My avatar across the web: a photo of my feet in grey-white socks and brown sandals.

Ben Babcock

I read, write, code, and knit.

Ben and Becky take Montreal

I went on vacation to visit my friend Rebecca in her new city of Montreal, and I had an awesome, relaxing time.

Previously I mentioned how one of my best friends moved to Montreal in June. After working through the summer (yes, some teachers don’t have the summer off!), I had the last week of August for holidays. I chose to spend some of that time visiting Rebecca in Montreal, which was my first time going to that city.

I should mention before we get into the travel diary portion of this post: ironically, I think Rebecca and I have spent more time together since she moved away. (To her credit, she predicted this, and she was right.) We video chat so frequently, still watch Buffy together even more frequently than when she was in town—often synced up so perfectly I can listen to the audio through her mic and my computer speakers and mute my TV! Lately, she has taken to calling me on the phone (yes, actual voice calls without any audio component) most days … and … I actually kind of like it. I hate chatting on the phone; I find that without being able to see a person, I have more trouble remaining engaged in the conversation.

But … it’s just really nice to have friends in my life right now who check in with me, you know? It’s comforting.

Anyway, if you recall my posts from years ago about travelling to England, you’ll remember that I don’t much like travel. I don’t enjoy the disruption to my routine: at home, I have everything I need, where I need it. I’m not sold on the “new experiences” travel often holds: I can visit places in books and my imagination, after all. One exception, I’ve discovered, however, is that I will travel with friends. If I have a friend who wants to go somewhere with me, or in this case, a friend living elsewhere who wants me to visit, I’m amenable. Because for me, it isn’t really where I go that matters; it’s whom I’m with.

I booked my flight for the day after I finished work, and as my departure loomed, I began an excited countdown. I packed the night before—including several items Rebecca had dropped off at my house when she was visiting Thunder Bay a few weeks prior, asking me sweetly if I wouldn’t mind bringing them in my luggage! Well, a couple of years of transatlantic flights have made me pretty efficient at packing, so I managed to squeeze in the pillow and blanket and rug, if not the fancy jewellery tree. You’re welcome!

Saturday, August 25

The flights to Montreal (a direct Porter flight with a stopover in Toronto where I stayed on the plane) were long but uneventful. Upon landing, I had my first brand new experience: I took an Uber! Although I have objections to Uber’s labour practices, sometimes we do these things. This was the first but not the last time I was grateful I upgraded my phone before leaving. Its battery had barely dipped below 90% during my entire flight, despite watching some Netflix, and the Uber app was responsive instead of, you know, freezing or something. The Uber ride itself was fine; my driver was congenial but not overly chatty, which is what I wanted.

Rebecca took her own Uber over to our Airbnb in the Jean Talon neighbourhood of Montreal. This was another first for me. I was apprehensive about staying in someone else’s place, for sure. Again, though, the economics of the situation made sense. I had been elated, too, when Rebecca asked me if I wanted her to stay in the Airbnb as well. It made sense: practically, it meant we didn’t have to meet up each day, and at that time she was still sleeping on a pullout couch in a friend’s apartment, so this would be a chance to sleep in a real bed for three nights. Also, both our bedrooms had air conditioning! The host of the Airbnb met us there, gave us the keys, and even gave us some recommendations for restaurants in the area. Other than the router being flaky and requiring a power cycle almost every time we returned, the place was great!

Selfie of me and Rebecca at our Airbnb

It was around 3 pm by then, and I was starving. We walked about five minutes down the road to a restaurant called Sushi Nanami. It’s new, and Rebecca had written about it in her new job. I was game to give it a try! This was my first time trying poke bols, and it has been a long time since I had bubble tea—this one had passionfruit balls instead of tapioca, and honestly, I preferred that! In addition to the poke bol, I tried oba for the first time as well. The food was extremely delicious, and the proprietors were friendly and eager for our feedback. We liked it so much we ended up getting food from it again Monday evening!

Poke bol and oba

After lunch we walked around the Jean Talon market for a bit. Rebecca relished the opportunity to continue exploring her new city (although she had already spent some time in this area before, even doing a photo shoot for her blog in the market. Personally, I love just wandering and ambling about a new place when I’m travelling. Exploring is almost always better than doing “tourist” stuff. As the afternoon drew on, we returned to the Airbnb. We packed up a blanket, books, and our crafting stuff (knitting for me, felting for Rebecca) and walked to a nearby park. We lay the blanket on the grass and relaxed. I loved the ambient noises of the neighbourhood around us, even the sound of upbeat music and someone repeatedly counting down (we think it was an exercise class) in the distant background!

Photo of me wearing my 'Make Tea Not War' T-shirt and smiling before eating pizza

We returned to the Airbnb again to prepare for dinner—or should I say, so Rebecca could prepare for dinner by effecting one of her signature costume changes, transforming from “couldn’t care less” T-shirt and shorts into “evening on the town” dress with sandals. Then we walked towards a pizza restaurant recommended by our host—but it was full up for the night, reservations only. We were well into Little Italy by that time, so we just kept walking. As with the park, the atmosphere in this neighbourhood that night was brilliant, very European. Most of the restaurants had sidewalk patios, and customers spilled out into them, drinking and chatting and laughing. We ended up at another pizza place, sat outside, and enjoyed some pizza. On our walk back, we stopped at a gelato cart outside a gift store owned by that first pizzeria across the street. The girl overseeing the cart gave us some very honest opinions about which flavours were the best (opinions we heeded, I believe)—and then Rebecca started networking. Anyway, soon she was talking to the owner about the pizzeria’s 70th anniversary happening later in September, and how she could potentially write about it at her new job. I love watching that girl operate; she is so smooth. And I love watching her excel and take to her new position.

Rebecca and I pose for a photo with cups of gelato in hand

As we sat and ate gelato, we deliberated our next and likely final move for the night. In my original itinerary for this trip, I’d suggested going out somewhere—probably not dancing, as much as I enjoy that, but perhaps something like karaoke. When in a different place, one should do something adventurous, right? But we were both tired, and we were both feeling a night back inside, watching Buffy. Honestly, most of my best Saturday nights have been nights in, and this one was no exception. We finished off season 6 and then hit our beds, fulfilled.

Sunday, August 26

Sunday was a day to wander. We had crepes in Jean Talon market, then we caught the metro to another neighbourhood where Rebecca knew of vintage shops. She kept her eye out for bargains; I was mildly interested in obtaining another “old man cardigan”—both of us came away empty-handed, but we enjoyed walking around in that area. A wise umbrella purchase at the Pharmaprix (Shoppers) that morning helped keep us dry in the intermittent rain showers.

We hopped the metro again towards Old Montreal, where Rebecca stopped at West Elm to buy some bedding. It was less than a week until she moved into her new place, with an actual bedroom to herself, and she was excited. We hit up an Italian deli for lunch on the recommendation of the West Elm cashier, each of us having a different panini. On our way back walking through Old Montreal, we stumbled upon a recreation of a 17th-century market that Rebecca had written about but completely forgotten was happening! We didn’t spend too much time there, but we walked through it, and then we walked past (but didn’t go into, because the line was very long) Notre Dame cathedral.

It was well into the afternoon at this point. We were both tired, and our feet were sore. Although my original itinerary had suggested that we hike up Mont Royal today, neither the weather nor our energy levels were appropriate for it. We postponed that to Monday and made our way back to the Airbnb, with a brief stop to shop for cooking ingredients. Rebecca and I love cooking together; it was one of my favourite parts of hanging out with her in Thunder Bay, and I hope to resume it soon (long distance) once she is acclimated to her new apartment. Since we were in someone else’s space and didn’t know exactly what we had access to, equipment-wise, we kept it simple: a shrimp and pasta dish. We watched more Buffy, and then it was bedtime: Rebecca had to work in the morning (boo).

Photo of the shrimp and pasta dish

Monday, August 27

I got up around the same time as Rebecca. I took the liberty of putting together a simple breakfast while she got ready for work. Then we rode the metro into town together and walked to her office. We said our goodbyes, and I walked up to Saint Catherine St., turned right, and kept walking. I figured I would hit on something good soon! Eventually I found a cute little cafe, PappaRotti, with a chill atmosphere.

I set up my laptop and did some work (wrote a book review, caught up with a few other online things) until just before noon. Then I did a very Internet thing: I met up with someone I only know online, in this case, from an IRC channel run by fans of Desert Bus for Hope. He lives in Montreal (obviously), and when I mentioned I would be visiting there, offered to meet up with me if time permitted.

We visited a used bookstore near McGill. Checking out used bookstores when I travel is a must. I found some interesting items there….

Photo of the cover of Isaac Asimov's Guide to the Bible
I had no idea Isaac Asimov wrote a guide to the Bible!

I limited myself to a Thomas Hardy and an Umbert Eco novel, to save on space (and money … vacations be expensive, y’all).

We went to a ramen place for lunch. This is the kind of restaurant where it’s just ramen, and you order it by ticking options off a form at your table. I had never eaten ramen previously—no, not even the instant kind! It was pretty good, a little salty (despite asking for the least salt option), not something I’d go back to all the time, but fine on occasion.

After lunch, my online companion took me to Parc LaFontaine, and then we parted ways. Thanks for the meet-up, “Roosevelt”!

I grabbed an iced tea from a nearby cafe, snagged a spot on a wooden chair thing near the lake, and read for an hour or so. Rebecca texted me to tell me she would be finishing work in 30 minutes, which was perfect timing (we like to joke that we’re “so in sync”, but it’s true). I finished my book, walked to the nearest metro, and took it to meet her at a café she wanted to check out.

Let me digress for a moment and talk about Montreal’s metro system. You have to understand that Thunder Bay doesn’t have a subway. Thunder Bay has a poor excuse for a bus system—I don’t use it, because I am a privileged mofo with a car, but I hear from out-of-town student friends that our system is confusing and annoying. I had previously used the subway in Toronto, a long long time ago, and more recently in London—which is convenient but big. I really enjoyed using Montreal’s metro. It was reasonably clean. It isn’t too big, and it is easy to navigate and figure out which line you need to use. The trains come very frequently, so you’re never waiting too long. 10/10, would use again.

Rebecca wanted us to try the Barley Cereal Bar, which, again she had written about and was eager to check out. The draw of this new place for her was, of course, these colourful lattes. But they also serve cereal! So we took advantage of that too. Rebecca insisted on taking a photo of her latte with my phone, so we did a comparison of our phones’ cameras (it’s hard to tell, even having sent her the photo so we’re not comparing across two different screens—my camera might have a slight edge because it is newer, but damn, even old iPhone cameras are amazing). When Rebecca posted on Instagram that she was here, she received a message very quickly asking, “You still here?” Eventually the proprietor came out and introduced himself, and then they chatted for a while. I sat and knit.

And then I started feeling anxious.

It’s hard to say why. I was tired, of course, and somewhat overwhelmed from all these new experiences. The AC in the cafe was turned up too high, so I had gone from sweltering in the Montreal heat to shivering indoors. And while I didn’t begrudge Rebecca taking this opportunity to make a business contact, having been left to my own devices, I kind of started to switch off my social side—and that takes a while to reboot afterwards. When Rebecca returned and we had to wait for one more little food plate to be delivered to us, I was not having a good time.

By the time we reached the metro station, I was crying.

We stopped and sat on the grass outside the metro, and Rebecca did the best she could to comfort me, up to and including playing a Headspace meditation and reassuring me that everything would be fine. I’m very grateful to have friends who are so understanding and who know exactly what to say. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that I’ve experienced more frequent, acute bouts of anxiety more recently—it’s directly correlated to me being a little more adventurous, pushing my comfort zone a little more than I used to. And that’s a good thing, as much as the side effects can be debilitating. Sometimes you just have to cry.

We shelved the Mont Royal hike. It was too late. We were tired. We weren’t in the right mood. And, as Rebecca sagely said, “The mountain will still be there in March, Ben” (I plan to return on March Break for sure!).

We returned to the Airbnb, and I showered while Rebecca talked to her mom and a friend for a bit, then we figured out dinner. After debating whether we should try something new, we settled on takeout from Sushi Nanami—why not? Then we watched Ingrid Goes West. I watched it almost a year ago, and I was so captivated by it that I have been eager for Rebecca, who is much more involved on Instagram than I am, to watch it and share her opinion. We both enjoyed it. The movie is such a compassionate yet unapologetic commentary on the extreme effects of social media on people who lack human connection in their lives. It’s fascinating and chilling.

And then it was bedtime!

Tuesday, August 28

My last day in Montreal! Once again, I rode the metro into town with Rebecca. This time I turned left on Saint Catherine—that was a mistake. I quickly ended up in a more business–commercial area rather than a downtown vibe, so I reversed course and returned to the cafe I’d visited the day before. I spent about an hour there knitting. Then I stopped into an Indigo store to buy a French-language book as a thank-you gift for Rebecca.

Monday and even more so Tuesday definitely emphasized how much I prefer to explore with someone else. And this is not a complaint about Rebecca having to work; that’s just the way the scheduling worked out—but I definitely prefer to be with someone else when I explore a new place. On my own, I’m not as adventurous and liable to just settle down and read or knit somewhere and not actually experience much.

I took the metro to Monktown and walked slightly more than I would have liked until I arrived at my next destination: a yarn store by the name of Espace Tricot. (In addition to used bookstores, I love checking out yarn stores.) I didn’t buy any yarn there, but I did buy a fair amount of notions (small items often used to help one with one’s knitting). Then I walked back towards the metro until I found a restaurant that looked good, had a very filling lunch for a reasonable price, and left just as Rebecca texted me that she was leaving too.

We met up at her metro stop and returned to the Airbnb. After packing our things, we chilled and watched one more episode of Buffy (aaaaah we watched so much Buffy; I love it!). Then we took the metro to Rebecca’s neighbourhood, the Plateau, and I got to see where she had been staying with her friend for the past two months. Then it was time for me to order an Uber and head off to the airport.

The rest, as they say, is history. My flights were uneventful again. I was tired and hungry when I arrived home, but that’s OK, because my friend Amanda picked me up. Having not seen her for almost a week, and having missed our weekly Sunday Doctor Who night because of my trip, it was excellent just getting to listen to her vent about work for the ten minutes or so it took to drive me home. She was even thoughtful enough to bring me a hot chocolate (because it was cold that night) and a donut from Tim Horton’s! So after finishing those, it was time for bed.

As with most vacations, it went by so fast. I can’t believe it is already a collection of memories—but what good memories they are. Four days (including lengthy flights on either side of that) was the right amount of time. I saw enough of the city, spent so much time with my friend, and then went home before become too exhausted. Plus I had enough time in the rest of the week—albeit time that went by way too fast—to relax at home before starting work again after Labour Day.

Despite continuing to talk to Rebecca on a daily basis, I already miss seeing her in Montreal. She’ll visit me in Thunder Bay in October, and I’m already looking forward to another trip sometime during the March Break. As I said near the beginning of this post, I’m not really one for travelling—unless it’s with someone who matters to me, or there’s the heartwarming smile on the face of a friend waiting for me at my destination.

À bientôt, Montreal et une amie Rebecca!

Selfie of me and Rebecca at an Italian deli on Sunday