Why not? It seems childish to answer a question with another question, but in this case I can’t help it. I had never been to the place before moving there, but it seemed like a place for me. Why Toronto? Why America? Why Australia? Why gap years spent on some pseudo-anthropological quest to see what’s it’s like to spend time in rural Bhutan? Why stay at home? These are all worthy pursuits for certain individuals; Montreal seemed to be a worthy pursuit for me.
Plus, I knew pretty much nobody and if I wanted to I could made up an entire history for myself and give myself a new name. I didn’t, of course, but I could have if I wanted to. Even that thought – the very hypothesis – was liberating. I needed a challenge and initially in Montreal I had a long, harsh winter ahead, no friends, nowhere to stay, no job, limited savings and the need to improve in French and become comfortable with the unique twang of its Quebecois derivative.
I arrived in mid-January. Finding an apartment was theoretically straightforward but practically complicated. I had no friends or acquaintances in the city and so had to trawl through a pile of online classified ads, copying and pasting the same spiel in two languages, amending it for those ads forewarning that obviously copied and pasted spiels would be ignored (you think I’m going to write a different reply a hundred times?). The other problem was that it was Montreal and it was January and on my third day it was -31 degrees Celsius. Minus thirty one. I had to get to these places to view them in that sort of climate. “Oh but it’s a dry cold,” they say . . .
I knew the area in which I wanted to live and started by applying in that neighbourhood. One fellow rang and said I could view a nice room in that area, but when I took the metro to get there it was obviously not in that area but actually a good few miles out. It would be like calling Tallaght “Balinteer” or maybe like calling Mogadishu a suburb of Milan. It really was very far from where the ad said it was. I went anyway, saw the room, shook the man’s hand and said ‘no thanks’.
The second place I saw that same day was in a perfect location but was a little bit . . . how do we put this? It was a little bit shit. The floors were uneven, there was no natural light at any time of day, and the room offered was oddly shaped with a single mattress on the floor. I know this because a lot of the posts on this site were written from that very room. Though I was not a beggar, I was most certainly not a chooser either.
I took the room not only because of its location but also because I was interviewed for it by two lovely, intelligent, outgoing women. What could be more important than good housemates? It turned out that woman A was subletting from woman B, who in turn was planning on moving to New York with another housemate (her boyfriend) who was at that time in New Zealand. I had not yet met the other housemate.
It turned out that the other housemate, a 30-year-old man from Paris, was a coma-inducing mammal who seemed to have undergone a complete personality bypass. I have now lived with him for nine months and as such feel ready to give birth to my true feelings about him. I never got his phone number, our longest conversation was perhaps long enough to go thirty seconds beyond ‘ca va?’ and when we had a mouse issue earlier in the year, his solution was to pick up his excrement-ridden half-eaten bag of rice and utter ‘putan merde!’ That’ll get rid of them. Not. His girlfriend rivaled him for annoyingness. He would bring her home in the afternoon and, even though I may have a friend over or I’d be chatting to the other nice housemate, they would give off the sweet aural flavours of passionate lovemaking. In such situations I feel compelled to perform a little bit of coitus interruptus myself and withdraw from the scene by leaving my own home for a while. I should give this man a name, shouldn’t I? Let’s call him Spanky. Work that one out.
When I arrived, friendless and cold, I worked hard. I had set myself a goal a few weeks prior to my arrival of getting published in The Irish Times. I pitched a few articles to various editors and was eventually commissioned to write one of them. That article was published over two months later.
On a notice board in my parents’ bedroom, there is a piece of paper on which is written something I said during my early-to-mid teens that so amused my mother that she had to pin it on the board. It says ‘the three most important things in my life are newspapers, women and cake.’
From around June of this year I subconsciously switched the first two around to the point where my consumption of news and output of words didn’t just take a back seat, but rather were put in a trailer. I then forgot to attach the trailer and instead drove off without it (though I never forgot to bring cake).
The evidence for this is on this page. I was unexpectedly overwhelmed by how epic the Montreal summer is and, at the same time, a person re-entered this little life of mine and took it over for a while. My output went down, as did my networking and pitching. Now that I have left Montreal, though probably not forever, I do have the very salient sense of ‘if only’ about some aspects of my year. But then I ask myself a question: if you had been offered the year as it panned out, would you have taken it in advance? Yes, I would.
Montreal is the hidden gem of North America. Homer Simpson once said “anyone could miss Canada, all tucked away down there,” and even within Canada Montreal is tucked away. There is no metropolis further north and it’s not really on the way to anywhere. To get to Montreal, it almost has to be your destination.
For many Montrealers, they are Montrealers first and foremost, not Canadian or Quebecois. I was having a sandwich in my favourite cafe (Chez José on Duluth) in around March of this year when the man serving me, a gangly bespectacled Anglophone of about my age, noticed the book I was reading: A Fair Country by the Canadian author John Ralston Saul. On seeing my reading material, the man flipped out and went on a rant about how much he hated Canada. Of course, he was Canadian, but he gave the impression that he was trying to shake off his Canadianness like a dog trying to pick a tick off its body.
“What do I have in common with some kid in Alberta?” he demanded in a sort of rhetorical way. Canada is perhaps too big to have a uniform culture and it was never really meant to have one – that’s almost the point of its existence. The United States has been more successful in honing a sense of loyalty to one flag than its northern neighbour, but Canadians should not seek to mimic that. Any sentence that begins with ‘Canadians are . . .’ invariably misses the point; A nation of such size will inevitably command secondary loyalty from a large proportion of its citizens or, in the case of the man in the cafe, disdain. So be it. Montreal is worthy of this man’s affection in any case. It is a city worthy of anyone’s affection.