While all of the stops along my journey up to now have had a purpose (often combined with some good fun and a surprise or two), my visit to Montreal is what Cornelia and Emily would call “a momentous occasion”.
This is because it is in Montreal where the story of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay begins. Cornelia’s and Emily’s tale opens with them meeting up “at whatever hotel it is that isn’t the Ritz” on the day before they are to sail to Europe. It doesn’t start out well, at least for Emily, who mistakenly walks into the wrong hotel room, “to what, when she looked up, proved to be an elderly gentleman, completely nude.”
It still makes my cheeks hot with sympathetic embarrassment for poor Emily whenever I read that part, but she manages to recover quickly. That evening, the girls are taken out by friends and treated to a lavish dinner at the Ritz, where they attempt to appear nonchalant about consuming quail and champagne, but don’t manage to pull it off. Cornelia explains:
“This was when [Emily] discovered that champagne makes her slightly deaf. Its effect upon me was to make me look distant and sad, and I hoped everyone would think I had had an unhappy love affair.” — Cornelia Otis Skinner
The Ritz-Carlton of Cornelia’s and Emily’s day still exists today, to a certain extent. Some of the public rooms retain the style from when the hotel was built in 1912, but the glass-walled condo spaces which protrude out of the stone at one corner and along the top of the building are clearly a 21st century addition. This may have been part of the reason why I didn’t feel compelled to stick completely to the book, and have quail and champagne for dinner in a modern restaurant. Afternoon tea seemed like a better option — quicker and less formal. And even without a reservation, I was able to secure a table at the 12:30 service, thanks to some creative rearranging done by the staff.
When it came time to place my order, I included a glass of champagne as a nod to the girls’ experience, and also so that I could toast to Cornelia and Emily, and the official start of our journey together. I had a quick flash of regret that I hadn’t brought my book along as the girls’ representative, but my gloomy thoughts were broken by conversation coming from the next table, where two women were discussing whether or not to have champagne. I broke in on the conversation and offered that it was very good (which it was – dry and flavorful, just right). A little while later, after they had received and tasted their champagne, one of the ladies turned to me and agreed that it was very good. And from there we began a chat that lasted until the next tea service at 3:30pm, and I found that I had made two new friends, Isabel and Marie-Helene, all because of champagne. I had started afternoon tea with two old friends, and ended it with two new ones.
It meant I got a late start with exploring Le Vieux Port (The Old Port) of Montreal, but it was totally worth it.
The Old Port is quickly becoming a revitalized, exciting area of Montreal, with shops, museums, restaurants and a marvelous bike path. Of course I hadn’t gone there to see the new and improved port. I was looking for the dock from the 1920s where the girls’ passenger steamer Montcalm would have sailed from. But there were no historic markers, no traces from the past that a civilian like me would’ve recognized as a clue, so I could only guess at where Emily and Cornelia stood, “dewey-eyed… holding up a line of less sensitive passengers” as they took in their momentous occasion.
Happily, I found that it was enough just to know they had been somewhere in this vicinity, feeling overjoyed and awed by the amazing adventure they were to undertake. I shared their excitement.
All too soon, I had to get on the road to Quebec City, where I would be meeting up again with Cornelia and Emily, who arrived there two days after they sailed from Montreal. As readers of the book know, it was an unplanned but necessary stop, after the Montcalm ran aground a few hours after it left the dock in Montreal, and had to be towed to the nearest port city.
Next stop: A bit of a rocky start for the girls, but a treat for me, as we all end up staying at the simply divine Chateau Frontenac.