An American In Montreal

Canada is sometimes referred to as America’s hat. Many TV shows taking place in the US are actually filmed in Canada, and they look so similar that we are none the wiser. But Quebec is special, and traveling there really does feel like you’re visiting a different country.

This is where the French first settled and lived until the Treaty of Paris transferred it to British rule in 1763. It may have been more than 250 years since then, but many Québécois are more reluctant to let go of their French heritage than some southern US residents are of letting go of the Confederacy. They even held referendums on secession from Canada in 1980 and 1995, and a separatist political party has remained active to this day. A family emergency swept me out of Massachusetts and suddenly dropped me into Montreal for nearly two weeks. It was a culture shock in many ways, including the driving culture there. Here’s what I learned in my crash course.

Bilingual = French

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When it came time for me to take a foreign language in school, I had a choice between French and Spanish. My parents left the decision entirely up to me. After careful deliberation, I decided that I lived much closer to Quebec than to Mexico or places with significant Hispanic populations, and that I would be most interested in learning French. My parents disagreed and made me take Spanish.

Then I married a girl from Montreal. While I may have proven my parents wrong, I remain ill equipped to deal with street signs in Quebec. While Canada is officially bilingual, and you will find signs in both English and French throughout most of the country, in Quebec the signs are typically in French, and only French.

It’s still possible for a non-French speaker like me to get around thanks to the use of standard signs and pictograms. There’s no question that a left arrow with a red circle and cross through it means no left turn, or that a red octagon that says “arrêt” means stop. Navigation can be a little tricky if you don’t know the French words for compass directions, but a little help from a GPS will get you where you need to go. I did need my wife’s help to translate the electronic signs on Boulevard Décarie to understand their traffic flow advisories. As you can see in this photo, they don’t call it the Décarie Parking Lot for nothing.

The Metric System

Canadian speed limit sign

Don’t let this sign fool you into thinking you can scream down the autoroute at 100mph. As in the rest of the civilized world, the metric system rules here, and this sign limits you to a far more reasonable 62mph. There are no miles, feet, or yards here – it’s all kilometers and meters. (Though interestingly, some Canadians still prefer to think of temperature in Fahrenheit. It’s a more precise scale than Celsius, where 0 is freezing and 30 is a hot summer day.)

Personally, I have no problem making the switch. My Subaru BRZ makes it easy with a button on the dashboard to switch my digital speedometer to metric. I also switch Waze in the Settings menu. In fact, I find the metric system much easier to use than the English system. It also makes the long drives seem to go by more quickly, as kilometers are shorter than miles. I don’t get why so many Americans are opposed to the metric system. I’d welcome it.

Radar Detectors Are Illegal

K40 RLS2 radar detector

As much as I’ve enjoyed using the K40 RLS2 that I reviewed, I left it home on this trip. It is illegal to use a radar detector in much of Canada, including Quebec. Though I didn’t use a radar detector for many years, I have to admit feeling a little bit naked without it. Though I didn’t see many speedtraps during my time there, I did run through a few – fortunately at 100km/h, not 100mph.

Terrible Roads

Montreal potholes
Photo credit: CTV News

The main reason we got the rental car was because we thought I was going to be heading home much sooner than my wife, and she would need her own wheels after I left. This turned out not to be the case, but we still had no regrets about renting the Mazda 3 because it handled the horrible pothole filled roads of Montreal much better than my BRZ. Its stock suspension is still rather stiff, which is great on the track but not so good on bumpy roads. After our first trip to Westmount on The Boulevard we were both in literal pain. From that point on, we parked the BRZ and put the miles kilometers on the Mazda. It soaked up all but the worst bumps, and never caused us any pain.

Incomprehensible Parking Regulations

Montreal no parking signs

It’s difficult enough to find parking in most any city. Montreal is no exception, and their parking regulations make it far more difficult than normal. On this particular road, parking is prohibited except for school buses from 7:00am to 8:30am, and 2:30pm to 3:30pm, Monday through Friday, from September 1 through June 30. On top of that, parking is also prohibited from 12:00pm through 2:30pm on Thursdays from April 1 through November 30 for street sweeping. This means that you can only park on this street for very brief periods of time during the week, especially Thursdays. This, plus a four hour limit for parking in this area (which is not indicated on any sign that I saw), makes it pretty much impossible to park anywhere for any useful period of time, even if you can decipher the word problems of parking regulations.

No Right Turn On Red

No right turn on red
Image credit: The Main

That’s right – turning right on a red light is illegal on the entire island of Montreal. This includes not just the city of Montreal, but also a number of smaller municipalities on the island. So it makes no sense to stick your nose out into the intersection to see around other cars and make a run for it at a red light. You’ll get busted just as surely as if you ran straight across. And Montreal does use red light cameras.

But this actually isn’t as bad as it seems, because…

Green Arrows Work Differently There

Green arrow
Photo credit: Biker Law Blog

And no, I don’t mean a hooded figure with a bow running around at night telling bad guys “You have failed this city” in French. In the States, a green arrow may indicate that people going a certain direction have priority over others. They’re often used in conjunction with an ordinary green light. But in Quebec, a green arrow means that you may ONLY go in the direction of the arrow. If you’re waiting to make a right turn and the light changes from red to a green arrow pointing up, you’re still not allowed to go right, only straight. Only when you see either a green arrow pointing right or a green light with no arrow are you allowed to make your turn. I’ve seen this used to give pedestrians a chance to start crossing the road before turning cars that would cut them off are allowed to go.

Flashing Green Lights Are Actually Useful

Montreal intersection
Photo credit: Montreal Gazette

In the US, a flashing green light tells you you’re allowed to go, which you were already doing anyway, and is pretty much completely useless. But in Montreal, a flashing green light is a happy thing. It means that you may go while oncoming traffic is stopped, enabling you to make a left turn with ease. This can indicate either an advanced or delayed green. I think this is a really nifty way to convey this information with no need for additional lights.

Excellent Traffic Light Designs

Montreal traffic light

I have some friends who are color blind. They can’t tell the difference between red and green, which is pretty important at a traffic light. It’s not a problem with vertical lights, but horizontal ones can make it impossible for them to tell whether they’re red or green. I have never seen this problem addressed as well as I did in Montreal. For one thing, there are two red lights rather than one. Even if you see no color at all, you can tell the two outboard lights are lit, which means stop. On top of that, the lights are different shapes. Red lights are square, yellow lights are diamond, and green lights are round. So if a light isn’t red, the shape of it will tell you whether you can safely proceed or whether you should be stopping for the red that is about to follow. Utterly brilliant.

No Front License Plates

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Our Mazda 3 rental car looked great, in part because it had no front plate tacked to the front of it like an ugly afterthought. Front plates are ugly on most cars, but are not issued in Quebec, requiring only one plate on the back.

Porsches Are As Common As VWs

Lots of Porsches in Montreal

The roads may be terrible, but there are a LOT of sweet cars in Montreal. Porsches, in particular, are more popular there than anywhere else I’ve seen in recent history. I didn’t even see this many Porsches at my last track day. They might as well be Volkswagens for how common they are. It actually became a game to count how many we saw each day, and if I had a Loonie ($1 coin) for every Porsche I saw I could probably afford to buy one. Our daily counts, on the days we played, were 7, 8, 7, 22, 25, 6, and, 12.

Ferrari in Montreal

The selection wasn’t limited to Porsches, either. Ferraris, like this one, were uncommon but not unusual to see in our travels. Bentleys were also rather popular. We also saw a few Maseratis, an Ariel Atom, and a Mercedes-AMG GT S. Speaking of Mercedes, they were so common they might as well have been Fords.

And The Food

Montreal pulled pork poutine

OK, it’s not related to driving, but I have to talk about the food. I’m no foodie. I typically handle food like a pit stop – stop, refuel as quickly as possible, and I’m outta there. But the food in Montreal is just so good! I’d already been turned on to poutine, pictured above in a pulled pork variation, enough to buy my wife a deep fryer so she could make the proper kind of fries it requires. We ate at Orange Julep, a Montreal fixture, a number of times, and caught the tail end of their famous weekly car show one night. (I’ll definitely check it out more closely during a future visit.) And the bagels. I don’t even want American bagels anymore after having the Montreal variety. I even brought some back home with me to hold me until my next visit. I’m glad I’m not in the habit of weighing myself, because if I did I’m sure I’d be depressed about an increase after eating my way across Montreal.

One Day, I Shall Come Back

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Due to the circumstances and family commitments of our visit, there’s a lot I didn’t have a chance to see. I’d hoped to meet up with RFD’s Montreal correspondent, William Clavey, but sadly our schedules didn’t line up. He had hoped to show me some fun driving roads on the South Shore, as well as Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, where the Formula 1 race takes place. A little bit to the north is Mont-Tremblant, another excellent track. We’re already talking about taking my wife’s kids back to visit sometime in August. I may take my motorcycle and go exploring.

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