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In 1947, Montreal was full of itself — and perhaps rightly so. This is the approximate era of Duddy Kravitz, Mordecai Richler’s famous hero — or anti-hero. A lot has changed since then. But an awful lot hasn’t. Monika and I watched this short film this morning, and you know, sometimes, going out with her and strolling through Villeray, Petite Italie, or wherever, feels every bit as romantic as the night-time walk of the couple in this film. Yeah, I’m nauseating, I know! …In stark contrast to the bragging style of this film — the face Montreal wanted to show to the world — here is how Richler conveyed his own corner of Montreal — St. Urbain and the Jewish ghetto:
To a middle-class stranger, it is true, one street would have seemed as squalid as the next. On each corner a cigar store, a grocery, and a fruit man. Outside staircases everywhere. Winding ones, wooden ones, rusty and risky ones. Here a prized lot of grass splendidly barbered, there a spitefully weedy patch. An endless repetition of precious peeling balconies and waste lots making the occasional gap here and there.
Anyway, enough preamble, here’s the film
I wish I’d posted this link a while back because now I seem like a Johnny-come-lately. Whatever! Steely-eyed Anderson Cooper of CNN fame has this to say about Montreal (on the event of Obama’s visit to Canada last week).
It’s rather a glib and easy portrait, but hey — he’s fondly remembering the drinking days of his youth, so who can begrudge him? On this, another Montreal week that has been far from easy, it’s nice to have even this little reminder of what makes the place special. Joie de vivre, that’s what! And this weekend, Nuit Blanche is a chance to revel in the snowy bowels of winter and rekindle some festive spirits.
And what is Nuit Blanche? It’s a chance for Montrealers, and visitors, to take to the streets all day and night — well, especially night, that’s kinda the point — and run around like small children, taking delight in all the free open art galleries whilst drinking poorly concealed bottles of beer and wine. Last year, I didn’t make it down to the old port for skating and fireworks. This year, I plan to remedy that oversight.
It’s 2009, yet apparently, door-to-door salespeople still exist. How do I know? Because I just had an encounter with one.
I had only been home for about 15 minutes and was ravenously hungry – as was Banchi. Fed her first, then scooped her poop out of the kitty litter, then washed my hands and began preparing a simple dinner. Cranked up some music and washed my hands again, and just at that moment the doorbell rang. Blast! I turned down the music again, exited my apartment, flinging the door shut behind me, and clattered down the stairs.
A blond girl greeted me on the front step. She started rattling on about some promotional deal where she would take care of something for me, although what, I didn’t fully understand. Would I like to try it out right now?
“Too busy,” I said. “You’ll have to come back some other time.”
But she insisted that I had to take advantage of this great deal today because it was only valid, like, today! She flashed a flyer in my face and I quickly ascertained that it was spa service and massage that she was touting.
“This is a bad time,” I said. “I’m cooking. I’m very busy. Do you have a card?”
No, she insisted. This offer would only be valid today. The hard sell never dies. Up the stairs, behind the closed door, Banchi was meowing furiously, and I imaged my dinner burning. My French somewhat abandoned me. I turned back to the girl.
“It’s not a good time,” I reiterated. “I’m cooking, and… and my kitten is angry.”
That seemed to clinch it for her.
With a bemused expression on her face she said, “OK, Well, have a good night.”
On rue Berri, here in the heart of beautiful Villeray, a tall and rather gangly woman was pushing another woman on a wheelchair down the pavement. It was after the dinner hour, and the street was dark and quiet. Which made it all the more striking to hear a soothing wave of classical music emanating from a radio mounted on the wheelchair. I think the music was a Mozart violin concerto.
On rue Villeray, the Miss Villeray Lounge has reopened. Last fall, the Miss Villeray neon sign depicting a busty waitress with a tray of beers was tattered and faded. Over the winter, the entire bar was fully restored, and that kitsch sign has been repainted. When I wandered past it the other day, the sign glowed invitingly, and inside, a small crowd was watching the Canadiens game.
Tonight, outside the Fruiterie Forcier, the cousins of the teenage boy who tends the till over the weekend were playing on the pavement with a block of ice. They kicked it around and laughed riotiously. The Fruiterie Forcier, incidentally, deserves a retail award for most efficiently utilized space in all of Montreal. Every foot of that store is loaded with goodies: from fresh olives to fair trade coffee to Corn Flakes to cans of beans to fresh basil and parsley.
Montreal’s elevated highways take some getting used to. When I first moved here, I admit it, I was scared of them. I’d heard about the collapse of the Laval overpass that killed five people. I eyed the crumbling cement structures — in some places seemingly held together only with wire sutures — and imagined a chunk falling on my head as I walked by underneath. When I started driving in the city, I imagined an elevated highway giving way beneath my wheels, sending me plummeting to my death or dismemberment.
But lately, I’ve come to see the highways as having a particular kind of beauty of their own. In their stark but sinuous way, they slice through Montreal, marking borders between neighbourhoods, north and south, east and west. They mark psychological boundaries between communities of very different means and cultures. When I lived in Verdun, the 15 and the 20 were inescapable; they fenced off the neighbourhood from Montreal and gave it the feel of some small market town in the countryside.
I have a dream for Montreal’s elevated highways. One day, when automobiles and trucks have ended their brief empire over our cities, I imagine them reverting to wilderness. Helped along by humankind, they would become mile after mile of parkland, allowing a pastoral retreat above the city, but serving forever as a reminder of Montreal’s post-war growth. I admit, this is not an original idea. New York City’s soon-to-be-open High Line Railway is the first park in this model. But if Montreal one day dedicated every mile of its elevated highways to parkland, we would outstrip the High Line at least one hundred fold.
Meanwhile, back in the real world (!), this blog provides some great insights into what is actually going on with one section of the highways — the Turcot Exchange.