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In Montréal, the joy of being alone in a new place

Eric Webb
Austin 360
Snow on the ground at sunset outside Station Lionel Giroux in Montréal, Québec, in Novmeber 2019.

The boots on my feet weren't specifically meant to prevent me from wiping out on ice. I got them at REI — clearance; I work at a newspaper — for a hiking trip. As I walked through Montréal on my first night of a weeklong trip in 2019, I caught the briefest glimpse of what thrill Tonya Harding must have felt as she glided over a plane of frozen water. Except she knew what she was doing. I was content to avoid an accident that would further highlight a lifetime sans orthodontia. 

After checking into my room at Hotel de Paris, my boots and I observed that storied travel tradition: walking around a new city. Montréal at night in November is a placid kind of dark, and the streets are sparse. If you're lucky, the snow's small and quiet, like white noise for the eyes. 

I'm a fast walker, even on ice, it turns out. I slowed my roll when I came across a trio of older ladies who'd come upon a torn-up chunk of sidewalk that I'd passed earlier. They obviously didn't need coats as thick as this Texan's just to feel warm, and they were laughing and cheering on one of their group as she tried to cross a steep incline covered in frozen stuff.

I quickened my pace again, met the woman in the middle and offered my arm. After she made it over, she spoke to me cheerfully in French. I assumed she was thanking me, but wouldn't that be just what an American abroad thought? I nodded, smiled goofily and realized I had absolutely no words that I felt confident in saying back to her. Up until that point, and for many days to come, it had just been a lot of "Je suis désolé."

With its green top, Hotel de Paris is a charming budget hotel in Montréal.

You see, I had traveled alone to snowy Québec on my first extended trip out of the country, and I hardly knew a lick of Québécois. Over seven days in Montréal, I often felt terribly alone — and not the kind of alone that I'd come seeking. But after a year of apartment walls and lawn chairs 6 feet away, I'd give anything for such an adventurous isolation.

Since March, I've often thought of this trip to Montréal. Things kicked off well enough. An airport employee greeted me at the top of a long staircase to customs, touched my elbow and said, "Welcome to winter." That was about as connected as I would feel for the whole trip.

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No phone data plan for me in Canada, but I did print out a paper map to my hotel. It proved hard to read, and the bus driver from the airport spoke only French, as I found out when I asked for directions. I got lost wandering the powder-covered blocks, schlepping a suitcase as the sun started to set in a different country. About 45 minutes later, I realized that the bus had actually dropped me off at the right train station to begin with. 

I made it onto the Métro and realized that the route maps and the overhead announcements were all in French. I have to stress: This was a me problem, not a Montréal problem. I knew that the province was French Canadian. However, I got the impression it was the kind of bilingual that would work in my favor, a poor assumption to make. I just wasn't prepared.

Notre Dame Basilica is a gorgeous cathedral, and a great place for contemplation alone in Montréal.

Rough stuff, cowboy. After I helped that lady over the ice on the first night, I walked into a bistro called Juliette et Chocolat. I tried to order from the counter, but the host and I found ourselves on opposite ends of the language gap. He tried to seat me at a long table full of people celebrating some joyful occasion together. 

One night, I went to Cinema du Musée to catch Pedro Almodóvar's "Pain and Glory." I walked through the empty, dramatically lit hall to meet an usher who seemed very dismayed that I couldn't respond to his French question about what movie I was there to see. I gulped my Maltesers in shame.

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Austin360 editor Eric Webb enjoys a bagel for one from Fairmount Bagel in Montréal in 2019.

Things seemed to shut down early. One night, I ate a croissant aux amande in my bed and watched a rerun of "Saturday Night Live" at the hotel. I thought to myself, "I really messed this one up. I wish I hadn't come alone."

You might say I felt isolated. Those moments of feeling cut off, of feeling ill-equipped to appreciate my moments alone, have come rushing back to me all year. I'm here to say: what I wouldn't give to feel that version of isolation again.

The neighborhood grocery where I bought that croissant I ate alone, Les Marchés Tradition? I strolled through its aisles, imagining what I might buy there for dinner parties if I lived in Montréal. 

I miss new neighborhoods. In Mile End, I saw kids playing with golden retrievers in the snow before I walked to Fairmount Bagel and got a cinnamon raisin bagel.

At Marché Atwater, I bought almonds from a man playing my favorite singer on the stereo at his stall — "Oui, Sufjan Stevens!" he said when I told him I loved the song. Later at that market, a kind woman at the patisserie helped this hopeless schmuck flailing through "Parlez-vous anglais?" to order a roulé du jambon et fromage.

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At Cinema du Parc, inside one of Montréal's famous underground malls, I watched the French Canadian director Xavier Dolan's movie "Matthias et Maxime" in a nearly empty theater, sweaty as usual from shedding my warm layers. I was thankful for the subtitles and tried to match them up to actors' French words.

How could I forget restaurant hopping? A hot dog and a pulpy drink at Gibeau Orange Julep, smoked meat at Schwartz's, a boozy apple cider at Marché Bonsecours, the best grilled cheese of my life at Olive et Gourmando in Old Montréal. I allotted myself one swanky restaurant, L'Express, and had never been happier to drink Bordeaux and eat tart du chocolat at a bar by myself. After that meal, I wandered down Avenue de Chateaubriand and made note of restaurants I might try if I ever returned (with a travel buddy, of course).

And of course, silently taking in Basilica Notre Dame made me feel closer to something divine, even if that something was Celine Dion, who got married there.

A smoked meat sandwich from the famous Schwartz's Deli in Montréal.

One moment keeps returning with particular warmth. On my way to Cinema de Musee to greatly disappoint an usher, I stopped by La Banquise for the first of three poutines on the trip. (Y'know, when in metaphorical Rome.) There was a long line. I'd never be able to eat at the restaurant and still make my movie.

I took my poutine to go and hustled through the below-freezing air in the direction of the theater, keeping my eyes peeled for a spot where I could quickly inhale a bunch of fries, cheese and gravy. What with all the ice and snow, it was slim pickings.

Eventually I settled on a bench at the side of a red brick building on Rue Rachel. It was completely silent out, save for a toddler running across an icy sidewalk, giggling, to their parents.

I brushed the snow off the top of the bench and sat, frantically shoveling the poutine in my mouth with red fingers because I forgot to ask for a fork. Not that I knew how to say fork in French, anyway.

What a treat it would be to try something new, alone, but out in the world.