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Tuesday, Apr 24, 2018
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Taking a 12-hour train to Montreal for pastries and the National

MONTREAL

The whole scheme felt improbable, even as Amtrak officials tagged our luggage and stamped our tickets with CANADA printed in red. Even as we shuffled to the train platform and claimed our plush blue seats.

We’d cooked up this trip so long ago, half a beer into a steamy spring happy hour in St. Petersburg. My friends Zack and Zack and I had been sitting at a bar, scrolling through tour dates for the National, one of our favorite indie rock bands — no stops south of the Mason-Dixon line — when we fell into "what if" territory.

What if we made a trip of it? They’re playing in New York, how about there? No, somewhere new — what about Montreal?

Half-joking, then not joking at all, we fumbled our way through French-Canadian conversions and bought four tickets. We’d figure out the rest later.

Over the weeks, the three of us sketched in the details: We’d spend 12 hours on a northbound train, rolling along the Hudson River and the Adirondacks and across the border. It would be a needlessly but thrillingly long journey to what we hoped would be a mystical event: a killer show in a snowy, romantic city a world away. (For our friend Faiz, who we’d roped into the trip after texting him pictures of mulled wine for six months straight, it would just be a vacation.)

So Zack and Zack and I left sunny St. Pete behind to throw ourselves into temperatures we lapsed Northerners had forgotten were possible. Faiz met us in New York.

That morning, as the Adirondack rumbled out into the dawn, we muffled the pop of prosecco in a T-shirt and drank pulpy mimosas out of Amtrak cups, getting used to the train’s sway. It was 8:30 a.m. and the car was near-empty, leaving us exclaiming over our luck while we spread scallion cream cheese on New York bagels.

For the first hour we mostly sipped and looked at the blue slate of the Hudson River, tracing a broad line along the tracks. Sometimes we couldn’t help but laugh at how absurdly pleasant it all felt, how time lost its shape, how good it was to be reunited.

It had been three years since the four of us interned together at the Boston Globe, where we commiserated over 12-hour days full of near-comical amounts of reported tragedy.

We’re all still journalists. Faiz covers transportation in D.C. I write about higher education for the Tampa Bay Times. Zack 1, going by our softball team jerseys, is a freelance photojournalist. Zack 3 covers public safety with me at the paper. (Yes, there’s a Zac 2.)

As the hours stretched on, we talked and napped and read our books about urban sprawl and climate change and apocalypse, the literary stakes high while the actuality of our day was as placid as meditation.

It was only 2 p.m. when the light began taking on a blueish tinge, and as we rounded the vastness of Lake Champlain, I put on my headphones to listen to the National.

I should say that the National is a band I get sentimental about. Their songs are urgent, intimate, suited to montages — like the one unfolding outside my window, the train tracing the edge of the darkening lake.

Through the window I took photos of the gleaming water and listened to Nobody Else Will Be There. Then, as always, I was moved by the band’s unease and introspection, and as the train rose higher I wondered how it would feel to hear those songs live.

My friends tapped my shoulder, snapping me out of it. We clicked past yellow fields at sunset and soon all was dark except for a small outpost with a Canadian flag. After a "Bonjour-hello" and a confused conversation with a customs agent — "We’re seeing the National." "That is music?" — we were on the way again, streaming north in the dark.

• • •

Finally in Montreal’s chilly Gare Centrale, I used the pathetic dregs of my collegiate French to call our Airbnb host, who delivered us to his shabbily glamorous apartment full of warm wood built-ins. He had been kind, but not kind enough to spare him from his inevitable fate. The moment the door shut, Zack 1 declared, "So, we’re killing David."

The appeal of his life was instantaneous. We marveled at everything: the snowy Parisian park nearby, the terrifyingly stylish McGill students. Down the road, we kept up our marveling as we ate an obscene amount of steamed dumplings in less than 10 minutes.

The next morning, the day of the concert, we trekked along an upscale street in the hip Plateau Mont-Royal neighborhood to a little bakery for kouign-amann, a sticky butter cake that will haunt my dreams until the end of time.

We wandered, hands in pockets, intimidated by the hipster Quebecois and jealous of the way every corner seemed to feature its own coffee shop for daylong chatting.

After lingering over coffee ourselves, I battled through a lunchtime crowd to order four boxes of poutine — getting at least eight French phrases wrong in the process — which we ate walking home in the cold. The fries were crispy and salty, studded with cheese curds and draped in warm gravy.

By the time dusk fell, I had already started to feel a bright, giddy kind of anxiety about the upcoming show, the centerpiece of our whole over-the-top journey. In the apartment, we plugged in the small kitchen speaker and put the band’s catalog on shuffle. That the songs were rendered in tinny miniature only made me more excited for the real thing.

An hour early, bundled up, chests hot, we stepped out into the night.

• • •

"I can’t believe we’re here," Zack 1 leaned down to whisper to me as we waited for the opener. We were a few rows from the front, in a hot, cavernous hall with a balcony that stretched far above us. We’d tied our long underwear around our waists.

A pair of wide-eyed 20-year-olds in front of us told us they’d come all the way from Ottawa, two hours west. We had to pull up St. Petersburg on Google Maps to illustrate the distance — 1,521 miles. Conversations buzzed around us, melding French and English.

The lights went down, then cast the stage in royal blue.

Sometimes a performance can feel perfunctory, the artists disengaged or drifting. But when the band finally came on stage I could tell they were as present as us. Matt Berninger wrapped himself around the microphone stand, pouring himself into it as he started to sing.

Their set was generous, starting with their newest songs, which I was still memorizing, and ticking backward through the rest, which I couldn’t stop myself from singing. I took two videos, almost as if to prove to myself that I was there. The lead singer slammed white wine from a plastic cup and churned through despair and rage and reckoning, each in earnest. A middle-aged woman near me started sobbing and I didn’t blame her. The crowd hushed for Carin at the Liquor Store and bumped shoulders for Apartment Story and screamed for Mr. November, and I wanted to bottle the feeling.

For the encore, all 2,000 of us sang: "All the very best of us string ourselves up for love."

Afterward we ate terrible poutine in a fluorescent diner, hardly talking, exhausted and full.

• • •

The rest of the trip unfolded in a lazy flipbook of coffee and pastries and indulgence. We joked that a writer — namely, me — couldn’t find a narrative arc to save her life.

"We need to be more plot driven," Zack 1 said. "We need to have Faiz go missing or something."

Faiz made a pitch for Montreal: "If you’re interested in a boring, relaxing vacation, then come here in December."

We all fell in love with the city, self-righteously European in its embrace of art and French heritage, but with a neighborhood feel that made it easy to pretend to be locals as we bought too many books and climbed the city’s "mountain." But we remained tourists, too, sharing Montreal bagels and Schwartz’s famous smoked meat sandwiches with cherry cola on the side. "I honestly feel like I’ve eaten 64 sticks of butter since we’ve arrived," Zack 3 said. We watched snow fall from inside warm cafes and went ice skating in fantastically geriatric fashion. By the time we left, we had made plans for another train trip this summer.

• • •

A few months later, a song by the National came on at a friend’s house and pulled me out of the conversation for a minute. The song was quiet, hovering thinly in the background, but the quality of the sound brought me immediately back to the small dining room table of our apartment in Montreal. I saw everything, the cards splayed out, our glasses of strawberry milk leaving sticky rings on the wood, Faiz’s black winter gloves shucked off. Someone’s phone playing all of the songs we’d soon hear.

For a few beats, I lingered in a new montage.

Contact Claire McNeill at [email protected]

     
     
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