I have been living in Montreal for nine days. Whenever you travel somewhere new, people are forever giving you advice on things to do and see, eat, drink, visit, stay and people to meet. A friend from home, in Australia, is from Montreal. He has only one request. He wants my opinion on the Great Bagel Debate. He tells me it haunts Montreal more so than the question of whether Quebec should separate from Canada.
My lack of job, lack of money and the unquestionable appeal of a hot fresh bagel for forty five cents on Saturday morning drives me to accept the mission.
I am dressing – preparing. I am new to this. Our thermometers in Australia do not reach below zero too often. Will I need warm clothes? Will I walk far enough to warm myself? It is the question I deliberate as regularly as the busker with the accordion appears outside my bedroom window. I take my backpack. Should I bring my camera? Will I simply end up lugging it around for no reason like I usually do? I pack it. I take a map. It’s not far but I could get lost. Would my faltering French be suffice to find my way home with directions from a French speaking stranger? Should I take my French/English dictionary? Perhaps I should take my How to Learn French the Easy Way tapes, which are so difficult I wonder if I should sue them for false advertising. No, it’s a bagel. There’s no need to sue over a trip to eat a bagel. I find perspective, brush my teeth and I walk out the front door. I’m ready.
I hit Rue Saint-Denis and pass ten shops before realising I had forgotten my instructions. I’ve got two maps, a guidebook to Canada, how to speak French tapes and no idea where I’m going. On top of all this, it begins to snow. I look at the map and vaguely remember which direction I’m heading. I decide to wing it.
I turn into Rue Saint Laurent and find myself walking into a clothing store. I’m very focussed on my bagel mission but my feet often take off and I have little option but to follow.
A very attractive, ridiculously thin woman hands me a ten dollar voucher for the store and speaks to me in French, which I reply to also in French. She instantly starts talking in English and I silently curse my inability to pass as a native speaker.
I see a strip of cloth which they are selling as a skirt and the price tag is one hundred and ninety five dollars. I think about my crossing town for a forty five cent bagel. I leave.
I am outside the St. Viateur Bagel Factory. It looks like a factory. There are no customers, no shop assistants. I see only bakers. Baking bagels. I am close to searching elsewhere when I see something that might resemble a counter and I walk inside.
One of the bakers throws another baker a glance. I think of turning around when I see the fresh, hot bagels spilling out onto the table. I ask for one. He throws it into a paper bag and I hand over my money and I hit the street, still snowing, with bagel number one in hand.
It’s warm. A lovely golden brown colour. A good covering of sesame seeds. There are some dubious random bits of burnt black looking things hanging out amongst the sesame seeds. A good size, not too big but not feeling like you haven’t got your monies worth. Very chewy. A little bit too chewy for my liking. Overall, a great performer. I am pleasantly surprised.
I realise that I have another bagel to eat. I’m feeling a little full. Will I be doing justice to the second bagel house on account of my ill preparation (a hearty breakfast before realising I would indeed undertake the mission today)?
I start walking, half a bagel in hand. A young girl asks me a question and we start talking as we walk down Rue Saint Laurent. I resume eating my bagel as we talk about Montreal, about Australia. I tell her what I am doing, that I am writing about the Great Bagel Debate and before I can ask her for an opinion we have reached Fairmount Street.
“Good luck in your serious bagel business,” she says with a laugh and shakes my hand. I return the handshake wondering if there are sesame seeds in my teeth and we depart. I look down and the bag is empty, the bagel eaten in haste. I’m ready for bagel business number two – La Maison de l’original Fairmount Bagel.
My mouth is agape. It’s like a whole new world. Cars create traffic jams on the street as people run inside to fetch their Saturday morning bagels. There’s someone to open the door. Someone to serve you. Another to fetch your bagel. There’s signage with all the bagel types and costs. There’s all manner of popular bagel spreads, like cream cheese. Beverages to accompany your bagels. I am tempted instantly by all the various flavours but realise I must remain true to the task at hand. I need to maintain the point of reference. A plain sesame seed bagel. I order with some regret, walk outside into the snow and take a bite.
Golden brown. Slightly irregular shape. Good covering of sesame seeds. Not as much strange burnt black bits. I take a bite and it’s not as warm as the other. And not nearly as chewy. The dough is much softer. I realise this makes it a little more like regular bread and decide I enjoy the chewiness of the previous bagel. Overall, another good performer.
I huddle under the awning of a residence close to the bakery, hiding from the snow, eating my bagel and scribbling notes. An old woman appears on her front step, pretending to clean. She barks at me, wants to know what I am doing. I realise at once how strange I must appear. I tell her that I am trying to write, but the snow is smearing my words. She looks down at my notes. I pray that she can not read them from such a distance, and she says “okay then, you can stay.” I scribble a quick note about the woman herself, thank her, and start walking home.
As I walk, I realise that it has been snowing since I left home this morning, yet there is no snow to be seen on the ground. It has simply melted away. I make this realisation with disappointment. I wish it did collect on the ground, so that everything would be covered in white. I am thinking these thoughts when I pass an old woman who stares at my scarf and swears in French. I think about my French tapes sitting in my bag – next to my camera – that once again I lugged around uselessly. I think about the half eaten bagel in my hand and realise it doesn’t really matter which is better.
There is a Great Bagel Debate and the debate does not exist for people like me to take a trip through Montreal to solve any great question. It’s not about finding one answer. It’s about whether you like chewy bagels, irregularly shaped bagels or bagel shops where you can buy your cream cheese at the same time. It’s about meeting old women on their front step and your scarf being verbally abused in French. It’s about making the journey for yourself.
Allison Moore is an Australian freelance writer currently living in Montreal – eating bagels.