Published in the Montreal Gazette on September 13, 2014
In December of 1971, I ventured overseas for the first time in my rather young life. In fact, Italy was the initial country, and Rome the very first city, that I visited outside North America. Once there, my overall sense of astonishment is something I shall always remember.
Just a little over 25 years after the end of the Second World War, it could easily be observed that many locals in Europe were still struggling to make ends meet. The general prosperity that had swept across Canada and the United States in the 1950s and 1960s had failed to attain in quite the same manner most war-ravished nations. Consequently, many people left their native soil to start lives over in far-off lands, including this country. Those who stayed, however, had to find a way to carry on.
One of the paths frequently used in those days to make a few extra dollars was renting out a room in one’s home to travellers. This was certainly the case in the Land of Dante, where parents frequently sent their young boys to railway stations to await the arrival of incoming trains.
On the various platforms, the children would hold up cobbled-together signs that simply read: chambre/zimmer. The English language, not being what it is today, was normally absent. If interested, the child would invariably lead you to his home and a conversation with one of his parents, habitually the mother, where a deal was worked out. It was in this fashion that I often found accommodation while travelling around the Italian peninsula in the 1970s.
Then known throughout that colourful country as a pensione, the arrangement ultimately evolved into what we distinguish today as ‘Bed and Breakfast’.
Although it was in the United Kingdom and Ireland that the term “B&B” first came into use, the phenomenon, and expression, rapidly spread to Canada, including Montreal during the 1970’s.
Originally, in Britain, and in a sense like Italy, the growth of the phenomenon was due to economic need. Individuals rented out one room (quite often the youngest child’s room) of their home to a traveller passing through their community. It was in the U.K. that the notion of an included breakfast first came to the fore. It seemed a convenient way for visitors to start the day in a town they most probably barely knew.
In Montreal the development of this form of overnight accommodation took place for a different reason. The closure, and ultimate demolition in 1977, of the Laurentian Hotel on Peel Street essentially removed from the city centre the last venue for medium-priced overnight lodging. From that point onward, visitors were forced to choose either from expensive high-end hotels or relatively inexpensive, and often dubious, tourist rooms.
So it was in this context that the moderately priced B&B happening took hold. Tourisme-Quebec defines a B&B enterprise as an establishment that offers, for an all-inclusive price, accommodation in rooms in a private residence where the operator resides and rents a maximum of 5 rooms receiving a maximum of 15 persons, including breakfast served on the premises.
In January 2008, according to that same agency’s figures, the Island of Montreal boasted 137 B&Bs. By January of this year, the number had fallen to 78, a fact that Tourisme-Québec attributes to the recent rise of the Air B&B phenomenon along with overall stricter regulations governing the industry.
Not that long ago ago, to get a better sense of the trade, I met with Eric and Daisy Delobelle at their quaint Bed & Breakfast ‘Couette et Chocolat’ situated on the edge of Chinatown at 1074 St-Dominique St.
Unbeknownst to them, it was not my first time in the building. In fact, I had been there several times in the autumn of 1974, when friends of mine called the spot home. To return to a flat after a 40-year absence is indeed a very special experience. But I digress.
Left, kitchen B&B ‘Couette et Chocolat’, June 2, 2014
Below, same spot forty years earlier, December 1974
Eric, 52, and Daisy, 44, came to Montreal together from the north France in 2006. No sooner arrived, the enterprising couple purchased this particular B&B venture, which had previously been known as the Gite St-Dominique. Such an undertaking was entirely novel to them, and they took to it enthusiastically.
The pair immediately set out to upgrade their newly acquired lodging service to their own European standards of excellence in accommodation. This in itself was no simple task, given the fact that the Victorian greystone structure in which both their home and business are situated dates from 1870.
Anyone who has stayed in a small, family run bed and breakfast can easily imagine the amount of work that goes into keeping the responsibility afloat, especially if no outside help is sought. There are rooms to be cleaned, linen to be washed, breakfasts to be made, and the multifarious questions of guests to be answered. In addition, there are also the customary official documents to be completed. The Dellobelle’s do all these tasks themselves.
Evidently, many individuals who set out to establish a Bed & Breakfast do not realize the total commitment and hard work the activity requires, and sooner or later they abandon it. Eric and Daisy, on the other hand, clearly continue to enjoy the challenge.
Visit their website to learn more about them and their charming three star Bed & Breakfast: www.couetteetchocolat.net