I adopted Montreal in the fall of 1988, two months after my first visit. Falling for this city was oddly exhilarating while still in the throes of a prairie existence I had embraced up until that time.
Until I actually set foot in Montreal that sweaty July, my mental image clung to tired FLQ scenarios like exploding mailboxes, threats of separation and of course, hockey’s Shangri-La, the Montreal Forum.
What I couldn’t have imagined was the sound of French rising up like wisps of smoke from the patios of St. Denis Street. Or the gritty charm of buildings tattooed with welfare mothers resembling Li’l Abner’s Daisy Mae, smoking cigarettes as if to say You Oughta Be Here, Kid. And the restaurants. It was a lot to absorb, resistance was futile, and I was finally overcome by the Tom Waits-like whispers of street festivals: ‘This too, can be yours….’
But that was nearly a quarter-century ago, and lately – as if you haven’t heard – my bruised and battered city has gained all the notoriety of a Mexican border town. Montreal scandals are now described as ‘ongoing corruption scandals’ in the plural, unending sense. And what bothers me as much as the actual scandals, collapsing overpasses and language inspectors, is our reputation. Because Montreal, in spite, or because of unreliable Metro service and bilingual drug dealers, is still a unique cultural experience. It’s just not Mark Twain’s Montreal, where one ‘couldn’t throw a stone without breaking a church window.’
My mother didn’t give up on me when I was a delinquent; she didn’t love me any less on account of my acne. So Montreal, even though your trash cans are as difficult to find as an honest mayor, and even though I can hear the rest of Canada groaning, ‘That city is crumbling, it’s corrupt … who’d want to live there?’ I haven’t given up on you. Montreal IS different from the ROC; it’s a city where drinking wine in a park isn’t a crime, it’s a picnic.
But there’s a price to pay for such permissiveness. Mount Royal continues to attract swarms of tie-dyed drum-beaters to the tam-tam jams every Sunday, where thousands of Montrealers and visitors mesh in a mix of French and English and Spanish et cetera. But watch yourself, lest you wind up intoxicated or worse yet, dancing.
Yes, we have problems – major problems – but now is not the time. It’s summer, our patios are filling up, and the festival season promises to blot out memories of the word ‘pasta’ as some sort of English profanity. And there is exciting talk of building a new Champlain Bridge, not just any bridge, but one set to become Montreal’s future symbol, like the Sydney Opera House, or New York’s Statue of Liberty, whatever that is.
The gay village is closed to traffic for the summer, aside from wobbly pedestrians sampling happy hours and fireworks’ fans. The Bixie people are out in swarms on their rented bicycles, grabbing fresh vegetables at local markets as potential projectiles for swerving cars. I don’t really get out that much anymore, unless friends come in from out of town, friends who make me realize I ought to get out more and explore places like Mile End, wherever that is.
I will have lived in Montreal for 25 years this September, and while the affair has had its ups and downs, I still see traces of my city’s past. Potholes persist, but have become nostalgic, smoked meat joints still get line-ups, which I have never understood. Sushi and shish taouk, on the other hand, may one day be the new smoked meat.
“Never,” I hear you say. Well. I plan to stick around and find out. Let’s talk again when the Champlain Bridge is built.
John St. Godard
Follow me on Twitter: @st_godard