They say travel broadens the mind, but it also broadens how you see home.
I recently spent two weeks in Europe, and I’d love to bring some things there back to Montreal.
For starters, I spent lots of time in Berlin — biking — because it’s so safe and simple. Montreal might be North America’s best cycling city — but compared to Berlin, we’re practically on tricycles.
Like bike-friendly Amsterdam and Copenhagen, Berlin has endless cycle paths that go everywhere, while their motorists are more polite and less menacing than Montreal pedestrians.
Many paths are elevated and level with the sidewalk so bikers don’t compete with cars — only pedestrians — in a separate sidewalk path of their own. The result? The whole city bikes — from armies of kids in school uniform to many older women in business outfits — a good sign cycling is safe.
More than 500,000 Berliners commute to work by bike. That said, they could also learn something from us — about a contraption we wear called a bike helmet that practically no one there uses. So wear a helmet, Helmut.
Another area where Berlin shines is designing streets for pedestrians. Berlin’s sidewalks are astonishingly wide — often three times the size of our “wide sidewalks” on streets like The Main. This squeezes traffic into narrow lanes, but no one seems to mind because it creates so much street life.
There are huge outdoor café-terrasses lining many streets, overflowing with crowds that make St-Denis St. look deserted. I was there for World Cup soccer when almost every bar, café and dépanneur put a TV outside at night, watched by vast crowds who line the sidewalks in The Street Festival of TV Soccer.
I’d love to see that here for Stanley Cup season — we don’t have to worry about the cold because our hockey playoffs last until June.
Despite the crowded patios and TVs, there’s still lots of room left on Berlin’s runway-sized sidewalks — and they fill it with endless bike parking and forests of trees, flowers and benches. I wouldn’t be surprised if next time I visit, they’ve installed dog runs, ping-pong tables and sidewalk swimming pools.
I’d love too see wider sidewalks on Montreal’s soon-to-be-repaired Ste-Catherine St., but our slow-motion city road crews still terrify me. Adding wider sidewalks to St-Laurent Blvd. took an extra year and helped bankrupt many shopkeepers.
Maybe our city crews should practise sidewalk-widening somewhere harmless first, to hone their skills. Let’s have them build sidewalks where there are no stores to murder — like René Lévesque Blvd., or inside the Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine Tunnel.
If those sidewalks come in on schedule, we’ll let them do Ste-Catherine St.
In fairness, since returning home I’ve noticed Montreal is letting several downtown restaurants erect wooden terrasses this summer that extend right out over streets like Drummond and de Maisonneuve — a great way to encourage street life without ripping up and widening sidewalks.
So may 1,000 wooden terrasses bloom.
During my travels, I also visited Prague which has something else Montreal should embrace — outdoor patio space heaters everywhere, that heat up anytime the temperature dips.
I know occasional Montreal café-terrasses have some heaters, but in Prague (and Berlin) you see them beside almost every outdoor table. Two weeks ago, I was sitting in a Prague café on a cold, wet day but the terrace was warm, snug and super-crowded with people.
Adding to the warmth, every last outdoor terrace in both cities had thick blankets draped over every chair. Most customers were using them — including us.
Again, why not try that here in Montreal, where it could extend our patio season to nine months? Is there a North American hygiene fear of sharing blanket germs? We sit on the same chairs as other customers and eat with the same forks and glasses washed by often slapdash dishwashers — so why not use the same blanket?
As much as there was to like and learn in these European cities, there was at least one thing I greatly missed from home.
For starters, I missed the high-calibre Montreal restaurant food we have almost everywhere here, not just at pricey restaurants, as in much of Europe. I especially missed our great Asian and other ethnic cuisine, which is hard to come by in Prague or Berlin because their countries don’t allow in enough immigrants to cook it.
It’s not uncommon to see Thai or Italian restaurants run entirely by blond-haired Germans, who just don’t have the touch. Or sidewalk rap singers and breakdancers who are all white.
That’s because welcoming and integrating more immigrants is the biggest thing much of Europe could learn from us.
Meanwhile, I can’t wait for Stanley Cup season when I plan to watch the games on an outdoor TV on my balcony — under a blanket next to a space heater.
Republished with the permission of Josh Freed.