Williams takes Montreal I

I’m ashamed to confess I spent the past weekend reinforcing the stereotype of the “Ugly American.”

As one of the Record’s beat reporters assigned to cover ACE’s “Williams takes Montreal” trip, I tried my hardest to represent my paper, my college and indeed, my country in the best light possible. My goal was to prove to our fair French Canadian hosts that, even while laboring under the shadow of international controversy, American visitors could be respectful, polite, dignified, suave. In a word, “cosmopolitan.” I’m afraid I may have failed. I assure you, however, that it was not for lack of trying.

It was already quite late at night when our tour buses rolled into the crown jewel of Quebec. Our final destination was the Sheraton Four Points, just a few blocks from the Rue St. Catherine’s, the city’s central nightlife artery. I secretly hoped our landing would be more UN inspection team, less 101st Airborne. I was not immediately disappointed.

In a city which may rank as runner-up to Cancun for ubiquity of American collegiate tourists rambling drunkenly on its streets, the arrival of the Williams contingent appeared almost the epitome of constraint. Sure, there was a bit of a bustle in getting settled down, the inevitable result of the descent of over a hundred people into a relatively small hotel. But not enough, certainly, to justify the immediate and numerous noise complaints phoned into the hotel’s front office. I followed an ACE team as it roamed the hotel, attempting to quiet revelers and restore order. But just fifteen minutes after our arrival, the hotel seemed like a ghost town. Williams had taken to the streets. And my own descent into ugly Americanism had begun.

At a bar off St. Catherine’s, confusion over customary tipping practice is resolved when I wildly over-tip the waitress. She takes the money, chuckles and indulgently tousles my hair. We’re off to a great start. Soon, I am careening wildly through the streets, following what must be about half the leadership of the student body to a strip joint conveniently located over a Subway franchise. Terrified residents, out for a casual midnight stroll, jump out of our way as we cannon towards our destination, “Club Super Sexe.” (Note on French Canadian culture: “Sexe” is spelled with an extra “e.” Then again, that may just be for the benefit of the tourists.)

Still later, I stumble through emptying streets with a couple of companions, feeling more than anything like a sophomoric Bill Bryson clone. We meet up with another trio, some college boys who say they go to Southern Maine Polytechnic. They can’t seem to stop lying. One claims he was just recently working a $30/hour job, but was released after a co-worker complained he “couldn’t stop grabbing her butt,” a charge he gleefully affirms. Another tells us he likes to smuggle drugs across the border in jars of peanut butter. A third claims that his hotel lobby is a popular hang-out for “the most beautiful hookers in Montreal.” They get louder and louder while we smile and nod, and the occasional passer-by gives our motley little crowd as wide a berth as possible.

I get a heavy dose of culture the following afternoon. We visit the Cathedrale de Notre Dame, a breathtaking house of worship in Montreal’s old city. Tourists love the place, but I think the colorful and elaborate interior is a little bit hard to take, a strange sort of Rome/Las Vegas hybrid. I keep this opinion to myself, and ask one of my designated ACE tour guides when the cathedral was built. He scratches his head.

“Oh, about the 1200s, I’d guess,” he says.

I try to point out that the cathedral would then predate the arrival of Christianity to the New World by several centuries, but he has already moved on.

Continuing in the Catholic vein, I find myself that night waiting anxiously in line outside Club Vatican. The next day is Easter, I note with some irony, but the bouncers don’t seem to have this on their mind. One of them looks down at my beat-up running shoes and scowls.

“No sneakers,” he grunts, and opens the velvet rope for me to exit.

“Not even Nikes?” I demur.

He grunts again, this time with more hostility. Be gone with you, ugly American, he seems to say.

I journey with two friends to McGill University, in the shadow of the downtown skyscrapers. We find it deserted, save for small band of high school students sitting dejectedly on a stoop. They try to sell us drugs. We politely refuse, and before we take our leave I am sorely tempted to invite these fine young people up to our hotel room for drinks. But my good sense gets the better of me; the noise complaints which would result would be justified this time, and no explanations in my awful high-school French would save us from being tossed out. As my friends and I wave good-bye and walk off into the night, I feel, for the first time, like a decent tourist, a good-looking American.

“Au revoir!” I shout back at my newest acquaintances.

And then I clap my hand over my mouth, because it’s late at night and I really shouldn’t be shouting.