Meet me in Montreal

Winter is coming. And it will be a Canadian winter: none of your lily-livered London frosts, with Heathrow grounded by a light dusting and children building wet snowmen with bare fingers as the temperature hovers around freezing, but a ‘nighttime lows in the minus 20s’, howling wind, lethal ice and broken femurs, bar-brawls-cum-snowball-wars – seriously, check out – frozen waterfalls, skiing down the street, snow-shoeing around the ice zombies sort of winter. I’ve bought a parka coat so thick it feels like a stint at the gym just to move about in it. Perhaps I am ready. (I am not ready.)

The speed at which the seasons change here in Montreal – autumn passes in three weeks, spring in two – and the sheer length of the winter itself – six months, give or take – are both very foreign to my temperate European sensibilities. So too it must have been for those early French explorers, who came this way a little under five hundred years ago. Although one might reasonably argue that Jacques Cartier and his men did have it just a tad worse. On their expedition of 1535-36, they were looking for the North-West Passage – I mean, who wasn’t? – as well as for the mineral riches of the fabled ‘Kingdom of Saguenay’, somewhere in the lands to the north of the St. Lawrence river, but they only made it as far as the Hochelaga archipelago, before eventually getting stuck in the ice and seeing a quarter of their company die of scurvy. I, on the other hand, just need to remember to pick up some fresh fruit on my next trip to the supermarket. Potato potahto.

The Hochelaga archipelago is the name that is now given to the constellation of freshwater islands on which the cities of Montreal and Laval presently stand. The name derives from the Iroquois settlement that Cartier encountered on this spot during his ill-fated voyage, and the St. Lawrence has some formidable rapids here, which blocked Cartier’s way and indeed blocked all shipping traffic until the mid-20th century and the building of the St. Lawrence Seaway on the south side of the river.  Cartier, in that fiercely arrogant, beautifully optimistic manner of those early mariners, was convinced that these rapids were the only remaining obstacle between his ships and China. This led to the coining of their current name, used I think initially in jest by the French settlers about a century later: the Lachine rapids. In retrospect, Cartier may have been strangely fortunate to have been forced to turn back here, as were it not for this barrier his ships could have made it as far as Lake Ontario and eventually to the foot of Niagara Falls, whereupon the would-be colonisers would have really lost their shit.

This was Cartier’s second expedition to the St. Lawrence, and yet, despite the hardships he had encountered, he went back for a third time in 1541. With what crew, I know not. The sheer audacity and bravery, to return to a place that had proved to be so deathly dangerous, is beyond my comprehension. Roll up, roll up, 25% chance of death in exchange for an opportunity to possibly see the probably made-up Kingdom of Saguenay!! Where do I sign? In the end they did find Saguenay, but only returned with quartz and iron pyrite, not the diamonds and gold of myth. And relationships with the native population worsened, perhaps because Cartier had this annoying habit of capturing a few locals on each trip and taking them back to France with him. Hmm…

No permanent French settlement was established in Canada until the 17th century. Montreal – my home for the year – was founded in 1642, but it nearly didn’t make it through its first ten years, almost falling to flood within twelve months, and suffering under constant bombardment from the understandably irate Iroquois. Its first governor Maisonneuve – who now has a major (if slightly soulless) Downtown street named after him – felt the need to drag a wooden cross to the top of Mont-Royal to thank the Virgin Mary for saving the colony from the flood, in a moment of such religious potency, it seems, that it is commemorated in the stained glass of the Notre Dame Basilica in the centre of town. Outside the cathedral Maisonneuve himself stands triumphant in bronze, with four other figures at his feet. One of these is a statue of an Iroquois man. I find the message of the statue somewhat ambiguous – is the arrangement trying to convey cooperation, or subjugation, or a bit of both? From what I understand of the history of the matter, the second epithet is the more appropriate.

When I arrived in Montreal in late August, it was all summer sun and street festivals. Every Sunday afternoon I would walk around the lake in Parc Jarry to see the lawns filled with families enjoying their barbeques, dogs daring each other to jump in the fountain, and joggers darting in between them all. A mile-long stretch of the Boulevard St. Laurent – a street almost as old as Montreal itself, and which runs across the entire island – was closed for the whole Labor Day weekend for street stalls and fairs. But then, in an inevitable, ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’ sort of a way, we went straight on into autumn. The seasonal foliage of red and gold (“Les feuilles mortes se ramassent à la pelle…”) was a complete revelation.


Keen to enjoy this brief but splendid natural wonder, in October the number-theory postdocs took a few sojourns in the forest. First we had a road-trip to Maine, on our way to the Maine-Quebec Number Theory Conference, and then a smaller excursion to the Alfred-Kelly Nature Reserve just to the north of Montreal. An arboreal expert would know for sure, but I think I’ve convinced myself that it is the combination of the maples with the birches which make the visual timbres in Quebec and New England so much more vivid than those in the UK. The maples turn deep red, while the birches deal in softer, yellower hues. One must also factor in the sheer extent of these deciduous forests, which still carpet large swathes of this corner of the American continent. Throw in the pine forests of British Columbia for good measure and Canada ends up with 8953 trees per person, according to a Nature article from 2015 The UK has 47.

Now, at All Saints Day, a torrential rainstorm and chill wind have blown almost all the leaves from the Mont-Royal (“Et le vent du nord les emporte…”). So wet was the night of Thursday October 31st that the City of Montreal government officially moved Halloween to Friday November 1st (can they even do that?), to save the armies of would-be trick-or-treaters from limp witches’ hats and soggy candy. The cafeteria at the Université de Montréal didn’t seem to get the memo though, and on the Thursday they still served spaghetti neri with dyed fluorescent green chicken lumps mixed in. I think the chef’s idea must have been that the dish should look spooky and potion-like, which is always what I want from my lunch.

The Université de Montréal – UdeM to her friends – is my academic base for the year. This is while I take a one year postdoc, away from my longer postdoc in Cambridge. With about 67000 students enrolled in its various programmes and affiliated institutions, UdeM is among the largest francophone universities in the world, and, most pertinently for me, it has two top professors in analytic number theory – Prof. Andrew Granville and Prof. Dimitris Koukoulopoulos – from whom I am already learning a great deal. But in truth UdeM is just one of my affiliations here, since this semester I am also lecturing a calculus course at the anglophone McGill University (an institution which is sometimes referred to as ‘The Harvard of Canada’, for good or ill). Montreal has a mountain in the middle of it, and the UdeM and McGill campuses are on opposite sides, so my life presently consists of frequent circumnavigations of the Mont-Royal, via metro and bus, clocking up a winding number of at least 1 each day. To add a further nuance to my situation, the funding for my research postdoc at UdeM actually comes from the Centre de Recherches Mathématiques, a 51-year-old mathematics organisation which is spread across the different Higher Education institutions in the city – although its base is at UdeM – funding postdocs, senior researchers, prizes, conferences and workshops. Once a fortnight we also have a number theory seminar at Concordia University, so, technically, I regularly interact with four different institutions here, which is enough to keep anyone on their toes.

Montreal is a large city – about 2 million people live here, with 4 million in the wider metropolitan area – and yet, in certain aspects, it just feels like a university town. I’ll admit that this could just be the blinkered view of an egocentric academician, but I am convinced that there is at least some objectivity in my view on this matter. For a start, in Quebec province the local 17 year olds go to cégep (an acronym for ‘collège d’enseignement général et professionnel’, with some grammatical nicety causing an accent to be added to the first ‘e’), for two whole years before starting university proper. So the population of street-smart, cool, francophone teenagers is naturally expanded. Regarding the universities themselves, there are a full five of them scattered about the town – UdeM, McGill, Concordia, Université de Québec à Montréal (UQÀM), and the Longueuil campus of the University of Sherbrooke – and their students seem to amass everywhere, at least around Downtown, Côte-des-Neiges, and The Plateau. The very infrastructure of the city screams that HE is an integral and indispensable part of it. For instance, there are four metro stops which are each named after the respective universities to which they are closest. Contrast this with London: why isn’t there a UCL stop, an Imperial stop, an LSE stop, or a KCL stop (etc.) on the London Underground?

My maths research is in a slightly peculiar state at the moment. I seem to be stuck between, on the one hand, a collection of problems which I essentially know how to solve, but which will be awkward and technical to write up, and, on the other, a collection of problems which are bold, simple to state, and on which I have next to no good ideas of how to proceed. Neither extreme is a particularly pleasant place to be, but I’ve been in the game long enough now to know that the situation will change eventually, even if it’s hard to tell exactly when that will be.

Yesterday night brought the first flurries of snow (“Dans la nuit froide de l’oubli…”). In a moment of pure serendipity, I had already been planning to go to a recital of Winterreise, given by one of the basses in my choir. I’m stocking up on dragonglass. It has begun.

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