Arriving at Union Station, smack in the middle of Canada’s business centre, always leaves me momentarily surprised. I mean, I know Toronto’s a big city, but I always seem to forget just how big. The towers going up everywhere, the highways always jammed with traffic, the sheer numbers of people -- it makes Montreal feel almost parochial and small-town in comparison.
I love Hogtown! Montrealers, who dismiss the city as a boring, cultural wasteland with nothing to do or see, are guilty of one of two things; either they haven’t experienced it in the last 10 years, or have a serious inferiority complex.
Every time I travel to another city, no matter how familiar or how foreign, there’s always that brief moment where I can easily imagine myself living there. That usually stems from the knowledge that I could live anywhere and still be content. Having lived and travelled in many places over the years, I’ve learned that home is never a constant. In fact, like happiness, it’s more of a choice. And if it’s a choice, where we choose to live - and why – takes on even greater significance.
I could ramble on about Montreal’s joie de vivre, its thriving indie music and literary scene, or the fact that this multicultural, multilingual city - ensconced in a staunchly unilingual province - has ironically (and might I add, defiantly) emerged as Canada’s only true bilingual success story. But I won’t. Pretty much everyone’s rambled on about it at this point. We get it, we’re cool. We say “dep” instead of corner store. Let’s not allow that to become a cliché, shall we?
Too late, you say? Oh, well.
It’s as if all the corruption scandals, the never-ending construction, and the fact that we’re currently sans mayor, has left us all feeling like scared orphans, desperately looking to one another for confirmation of why we’re still here; what we still see in this town, what still makes us unique.
It’s OK, people. This city, even if a little tarnished, still shines. The pace is slower, the geographical distance between each other is closer, the anti-establishment vibe is still stronger, and the constant linguistic push and pull keeps us interesting – and interested. Oh, we’re a mess, there’s no denying it. But name me one city that isn’t! Sure, Toronto may appear to have it all figured out, but it really hasn’t. The urban sprawl has gotten chaotic, that hole they’ve been digging up in front of Union Station just gets bigger every time I visit. I’m convinced that corruption in the construction industry will soon be major news there, as well. The clubs still close at 2 a.m., and their food trucks serve a painfully expensive, inferior version of Montreal’s poutine. To top it all off, they have 911-calling, ever-fumbling, always-seems-to-be-testifying Rob Ford as their mayor. It’s enough to pity the poor bastards!
Some cities are better than the people who run them. Some cities are really only the people in them. The neighbourhoods and lives they’ve built for themselves; those restless, creative souls who come for the cheap rent and stay for the crazy. -
And yet Montreal continues to frustrate. Perhaps no one epitomizes the love/hate relationship we all have with our own city more than its most famous son, Leonard Cohen.
'I died when I left Montreal,' he once wrote, and although I know he clearly didn’t (mostly, because I’m seeing him in concert in a few weeks’ time), I understand the kind of love he speaks of. That being said, he’s also the man who penned 'Beware of what comes out of Montreal, especially during winter.' Lord knows, I understand that sentiment, too.
Some cities just don’t make sense. They leave you frustrated, angry, shaking your fist at the sky like that old man from the Simpson’s yelling: “What in the world is going on here?”, but they still manage to inspire a fierce kind of love. It’s like that scene in Moonstruck where Rose asks Loretta about Johnny: 'Do you love him, Loretta?' 'Ma, I love him awful.' 'Aw, God, that’s too bad.' Sometimes you don’t want to; you just do.
Some cities are better than the people who run them. Some cities are really only the people in them. The neighbourhoods and lives they’ve built for themselves; those restless, creative souls who come for the cheap rent and stay for the crazy.
Some cities manage to rise above the corruption scandals and the messy politics of division; impervious to the ugly. It’s in the day-to-day stuff, in the day-to-day interactions that you realize that despite the stench of corruption and constant linguistic bickering, despite the screw-ups, the shady dealings, and the small-mindedness that sometimes rears its ugly head, there’s just something undeniably sweet about this town.
As the Via Rail train slowly made its way to Montreal’s downtown station, I saw that familiar skyline appear just as darkness fell. I grabbed my bags and headed to the closest taxi. For the first time in five days I was addressed in French. “Bonsoir, mademoiselle. 'Vous allez où?'
It felt like home.