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Hey, Mom! Montreal ... s'il vous plait

A teen gets to use his high school French without leaving the continent. And his mother likes the culture.

July 09, 2006|Elizabeth Mehren and Sam Butterfield | Elizabeth Mehren is The Times' New England bureau chief. Sam Butterfield is an editor at Massachusetts' Hingham High School Harborlight.

Montreal — IMAGINE my surprise when my teenage son revealed he would like to travel to a place where he could speak French. Pardonnez-moi, but up until that moment, French was something that had been stuffed into his brain at school -- since, I think, third grade. It was not the stuff of recreation, never mind vacation.

Sam: She's right, actually. Up until then, I had resented the force-fed schooling I was getting. "School stinks" summed up my thought process. But at this point in my life, I no longer feel the need to bash intellectualism. Montreal, though not quite as exotic as France -- and a frequent destination for my hockey-playing friends -- definitely offered some of the intrigue of the European world.

So as mothers often do, I took a breath, trying not to sound amazed, and said, "Well, certainly." This was spring break we were talking about, the April vacation that signals that another wretched school year will soon be over.

We also were looking at ye olde checkbook. Paris was out of the question because we had mortgaged the family farm for a trip to London a short time earlier. We also had time constraints that made a full week's getaway unlikely.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday July 13, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
Montreal: A photo with an article in Sunday's Travel about Montreal was not of the Biodome zoological facility described in the caption. It was a geodesic dome built by Buckminster Fuller for the 1967 World's Fair.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday July 16, 2006 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 3 Features Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
Montreal: A photo with a July 9 article about Montreal was not of the Biodome zoological facility described in the caption. It was a geodesic dome built by Buckminster Fuller for the 1967 World's Fair.

When Sam suggested Montreal, we both knew right away that this was the perfect destination. It was an easy getaway from our home near Boston. It had superb museums, a world-class university to explore and a huge underground shopping complex. It had bistros and brasseries. And most of all, it had many people speaking French.

We consulted the Internet but found no great airfare bargains.

From the back of my brain, a little voice whispered: Why not take the train?

A call to Amtrak told us we could pick up the Montreal line in Albany, N.Y., about three hours from our home. Then the voice mentioned the AAA-discounted price -- $80, round trip, for each of us. That cinched the deal.

Sam: Just two weeks before our little adventure, I celebrated my 16th birthday and naturally got my driver's permit that very day. So the drive to Albany was an enticing opportunity to explore the not-so-treacherous Massachusetts Turnpike. Also, as I enjoy visiting new cities, Albany would be another check on my list.

But let me tell you about Albany: After rounding a bend on what becomes the New York State Thruway, the visitor to Albany has essentially seen it all. The crowning moment of our short-lived visit was taking in a giant monument (or sculpture, we're not sure which) that sits in the middle of the city. It is shaped like a spaceship and appears to have been the site where aliens landed. In fact, we discovered, it is a performing arts center known formally as "The Egg." We crossed the Hudson River to the Amtrak station in Rensselaer and began our trip.

Right off, Sam and I noticed that the train was amazingly comfortable. The seats were broad and deeply cushioned. The wide windows invited passengers to press their noses against the glass. I had brought along books, magazines and a laptop, assuming I would fill endless hours with productive activities. Instead, I gazed dreamily.

Soon we were hugging the edge of Lake Champlain. The windows did not open, but if they had, we could have touched the water, perhaps tempting the legendary lake monster known as Champ. The track twisted and turned, affording a spectacular view of Vermont's Green Mountains.

Our friend the Internet also had secured us a Montreal hotel room. Since I was traveling with a teenager, I had nixed quaint inns with paper-thin walls. Better to go for full-service hotels with gyms, concierges and functioning TVs. We ended up at the Hotel Omni Mont-Royal, with a huge room opposite the in-town mountain (Mont Royal, get it?) for which the city was named. Arriving at dinner time, we dropped our luggage in the room and inquired, "Ou est une bonne brasserie?"

Using his skillful French, Sam procured 12-ride passes on the subway, for about $11. Off we went to the neighborhood known as St.-Denis, home of fine restaurants and kicky boutiques. Our concierge's choice, Bieres & Compagnie, featured a lengthy list of brews along with more variations of mussels than I had ever seen. As promised, the place was packed with locals -- none speaking English.

Montreal, with a population of almost 2 million, is Canada's second-largest city. It is truly bilingual, so non-French speakers can get along splendidly. Residents seemed genuinely friendly, happy that we were taking time to come see their city. Sam found that speaking French in Montreal was everything it was cracked up to be. All the amenities of a modern American city are fused with old and elegant French culture.

Sam and I believe in seeing a city from the sidewalk up. After studying the Montreal guidebooks, we knew what we wanted to see and also what we wanted to eat: crepes. We began our first full day in Montreal at Chez Cora, where the line snaked around a corner, but it was worth the wait.

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