Ask Montrealers about their city and they’ll morph into starryeyed proselytes: we have the mountain, the bagels, the big festivals, the French factor, the European touch, the works. In short, Montrealers have more fun. But check them out on a frigid January morning, ziggin’ and zaggin’ their car out of a deep-frozen rut, late for their daily appointment with the traffic jam, heading to where no legal parking exists after 8 a.m., and ask them again. Those who haven’t just blown their year’s savings on a week in the Caribbean are just about to do so—either by careful planning, or on impulse, after one delivery truck too many has sprayed them with a tsunami of the dank brown sludge locals call “la slotche.”
Winters were great until the engineers brought out the salt
A hundred years ago, winter was the season of choice of Montrealers: no flies, no smelly gutters, no typhoid epidemics. Instead, it was all sleigh rides and tobogganing, visiting girls in distant villages made accessible by frozen lakes and rivers. But then, Montreal made a mistake—it turned to engineers to do something about the winter. Their response: spray the city with mountains of salt every time two clouds gather in the sky. The result is three million near-suicidal troglodytes walking the maze of the underground city to avoid sloshing about in that lethal slotche we’ve created.
Still, Montrealers have short memories. Colour comes back to the city by mid-April, and colour to inhabitants’ cheeks, too, when the first terraces open on the sunny side of the street. Soon,
Montrealers are eating out, late, on weekdays, flirting with strangers, having more fun.
Montreal is not a pretty city, not a wellrun city, not a rich city, not even a nice city. Traffic is chaotic and dangerous, public service is Soviet-style, and service is often rude. But Montreal is cool. It is not a good place to run a bank or an insurance company. The suits who did that fled Montreal 25 years ago (which helps explain the cool).
Montreal is very much like Belfast, Sarajevo or Jerusalem: unable to say “we” in unison. But Montrealers are not armed, and for the first time, perhaps, the city is coming together. The Anglos who stayed here have become bilingual, immigrants are trilingual, and local francophones have walked out of their cultural ghetto. The result is a globalized cultural mix, at once unique and easily exportable to, say, Paris or New York.
These days, Montreal shows the upbeat resolution of one who knows he has a good thing going. If I had money, I’d buy real estate here; everybody else is.
If only the city could do something about that slotche. BENOIT AUBIN
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