Montreal, Canada – January 2000
The editors at BootsnAll are, no doubt, annoyed at the lateness of this dispatch. My first column of the new millennium and it arrives a third of the way into the month. To make amends, I will promise not to use the word “millennium” again until the year 2999.
In my defense, however, I will offer up the following excuse: I passed the end of 1999 holed up in a chalet next to a lake in the cold and snowy woods of Quebec – the Laurentian mountains to be exact. We had a fireplace, a well, and no telephone. (Actually, between us we had four cell phones, but we pretended their shrill ringings were tropical birds, belying the frozen lake and -15°C air that lay just outside the windows.)
During my ten days in the mountains I shaved not once, and spent most of the time draped in checkered pyjamas, except for those times when I slipped a pair of MEC Rad pants over them to ski across the lake or shovel snow. Afternoon canned Guinness (love the floating widget) was the norm, as were belly-filling late-night meals and other escape-from-reality pleasures.
After the the Y2K thing passed and the lights were still on, we celebrated with a late-night Krazy Karpet ride down the hill out front. Unfortunately, a gut full of Mumm’s prevented me from steering my unsteerable Krazy Karpet and I did a header straight into a malamute, breaking my glasses. The pooch, fortunately, was happy to have another hat to run away with, so he wasn’t upset about the collision and chose not to draw blood.
By January 4, I was safely back to my fully-functioning city life, at my desk, working my butt off to make up for the ten days away from the office. My company has recently released a new software product, so the scramble was on, and there was much time to make up. Would you believe I was home from the chalet for three days before I even moved my luggage away from the front door, and another two before I unpacked it?
Now that my excuse has consumed as much space as my dispatch usually does, I will stick with this theme of software shennanigans and take this opportunity to present to you the software geek’s view of Montreal.
Over the past few years, Montreal has become something of a Silicon Valley of the north. Unlike the west-coast variety, we’re not jaded here – in fact we’re really rather excited about it. This ain’t no Dilbert Zone.
An entire section of historic Old Montreal was recently declared the “Cité Multimedia” (Multimedia City). Following the lead of boom-town Dublin, Ireland, the Quebec government offers tax breaks and employee grants for any multi-media oriented company that moves into that district. Some argue these incentives are offset by the sky-high rents that are now being charged for broken down loft space in former machine shops, but regardless, the area is booming.
Not all innovative software companies are located in that area, however. Ten years ago, when computer animation was in it’s infancy, an upstart called Softimage (pronounced “soft-eeMAWGE”, this is French-speaking Quebec after all) broke loose with revolutionary animation software that took Hollywood by storm. The dinosaurs in the original Jurassic Park were modelled entirely with Softimage software, and since then it has become a staple product in every post-production house world-wide.
Softimage is located on the trendiest part of “the Main” (Boul. St-Laurent), and many of the hip bars and restaurants in the area are second homes to Softimage employees, many of whom made cart loads of cash during the years after the company was taken over and run by Microsoft. Last year, Microsoft sold the company to Avid Technologies, the leading name in online video editing.
In 1991, a few escapees from Softimage set up shop a few blocks up the street and founded Discreet Logic. Discreet (they dropped the “Logic” last year) built on what Softimage was doing but went in the direction of special effects and compositing software for the film industry. That’s basically the stuff that allows you to superimpose Softimage’s dinosaur into a scene.
Blue-screen composting tools were not new, even then, but Discreet approached the industry from a full-service product point of view, and gave post production houses a full suite of composting, layering, 2D and 3D manipulation, digital paint, and other tools, all in one very beefy product called Flame. Over the next few years the product line grew to include non-linear digital editing tools, and a lot of money was made by a lot of people. A high-end Inferno system from Discreet sells for about a million bucks and comes as a complete system, including SGI supercomputers.
Three years ago, Discreet moved from it’s loft on Boul. St-Laurent to a converted ship repair facility on the edge of Old Montreal, and essentiall founded the Cité Multimedia. A year ago they were acquired by Autodesk, the fourth largest software company in the world. They continue to set the standard for digital special effects tools. You essentially can’t call yourself a post production house if you don’t have any Discreet tools (The credits of Titanic listed twelve “Inferno artists”.).
If you’re anywhere near their location at 10 rue Duke, near the Lachine canal, it’s worth looking in, just to spend a few minutes in the cavernous reception/common area. Imagine a reception area so big you’d have to have a good arm to play catch with the receptionist, and the reception desk is in the middle of the room, not at the end! You’ve seen 18-foot ceilings? Theirs is about 50.
Back up on Boul. St-Laurent, Kaydara is breaking new ground in the motion-capture field, again, primarily for the film and animation business. Their products do everything from translating the movements of live-action actors onto animated characters, to sophisticated tracking of camera postions and angles so that animators and special effects creators can match up their CGI (computer-generated images) with live-action footage.
This makes it even easier for those dinosaurs to look like they really are running behind that jeep, because the animators have camera movement data directly from the cameras that shot the live action scene. One of their products, Filmbox, was used to produce some of those crazy perspective shots in The Matrix.
So why has Montreal lead Hollywood by the hand into the digital age? It’s hard to say exactly, but I may have to invoke one of the most widely misused words of our time – symbiosis. Digital post production fever was firmly established here ten years ago, and has grown incestuously. People shift from company to company with no hard feelings. The technologies are inter-related because they all share the same gene pool. The success of one depends largely on the success of the others. It’s like a big extended family.
The current and future technology trend in Montreal, as elsewhere, is the Internet. Sure, every city has their share of multimedia sweatshops, and so do we. We also have a number of web innovators, like Intellia Inc., Public Technologies Multimedia, and Hard Boiled Egg.
Old Montreal is home to Mamma.com, the “mother of all search engines”. Actually a metasearch engine (it consolidates searches from the existing big search engines without requiring it’s own database), it’s changing the way people search the web for information.
A few blocks away, Conceptis Technolgies is leading the industry in delivering online “cybersessions” – synchronized multiple-media internet broadcasts. They specialize in doing this for the medical profession, so doctors can attend (and participate in) seminars and trade shows without leaving home.
The amazing thing is that you don’t need any special hardware for this – fully synchronized interactive seminars delivered through a regular modem onto regular desktop computers. They back all this up with “deep portals” – highly focussed online medical journals run by a top-notch journalistic team and an editorial board made up of the top physicians in each specialty.
Conceptis is located at 390 rue Guy, Suite 109, near the corner of rue Notre Dame on the edge if Old Montreal. Their offices are in a converted wire factory, all red bricks, hardwood and pipes. Ask the receptionist to show you the “round room“.
Another upstart to watch is Zero-Knowledge, who’s product, Freedom, promises to safeguard your digital identity by using strong encryption and “pseudonymous identities” to mask your true identity from online spammers, peepers, sniffers, and marketing profile builders. Zero-Knowledge is not in Old Montreal, but is of course on Boul. St-Laurent, between Softimage and Kaydara. Occupying the lofty top floor of the tallest building on the main, you can’t even talk to the receptionist until you’re buzzed in.
All of these companies are growing fast, getting a lot of press, and most are either in the process of setting up satelite offices in California and elsewhere, or have already done so.
So what does all of this mean to the independent traveller coming to Montreal? Well, there’s not that much to do in January, so you might like to do a geek tour of these offices, as they are indeed, indoors, where it’s warm. And when you fall in love with Montreal (and you will, even in nasty January) you can apply for a job at any or all of these companies, because they are all hiring like crazy!
I will not offer cultural listings for this month, due to the lateness of this dispatch and the fact that there isn’t really much going on this month anyway. I will, however, offer this millen… uh… new era culture tip: instead of abbreviating 2000 as “00”, try using 2K, as in “January 15, 2K”. (Ditch the “Y” in Y2K. That’s so 1999!)
Check this space next month (February), when guest columnist Michael Boyle guides us through the ski scene in and around Montreal!
ed’s Cheap Eats Pick o’ The Month
This tip is not for the carnivorously faint-of-heart. There are few things finer than strolling up the Main on a chilly winter afternoon and satiating your hunger with a sausage on a bun from one of the steamy-windowed butcher shops between rue Milton and Ave. des Pins.
There are four or five such shops along that stretch of the Main, but my favorites are Slovenia and Hoffner, both hard-core, old-world butcher shops filled with hanging cured meats, bloody-aproned burly butchers, and warming trays filled with their made-on-the-spot house sausages, both hot and mild.
A sausage on a bun with mustard (and optionally, sauerkraut or cheese) will cost you about two dollars. Cold drinks are on hand, and you can either get your sandwich to go, or stand up inside and eat it, among the other hungries josteling for sandwiches and a bit of elbow room. Sausage heaven!
Location: Boul. St-Laurent, east side, between rue Milton and Ave. des Pins.
(No advertising fee was paid for this Cheap Eats blurb.)
If you want more information about this area you can email the author or check out our North America Insiders page.
General Info On Montreal
I could write a book just to fill this section, but here are the basics. Check this section every month for new info.
Montreal is the second largest French-speaking city on Earth (after Paris). People from Montreal are called “Montrealais”.
Montreal is actually an island. The main water frontage is the St. Lawrence River, which wraps around the west/south/east sides of the island, with a smaller river along the north shore. Montreal is about 65 km (40 miles) from the U.S. border, where the northern-most part of New York state and Vermont meet. Here’s a MapBlast! map of Montreal.
Note that when Montrealais indicate “north” they are really pointing north-west.
Montreal has a wide variety of hotels, from the boxy downtown “business” hotels to smaller European-style hotels. There is also a nice selection of B&B’s all over the city, most of which are charming and cozy. B&B’s tend to be in the $40-$80 price range.
Montreal also has a few interesting youth hostels, including:
The Montreal Youth Hostel (Downtown) and the really cool and eco-friendly
Alternative Backpacker’s Hostel of Montreal (Old Montreal)
You can get in from the airport using the local transit system (STCUM), but there are just enough quirks that I wouldn’t recommend it. Instead, grab an airport/downtown shuttle bus for about $10 (one way) or take a taxi, which will cost about $25.
Most international and domestic flights land at Dorval airport. Some charters land at Mirabel airport, which is a really bad idea. Avoid Mirabel, as it is more than twice as far as Dorval.
Montreal has a pretty good subway (Metro) and bus system. A single ride is $1.85 (bus drivers carry no change), but you can save a bit by buying a pack of six tickets for $8.25 (at Metro stations and some stores). You can also buy 1 and 3 day passes, or a weekly pass (around $12).
Note that daily and weekly passes can only be bought at the Berri/UQAM or McGill Metro stations, or at the downtown Info Tourism office.
Transfers on tickets are good for 90 minutes. Get your transfer as you get on the bus (or at the automatic dispenser at Metro stations). Check the STCUM website for details.
Alternatively, rent a bicycle at JR’s on the Plateau (151 Rachel, corner du Bullion). (514)843-6989. Full-day rental is about $18 (second day for $12).
Canadian money comes in basically the same format as American money (dollars, divided into cents), but the Canadian dollar is worth less – roughly two-thirds of an American dollar.
Canadian money is colourful, which makes it easy to spot what a bill is worth from far away, or when it’s dark (unlike American bills, which are strangely all the same colour).
We also have $1 and $2 coins, instead of bills. The $1 coin is unofficially (but ubiquitously) called a “loonie” because of the picture of a loon on it. The $2 coin is called a “two-nie”.
All dollar values mentioned in this Montreal guide are in Canadian dollars unless otherwise indicated.
If you stay in a hostel, and eat over-the-counter food and self-cater, you can scrape by on about $25/day. Montreal, is, however, a joyous and happy place to be (particularly in summer), with loads of great pubs and bars and inexpensive restaurants, so a more realistic budget would be about $40-$50.
That assumes a dorm bed in a hostel, a couple of transit rides, a cheap slice-of-pizza type lunch, a modest dinner ($20) in a restaurant, and two pints of local microbrew in a pub. “Civilized” travellers should budget at least $100/day (B&B, moderate restaurants, etc).
Watch out for the nasty taxes we have here. Most items do not have taxes included on the sticker price, so be prepared to pay an additional 15% at the cash register. That applies to hotels, restaurant meals, and any goods you buy in a store. It does not apply to most grocery items. Beer and wine you buy in a corner or grocery store is taxable. Oddly, beer and wine you buy in the government-run “SAQ” liquor stores does include the taxes in the sticker price.
Automatic tellers (cash machines) are everywhere and are very well networked (Canada was miles ahead of the rest of the world in automatic teller banking). Most “Bureau du change” places are downtown, on rue Ste. Catherine.
Can be cheap or expensive, depending on where you go. Imported draught beer runs in the $6/pint range. Local microbrews go for about $4.75/pint but are hard to find downtown.
On the Plateau and Quartier Latin, go for microbrew by the (60oz) pitcher if you’re with a group. Chic places will charge you about $14 a pitcher, but the truly hip places have non-stop specials in the $8-$10 range.
The markup on wine in restaurants is high, so keep an eye out for bring your own wine restaurants, particularly on the Plateau. Note that such places do not carry their own wine, so if you show up empty-handed you’re out of luck (although you can usually dash across the street for a bottle of not-bad Chilean wine from a corner store for about $10).
Tipping in Montreal is basically as follows: 15-20% on restaurant tabs. 50 cents to $1 on drinks in bars. About $1 on short taxi rides ($5 range) and about $2 on longer ones ($10 range).
Note that the legal drinking age in Quebec is 18.
Galerie Fokus, 68 Duluth east, has a small internet service.
Cyberground, 3672 St. Laurent Blvd. is an internet cafe on “the Main”, right in the middle of the action.
Centre d’affaires MontrÃƒÂ©al is farther up the Main at 4117A St. Laurent Blvd. It’s basically a business centre that has web access.
A few words about ed
Originally from the east coast of Canada, I’ve been living in Montreal for 12 years, and frankly, I think it’s the best place in Canada to live.
Despite the fact that I lose almost half of my income to taxes, the low rents and the lifestyle keep me here. Montreal is culturally diverse, hip, easy-going, affordable, politically frustrating, informed, and very much alive.
It’s the kind of place that allows me the annoying affectation of dropping the initial cap on my name (“That’s ed, not Ed”) without too many people rolling their eyes. I’m still shopping for the perfect boot.