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This is a poem I wrote about the last week or two in Montreal. I almost never write poetry, so beware.
What will today bring in Montreal?
a flash flood, a pots-and-pans-brigade, a humid heat, a temporary truce, a tweet to arms, a ralentissement de service on the Ligne Orange
a soggy map, an article on spoiled brats, sheet lightning, a no-news news conference, a swimming rat, a ralentissement de service on the Ligne Bleue
a kettling, an emergency evacuation, two red squares on two white breasts, a dead cat on the pavement, a ralentissement de service on the Ligne Verte
a sudden darkness, falling bricks, another injunction, a dismembered human torso, a ralentissement everywhere
a siren before bed.
I’ve never been any place that can rival Montreal for the sheer delight people take in simply being themselves, and Villeray is about the pinnacle of Montreal’s achievement in this regard. At first glance, it’s street after street of brick duplexes and triplexes with the standard winding staircases and rows of maple and Siberian elm and ash trees; very comfortable and completely unpretentious.
You notice just how at home people feel in their streets. They act as if the streets belong to everyone; as if everyone is equally welcome to them. With apparent effortlessness, they enjoy the streets but don’t impede others’ enjoyment.
I still get a kick out of the rough-looking skinny guy who walks up the street with the most exquisite classical music waltzing out from the radio that is either held in his hand or – when he’s not alone – mounted on the back of the wheelchair in which his wife sits, getting pushed along.
I’m a fan of our neighbourhood homeless guy who is always holding the door open for customers at Jean Coutu pharmacy. I think he’s been making money this way for years and years. He has a dodgy leg, a walking stick, a nicotine-stained beard and always a smile on his face.
Today as I walked home from the gym, a boisterous black kid came running down the sidewalk with his arms held out like he was an airplane. He ran a few metres and then turned around and passed me again. He announced this proudly. “I overtook you!” Then his significantly older brother came out of his duplex and walked to his car. “Au revoir, Vincent,” said the little boy to him. “Au revoir, mon petit frère,” said the brother.
On several of the lightposts on the same street, a mysterious message has been taped up – crafted, I think, by a child. It reads (spelling mistakes and all):
Les gorilles ons été menaser en 2008
Une famille d’humain ons adopté une gorille
Lui apprendre à conduire une voiture et autres choses
Les gorilles sont un des plus intelligent des animaux
The gorillas were under threat in 2008
A human family adopted a gorilla
Taught him to drive a car and other things
Gorillas are among the most intelligent of animals
Meanwhile, elsewhere in Villeray
I enjoy the crazy guy who sits outside his apartment on Drolet and conducts all sides of a conversation, replete with peals of laughter, at high volume. Passersby just smile at him. He smiles right back.
Then there’s the guy who sits two blocks down on Berri, always on his porch, drinking beer, wine, or pastis for hours on end – any time of day except for the very earliest hours of the morning. He seems to know a lot of people. One time somebody passed by and said, “Not drinking yet?” To which the guy replied, “No – it’s still too early.” You can see him there Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday and he doesn’t even take weekends off.
I marvel at the old women working in the patisserie on Jarry, two blocks west of St. Denis, who will take five minutes to wrap a three-dollar slice of cake, tying on a ribbon and bow unless you explicitly ask them not to. What a company policy – present every slice of cake like a present!
I love the cat who looks like a bigger version of Banchi, sans tail. The cat doesn’t seem perturbed to have no tail. I also really get a kick out of the cats belonging to my neighbours Marie-Ève and James, all three of whom are fat. The white and grey one likes to climb up the stairs to my balcony and stare at Banchi. He used to slip through my open window and take a nap on my couch or on my bed, but I put a stop to that. Now I leave the window open just a sliver; a waif like Banchi can get through but old fatty can’t! I think that made him cross for a while but now he just accepts it. Just a few minutes ago he was asleep on the balcony with Banchi a few feet away keeping watch over the Villeray alleyway. There’s always something interesting going on there, whether it’s just the breeze rustling the grass, or bumble bees like Zeppelins coming into land, or the neighbours across the way coming out to sun themselves, or children hurtling past on bike or on foot, yelling and laughing.
I’d like to officially and subjectively declare that today was the first day of spring in Montreal. And in a few short weeks, we’ll be seeing this again:
What a relief that will be! But even prior to the beloved tams tams taking centre stage under the mountain, there have been ample signs of our rehearsals for summer.
Montrealers warming themselves in the sun like lizards.
Joggers in shorts.
Couples kissing outdoors without having to rush or shiver under the hoods of their parkas.
Drinking on terrasses, or for the more informal among us, drinking out of a beer bottle scarcely concealed by a white plastic bag whilst watching rush hour traffic go by from outside a depanneur on Parc.
Today, when people were speaking of Spring, it’s like they truly considered it a reality. After all, it’s been days of this now. Sometimes chilly, sometimes not, but almost always sunny and steadily headed in the right direction. If it snows or the cold snaps now, we won’t feel so hard bitten. Because we all know that winter is spent. At this point, any return of sub-zero would be the last punch from a fighter who is going down.
This is a rather gloomy way of being reminded, but this week, it was the anniversary of Marc Lepine’s massacre of 14 students at the École Polytechnique, and I realized, “I’ve lived in Canada now for 20 years.” The Montreal massacre is one of the first news stories I remember from my first year in my adopted homeland.
A few months prior, my step mother had picked me up from the international airport, which at that time was adorned with posters saying: “Edmonton: Official Host City for the Turn of the Century.” I did not realize that Edmonton’s official city slogan was “City of Champions,” and that sloganeering was actually taken quite seriously by city council. I just thought, “Wow, how exciting to be in the official host city of the turn of the century!” Edmonton was clearly a futuristic kind of place.
I was about to turn 14 and my mind was entirely open to the idea of Edmonton. It was my first time living in a city, and having just started to interest myself in girls, buying records, even clothes, I welcomed the chance to be somewhere with more to offer than Little Beckford, England (population, approx. 300).
It was a late-August day, and the weather was what could best be described as in-between weather: neither hot nor cold. I sat on the patio of my new home, which struck me as modern and, yes, futuristic, and briefly suffered a feeling of emptiness, realizing I was going to have to rebuild my life practically from scratch. The sky was the colour of a sheet of paper. In the following days, I would explore the environs on a newly-purchased bike. I was particularly drawn to 23rd avenue’s westwards path out of the city. In only ten minutes, I could be pedalling along the rolling farm fields, dotted with the occasional copse of trees. I would occasionally see hawks circling in the sky.
I went to my first shopping mall: Heritage Mall. I had been told that it was an amazing place, but my first impression was lacklustre. I entered through Woolco, a department store, and wandered around. I thought, that store is OK, but where’s the rest of this mall? I couldn’t figure out how you were supposed to get from one store to another. There was no central corridor or square; from the outside, the mall just looked like a bunch of independent boxes clustered together. I walked from Woolco to Safeway via the dusty parking lot.
When I first went to school — Grandview Heights Junior High — I was bored out of my mind most of the time. In comparison to the schooling I’d received in England, classes in Canada were repetitive, dull, and… well… I said to my parents at the time, “The work hasn’t started yet. We never do anything.” The education system mostly called for sitting still at a desk, listening to the teacher, and being required to memorize stuff in order to later regurgitate it for a test.
I was very unhappy in school for most of my first couple of years in Canada. I fared even worse at Harry Ainlay High School than at Grandview, making exactly zero friends. It was only after I was well ensconced at Victoria Composite High School — an arts school — that I started to enjoy myself. I suppose I could say that the pinnacle of my teenage life was appearing in The Taming of the Shrew at Victoria’s main stage. I played Petruchio.
The sense of place that I craved for many years was never satisfied in Edmonton, despite my lot improving significantly after high school; eventually having a great run at university and several stellar jobs afterward. At 30, in some respects, I still felt just as perplexed, confused and somewhat alienated from the place as I was at 14.
If you go down 23rd avenue westwards from where my parents live, it would now take you a good 20 minutes before leaving the city. All the farmland has been replaced with new residential subdivisions; vinyl-sided houses and strip malls and box stores. The turn of the century came to Edmonton, but by then, the “Official Host City of the Turn of the Century” idea had come and gone; you never saw posters about it anywhere. Victoria School has been a roaring success; you have to audition to get in, whereas when I went there, it teetered intriguingly between being a poor, inner-city school and a place for the petty bourgeois to indulge their creative side. Heritage Mall was demolished years ago. It has subsequently been turned into a professional and commercial development called Century Park, with gleaming steal and glass edifices. There will soon be a subway station.
Two and a half years after leaving Edmonton, I never miss Edmonton. I miss people, but I never miss the city itself. I’ve learned that Edmonton is not exceptional: there are countless suburban, bland, boring cities all over North America. Many people are happy to call them home. My erstwhile rage against Edmonton was somewhat misplaced. Like most of North America, it suffers from what James Kunstler called “The Geography of Nowhere.”
I can thank Edmonton for furnishing me with good friends, family, a university degree, and a good CV. My sense of gratitude ends there. I cannot thank the city itself for anything except fuelling me with the determination to get out and make life better elsewhere.
For reasons that nobody has ever made clear to me, about one quarter of the population of Montreal moves today – July 1. Most leases expire June 30, so for the past couple of days, and indeed, a few more days yet to come, the streets become a zone of ceaseless moving activity. Trucks park across entire lanes of traffic, interrupting the flow; unwanted furniture is piled on the pavement; men and women struggle under the weight of boxes as they climb the steps of walk-up apartments and enter their new homes. Most people will also have to outfit their apartments with appliances, because stoves, fridges, washers and dryers are not typically provided by landlords. There is a small seasonal industry geared towards meeting the needs of people at this time: movers, appliances repairers and resellers, truck renters. The price of anything related to moving will be jacked up to exorbitant rates. If it cost $100 to rent a cargo van two months ago, today it will cost $200. If a moving company charged $400 for their labour two months ago, today they will charge $700.
Happy Moving Day to my girlfriend, Monika, and to Matt, and to Lorenzo, and to Denis, and to Sarah, and to everyone else making an exciting step forward into more salubrious (or less salubrious, depending on budget and life circumstances) lodgings!
Happy Moving Day, Montreal!
And, I suppose, in the rest of this country, one should say, Happy Canada Day! A spectacle that fills me with considerably less excitement.
When it’s a late June weekend, and you get sun and heat rather than the rain that was promised, and your girlfriend is enjoying the last few days off from school, and your best bud has just moved into town, and the fruit stands are full of ripening mangos, raspberries and blueberries, and the furniture stores on rue Notre Dame beckon with the smell of dust and decades-old wood, and the wind is just a faint rustle in the leaves, and the fountain at the Parc Georges Etienne-Cartier is a bubbling lullaby, the Internet is the furthest things from one’s mind for almost the entirety of the day. Instead, food, friendship, love and Montreal are uppermost in one’s thoughts.
In Montreal, the only thing that falls on your car more frequently than snow is parking tickets. On Monday, the car I’ve depended on for business, pleasure and moving friends for many years was sitting on my street during the restricted time of 1-2pm. When I realized this, I rushed home, only to find that I was a couple of minutes too late. The parking police had already busted me at 1:09pm.
A couple of days later, I drove down to rue Clark to help my friend move some belongings. There was nowhere available on the street except for a zone reserved for residents. “Not to worry,” I told myself. “I will only be absent from my car for about four minutes. It’ll be OK.” Not even seven minutes later, I exited the building, and already the parking police had left another red and white present.
Then this morning, at about 9:30am, I received a visit from Canada Post. It was registered mail, requiring my signature. I was excited because I thought maybe it was a cheque. I’ve never received a cheque by registered mail but I thought, “there’s a first time for everything.” And after all, I was owed a cheque… Ah, but what a fool I was to think positive! It was, in fact, a letter from the municipal court of Montreal, telling me that I’d failed to pay a parking ticket from last September. They were threatening to suspend my driver’s license, prohibit registration of my car, and moreover, they informed me that to drive prior to paying the fines would be illegal. Immediate payment of $153 was required to clear my name and keep me from becoming an outlaw.
Eager to resolve this terrible oversight of mine (I really didn’t know you had to pay within 30 days) I called up the municipal court. An answering machine told me that all customer service agents were busy and that I should try again later. “That is very odd,” I said to myself. “How can it be that Montreal is so swift to give tickets but so ill-equipped to arrange for their collection?”
I worked for a short while and then tried calling the municipal court again. Same answering machine message. So I called la Societé de l’assurance de Québec instead. After my third try with their bizarro phone menu, I got through to a human being. I explained to the human being my frustration at being unable to pay my fine to the court. She put me on hold and about two minutes later said, “I got through to the court just fine. Try again.”
Maybe she had a special bureaucrat’s phone, because lo and behold, when I tried to call again, I got exactly the same response as before. And fifteen minutes later, the same thing. It was only on my sixth time that I got through. And then, my sole reward of a human-to-human conversation was being told to go to Outrement in person and pay my tickets.
I promptly jumped into my car (driving illegally, I suppose) and headed straight to the municipal court in Outremont. I arrived at 11:54am. There was a sign on the door saying that the court cashier would be closed from 12pm to 1pm.
“So I got here just in the nick of time,” I thought to myself, with a small amount of jubilation.
But my satisfaction was short lived. I ascended by elevator to the second floor, only to find out that in government land, lunch breaks start early. Not only were they not taking any new fine-payers, the little take-a-number machine was fresh out of numbers. I objected about this to a bureaucrat in the vicinity. She told me, as if it were the most normal thing in the world, that they deliberately remove the numbers before their lunch break. I would have to come back at 1pm.
I had an hour to kill in Outremont. I was hungry, but people of my income don’t eat in Outremont. That’s a fact. I walked around instead. When at last I returned to the court, I had the privilege of getting number 58. They were at that moment serving lucky delinquent driver number 47. I waited, waited, and waited.
It seems that many other roadway infractions can occur – cyclists cycle against traffic, skateboards also flagrantly go the wrong way on one-way streets, meanwhile, you’ll often find a car sitting in a lane of traffic, stopping the flow for minutes on end, while somebody who believes himself to be the centre of the universe has his hatchback open for loading up something he just purchased from Rona. None of those things merit fines; I’ve never seen or heard of anybody receiving one.
But if you park in the wrong spot at the wrong time, the wrath of Montreal is one you. Pay your fines on time, everyone. Heaven help you if you don’t.
Two neighbourhoods have been home for me here in Montreal: Verdun, and now Villeray. I decided to walk from one to the other today, because that’s the kind of crashing bore I am.
My journey started at metro de l’église, where I stopped to photograph this beautiful church. Then I wandered up the quiet street and stopped at La Belle Province. They seemed to remember me there. I had a portion of fries and, while I waited, the cook complimented my shoes. They are hip hop shoes, yo, made by Phat Farm, and when I wear them, I have to make an extra special attempt not to do something stupid and unhip.
Whilst crunching on my fries, I continued my path northwards, crossing Canal l’Aqueduc, and entering the seldom-mentioned Ville Émard, which is one of the sleepiest, weirdest neighbourhoods in Montreal — at least in my opinion. It’s one of those places where you can’t figure out how any businesses ever survive because it always looks so desolate.
Things get curioser still as one approaches the Turcot Exchange, a maze of concrete highway confusion. I’ve mentioned Turcot Exchange before. I kind of like the picture I took below, which is one of the entrance roads to the Decarie Expressway.
Soon, the intrepid traveller finds him or herself at the Lachine Canal, the birthplace of Canadian industry. I could wander around the Lachine Canal all day long. There are old brick factories flanking the placid green canal, most of them out of use. Some of them look like they will fall on your head one day.
I left the historic heartland after 10 minutes or so and entered Place Sir Georges Etienne Cartier. In summer, the square — which is more of a park, really — has an active swimming pool, a favourite of families. Even on a brisk day such as today, the park itself still has oodles of kids and parents in it. As I sat and recouped for a bit, two kids kicked around a soccer ball. The little girl ran close by and called out to me, “Bonjour.” Is it just me, or have Montreal kids been instilled with less fear of strangers than their counterparts in other big American cities?
Rested, I continued onwards to Parc Saint Henri, which is for my money the most enchanted park in all of Montreal. I didn’t take a photo of it today because there are not yet any leaves on the trees, and to behold this park without its leafy majesty is like beholding a picture of Queen Victoria without her crown. I remembered how Monika and I sat in this park on the day that my cat Mina died. The tranquility of the surroundings seemed a salve of sorts.
Onwards — Westmount, Downtown, McGill Ghetto, and northward, alongside Mount Royal Park — or Parc du Mont Royal, if you prefer. Typically on a warm Sunday, you will find dozens — if not hundreds — of people gathered here for what has come to be known as the Tam Tams, a celebration of dance, drums, and petuli oil. Despite it being a Monday, there were people out today.
The origins of the Tam Tams are unknown. What I’ve heard is that local musicians, years ago, needed a place to jam, and simply chose this place. More people joined in, then more, then more. Voilà! It became a party! Come down with the whole family, and illicitly smoke a big reefer while you’re at it.
After blissing out for a while, listening to the tribal beat and watching the general joie de vivre, I continued up avenue du Parc, through Mile End, then Little Italy, arriving eventually at rue Jean Talon, where I went to my favourite pet store and purchased a large case of food for my cat, Banchi. Then it was back to Villeray, my home and native land!
All in all, a delightful day out. More photos here.
The Turcot Exchange is a maze of elevated highways in the west of Montreal which is badly in need of repair. The government of Québec has decided to demolish the whole thing and sort of begin again, creating a highway system in its place at ground level. This means many of the buildings in the area will soon be gone, and with them, a whole community. You can find countless examples of the conflict between big government and citizens in Montreal’s history; what is encouraging is that people rarely sit down and take it without a fight. Last week, quite by accident, I encountered a story in Le Journal de Montréal about the local response to the Turcot Exchange plan:
«Il y a des milliers de personnes qui passent au-dessus de nos têtes chaque jour. Mais en dessous de l’échangeur Turcot, il y a des humains, pas juste du béton !»
Pierre Fréchette ne mâche pas ses mots et défend avec fougue les intérêts des résidents de son arrondissement.
Saint Léonard, in the east end of Montréal, used to be its own town, but is now an arrondissement of the city proper. It developed after World War II, and lots of Italians moved there from La Petite Italie or Villeray. You could buy a house there, which is not true of a lot of Montréal (apartments only!)
I was in Saint Léonard yesterday for an interview with the proprietors of La Maison du Parmesan, a cornerstone of the Italian community since 1976. Afterwards, I drove south, parked by rue Jean Talon, and wandered around snapping photos.
See more photos at my flickr page.