Five days in Montreal, even in the throes of a heat wave, are enough to inspire an ode to this shabby-sexy metropolis, my favourite city in Canada, and I’ve been in most of them by now. But this won’t be an ode, not exactly. For one thing, I already put my most heartfelt words into a play called Purity Test, so I’m not going to plagiarize myself 15 years later. And the fact is, despite all that Montreal has to offer, I had a rough time of it this trip, so I’ll do what Natalie Goldberg recommends of writers and Buddhists alike, and lean into the thing that makes me most uncomfortable. Today, that’s the experience of backing down from a spiritual threshold.
This was my fourth time in Montreal. The last two were brief but intense summertime visits, sponging up culture and coffee alike with wild abandon in the company of loved ones. Before that, I had the good fortune of living in the City of Tongues for the better part of a year—but it was the wrong year, as I’ll explain later. My year in Montreal was almost nearly 20 years ago, and so my vision of, and relationship to, the city is somewhat ossified as a result. When I arrive, I’m 22 years old again inside my mind, and I yearn for the intense, revelatory experiences that seem so accessible and prevalent when one is at that liminal age.
But this visit, for the first time, I came to Montreal with a child in tow. We came with a bureaucratic mission: I had an appointment with the French consulate, to apply for my year-long residence visa. But S and I agreed that, even though X didn’t need an appointment of his own, he would enjoy a few days in Montreal. It’s a kid-friendly city, for the most part, plus we were scheduled to arrive the day before Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day, when lots of family-focused events occur. And it would be a sort of practice run for France—a demonstration to his dubious four-year-old mind that, yes, there are places where everybody speaks French.
Our travel day was stressful. S and I are both anxious travellers in our own ways, and X does not take kindly to being in environments where every step is regulated. By the time we made it to our airbnb—a pleasant but tiny loft in Griffintown, near the old canals—we were exhausted. But Montreal beckoned, at least inside my heart. I left S napping, and X playing Nintendo DS, and ventured out into the heat to find a supermarché.
For an hour or so: nostalgia bliss. French street signs! New flavours of LeClerc cookies on the shelf! And, when I stopped to sample a frozen pizza at one of those demo kiosks in the middle of the grocery store, the clerk asked me if I would prefer “rouge ou blanc” with my slice. I was 22 again—drinking wine in public with no fear of reprisal, unleashed in the half-feral grime of a city older than anything my Edmontonian blood could imagine.
But, like a 22-year-old, I didn’t buy the groceries I needed for a decent supper, so we had to venture out as a family to find a restaurant. And this was where 4-year-old entitlement trumped 22-year-old bliss; after whining and foot-dragging for five blocks, we were forced to settle on day-old wraps in a crummy chain bistro, lest an even worse meltdown ensue. My bubble had been burst, but when S suggested we keep walking (with a slightly rejuvenated X) into Vieux-Montréal and up to Notre-Dame Basilica, my hopes were buoyed.
For me, Notre-Dame is the other side of Montreal—not the young-adult indulgence, but the potential for spiritual
and artistic inspiration. The church, and especially the Chapel of the Sacred Heart, is one of my favourite sacred spots in the world. So I agreed to the additional walk, even though I knew it would involve a lot more conflict along the way, and especially on the long walk back. Spiritual renewal! By the end of the hot slog, I was even carrying X, at the risk of injuring my back.
But then, just as the church was in sight, the fellowship collapsed. X was thoroughly uninterested in behaving himself, and S didn’t even count on entering the church—for her, the spiritual zone was the public square nearby, where buskers often play. And suddenly, there I was, upon the threshold of—if not a genuine spiritual experience, then at least the pleasant reminder of one—and yet forced to acknowledge that the prudent course of action was to step back, turn away, and head home.
I’ve tried not to frame the incident in terms of personal sacrifice, since that would lead to resentment, blaming my loved ones for costing me Moments. Instead, I’ve tried to practice mindfulness. There’s no value in a long, hard walk to the Basilica, since there’s no guarantee that you’re going to gain admittance, or find the thing you seek inside. Instead, you take a walk with no destination, in the hopes that enlightenment will find you as you go.
Despite striving for this attitude, I was pretty bummed out my first night in Montreal…until, after X went to sleep, I slipped out for a pint at the nearby resto-bar. The bartender was chatty, so I mentioned that I’d lived in Montreal for a year, back in 1998. His eyebrows shot up. “Some timing!” He said, “That was the Ice Storm year!” And so, we got to trade stories about surviving the Ice Storm, and I exulted in the realization—obvious now, but I’d been away from Montreal long enough to have forgotten—that an entire city shared that weird, threshold experience with me. You see, I’d moved there to attend the National Theatre School, but I washed out after my first year, partly due to Ice Storm trauma.
There it was, right in the DNA of my relationship to Montreal: right up to the threshold of an experience, then knocked back before I was granted entry. Yet the revelation was never in the destination; I dropped out of playwriting school, so I became a playwright. Merçi, Montréal.
Curious about how my visa application went? Don’t touch that dial!