Ah, Montréal, C’est Vous Que J’aime

The above is probably not in proper French. Despite growing up in Ottawa, and living in Montreal for seven years, my French is shit. I’ve got Cab French. I can tell a cabbie how to get me from A to B, and we can talk about the Habs game or bike lanes or the winter or the Habs game. But my tenses are off, and I still translate English to French and back mid-conversation. It’s not for a lack of trying. I took French courses at Concordia when I moved down here in 2004. I always spoke in French to my landlords and dep guys and bartenders. But it was painful, broken, and tiring. Embarrassing.

The language thing isn’t as much as a problem as outsiders would presume. I have many friends and colleagues who couldn’t order a pizza in French if their lives hung in the balance, let alone attempt a conversation. And there are lots of Anglo pockets in the city where one can run and hide. But what happens, over time, in managing the two languages, is something my friend Nick McArthur mentioned before he left the city for Toronto, and that’s “you get tired of feeling stupid.” Indeed, managing a bilingual cosmopolis wears on you, but there’s charm to it. Part of why we love the city, despite the fact many of us eventually have to leave, as I’ve recently done.

Alex Molotkov nicely summarized one of the biggest difficulties inhabitants of Montreal have in a recent Toronto Standard piece. In it, the author notes:

“Montreal is a trading post where you exchange your hopes and dreams for a mansion that costs 25 cents a month. When you get there, angels gently unburden you of your ambitions and hand you a beer. If you want more beer, you can get it at the convenience store, which has a more festive name than “convenience store.” You can drink anywhere and any time you want, because you will never again have to be sober for anything.

Montreal actually has by-laws against working, so if you move there you have to hang out forever. And the people you’ll be hanging out with are friendly and enthusiastic because they live in mansions and never have to work. They’re also very good looking, and they have sex all the time. They would like to have sex with you, too.”

While this is, of course, embellished for effect and written by a Torontonian with little Montreal experience, its spirit illuminates the Montreal problem, and that’s a laissez-faire attitude that permeates the city, which is adorable and even enviable at first, but in time it wears on you. Because socially and recreationally, this Montreal is great. Almost heaven, even. Until you tire of waitresses taking their sweet time in the very embodiment of indifference. Until you tire of concrete slabs falling from the sky. Until you tire of the eschewing of the turn signal. Until you tire of perpetually unfinished construction. Until you tire of nothing being frowned upon. Until you tire of tiring.

And dropping in on this amazing city for a few hours to settle some affairs, I’ve realized this is part of what made Montreal a challenge to live in, and part of why I left. It’s not the rent, because it’s dirt-cheap. It’s not the cost of living in general, because pints and cheese are on par with the cheapest of Canadian ports. In fact, those two items make Montreal a great place to be a writer. However, only if your idea of being a writer is the romanticized living-paycheque-to-paycheque-and-scraping-by-artist. And I’m not that, or at least I don’t want to be. And I think that notion of that type of artist is somewhat anachronistic. The ideal, or the goal I think, is a job that means something to you, that you feel is important on some level, that provides you the means for many pints and lots of cheese, and the time to write when other people are taking their kids to daycare. Or going to Adam Sandler movies. Or listening to John Mayer. Or watching SYTYCD. And Montreal doesn’t, or won’t, allow for this. At least, it didn’t for me.

I dunno. Maybe this is naïve. I have many friends who have flourished here, and made this their home, and I’ll always come back and visit them, and admire what they were able to build here. And I’ll always regret not being able to do it myself. And now I join a long history of Anglos, who came down to Montreal, got a few degrees, fell in love once or twice, got caught in the beautiful chaos of a Habs playoff run, spent one too many Tuesday afternoons drinking beer on an August terrasse, yelled obscenities at Ben Mulroney during the St. Patty’s Day parade, went to The Main and laughed at those in line at Schwartz’s, became better dressed, found a lot of good people, and had a lifetime of good times. And then had to say goodbye.

Apropos of nothing, here’s a live version of The Constantines Nighttime/Anytime: