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The Canadian Grand Prix

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The Formula One Canadian Grand Prix has been held in Montreal since 1978, on the artificial island of Île Notre-Dame. Held every year at the beginning of June, the race is eagerly anticipated by the city’s residents, to whom it represents the unofficial start of summer.

It almost seems to perfect to be true, but the champion of Montreal’s first Grand Prix was a French Canadian: Gilles Villeneuve. A hero throughout Quebec, he died tragically a few years later, during a qualifying run for the Belgian Grand Prix, and Montreal’s track was renamed in his honor. Today, the Gilles Villeneuve Circuit is considered one of the most exciting tracks on the F1 calendar, with long straightaways that allow cars to reach 300 kph and a couple hairpin turns.

Jürgen and I aren’t exactly racing fans. In fact, if you’d asked me who I expected to win the 2016 Canadian Grand Prix, I’d probably have said “Michael Schumacher,” because that’s the only racing name that comes to mind. (In my defense, he is the all-time leader at Montreal…) No, the winner of this year’s race was Lewis Hamilton, who I’m pretty sure I’ve also heard of. The Brit edged out Germany’s Sebastian Vettel by five seconds to notch his second-straight victory in Montreal.

Formula 1 Montreal

Sadly, this year’s race was marred by ugly, cold weather. We didn’t get tickets, but went out in the old town to sample some of the atmosphere. And although we found some outdoor terraces decorated with checkered flags, they were all empty. Everyone seemed to be huddled indoors, watching the race at sports bars. Apparently, the real party is at Crescent Street, which claims to be the biggest Grand Prix festival in the world, drawing half a million people over three days.

Montreal has a love/hate relationship with the Formula One. The city estimates that the race brings in up to $90 million, but a lot of people complain bitterly about it. Why should anyone be glamorizing pollution-spitting race cars? And there’s not much to love about racing’s vulgar macho culture, with all the sexy model-type women posing next to luxury cars, and unsavory associations with high-end prostitution. As a general rule, Jürgen and I dislike any event that reeks of elitism, and the Formula One certainly qualifies.

Oh well, we were happy enough for the race to be held, because it meant that summer had officially begun. Congrats to Schumacher, Hamilton, Dick Dastardly, or whoever it was that won this year’s race!

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June 22, 2016 at 10:22 pm Comments (0)

A Night at the Casino

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Housed in the former French Pavilion from the 1967 World Expo, Montreal’s state-run casino opened in 1993, and has become one of the most popular spots in the city. This is the largest casino in Canada, and is as memorable for its unique architecture as for its rollicking atmosphere. We were invited to check it out on a Saturday night.

Montreal Casino

The last couple casinos we’ve visited haven’t been so great; sad, dingy places with chain-smokers joylessly feeding machines and lifeless tables, where you leave feeling bad about yourself even if you happen to have won. But I’m happy to report that Montreal’s Casino is not like that. This is the fun type. It’s the kind of place you go to have a good time, and where gambling is almost an afterthought.

We started enjoying ourselves the moment we stepped inside. Just past the entrance, a band was rocking out in front of a large crowd, most of whom were dancing. The bar area was packed, the machines were ringing, the noise level was insane, and everything was lit up by a massive LED-backdrop the size of a tennis court which extends from behind the stage all the way up to the top floor.

Montreal Casino

Unlike in most casinos, there are plenty of windows and a real sense of space; in Montreal, they’re not trying to confuse you with a maze of slot machines, or make you forget the time of day. The floors of the casino are interconnected by an open central atrium, so that even from the top, you can look all the way down to see the band jamming. And the views are beautiful… the casino is mostly surrounded by water, and the skyline of downtown Montreal is visible in the near distance.

The main building of the casino is the former French Pavilion, built for Expo 67, and it’s also connected to the neighboring gold cube of the Quebec Pavilion, where you’ll find yet more floors of games, as well as the poker tables. This was perhaps the only place in the casino that I would characterize as “quiet.” The people seated around these tables were concentrating so intensely, it was intimidating. If we hoped to one day be able to take a place here, we were going to need some lessons.

Montreal Casino

Luckily, we knew where to go. Jonathan Duhamel, a world poker champion, was on-hand at the casino to give free lessons. He’s a native of Quebec and often makes appearances. The game we learned with him was three-card poker, a variation which I’d never heard of before. We played a few hands and, within fifteen minutes, went from total newbies to totally overconfident. Time to hit the tables!

Montreal Casino

We wandered over to the a room called “The Zone”, which was unlike anything I’d ever seen in a casino. This was more like a dance club, with a set of four DJs on the stage. Except, instead of dancing, we were sitting at terminals playing blackjack, and instead of spinning records, the DJs were flipping cards over. Everyone in The Zone was playing the same hands, and it was all live-projected on the screens behind DJ Croupier… so if he busted, everyone won.

After playing there and at a couple more traditional tables, we gathered up our winnings and went to the casino’s restaurant on the top floor. Even though it was late at night, this place was packed, and for good reason: the food is excellent and the prices are surprisingly reasonable. Plus, from so high up, you get a great view over the city.

Montreal Casino

We had an awesome night out at the Montreal Casino, although I’m not sure that’s good news. Our last casino experiences had been so miserable, that we had started to lose our love of gambling. But now it’s been rekindled! Even as we were leaving the casino, I was plotting how to justify a return trip.

(Later that evening, as I was getting ready for bed, I discovered twenty dollars worth of chips still in my pocket. “Oh my, I forgot to cash these in. We’ll have to go back at some point.” Jürgen regarded me suspiciously… I’m not sure I fooled him. And I’m not sure I care!)

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Montreal Casino – Website

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May 30, 2016 at 8:11 pm Comment (1)

The Circus and (Much) More at TOHU

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You know what every city needs? An environmentally-conscious community center with an adjacent eco-park, and a theater for year-round circus performances. Well, I’m joking, but the more I think about it, the more I believe it’s true. Montreal has exactly such a place in TOHU, an utterly unique attraction in the neighborhood of St. Michel, which focuses on the environment, community, and circus culture in equal measure.

Tohu Montreal

A culture-based community center makes sense, but what’s with the concentration on “circus arts”? The answer to that can be found across the parking lot from TOHU: the headquarters of the Cirque du Soleil. They’ve been based here since the mid-1990s, and their world-wide success has allowed them to pursue other initiatives at home, such as TOHU.

TOHU is first-and-foremost a community center for St. Michel, a disadvantaged neighborhood settled historically by immigrants, particularly those from Haiti. Almost all of the staff is local, and TOHU frequently puts on programs and events designed to stimulate community involvement.

Tohu Montreal

TOHU is also in charge of the Saint-Michel Environmental Complex, a large quarry which became a landfill, and then a park. It was too cold and rainy for us to explore the park, but there’s a bike path which leads around it, as well as walking trails and Canada’s largest indoor skating park. Development on the old landfill is currently ongoing, but by 2020, this should be the city’s second-biggest green space.

Community action and eco-parks are great, but they’re not the real reason Jürgen and I were drawn to TOHU. No, that would be the circus. Inside its permanent, circular, indoor theater (the only one of its kind in North America), TOHU hosts a wide array of events, many of them free.

Tohu Montreal
Looks like Team Yellow won this round!

The show we saw was a type of “Circus Improv,” in which two teams of performers battled for the love of the crowd, in disciplines like body-contortion, acrobatics, silk-curtain-dangling, dancing and clowning. At the end of each round, the audience would indicate with green or yellow cards which team had been the more impressive. It was a lot of fun.

TOHU puts on a ton of shows, so it’s worth checking their website to see if there are any you might want to see. Make sure to arrive early, so that you can arrange a short tour of the LEED-certified complex and learn more about TOHU’s mission.

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TOHU – Website

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May 8, 2016 at 7:53 pm Comments (0)
The Canadian Grand Prix The Formula One Canadian Grand Prix has been held in Montreal since 1978, on the artificial island of Île Notre-Dame. Held every year at the beginning of June, the race is eagerly anticipated by the city's residents, to whom it represents the unofficial start of summer.
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