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Slouching towards Montreal

A summer spent searching for the spirit of the city

When my friends and I encountered a bachelor party of aging McGill graduates at the Old Dublin bar last spring, they saw in us the younger versions of themselves. They were excited that we had just finished first year and excited that we were moving to the Plateau, but the detail that most moved one thirty-something reveller was that a few of us planned to stay the summer in Montreal. “Listen,” he told me, leaning over the table so any slurred words wouldn’t distort his message, “this is going to be the best summer of your life.”

The best summer of my life. Quite a challenge. In truth, I felt a stir of apprehension as I bade farewell to Upper Rez and headed down the mountain towards the parts of the city where Real Life was waiting. Deciding not to go home hadn’t been easy, and I felt pressure to prove to myself that the decision had been a good one. I needed to enjoy myself, experience wondrous new things, meet scores of new and exciting people, and hopefully learn to speak French on the way. It’s going to be okay, I told myself, because this is it: the famed summer in Montreal.

The only thing that troubled me was that I didn’t have a clear picture of what that meant. I knew it had something to do with street fairs on St. Laurent, drink specials and open terraces at every bar, and gorgeous, nameless women cavorting around in the sunshine. Topping it all off would be the world-renowned Montreal Jazz Festival, putting to shame every other party one could ever go to, and involving little to no music actually recognizable as jazz. Would all that really be so great? Everyone seemed to think so. But romantically, and somewhat obviously, I hoped my summer in Montreal would also carry a hint of an early Leonard Cohen song, or the eerie city glimpsed in Ryan Larkin’s film Walking.

All such hopes crumbled, of course, on the day that my summer really started: my first training day of work, when I faced the grim realization that summer in Montreal for an 18-year-old was going to be the same as summer anywhere for an 18-year-old, because an 18-year-old has to have a job. It was a chilly, gray, drizzling day in late spring. It also happened to be the same day that a very dear friend left Montreal forever. I had no interest in being carted across the city to Place St. Henri at eight a.m., no interest in whether latex paint can go on oil paint or if it’s the other way around (I’m still not sure), and I just wanted to run back home, change out of my paint-covered clothes, and be on the next train home to Toronto.

Everyone I knew told me to avoid student painting like the plague, but like a fool I still did it, and for four bleak months I paid the price. Painting is something one should know how to do before getting paid to do it, or else one ends up watching helplessly as paint bubbles on walls, poorly secured ladders come crashing down, and cement facades collapse on heads. But it was those mornings on the way to my painting sites, which were all in Outremont, when I began to have some idea of what summer in Montreal meant.

I was struck by the ubiquitous presence of the colour green. Green in any shade is a hard colour to come by in the winter months of Montreal, but during the summer it was suddenly all over the place. It dominated the tree-lined streets of Outremont, but nowhere was so completely conquered by green as the Outremont parks. Being, as they are, playgrounds of the rich and famous and their dogs, parks in the borough are touched with a splendour not seen in the parks of the rest of Montreal.

Parc Outremont boasts a bronze statue of a cherub spouting water, and Parc Beaubien’s fountain is so high, powerful, and impractical that it soaks anyone downwind for metres. However, Parc John Pratt, where within a half an hour I – in my paint-covered state – was questioned by two different Outremont businessmen about my reasons for being there, takes the cake for opulence. Situated on a gentle, pine-tree quilted slope, it boasts not only an artificial brook, but three separate ponds at different elevations.

In addition to being green, Montreal in summer is full of people milling about at any time of day or night. Coming home from work, I would pass Hassidic families congregating along Hutchison, and clouds of shoppers and café-goers made walking along Mont Royal’s too-narrow sidewalks impossible. Bars and venues seemed to never empty. I went to the dingy backroom of Miami Bar at two in the morning on a Wednesday and was unable to get a seat.

If street festivals were the reason for so many people being around, that is all that I would thank them for. Far from being the high points of the Montreal summer, they seemed to crash-land on St. Laurent and for a few days scare away what I snobbishly considered the true spirit of the city, replacing the Plateau’s tranquility with drunken tourists and foul smells emanating from every gutter.

The Jazz Festival did eventually arrive, in all of its sordid glory, and the big story this summer was that Leonard Cohen, the secular patron saint of Montreal, would be returning for a concert for the first time in, well, a really long time. Tickets were two hundred dollars, and far, far more if you had to buy them second-hand. The concert, according to all the rich people who went, was mind blowing, but penniless student painters like myself had to take pleasure this summer in the singer’s more constant presence in the city, the one that drifted down from apartment windows no matter where one went, it seemed.

This summer, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Leonard Cohen’s music really does haunt Montreal. The same night as the concert, I even heard a rough-edged but extremely thorough rendition of “Suzanne” performed by a homeless man in Parc Mont-Royal who claimed to have been the city’s first bike messenger. I found Ryan Larkin’s ghost, too, in the form of a pair I met in front of Copacabana who said they had seen him there almost nightly until his death, brooding in a corner alone over his failure to create one last beautiful film.

As the summer closed out, I had come to think of Montreal as a leafy, sunny paradise for the young. Street festivals came and went, and I took advantage of the cheap eats and sunglasses, but preferred to retreat northward to the colourful circus of Jean Talon Market, eastward to swim in the outdoor pool at Parc Laurier, or, once, down to the Champlain bridge to watch the fireworks festival.

It would be wrong, however, not to mention that midway through August, an uglier side of the city reared its head as North Montreal broke into racially-charged riots following a police shooting of an unarmed 18-year-old. Violence, it seemed, was part of the Montreal summer too. I thought I had observed and felt something unique, which I had identified as the personality of Montreal. Was my own experience – idyllic, serene – in any way representative of what summer in this city is really about?

Having lived it, I can recount anecdote upon anecdote about the Montreal summer, but truly evoking its personality it is too daunting a task. I can say, however, that it is more than the often-heard descriptions of Montreal as a synthesis of Europe and North America, a slice of Paris with a tinge of Brooklyn. During the summer months, Montreal reveals itself as a summation of infinite parts, a city that is entirely new and different from any other. If one is an 18-year-old looking to have the best summer of one’s life, I would say that Montreal is a good place to try.