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How do you spell holiday? A Montreal staycation of sorts

Tales of bad service at local hotels, restaurants and festivals.

This piece is about actual travel experiences in Montreal. Herein, you will discover valuable touristic information that you will not find on any travel website. Furthermore, this article is about the meniscus. If you don’t know what a meniscus is, you will by the end, so read on.

As summertime shifts into top gear, it’s time to start calling out exceptionally bad service in Montreal. I’m not talking about rude waiters, taxi drivers who have no clue where they’re going or cashiers on their cell phones. I am talking about next-level badness — the kind of badness that, in my experience, only Montreal has ever been able to attain. Which is impressive. Because as great of a city as Montreal can be, the sort of bad service I’m talking about can overshadow all of that — in a New York minute.

I had occasion lately to act as if I were a tourist, lamming it in my own city. Pretending that you are from somewhere else is the best way to get a true sense of the spirit of any place. Lord knows, we will all be judged by how well or poorly we treat the smallest amongst us.

Hotel Place d'Armes Montreal staycation bad service
Hotel Place d’Armes

I needed to stay out of the house one Sunday night, so my first stop was the Hotel Place d’Armes, kitty corner from its eponymous square and the Notre-Dame Cathedral beyond. I thought that this hotel would be fancier and more amenable than any in Old Montreal. This is where all the Ferraris are parked during the F1, after all, and it is not cheap. I was wrong.

The room itself was adequate. As hotels go, there was nothing remarkable or unremarkable, and everything was present and correct — a bed, a bathroom, a desk, a window, individual-sized servings of toiletries. 

On closer inspection, though, it became apparent that things were starting to fray at the edges. This hotel’s curtains (normally one of the treats of staying in hotels is the ability to completely block out sunlight at any time of day) had a number of Alfred Hitchcock-sized tears. There was a thick ring of black mould surrounding the air conditioner vent, which rattled.

When I checked in around 3 p.m., a room service cart with a plate of used eggs and jammy toast was sitting in the middle of the hallway next to another room. At 9 p.m., I went down to the lobby to get a toothbrush kit and noticed that the cart was still there…

Let’s take a detour downtown for a moment, to a much fancier hotel — le Mount Stephen — and the restaurant therein. This is the kind of joint that tourists from America love because it feels vaguely European, but they’re not quite sure which part of Europe it feels vaguely of. 

Bar George Mount Stephen Montreal staycation bad service
Bar George

The Bar George has an Old-World, gentleman’s clubby vibe. I went there myself recently, twice, because the first time was so pitiful that I had to double-check. It wasn’t merely the absence of speed. The second occasion, it was a conflation of factors, and the lack of any service whatsoever.

I’d moved from the bar, which was overcrowded with businessmen in wrinkled, Montreal-style, standard-issue sports coats, jeans and sheux, smelling of bad cologne and dander, to what I had hoped would be a less crowded dining room. But when I sat down, a white-haired tourist couple nestled in right next to me, the wife coughing incessantly in my face. I wanted to ask her if she was aware that we had just lived through a pandemic.

The waiter came around and inquired if I would like to order anything, apparently oblivious that I was already mid-meal. He was wearing a ring the size of the Place Ville-Marie Esplanade, which I can only assume contained cocaine. 

45 long minutes passed while the woman next to me coughed uncontrollably and the service staff acted busy. I contemplated just getting up and leaving. If they didn’t notice me when I was there, they surely wouldn’t notice that I was gone. I wonder if that contre-filet is still rare?

Anyway, last weekend I decided to do something really touristy. I bought a ticket to have my photo taken at the Montreal Comiccon with celebrity guest and A Clockwork Orange leading man Malcolm McDowell. This is not something I would normally do — pay to meet someone. But I thought Mr. McDowell might otherwise enjoy the opportunity to meet me, so I dropped the C-note.

Arriving on time, however, I was told that I would need an additional ticket to get into Comiccon itself. As a non-nerd who wasn’t there for comic books, or whatever “cosplay” is, I was not aware of this. 

There were only precious minutes before this photo-op was scheduled to take place. I attempted to communicate this to a Comiccon staff member, who instead barked at me that he “did not like my attitude,” that he was “not being paid for this shit,” and he turned me away. I think by “attitude” he meant that he didn’t like the fact that I dressed up, I was clean, I smelled good, I wasn’t an insolent schlub. The opposite of him. So, I did not end up meeting Malcolm McDowell, even though I had paid $100 for that privilege. 

As a gang of Darth Vaders passed, I stood there, flabbergasted, trying to process this. I didn’t even want a photo with Malcolm McDowell. I just wanted to thank him for his tremendous courage in his work and life. The kind of courage that I could not muster in that moment to tell the Comiccon staffer to go fuck himself.

Montreal Comiccon staycation bad service
Malcolm McDowell at Montreal Comiccon 2022

Cut back to the Hotel Place d’Armes. It is now Monday morning at 7 a.m., and I have just — how to put this delicately? — emptied my extraneous contents, when the worst-case scenario occurs. I flush the toilet and it is plugged. Rather that disappearing reassuringly downwards, the water level is now rising in the toilet bowl, along with my extraneous contents.

I do what any sane person would do and call frantically down to the front desk to ask for a plunger and run back to the bathroom to see if the water has breached the toilet seat. It has not. But I can see a meniscus forming. 

A meniscus, for anyone who skipped out on science class in middle school, is the convex curve of a liquid as it begins, ever so precariously, to rise above the upper lip of its container. Heidegger would have known well the meniscus and its existential implications.

Unfortunately, the hotel staff did not. After a few minutes, a lovely chamber maid knocked at the door with a roll of toilet paper. Recognizing the misunderstanding, I thanked her for her efforts, but even more frantically mimed “PLUNGER!” The place was about to turn into Hunter S. Thomson’s living room.

I called again down to the front desk. But now, the concierge told me flatly that nobody would be coming up with a plunger until 8 a.m. There was no qualified staff.

It reminded me of a Christmas a few years ago when my mother and I went to visit our grandmother in her retirement home, only to find her sitting in a diaper-full of her own feces. We cried as we did the work of the lazy-ass LPNs who had been paid double time and a half to sit behind a desk and ignore the human beings in their care. It reminded me of another Christmas, at another hotel, the Deer Lodge in Lake Louise, when another toilet overflowed, sewer water streaming from the second floor into the lounge below. That time, I was the one to plunge the toilet, too.

I would have plunged the Place d’Armes toilet as well, or any other plugged toilet, had anyone bothered to bring up a plunger. But in the time it took to reach 8 a.m., I had already packed my earthly belongings and was standing at the front desk, checking out. 

The concierge, did not agree that it was nuts that nobody would deliver a toilet plunger as a meniscus was about to literally spray shit all over the room. He did not care. He did not care when I told him that I lived across the street and came there sometimes to have a masseuse at the Rainspa take me apart like soft bread. I needed that. He did not care when I told him that this was my mom’s favourite place to stay, and that I wouldn’t send her back there. He did not give a shit. So, I left him one.

The upshot of these awfully shitty tales is that Montreal itself is reaching its meniscus and is ready to spill over. I would be tempted to put it down to what the travel industry is calling “revenge tourism” — the aggressive return of entitled, sadomasochistic travellers. I’d also put it down to next-generation incompetence, a product of growing up extremely online, where real-world events seem to have no real-world consequences. 

Ultimately, I would put it down to Frankie Goes to Lachine and his pre-election culture wars. Because after some quick arithmetic, I noted that every single one of these experiences was resultant of me speaking English to Québécois staff. They all assumed that I was American and acted accordingly.

This city wants the world to come to Montreal so we can show the world how to act worse than Parisians. Don’t get me wrong, there are far more places that have impeccable service, and I would name them, too. It’s the ones that don’t that leave a stain. ■

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