The French Connection
If eating huge plates of pork, deciphering Montreal’s slang, and snowshoeing through the woods of Québec can’t bring two brothers together, what can?
It is the middle of February in Montreal, and it is 105 degrees Fahrenheit. Sweat is bursting from every pore on my body—my chin, my knuckles, my normally dry and cracked elbows—and I am lying flat on my back. Above me, snow frosts a skylight, the sun casting into sharp relief the crackling patterns of frozen flakes. It looks cold up there—so deliciously cold.
But then come the commands, first in English, then in French, or maybe vice versa. I inhale through my nose and breathe out through my mouth as I thrust my arms forward. I flip onto les genoux, my knees. I grab les talons, my heels. I lean forward and attempt to rest my forehead on les genoux. Except now, upside down, my head is fuzzy. Too fuzzy. Though my instinct is to push myself until I collapse, I’m old and wise enough to give up. I plop back onto les fesses, my rear, and sip a bottle of Eska spring water.
Around me in the Bikram Yoga Studio, two dozen limber souls contort their perspiring bodies, and in the mirror that runs the length of the room I spot one who could almost be my doppelgänger. Same thinning-hair pattern, same dimpled chin, same big nose. This is my little brother, Steve, who’s been doing Bikram for four years back home in Minneapolis. For him, this is routine; he’s sitting cross-legged on his mat, his eyelids lowered, a gentle smile on his face.
A smile? Is he not suffering the way I am? It wasn’t much more than 12 hours ago that we both stumbled out of Au Pied de Cochon, a gastro-temple of overindulgence. In a dining room jammed with food bloggers from Japan and lanky locals in heavy-duty snow boots, Steve and I had consumed a week’s worth of calories, beginning with a platter of cured pig parts and poutine—Québec’s iconic dish of french fries with cheese curds and gravy—topped with a slab of foie gras. After which Steve tucked away lamb confit and I had “Duck in a Can,” half a duck magret sealed in a can with foie gras and butter-soaked cabbage, then cooked in a bain-marie and served over toasted bread and cauliflower puree. (The table next to us, meanwhile, ordered an entire pig’s head, garnished with a whole lobster.) Was there wine? Bien sûr! Armagnac? Indeed.
And Steve is now smiling? Even as I can smell the foie gras vaporizing along with my sweat? It looks, I realize, like a smile of revenge.
If so, I deserve it. Because for much of Steve’s life I’ve been making him suffer. “Can we put Stevie in the trash now?” was how it began, when I was almost 4, a week after my newborn brother came home from the hospital. Things got worse from there. At first, I merely took advantage of his little-brother devotion, bossing him around to find Lego pieces for me to build with, but then I turned mean. At our grandmother’s house, I sneezed on him, intentionally. I boasted I could make him cry in three words or less. Once, when we were out skateboarding with my friends, I poured orange soda over his head. I’d like to say it was to impress my pals, who were mostly jerks. But clearly, I was, too.
Still, Steve and I grew up together, living in the same house in Virginia, loving the same things: skateboarding, computers, The Simpsons. And though I constantly heckled him, I was proud of his talents. From the age of 5 he was a brilliant pianist, and by the time he was 11 he’d surpassed me as a computer programmer. He had an easy time making friends, and what’s more, his weren’t jerks. I’m sure that he and I were close on some level, but I can’t find evidence in my memories to prove it. All I remember are the terrible things I did to him.
Over the years the fine crack in our relationship widened. I went away to college, lived abroad, and embarked on a career that led me to New York City; Steve’s schooling and subsequent software-engineering jobs landed him in Cleveland and Minneapolis. Separated by geography, we spoke ever more rarely, and when we did get together once or twice a year for family gatherings, we had girlfriends, wives, parents, and our younger sister, Nell, to run interference. That is, to keep me nice. You see, around Steve, I have to curb my tendency to criticize and make fun of the people I love; he takes it (and I perhaps intend it) too personally. We can and do get along, but I’m on tenterhooks, afraid I’ll say something that will remind him of the old, mean me.
Last October, in a beer-induced moment of clarity, I realized that with both of us in our mid-30s, it was time to make amends. So I called Steve and suggested we take a trip together. To my surprise, he said yes before we even settled on Montreal.
Perhaps this was because I didn’t explain my ulterior motives. All Steve knew was that his brother, the world traveler, was finally bringing him along on an adventure focused on the interests we still shared: French-inflected culture (we both studied the language) and great food. In fact, that was about all we had planned for this week away from our wives. By day we’d walk the city streets (average temperature: 14 degrees); then we’d stuff our bellies with Québecois delicacies: cured pork, raw-milk cheeses, oysters, and duck, duck, and more duck.
And somehow, somewhere along the way, I hoped Steve and I would become close again—or perhaps for the first time.
If you were a woman,” Steve declares in postprandial jubilation, “I’d give you a kiss.” “Guess I’m lucky, then,” I say. It is 11 p.m. on our first night in Montreal, and we are sitting at the counter of Schwartz’s, an 83-year-old Jewish deli specializing in smoked meat, a Montreal variant of pastrami that is richer, juicier, and garlickier than its U.S. cousin. Empty plates that once held heaping sandwiches lie before us: Steve’s is decorated with bits of brisket fat he’s trimmed; mine is clean. I chew on a sour pickle, rereading the menu boards. They are bilingual, but under the heading “Sandwiches” the options are in French. Under “Les Sandwiches” they are in English. Is this a mix-up or Montreal Jewish humor?
“You don’t know what you’re missing,” Steve says.
“I think I have an idea.”
“I kissed a man once. Let me tell you something: stubble—not good. I don’t know how anyone puts up with it.” That Steve once kissed a man is not the first surprise of the trip. No, the first, for me, was that Steve could take care of himself. When my flight from New York was delayed by several hours, Steve had to venture into the city alone and pick up the keys to the apartment we’d rented. Steve is well traveled and nearly fluent in French. Still, I’m his big brother. I worry. But while I was waiting to board my flight, he texted me from a bar near the apartment: “Beer obtained. Awaiting Maxime”—our temporary landlord—“with key.”
Relief! By the time I get in, around 10 p.m., Steve has settled into our 16th-floor pad, a nice one-bedroom with views of much of Montreal. With a population of 1.8 million people, Montreal is the biggest city in Québec. From our window, we can see the skyscrapers of downtown, which obscure the centuries-old brick-and-stone buildings of Vieux-Montreal and the Saint Lawrence River. Spread out below is the Plateau, a broad swath of boutiques and restaurants, bookstores and bars catering to 20- and 30-somethings like ourselves. And beyond is Mont-Royal, a deep green minimountain that rises some 350 feet above the Plateau.
Downstairs in our lobby is La Vache Qui Pète—the Farting Cow—a café where we pick up fresh croissants and baguettes most mornings during our stay. Across the street is Parc La Fontaine, 89 acres of iced-over lawns and ponds ringed by bundled-up joggers heaving steamy breath into the air. Just north—past two blocks of tidy townhouses with spiraling outdoor stairways—are the snowy curbs and crowded cafés of the Avenue du Mont-Royal, the Plateau’s main drag. It’s no exaggeration to say we’re staying at the best possible location in town.
Miraculously, our language skills start paying off right away. Ordering food (bagels from St-Viateur, poutine at La Banquise) is a cinch, but lengthier conversations with strangers are trickier. One day, while we browse in an antiques shop in the artsy Mile End neighborhood, the owner asks Steve if he is of French extraction—my brother’s accent is that good. Steve is delighted (and I flush with pride), but then Steve switches to English, as if he’s suddenly found himself on the wrong side of an invisible cultural and linguistic line. I can empathize. Another day, at a Vietnamese restaurant in Montreal’s vibrant Chinatown, I order bún bò Huê, a spicy beef noodle soup. It is so rich and sour that I tell our waiter, in Vietnamese, that it has to be the best in the city. This triggers a bout of the usual chitchat—where I learned the language, whether I’m married—until the waiter leans in and, making a hand gesture that is deeply, disconcertingly obscene, says in Vietnamese, “Vietnamese girls are really pretty!” Maybe I should have stuck to French.
Navigating these linguistic contours becomes a brotherly bonding experience. Couche-Tard (“Night Owl”), the name of a ubiquitous convenience store chain, inspires a friendly taunt: “You couche-tard,” we call each other, as often as possible. It is perhaps the first time in our lives we’ve been able to ridicule each other without getting personal. Which is incredibly useful, because Steve is, of course, driving me nuts in the way only Steve can—quirkily, indefatigably. Apropos of nothing, he’ll squeal, “Meester Gross!” as if channeling South Park’s Cartman channeling Jennifer Lopez. And he is forever quizzing business owners on French vocabulary (rather than subtly trying to pick it up, as I would do). At a comic-book shop, for example, he is dismayed to learn there is no French equivalent of the word “poke.”
“What do little kids do to annoy each other, then?” he asks.
At first, the quirks are amusing—oh, silly Steve!—but the guy has no “off” switch, and though I try not to, I get annoyed. That’s when I say: “You couche-tard.” And that’s when we laugh.
But to the friends of friends who gather for dinner at our apartment on a Monday night, when restaurants close, Steve is hilarious, delightful, amazing. Over Québec’s version of Camembert cheese and cranberry-spiked sausage we picked up at the cavernous Marché Jean-Talon, and Portuguese grilled chicken from Rôtisserie Romados, Steve queries our guests. He asks native Montrealers Stacey Tenenbaum and her husband, Sacha Jerabek, and Paris transplants Claire Chevalier and Bastien Boucherat about the proper way to say “jailbait,” “hooters,” and “Bring it on!” in French. We are disappointed to learn that “Oublie ça là” is how you say “Fuck that shit.” It’s just not the same.
The harmony in which English and French coexist is rather strange, considering Québec’s history of ethnolinguistic turbulence—political violence by Québecois separatists, independence referendums that failed only narrowly. Sacha, a research librarian and an Anglophone says he sometimes senses discrimination, even though he speaks excellent French and, indeed, teaches in French at the Université du Québec à Montréal.
Stacey, a TV producer, grew up here, and despite her status as an Anglophone, she loves Montreal. She waxes poetic about the city’s spring, when the layers of snow, ice, and, especially, clothing vanish. When the thermometer hits 68 degrees, she says, Montrealers bare their flesh. “They’re like animals!”
Claire, a documentary filmmaker who tired of France, explains the appeal of her adopted home: “Montréal, ce n’est pas une ville qui se visite, c’est une ville qui se vit.” Meaning you don’t visit Montreal—you live it. Well, it sounds better in French.
It is Steve, however, who holds everyone’s attention as we work through six bottles of wine. He’s pure enthusiasm and intellect, as comfortable discussing the urban-planning implications of bike lanes as he is riffing on plasma gasification, a waste-disposal process. It doesn’t hurt that he’s also cooked up some utterly perfect roast potatoes to accompany the chicken. Even I am enjoying his performance, which isn’t so much a performance as simply Steve being Steve. But at the same time, I feel myself pulling away from the group, growing quieter than normal. When Steve’s around, I don’t feel I can be myself—I’m afraid I’ll either overshadow him or hurt him—so I withdraw, meditate on my jerkiness, and wind up resenting him even more. Resentment then shades into guilt: Steve’s a great guy, so what’s my problem with him, anyway?
I suppose familiarity breeds contempt, and you can’t get much more familiar than family. For example: Around the apartment, Steve burps—a lot, and with a honking vibrato that echoes across the Plateau and down the Saint Lawrence River. For days, I say nothing. We’re family; this sort of behavior is to be tolerated. Eventually, though, I scream at him to stop. He agrees, but with a giggle that suggests he may have been intentionally testing my patience.
Steve is less willing to curb his unbridled exuberance around dogs. If there’s a husky or a golden retriever on the street, he’s guaranteed to coo at it, praise it, pet it. Fine. But one morning in the elevator he starts gushing about a well-behaved French bulldog we’d seen in a store, and I crack.
“You know, Steve,” I say, “I really don’t like dogs at all.”
“Well,” he says, “I’m not going to stop talking about them.”
Then he adds, “You really have terrible relationships with living things, don’t you?”
I say nothing. The elevator door opens.
You look like you’re really looking forward to this,” Steve says as we march across a frozen parking lot an hour northwest of Montreal. “I’ve never seen you so unabashedly happy.”
He’s right. After four days in the city—spent watching ice hockey practice in the park, browsing graphic novels (Steve: “Do you have anything with squirrels?”), and sipping Italian espresso in the sunlit windows of Club Social—we’ve left Montreal behind. This morning we’re in the Laurentian Mountains, in the tiny village of Val-David, where rustic chic has given way to actual rusticity: hills and rocks and pine forests and winding, vaguely frightening roadways. This is the Québec whose natural resources—timber, fur, game, maple syrup—made Montreal possible.
And now we’re about to go snowshoeing along some of the 19 miles of trails that wrap around Val-David and its neighbor, Val-Morin. Steve and I are kitted out in thermal underwear, waterproof outerwear, Gore-Tex hiking boots. It’s heavy gear, made heavier by the picnic in my backpack, but I’m springing ahead, eager to feel the crunch of snow under my feet and to suck cold air into my straining lungs. Steve introduced me to Bikram yoga, so I’m showing him this.
After renting our snowshoes and plotting a course on the map, we’re off, under gray skies. The trails are well marked and well beaten, and we march past boulder zones and up steep hills that make us remove our hats and gloves. It’s been a while since snow last fell, so there are patches of ice, but we rarely stumble. We see a fair number of other hikers, but once we’ve passed a heated hut with kids playing around it, we find ourselves alone in the woods, silent but for the tweeting of chickadees.
A couple of miles in, we break for lunch at a picnic table. It is a typical Gross feast: wild boar sausage, a subtle goat cheese, a terrine of pork and morels, with fresh bread from a Val-David boulangerie and a bottle of dry, sparkling cider that I swig enthusiastically—and that Steve sips only tentatively.
“I don’t really like cider,” Steve says. “But you were so excited …,” and he trails off.
For a split second, I’m pissed. Why didn’t he say anything yesterday, when we were driving around and around in search of a liquor store that sold good cider? I mean—! But then I take a deep breath of cold air. This constant annoyance feels pointless. Here we are together in these foreign woods, tromping through the snow the way we did as kids, and it’s wonderful. If Steve doesn’t want to drink the cider, why should it matter to me?
We finish the food (and half the cider) and get back on the trail. We encounter a man and a woman hiking with three dogs, and stop to chat. I can tell from their accents they’re Anglophones. Steve misses it, or ignores it, and praises the animals in French. But so what? We march on, and I notice our snowshoes are crunching out a familiar rhythm—a Paul Simon song from Graceland that our parents played on every car trip in our youth. I tell Steve, and we break into song:
I know what I know
I’ll sing what I said
We come and we go
That’s a thing that I keep
In the back of my head.
Any residual, petty anger I feel toward Steve vanishes in the snowy wilderness. We might have failed to share the cider, but at least we share this. And it occurs to me that love is learning to ignore the things you happen to hate in the people you happen to love.
Just over 24 hours later, back in Montreal, Steve and I have time for one last act of indulgence before we return to our regularly scheduled lives. Tonight we dine at Le Club Chasse et Pêche—the Hunting and Fishing Club—a lush, dark, cozy restaurant in Vieux-Montreal. There are oysters (“avec personnalité”), and venison tartare, and razor clams with sea urchin. There is something easy about this meal—the switching between French and English with the waiters, the fun of guessing what omble de Gaspé is. (It’s arctic char, you couche-tard.) No pressure, no expectations. This is not a visit; this is living.
And then, all too quickly, it’s a visit again, and the visit is ending. The next day, after a final lunch at Schwartz’s (lean smoked meat for Steve, a fattier version for me), Steve flies back to Minneapolis. I’ve tried to get him to stick around, but he wants to clean his apartment before his wife returns from a business trip. Lucky woman.
So I’m left alone to experience La Nuit Blanche, an annual festival in which art galleries, bookstores, hair salons, and other venues remain open into the wee hours, hosting readings, exhibitions, performances, and parties. The activity is amazing. At Studio Bizz, on Avenue du Mont-Royal, dozens of shoeless hipsters are getting rockabilly dance lessons from a guy with a ferocious Québecois accent. (Un, deux sounds like ur, dur.) A few blocks away, at an ice fishing–themed event, vendors sell cured mackerel and frozen oysters. In an artists’ enclave downtown, a photographer shoots Polaroid portraits in the style of 1980s prom pictures. And there are people absolutely everywhere—thousands of moon-booted Montrealers defying the single-digit temperatures to enjoy themselves in public.
But none of them is my brother. In a city where everyone speaks at least a couple of languages, if not four or five, there is no one who speaks the one that Steve and I share: a mishmash of references to Zork, Borges, and obscure plot points from Seinfeld. There is no one to annoy me, no one needing an older brother’s advice (whether he wants it or not), no one to push me to be a better, more tolerant person. Do I … miss him? Maybe, though that’s far too simple a way to explain my emotions at this moment, a mix of joy and regret, solitude and success, affection and liberation. In fact, for what I’m feeling right now, there really aren’t any words, not in any language I know. Hey, Steve, how do you say that in French? A
Photos by Alexi Hobbs. This story appeared in the January/February 2012 issue. Get Steve Gross’s take on the trip.