Dispatch: Montreal


From What I Know Of a Fly When I Squash It: Seeing Montreal

We drove to Montreal. Through the monotony of New Hampshire and the unabashed cute of Vermont.

As we approached the border, inching forward in a string of shining cars, we played the questions game. Think of anything. Ok, now let me guess what you’re thinking of. Is it alive? Does it occur in nature? Is it the Atlantic Ocean?

I spoke too fast. I tripped over my words. But the French-Canadian border guard didn’t care. He handed back my passport without a word and waved us through. Another country. Another city to feel my way around.

I’d been in Boston and Cape Cod for a month by then, having relocated to the US from London via a stopover at home in Dublin. I had made up my mind – this place is boring. Nobody smokes or drinks, all the bars are restaurants and where are all the old people? All I could see were shorts, flip flops, tanned joggers. My boyfriend looked concerned when I lit a cigarette on the street.

‘Do you want to stop somewhere and smoke that?’

I wanted to keep walking.

It was so hot. The northeast had held water and was evaporating it slowly all over us, draping damp cloths over our bodies as soon as we stepped outside. I dreamed of the Dublin coast. I woke up with the taste of the sea breeze in my mouth.

We sat in traffic on a bridge over the Saint Lawrence river and I snapped photos on my phone as we approached Montreal. The river was wide, the city looked tiny on its banks in the distance. A single grey cloud hung over the silhouette of buildings.

The sky blushed and evening arrived.

I was excited to find locals and tourists sitting in the cool evening air outside bars, drinking pints and smoking. It had rained earlier and some of the chairs and benches were wet. We dried off some plastic patio furniture and settled in to a beer garden on the Rue St. Denis. The simple pleasures of wearing a sweater, drinking cider and smoking cigarettes made me feel instantly more like myself, though I hadn’t really realized I was less myself in New England. I felt opened up. I talked, I thought aloud, and sooner than I could express them new ideas came to me and I had the urge to start writing something there and then. My boyfriend was relaxed for the first time in weeks. We debated loudly, argued about books, laughed, ordered more drinks with a ‘fuck it, we’re on holidays’ wave of the hand.

But as a first time visitor in a new city, you are not part of the ensemble. You are not supposed to be there. The city is not yours and you don’t know its dance moves. You’re in the way. I have felt this in every new place I’ve been. North American, European, Asian and African cities all have this in common. In some there’ll be more open staring, in others more ignoring, and in most you’ll be part of that herd known simply as ‘fucking tourists’. I try so hard to imagine that I live in each new city I visit but I cannot. Looking like a tourist is not the problem. You’re new and everyone knows it. The privilege of movement is not to be taken for granted. Spend your money, be polite, do as the locals do. Know your place.

We slept on an unyielding murphy bed for four nights. By day we walked and when it seemed an acceptable hour, we drank.

Montreal is not like Europe. Montreal is not like America. The French is unfamiliar to my ears and the linguistic elasticity of the locals is thrilling. Montreal is dirty and at first it seems as though most of its buildings are ugly. This, it turns out, is not true. The buildings downtown in the CBD are ugly and you could get the wrong impression from them. The real delights are revealed in the neighborhoods that radiate from the center. Up the hills and away and there are decorative rooftops, tiny balconies and hanging baskets. Steep wooden steps up to front doors with street and basement levels underneath. These are Montreal’s brownstones. We strolled, we stopped, we pointed at features we liked and hoped the people living inside would not mind our voyeurism.

The next day, after a rainstorm from which we took shelter in Montreal’s underground city, we visited Musee d’art Contemporain de Montreal. My feet were damp and it was chilly inside the gallery. In a darkened room in the museum’s basement (next to the toilets and coat check) we saw Polish artist Artur Zmijewski’s incredible project, ‘Blindly’.

Zmijewski’s film features six blind people, two women and four men. Some blind from birth, others blinded in accidents. Zmijewski asks each person to paint something in basic poster paint on large sheets of paper spread out on the floor. He films the process and speaks to them as they work. A landscape. An insect. Your house. Yourself. These are the options he gives them. Watching the film, at first I felt guilty. The people on screen looked so childlike with their hands and clothes smeared in the same paint we used in primary school. But I realized it wasn’t so much the pictures that mattered, it was what they said about them.

‘From what I know of a fly when I squash it, it has many legs,’ says one man, painting his chosen insect. He paints a large black blob on a page with his hands, palming the sticky paint in a furious circle and using his fingers to portray its many legs. Of all the subjects of the film, this man is the most argumentative. He doesn’t say anything to reassure the viewer, to let us know he has accepted his disability. He is caustic. He is the one I am still thinking about months later. Nearly all of the painters add a large sun to their work.  ‘Now I should make the sun, right?’ says the argumentative man. ‘They say sunrays are thin like wire,’ he says, asking for a paintbrush.

Though I’ve since rewatched the film in its entirety online, there was something completely essential about sitting on a bench in that dark room and holding my breath. The film is beautiful in its tenderness, its simple truths but also, in that moment, for me, it’s unexpectedness. All Montreal was unexpected, even the Old Town, which I had formed an impression of before I arrived. I didn’t recognize it from the pictures in my guidebook. We sat on a bench by a scummy pond near the Old Port and listened. Watched. Women reading. Phone conversations. Eating sandwiches we made in the hotel that morning.

Two more days in Montreal and I turned my face upwards to the sun. We walked to the top of Mont Royal and looked at the city from above. ‘Let’s get a nice picture of us together up here to send to our Mothers,’ I said. We asked a young couple to take the photograph. We smiled and thought of our families. We’re both squinting in the photograph and our faces are red from the climb and the heat.

After tripping back down the hill, we resolved to go for drinks but agreed that we needed to change our shoes first, to rest our tired feet for a moment. We walked slowly down Rue St. Laurent, towards our hotel, in and out of second-hand shops. I took photos of the signage and the street art. I felt excited by a new place for the first time since I had moved to London two years before. I wondered: if I were to move to Montreal and live on the Rue St. Laurent would I come to dislike it in the same way as I had the streets of Shoreditch and Hackney? What at first had excited me had become synonymous with my own misery. I had rolled my eyes at each new pop-up, at the expensive second-hand clothes, at the wealthy artists. It wasn’t vibrant and cultural to me after a while, it was a backdrop to my sadness and I couldn’t help but think of the place as complete bullshit.

I wanted to allow myself to enjoy this Montreal neighborhood in this moment. I wanted to make room for it. To see all of its details and to feel part of its rhythm. This is how we feel our way around the world. In a new city our eyes are closed and our hands are out in front us, waiting for the textures and outlines to rise to meet us. In familiar places our eyes are closed too but we don’t have our feelers out. We know what’s there and we’re not interested anymore.

Helen Chandler is a writer from Dublin, currently living in Charlottesville, Virginia. She is a Poe/Faulkner Fellow in the University of Virginia’s MFA program and her fiction has been published in The Stinging Fly, The South Circular and Colony Journal.