Tales from a Hamiltonian in Montreal

Les Montréalais take pleasure in their home in the way that we can only envy

Hamilton Spectator

It is summer in Montreal; all the windows and doors on the second floor apartment I’m staying at are flung wide open, all day, all night, no mesh. I fall asleep to the sounds of erupting laughter and conversation (two in the morning); I awaken to the shouts of children madly teasing one another.

Looking down from the balcony’s winding staircase and onto the streets below, people ride bikes, no helmets. Bicycles bloom within the flowers, attached to wrought iron railings, everywhere. Even the arrêt sign has vines creeping up the length of the poles, obscuring it.

In this great, romantic city, people hold hands, steal glances at one another; everyone is at their best. It is no wonder that such a city spawned the likes of singer and songwriter, Leonard Cohen.

If you feel isolated, what is there to prevent you from stepping out onto the crowded streets or stopping at a café at brunch to listen to piano and saxophone, or to watch people going by?

The streets welcome you wholeheartedly. They — like the people — are on fire. And it is not the frantic pace that we know of in Toronto, or the erratic movement of people on our Hamilton streets. Here, the streets pulsate, there is a hungering to be surprised, imbued with a spirit of generosity; people add comment to overheard conversation, they offer assistance without being asked.

Sunday, and shops in the Mile End neighbourhood I’m visiting are opened until 7 in the evening, ice-cream parlours until 11, bars until 2 or 3 a.m. All about, residents are strolling along or sitting in cafés. Neighbours sell used clothing on the sidewalk.

Road infrastructure is converted to “people places.” Residents are making the community livable in the best of ways — for the good of everyone. They are actively shaping the streetscape to suit their purpose: road space is being pulled up to create islands of tall grass and plants and flowers.

My host (a former Hamilton resident) shows me the wild spaces within the metropolis, pointing out trellises of wild flowers, and “tree squares” (earth that is cut in a square around tree trunks) flourishing with Echinacea and sunflowers. Tomatoes and peas sprout in tiny spaces.

When you go to a new place, you expect to enjoy it but why don’t we have the same expectations of home space? Les Montréalais take pleasure in their home in the way that we can only envy.

Benches are placed strategically so that people can linger on. A bagel shop stays open 24/7 for the hungry wanderer after a late night or an early morning start. It is a question of people partaking of, participating in, and most of all, enjoying their space.

As my kid points out when we climb up to Mount Royal to see the cityscape, along with hundreds of others (a popular spot, we even witness a public marriage proposal, candles spelling “marry me”), “The Hamilton view is more beautiful.”

I agree (plus we also have better accessibility infrastructure for people with mobility issues!). Yet, it is not “a thing” with us, to go up in droves and look at our city from the escarpment.

Walking back down, the woods are dark, and we have to watch for cyclists and they have to watch for us (there are a fair number of us), visibility being poor at this time of night. Fireflies and the occasional flashlight or beam from a bike light, light the way. And we strain our eyes and ears, working our senses a little more than usual, which is exhilarating.

I come away from Montreal in love, and who can blame me; this is a place where everyone is curious about everyone else.

Tolerance of a little messiness, a little bit of mystery, and a touch of danger all combine to create an atmosphere of excitement — maybe today’s the day you’ll buy the dress you dreamed of at the corner vintage shop, or pick up a book that will change your life forever, or meet the love of your life. Always, at any moment, there is something exciting about to happen, wait, here it is already, catch it quickly, like youth, not yet tainted by cynicism and indifference. There’s a thirst for the things money just can’t buy; or at least you don’t need a lot of money to enjoy what’s on offer.

What I take back with me to Hamilton, is that deep appreciation of place, that I have witnessed in this captivating borough of Montreal, a throwing oneself unapologetically into the pêle-mêle of the life of the community; “owning it,” transforming it into a place to be desired, because the streets are for people.

Beatrice Ekwa Ekoko is a freelance writer based in Hamilton. Bekoko.ca

Published in thespec.com August, 28th 2015


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