Thursday, July 14, 2011


[Cote-Vertu station]

Its 7:45 and I’m grabbing a coffee in the Faubourg on rue Ste-Catherine. The man beside me is studying a musical score for “Adieu, cher camarade.” I spent days in this space seventeen years ago, long before it was a Second Cup, writing in notebooks and trying to decipher Quebecois novels. It was a pre-I, pre-E time, and all of Montreal seemed to be reading books and magazines.

In the winter of 1993, after working for more than thirteen years at Schwartz Bookshops in Milwaukee, I was desperate for a change. David Schwartz suggested a short sabbatical. I wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted to do but I knew immediately where I wanted to do it.

In short order I concocted a plan whereby I would spend three months in Montreal working on a long-term writing project, perfecting my French, and exploring a city I loved at a more leisurely pace. The third goal was accomplished, but mainly at the expense of the first two.

My partner Randy was amazingly supportive of my junket, far more than I would have been. He loaned me his VW and I loaded it with an absurd quantity of books and drove north. Oh yes, goal four was to read every important novel I hadn’t gotten around to, a plan quashed by the wealth of new Quebec literature I happily discovered once here.

I arrived on a February evening in a blizzard which was quickly followed by three days of arctic winds. Why had I left Milwaukee? The winter weather began to break a bit by the end of April. But I dug in to the challenge.

I sublet an apartment on Summerhill just off Cote-des-Neiges. It belonged to an old English woman whose annual trip home corresponded exactly with my dates, so it was a perfect match. (The eccentricities of Lady Putnam and her apartment can be saved for another time.)

Over the next three months, I think I walked every neighborhood on the island. I spent lots of time in bookstores and coffee houses, lived on cheap groceries from the ubiquitous depanneurs, and went to movies, sometimes twice a day. I stuck to myself, leaving Montreal without a single new friend, or even acquaintance. Yet for the rest of the decade I continued to long for the city itself as for a far away lover.

I never dreamed I’d return one day with a more purposeful mission, and the museum and bookshop buyers I’ve been calling on and meeting for the first time this week have been a joy. There are a great many similarities with US bookshops but also some significant differences.

As I come from the land of free market religion, it was a shock to learn that the Quebec government requires libraries to purchase books from booksellers, not from wholesalers, publishers, or chains. And not just one bookseller, but a minimum of three! Since this is a province with a large system of healthy, publicly-funded libraries, this is a significant help to small stores.

Memory is strange. My mental picture of the three month odyssey is vivid but incomplete, missing many details like street names, and certain landmarks. But memory unfolds as I proceed, and suddenly arriving at one metro station brings back the sequence of all the others, a list I never could have generated from scratch. It’s more like way-finding than recall, the way my dog Blake finds a path back to an exact spot on a street we once passed long before where he once found a tasty morsel.

One of my favorite titles on our lists this upcoming season is a sweet little MIT book called Urban Code: 100 Lessons for Understanding the City. A short primer on urban literacy, each page offers illustrated maxims about city behavior- people prefer the sunny side of the street, tourists stand still quite often, people are afraid of the dark.

All this week I’ve imagined doing my own Montreal version of such a book as a way to bridge my 1993 memories with 2011 observations.

Are there more ruins and crumbling infrastructure than I remember?

Are there more annoying and intoxicated people? And do they prefer the sunny or shady side of St Laurent?

Is urban bi-lingualism a strength rather than a liability? The language bending and blending in Montreal public spaces is striking. There’s something deeply nurturing about being in a place where everyone is consciously working to make sense of each other. People listen more carefully, and speak more slowly. Often interactions begin in French and switch to English, but there’s the first tentative sizing up of who has more proficiency and how to proceed most efficiently.

It helps that everyone here is a linguistic minority, French speakers in an English speaking country and English speakers in a French speaking province (or pre-country, depending on your politics.)

How does the strange geographical angle of Montreal Island affect urban life? When you feel as if you’re moving east or west down Sherbrooke you’re actually facing (almost) north or south.

Traffic is so much crazier than in other Canadian cities, and yet the signals change simultaneously- how is it that this works? When Chicago lights turn red there’s a three or four second gap before the cross street turns green. In Chicago red is a suggestion meaning “two more cars.” I don't want to think about Chicago drivers on Montreal streets.

The city is bixi crazy, and a major two-way bike lane has been created across de Maisonneuve. Is it true that this is the first instance of bikes being responsible for bringing back a dying street, as was suggested in the Montreal Gazette?

The “Toronto or Montreal” comparison comes up in so many ways and seems to demand a choice. Can I love both places for different reasons?

Rubber tires on the subway trains, why such a difference? They sound softer, they smell better, and the ride is smoother.

The recorded woman who announces upcoming metro stations on the trains (“Prochaine station: Place-Saint-Henri”) seems more cheerless and weary than the 1993 one. She always made each anticipated stop sound like a place you really needed to get off and check out. And too often I did.