While watching a video clip from Cuba Feliz (a film of Cuban street musician Miguel Del Morales – known as El Gallo > The Rooster in English) I had a revelation. One of the reasons I absolutely adore countries such as Vietnam and Cambodia (or cities like Paris, Florence and, Montreal) is that people there live in the streets – almost literally. They spend much of their time in public spaces rather than inside their homes. They socialize, play, walk, eat, and drink together on the streets despite the hubbub of automobiles, bicycles, scooters, and other vehicles. The street is where it all happens!
In places like Vietnam and Cambodia, not only are dwelling spaces small, but the kitchens are particularly cramped and often poorly equipped. Additionally, everyday meals are inexpensive and readily available at any number of street vendors, cafes, and small semi-permanent food stalls. So, even though there are those who do have modern conveniences like stove-tops, washing machines, or televisions the tradition remains to gather with friends outside of the home. Western cities like Paris and Florence do not have the same street culture as Southeast Asia but, there too, just about everyone walks along the crowded streets, shops at outdoor markets, and rests or plays in public parks. Food vendors/hawkers are not as a common a sight there but open-air cafes, trattoria, tapas bars, etc. definitely are.
Streets are meant for people. This is eroding worldwide because of the ubiquitous car and streets that are getting wider to make room for these automobiles. Because of car traffic one rarely sees, in North American cities for example, children playing ball hockey, or hide and seek, jumping rope, or simply making up their own games on the street. Stoop or porch sitting is not a common site either. Spending time on our streets is no longer integrated into our daily lives and is rapidly becoming a thing of the past – so it seems to me. The social lives of city dwellers appear to be increasingly isolated. If I did not live directly next door to a community garden and park, or sit on the stoop of my house (which is facing our dead-end street), I would not know the people in my neighbourhood or have impromptu chats with complete strangers who walk by.
My neighbourhood is changing for the better. When I moved here 13 years ago there wasn’t much to do nearby. Today, there are a growing number of shops, restaurants, cultural centres, and parks which are within walking distance. There are even two farmers’ markets. The quality of life is better, street life is beginning to thrive, and there is little need to drive because this community has almost everything I need within walking distance or on the subway lines right nearby. It is a livable locale where neighbours run into each other on the street as they go about their daily business.
As I have mentioned multiple times in this blog, I am from Montreal. Despite it being a Northern city known for its very cold winters it somehow balances the frigid months with a French/Southern European mentality. Street life is substantial during the summer; people sit on their front stoops or balconies and are thus able to see and catch up with their neighbours. They eat in parks with omnipresent wine or beer so that public spaces become an extension of the private. Life, overall, takes to the streets and parks; the city pulsates with energy and activity.
Vibrant streets call to me. Who wants to be cooped up indoors when there’s food, drink, fun, and people to meet or just watch? Healthy street culture abounds with respect for the other. In many quarters in Montreal or Paris, for instance, children come home from school and almost immediately go outdoors, on their own or with their parents, to play on the streets or on the playgrounds. In Italy, piazzas (squares) are the main gathering areas. During La Passeggiata, which is the time before dinner (around 5:30-8:30), people stroll about the central piazza or main drag of a town (in fact, La Passeggiata comes from the verb ‘to walk’). This traditional daily ritual is more common in small towns but can also be seen in cities; it is a way for Italians to connect. During passeggiata many people hang-out in the piazzas or surrounding outdoor bars to have an aperitivo. It is a time when you see a mix of age and class. Children flock together yet are within shouting distance of their parents. Likewise, many Asian countries’ city and town residents still work within a block or two of their homes (often, in fact, the front of the home is the place of business). Thus, city blocks are like little villages.
Street life gives one the opportunity for chance encounters. Life outside our boxes and on the street is like being in an outdoor living room where everyone congregates and the community is the pulse of it all. The bottom line, it is good for the heart and soul.
Apologies for no photos of the streets of Italy. Our camera was lost…
As noted in my last blog post, I am in Montreal for a few weeks. Most of my time is being spent with family. On occasion they actually let me go out on my own. Thus, I have had the opportunity to stroll the city’s streets. I love Montreal despite Quebec’s political ups and downs over the years. Unfortunately, an attempt to preserve French identity has sometimes translated into xenophobia and extreme pettiness that has led to some very restrictive language-related laws. Nonetheless, Montreal is still a wonderful city that I adore.
Winters here are harsh, frozen, snowy, and often bleak. Summers are typically hot and steamy. They are always full of traffic, bicycles, and people; the city sidewalks, parks, etc. teem with life. Luckily, during my two weeks here this most wonderful of cities has been blessed with splendid, near-perfect temperatures and many cloudless days.
Montreal is a city of festivals. I suspect that there are more festivals held here than anywhere else in the world. There is something for everyone – whether you are into music, comedy, contemporary art, film, dance, food, beer or something else entirely. I just missed the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal but the Just for Laughs Festival (Juste pour Rire) is currently going on and the Fantasia International Film Festival has begun too.
The breadth of culture in Montreal is astonishing. There are a number of excellent museums, many contemporary art galleries for emerging and established, world-class Montreal, Quebecois, and Canadian visual artists. Superlative contemporary dance companies thrive, and music in the city is everywhere. There are also hundreds of creative and skilled local fashion, furniture, and jewellery designers. I could go on waxing poetic on the arts, alone.
There are a myriad of excellent restos for those with smaller budgets – anything from diners to hipster bars. There are also elegant establishments and chique bistros. One can laze for hours in the cafes – many of which are not part of a franchise (a rare thing in North America). For the first time, ever, there are now food trucks on the streets! From what I have observed these trucks serve food that is far from mediocre. Montreal’s year-round public markets are a pleasure to the senses. And of course there is smoked meat, excellent locally made beer, Montreal bagels, and poutine!
I love Montreal for its French/English bilingualism and diversity. It is an international city with many dynamic ethnic communities: Jewish, Haitian, Italian, Greek, Southeast Asian, Philippine, British, Arab, and many, many more. One feels a pulse of joie de vivre and excitement here. It is an open and tolerant and cosmopolitan city where people can be themselves without feeling judged. Downtown flourishes because of the successful mix of housing and commerce. The city is walkable, has terrific public transportation and has an extended bike path system with designated lanes, nearly everywhere on the island. There is something going on in Montreal every day, at every hour. It’s a place where one can just lay back and relax or devour all that it has to offer.
Below are some tips of things to do, eat, and see:
- Downtown: Walk along Ste-Catherine and Sherbrooke Streets between Atwater and St. Denis or further east. You may want to walk on the bottom of the Mountain through the McGill area (up Stanley or another side street, along Dr. Penfield, etc.) or even go up Peel and then walk up the path to the mountain. There are some nice look-outs from there. Department stores: The Bay, Ogilvy, Holt Renfrew, SImons
- McGill Ghetto
- Mount Royal in Westmount: Easiest accessed by car. At the top of Westmount there is a look-out where you can see the south of the city and beyond to the mountains of Vermont.
- Mont Royal: Walk up via Peel St. behind McGill University or get to it from Ave. du Parc and Mont Royal., along Cote-Sainte-Catherine or Cote des Neiges
- Le Plateau and Mile End: Allow for A full day for walking up and down and in between St. Hubert St. (St. Denis has lots of chique bars, restaurants, stores), St. Laurent (lots of students and very multi-ethnic, once the old Jewish neighbourhood, now the home of all sorts of new, groovy, chique restaurants, bars, artist-run galleries, diverse shops as well as some old commercial establishments that are the last remnants of the first European immigrants), Ave. du Parc (where there many Greek restos) and even further west when you’re north of rue Mont Royal. Start from around Ste-Catherine and go up as far as Bernard Ave. and stroll as far west as Park Lafontaine or even beyond.
- Latin Quarter: Around UQAM / St. Denis / Berri Streets and in-between
- Little Italy: Dante Street; Jean Talon Market (7070 Henri Julien St. @ Jean Talon metro station)
- Old Montreal: For a true “European” feel, wander around this neighbourhood. It abuts the port area which the city has built up quite nicely.
- Atwater Market / St. Henri / Griffintown
- Lachine Canal: A good place to enter is by the Atwater Market – cycle east or west – another good place to enter is via the Port area in Old Montreal. There are kayak and canoe rentals if you want to explore the canal directly on the water.
- Sherbrooke St.: This street goes on for miles and miles (19.88 more or less). You can start at either end, from NDG to Montreal East or the other way around or anywhere in between.
- Walk through the Cote des Neiges area by the University of Montreal (on the other side of Outremont and Mont Royal). This is a very multi-cultural neighbourhood.
- Outremont: This neighbourhood is inhabited mainly by Francophones although 25 percent of Outremont’s population is made up of Hasidic Jews. There are many shops, restos, cafes along Laurier Avenue, Park Avenue, Van Horne, St. Laurent, and Bernard. The architecture/housing between all of these streets and Cote-Sainte-Catherine is varied and worth seeing.
- Schwartz’s: Order their medium smoked meat, french fries, and cherry coke (this place is a must not miss).
- Beauty’s: Particularly great for breakfast
- Moishe’s: Steak, steak and more steak – with all you can eat pickles and coleslaw
- Wilensky’s – Cheap, cheap, and excellent! Limited hours
- Le Petite Ardoise
- Cafe Local
- Au bistro Gourmet
- Bistro L’entrepont
- Le Vin Papillon
- Tuck Shop
- Les Deux Singes de Montarvie
- Les Heritiers
- Patati Patata
- Le Richmond
- Creperie Tye Briez
- Greek Food
- St. Viateur Bagels
- Poutine: a Quebecois concoction comprised of french fries, gravy, and cheese curds
- Mamie Clafoutis
- Le Petit Alep
- Club Español de Québec
- La Binerie Mont Royal
- Le Gros Jamobon Diner
- Triple Crown Dinette
- Depanneur Le Pick Up
Museums and Galleries, Etc :
- Musee des Beaux Arts
- Musee d’Art Contemporaine
- McCord Museum
- Canadian Centre for Architecture
- Montreal Museum of Archaeology and History
- The Biodome
- The Olympic Stadium
- The Botanical Garden
- The Insectarium
- The Planetarium
For more on things to do and see take a look at the online cultural magazine: cultmontreal.com
This Be The Verse (an excerpt) by Philip Larkin
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
Despite the sentiment of the poem my folks did their best as parents. No one is perfect; we are all flawed for a variety of reasons. Most of our “issues” cannot be attributed solely to our mums and dads. Families provide our basic needs – food, clothing, shelter, love, strength, support. My parents gave all of this to me and my sister, Roo, – the building blocks to help us mature and become caring human beings.
Last year I missed my parent’s 60th wedding anniversary because I was in China. This year I missed my mother’s 85th birthday for the same reason. On July 26th my father will turn 85. I am in Montreal right now to spend time with my mother and father, my sister and her partner. There have been too many missed celebrations – especially since I have always felt that birthdays, notably, are important. I believe that it is the one day of the year when I can celebrate the fact that a family member or friend is a part of my life and I want her/him to take centre stage.
When my sister and I were children, our folks exposed us to a wide variety of experiences. They took us to museums, we went camping together, they read aloud to us and they encouraged us to play creatively. We were given the opportunity to go to camp and learn about independence. They took interest in our lives and worried about us (a lot sometimes). They only wanted the best for us. And with their good, hard work we turned out just fine. Just as they are fine people. All four of us are complicated, interesting, generous, and fun, if I do say so myself.
After 9 months overseas and three months back home in Boston I am visiting my family. Below are a small number of photos in which I will celebrate them – and particularly my parents – by turning the lens toward them.
Cambridge, MA is where I live with my husband and cat; I have made it home and have made friends here.
However, when in Montreal I am at home for it is the city I love. I adore hearing both English and French and love the fact that Franglais is a language unto itself (well perhaps not exactly). The fact is, two major linguistic groups dominate the cultural life of Montreal. Walking the city is easy and enjoyable and the food and markets are the best. The city is food-centric and ranges from cheap to expensive, divey to funky to fancy, and French to International cuisine. It is a people and bicycle friendly city with festivals to beat all other cities by the sheer number of them. The water around the city is people-friendly for walkers, cyclists, roller-bladers, canoers, and kayakers. To quote Food Guy Montreal: “There is something about this city that just makes me want to share everything with everyone. I will stand by our bagels, promote poutine, cherish the establishments, and make sure to give everything in between a try.” This, I know, is just the first of many more posts of my favourite city in North America. Below are some photographs to give you an idea of how lovely a city Montreal is.