I’ve had a complicated relationship with the city of Montreal for almost fifty years now. When I was a young child in the late sixties, as my parents’ marriage was disintegrating, my father began working in Montreal and started commuting from Ottawa, only coming home on the weekends. The very name of the city seemed both romantic and mysterious to me as well as being associated with a feeling of separation.
A few years later, our family moved there (to Dorval really) in a final attempt to keep things together. It was there where I went to kindergarten, learned to ride a bike and was repeatedly pelted with snowballs at the bus stop by French kids because I was English, in the record-setting snowfalls of 71-72. My parents’ marriage didn’t last the school year and I was back in Ottawa that spring. Again, that separation.
Through the seventies and eighties, Montreal began to elicit different associations for me. Hockey and baseball games, mostly. When the Expos became good in 1979, there began a regular exodus from Ottawa for weekend ball games, caravans of Voyageur busses and good cheer aplenty. Oompapa bands and laughter and beer and song. It was as convivial an atmosphere as I’d ever encountered. The fans even had their own song. The Happy Wanderer (Valderi, Valdera). The city began to feel like the most inclusive place I’d ever been and the feelings of separation melted away.
In my university days, most of my best friends went to McGill and I tried to visit as often as I could. I even lived there for a short while. Montreal was the greatest place imaginable to go to school. The rents were cheap, the beer was cheap, the women were seemingly just that much prettier (or more stylish anyway) and even the seedier aspects of downtown living had an undercurrent of cool that was undeniable, if not easily definable. Of course, it’s easy to be sentimental about a place when you were in that place as a twenty year old but it was more than that. I loved that city. I loved my friends there and I loved a girl there and when I ultimately had to leave, the feeling of separation became all too present again.
Over the years I’ve been back a dozen or so times, mostly for baseball games, but they don’t play baseball there anymore.
My wife and I recently spent four days in Montreal with some friends and it was a bit strange. The streets were all the same. Some of the businesses were the same but many of them were entirely different. And all of the people were different. The Portuguese restaurant where my friends and I would go for steak sandwiches bore the same name but it was unrecognizable on the inside. And where the cigarette machine used to be was a video gambling terminal. And they had sold out of steak sandwiches. The smoked meat sandwich I ate at The Main was likely every bit as good as ever but it wasn’t two in the morning and I wasn’t coming from Bar St. Laurent and I wasn’t twenty so it didn’t quite taste the same. Like there was some unnameable condiment or spice missing, likely lost to time.
Walking through Carre St. Louis and along Prince Arthur, the fountain that I remembered wasn’t where I remembered it to be and the beautiful young woman who once played Pachelbel’s Canon on a harp beneath it wasn’t there anymore either. Sometimes I wonder if she ever really was there. Memories and dreams have a way of melding together over time until they become virtually indistinguishable.
We were travelling with our nine year old niece so we headed to the Olympic Parc to see the otters and the beavers at the Biodome. Le Stade, where I’d had so many great and heartbreaking times, stood there like it belonged to another era. Because it did. Seeing its crumbling exterior made me sad but it also seemed apt somehow. But before I could find myself feeling too melancholic about anything so trivial as a sports team from a bygone era, we turned a corner to see dozens and dozens of Haitian refugees milling about in a parking lot outside the stadium where they have been housed temporarily. Men, women, and children. Children, whose only worries should be about going to school in a few weeks, stood on the pavement in the hot sun in a strange land, likely with no sense of how their futures will unfold. In seeing their present, I was able to let go of my past for a time.
But before we left the Parc, I closed my eyes and listened hard, to see if I could travel back thirty years and hear the accordion song we used to sing as we paraded back to the Metro to return to our lives. And while I’m sure no one else around me heard it, it was as clear as day in my foggy memory.
Leaving Montreal, I couldn’t help but think that it is still one of the best cities in the world. I still love it but it has always seemed a little unattainable to me. And every time I leave it, I feel that sense of separation again. Every time. Like the love that got away. As with each great city, it is a place that can inspire but ultimately it has somehow remained elusive to me. I could never really put my finger on it through the years but now I think I finally understand. Montreal and I were always meant to be apart. And try as I might, it’s really hard to go home again when it never really was my home to begin with.