The Window's Eye
The road from Ottawa to Montréal is long, straight, and flat. Although we travelled on the south side of the river to avoid the motorway in favour of a more ‘scenic’ route, it turned out that scenery was in short supply: the day was grey and the world was cold and dull. The roadsides were littered with small rectangular concrete lots. Most common among these were signed dépanneur – the French-Canadian word for corner shop. This is quite sweet, etymologically speaking; although dépanner can mean ‘fix’ or ‘repair’, its more general sense is to help, to lend a hand, to get someone out of a pickle. Alongside these ‘helpful shops’ there were motels, trailer parks, trailer rental companies, car washes, diners, and one rather sad-looking tanning salon with a garish Hawaiian sign. In fact, a lot of these places looked quite sad; so many identikit iterations of the same capitalist ideal seemed to render each other redundant, and in the winter in particular one gets a sense that people were never meant to settle here in this kind of way. Raising a barn and a porch beneath such a vast, indifferent sky seems almost absurd.
As we approached Montréal the road broadened out into a highway and the roadside lots got larger and more densely packed. Little shops turned into mega-marts, garages to giant dealerships, small motels to giant truck-stops. Big blocks of flats sprung upward among them as we approached the city, which throughout remained invisible – there seemed to be only the highway and the brown and grey surrounding it. My distaste grew to foreboding as we passed under bridges and through tunnels in varying states of disrepair; in some places the concrete had worn away entirely, revealing glimpses of the skeletal girders beneath.
By this point the highway had taken us onto the island of Montréal proper and there was still no real city to be seen. Where were the artisan bakers, the hipsters, the much-vaunted European charm? Bored and disappointed, I looked down at my phone. When I looked up again it was as if we had gone through a portal; the highway had morphed into the depths of Old Montréal and was nowhere to be seen amid the icy cobbles and tall, beautiful buildings of pale stone. Snow covered the sidewalks and clogged the roadsides, but locals persevered through it all, many of them eschewing winter footwear in favour of leather, or even suede, Chelsea boots. Hoods were lined with fur and sunglasses sported. Up from the old town, past the dour skyscrapers of the financial centre, and towards McGill University and the Mont Royal itself the number of Fjällraven backpacks and Doc Marten boots grew exponentially.
This was all well and good and confirmed much of what I had already been told about Montréal; the old town is a bit like Paris, the locals are fashionable, snow-clearing is lax. I liked it. But away from the thoroughfares, amid the small residential streets of Le Plateau, Saint-Denis and Saint-Henri, I fell in love. Neat townhouses were colour-coordinated (whether by committee or happy coincidence I have yet to find out), each one possessing an ornate metal staircase that swept, spiralling, upwards to a first-storey flat. Each of these (I imagined) was filled with books, records, dust, and the smells of cigarettes, coffee, and good French cooking. Icicle-laden bicycles were suspended from balconies. Street corners were brightened with murals – I rarely liked the art but that wasn’t the point. The point was that this felt like a place where every house was a work of art, where everyone was a painter or a poet or a sculptor, where everyone actually liked jazz. I felt a deep, chest-swelling longing to be a part of it all.
I’m romanticising, of course. It’s a convention inherent in this sort of writing, and even just in experiencing or thinking about new places. I’m fully aware that I only saw a fraction (one of the more pleasant ones) of Canada’s second-largest city. It’s easy to wax lyrical about the snow from the warm safety of a moving vehicle. Easy to be a passive observer, riding through the streets without having to get involved in the messy business of living amongst them. I know all this, and yet my sense of longing has not dissipated since leaving Montréal – I’m certainly doing all I can to keep it alive. I’ve become a Leonard Cohen fan. I’ve pored over maps, losing myself in the French-English mélange of streets and squares. I’ve started following Montréal-based Instagrammers and scouring the internet for #aesthetic photos of staircases and balconies. All this might simply be a one-sided holiday romance. But the persistence of the feeling I got on that day suggests that, perhaps, it’s meant to be. Despite my full awareness of the perils of rose-tinted idealism, I can’t help but fall into it every time I think of Montréal. I still desperately want to wander through it on my own two feet; indulge in every flâneur cliché there is; live in and become a part of, in Cohen’s words, the stories of the street.