I have counted a number of cities as home, very very big ones, and pretty small ones. Every city seems to have its own year-served requirement before you feel like you “know” it. And maybe some you never really REALLY know unless you’ve been there your whole life, but generally speaking, you know what I mean by “know.” I seem to stay everywhere just under that threshold. And it’s true for here as well. I certainly have learned a lot about the place, but we’re not really close. We don’t see eye to eye on many things. I’ve been busy. Montreal has been french (cold, inscrutable?). Okay, it’s not all bad. It drives me crazy on a regular basis, but it has its charms.
I have been here long enough to know I don’t want to live here, to be fed up and frustrated often enough with all the aspects of living here that seem designed only to make people feel fed up and frustrated. A friend of mine here once noted that Montreal’s biggest problem is that it’s a city in Quebec. And I think that’s true. I don’t know where Montreal ends and Quebec begins and I don’t mean to suggest that francophone culture is the sole problem. But there is something wrong with Quebec; I’m no doctor, but they should really have it looked at because they could lose this lovely city and many of the lovely people in it, francophone and anglophone. To be the english-speaking minority here is to feel something like judgement and hostility on a regular basis. The language politics problem is probably what I feel most acutely. It’s a shame because so much of city is made interesting and unique by it’s dual-language, multi-cultural identity. It’s not up to me to decide how things will develop here, it’s not my province, but I hope this Parti Quebecois nonsense stops and reasonable minds prevail. Seriously, you won’t let me see the Anthropologie website because of Bill 101? How can you expect me to survive?
I have enjoyed many parts of my time here. I can sing the praises of the clean and efficient STM (metro) system (it’s amazing how much you can tidy up if you stop running at 1am). The sandwiches here are really delicious. Really. I don’t know what it is, but so many places here just get sandwiches right. They don’t even have the fanciest ingredients, but they are usually pressed and warmed and practically perfect. I can’t say much for the pizza, Mexican, or Japanese food here (or even Thai, but I know some will disagree with me), but I stand by the sandwiches! The Quebecois apparently have never heard of real ice-cream, so I won’t miss standing in front of the freezer cases at the store and wanting to cry. I’m sad to say goodbye to the crepes and pastries. I don’t think anyone comes to Montreal for the fine fashion shopping, but I will miss the vast underground connected mall systems in the winter when no one wants to go outside and doesn’t want to hang out in just ONE mall but would like to select from at least 6 to wander around in. The fact that you can travel around almost all of downtown through a series of tunnels, escalators, shopping centers, and food courts is incredible. And by incredible, I mean both great and slightly unbelievable. I will miss the summer festivals and events. I will miss the random young misfits hanging out in front of Tim Hortons (the gay one) and the grad-students-gone-wild children’s educational programming at McGill, the surprising finds at the bookstore’s non-books section, and the wonderful parks and playgrounds and splash pools for children. I may even miss the random crazy people who make my neighborhood so colorful. Yeah, I mean you guy-with-yellow-dog-in-a-tank-top– it’s been real.
But more specifically, my home and neighborhood for the last three years, Sainte Catherine Est, has been wonderful. My street is a living, breathing animal in the summer months. The almost 1 mile stretch to the west of us is closed for a few months to traffic, cafes and restaurants build out onto the sidewalks and streets, and everything is busy and there are constantly people out. It’s a magical thing, even more so at night. Not many places in the world is there such a street that changes so dramatically from one hour to the next, one season to the next. It’s this leisurely lunch spot during summer afternoons, flower boxes and cafe umbrellas, and when the sun goes down, it’s this raucous bar with bachelorette parties and drag queens and lovers on dates. It’s desolate in the winter, but with little hidden gems behind window panes, a wonderful drink, a perfect pastry, a strange antique cookie jar, elaborate fetish gear, surprisingly memorable paintings in a restaurant. During the holidays, it dresses up with decorations, lights and, snow, feeling quite home-y and urban at the same time. It’s a village of so many gay men who have built themselves a lively community and some rather interesting bars. It’s a conduit between my corner and all the festivals at Place des Arts, which lies just beyond where the canopy of 150,000 pink balls strung over the street ends. It’s my long doorway to a celebration of French music, Jazz, Comedy, African music, and outdoor art. There is pretty much always something happening, always a new art installation or some event you stumble upon and go “huh, I didn’t know this was happening,” or a new restaurant opening. It has been a delightful gift to live on this street, watching it change and surprise.
It’s so much nicer in the summer, of course, I would probably not feel so affectionately in February, but even then something cool might pop up. If there is one part of Montreal that I could walk through a thousand times and still see something new, this would be it. I’m glad I’ve had the chance to walk through it a thousand times. The blocks from my apartment to Berri-UQAM have been my path to errands, my walk to lunch, my evening stroll, my baby-please-nap pacing, my I-just-need-to-get-out-of-this-apartment-with-this-newborn schlep, and my trip to the library, festivals, or downtown. You can mark my daughter’s first years of life by this street. Her early outings just to get outside were to the Belgian boulangerie or Starbucks, just a few blocks away. Going to look at all the interesting lights when she was a baby, that long first winter we were here, was a lot of trips back and forth to Rue Berri. She learned to walk almost as soon as the pink balls went up that following spring and practiced many of her early steps that summer up and down the center of the Ste Catherine. When she learned to climb and eat many kinds of solid food, we’d often pick up lunch at our various nearby cafes, sushi shop, bakery, and then we’d head over to the playground. As she got more interested in the actual things down the street, we’d stop and look at the SIDA (AIDS) memorial art installation at Amherst which she loved to wander around inside it’s tall red poles and practice the names of the letters on top. Now, she likes to go to that Starbucks herself and ask for stuff, she likes to pop into the small specialty market for their bulk-section goodies, she knows to stop at the cross streets to hold my hand, she thinks the overhead pink balls are just for her because they always magically appear when she returns to town from some trip we always seem to take in May, and she remembers the exact location of the dollar store AND that they have pooh stickers and kinder eggs. We’ve come a long way in just this one mile.
My husband, daughter and I are excited to be back in the US, near family, and starting a new chapter. But we’re grateful for all the wonderful things we’ve experienced here. We have met people from all over the world and made some friends who will be the hardest goodbyes. I can’t thank my friends enough for the extraordinary kindness they’ve shown to me and my daughter. She and I both will miss them and their children so much. I hope each of you knows that I mean it when I say that you should visit me! And I hope to be back now and then to check in on you and the city.
So, the boxes are packed, the truck is loaded, and I have to get on with it. I will say “Au revoir” to you Montreal.
Or as you prefer to say it “Bon journée.”