Divers/Cité Pride Festival.
As I tow my rolly luggage down Rue St Catherine on arrival for my getaway weekend in Montreal, I’m struck first by the balls. Thousands — tens of thousands — of pink plastic balls are strung over-head across the street along nearly 10 city blocks of the commercial backbone of this sprawling gay neighbourhood. And, of course, the roadway is closed to traffic along this stretch, converted into a summer pedestrian mall, with the patios of myriad gay bars, cafés and restos extended well into the open air. Occasionally someone wanders past in the middle of the street, clear-eyed and lighthearted, idly sipping a boozy drink.
I surmise the idea for the balls must have been a stroke of random genius. I imagine some visionary mind crafting the arguments needed to convince some monochromatic financier that the cost of the entire national supply of pink plastic balls is a worthy investment in the culture of the place. I’m glad he prevailed.
The effect is of wandering with like-minded, beautiful and smartly dressed strangers under a canopy of foliage; it’s like a huge urban arbour for the gay set. The summer streets lie sun-dappled rather than searingly hot.
The rules and social conventions of the place feel designed to enable people for happiness rather than to control or limit them for order and efficiency.
You feel somehow embraced by it, kissed deeply.
I’m struck secondly by the eye contact. Passersby look at you squarely and don’t turn away abruptly when they see you seeing them: instead a friendly nod, a mischievous smile, an endearingly cocky I-see-you upward jerk of the chin. These are the gay people, I sense. At first I blame the luggage for the attention. Dragging it clearly marks me as a visitor to their gaydom, likely hoping for a weekend fling. They are, incidentally, welcoming and accommodating. But after ditching the bag in my hotel room — the one with the chandelier over the bed — I realize it’s the culture of the place.
And the culture of the place is what makes Montreal unique among North American gay travel destinations. It’s a great spot for fun, with pleasures and contentments tailorable to every taste. It’s uniquely its own city but bears many of the best qualities of Western European living and aesthetics. It’s a preferred quickie holiday destination for gay people and the kind of city visitors add to their list of places to live before they die.