on the kitchen floor, right where we forgot it.
The next six hours were a pleasant drive north mostly on Interstate-87 which runs along the eastern side of New York State. Upon reaching the border, we were asked by the officer the customary question concerning purpose of our visit. Our answer about having fun in Montreal for a week was acceptable, and they let us in.
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We easily found Joan's apartment thanks to Mapquest, and parked the car in free non-sector parking right in front of her duplex. Having the keys to the apartment on Rue Mentana previously mailed to us, we eagerly entered her apartment to check out our digs for the next week. Comfort was ours in every room of her home. We momentarily felt a little nervous about our own child and pet-friendly home not being up to par with Joan's swank place. Our fears were immediately allayed when we heard from her via email that they too had happily settled in at our place in Hoboken, and were eager to visit the Big Apple.
With our energy ebbing after the long drive, we walked to the local market and picked up some cheese, olives and baguette and retired to our terrace for a meal alfresco. Lily huddled on the couch with her blanket and some Cheerios that we brought from home, and enjoyed the Cartoon Network in French on the TV. We relaxed sipping some wine that Joan had left for us, listening to the distant rumble of fireworks before nodding off.
Beginning the next day we discovered the appeal of our immediate neighborhood. Block after block of duplexes and triplexes with terraces and brightly painted doors became the subject of numerous photographs. Small patches of garden, many adorned with varied arrangements of flowers of every hue celebrated Montreal's summer season. The pedestrian-friendly streets and parks were a steady stream of enjoyment for us and Lily. Casual strolls through the alley ways paralleling the streets brought new and interesting finds. One afternoon's discovery was a one-of-a-kind button shop, a long-held passion of Helen's.
Our Local Guides
Joan provided us with a comprehensive list of her favorite places to eat and
shop. Her recommendations were very much in step with our taste, and we found Montreal to be a haven for outstanding restaurants. Each day we treated ourselves to lunch out, and bought the ingredients for our other meals at local patisseries and produce shops recommended by Joan and our neighbors. At Joan's suggestion, we took a trip to the Jean-Talon Market in the Little Italy section of town. We decided to take the Metro four short stops from our place on Mentana. At the market we purchased farm fresh fruits and vegetables, flowers, bread, cheese and pates, all to die for! Leaving the market we passed residences typical of the early 20th century - elaborate wrought iron winding staircases and front yard vegetable gardens, often shaded by grape vines. Back home, we headed straight to our favorite spot on our terrace at home which overlooked a grid of back yards, reminiscent of Hitchcock's film, "Rear Window". Here we sat back enjoying the sounds of typical family life as neighbors arrived home after an average workday. The fact that we couldn't understand a word they were saying allowed us to interpret it all as fun and lively banter. Hopefully nothing Hitchcockian was going on!
During our stay we met several helpful neighbors and a local policeman who, when he learned we were in town for a week at a friend's house, recommended that we sample the smoked meats at Schwartz's on St. Laurant, and the cuisine at the Hong Kong Restaurant in Chinatown. We tried both establishments and were reasonably wowed.
A daily ritual of Joe and Lily's was to pick up fresh croissants at a patisserie around the corner. Next they were off to visit one of several playgrounds within ten minutes of our home. Lily loved all the new playground equipment and communicated just fine with the other kids through laughter and pantomime. One particular day, the parents of a child of similar age to Lily informed Joe of a performance that evening in LaFontaine Parc. The performance entitled, "Cirq' Art" was fun for the whole family- live music, dance and acrobatics, all within ten minutes of where we were living.
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It has been said, "the Jazz Festival is the highlight of Montreal's summer, the expression of the city's vitality, its admiration of art and music... in short, its beauty". This year marked the 21st JazzFest to be held in Montreal, and from all signs, the event will be a keeper well into the future.
We managed to get to the JazzFest at the Place-des-Arts and listened to Blues, Dixieland, Louisiana Gumbo, and danced in the streets. Who says Mardi Gras only happens in New Orleans? Lily also had her own fun activities at the festival, and got a little jazz education at the La petite école du Jazz program which introduced children to the various genre of jazz.
When our last day rolled around, curiosity got the better of us and we picked up the phone to speak directly to Joan. We were thrilled to learn that she was equally happy with her stay in Hoboken and was interested in swapping again with us at any time. Back home again, we are reaping the benefits of our hard work prior to the exchange. We have the remainder of the summer to relax in our spiffed-up digs and reflect on our cool time in Montreal.
Helen and Joe B.
Joan's listing is #22 on the Digsville.com database.
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