I moved to Montreal in the fall of 1990, having managed, by way of a few months in El Paso, Texas, to develop enough momentum to achieve escape velocity from Peterborough, Ontario, where I’d lived since the fall of 1985.
My friends Jill and Colin were already there–Jill had been my roommate the year before–and I knew a few other people in the city, but mostly I was a stranger in a strange land. I was unemployed and collecting unemployment insurance, didn’t particularly have a plan, and, in the end, was much more not somewhere else than I was in Montreal.
I started out squatting with Jill and Colin in their studio on St-Laurent and, after a few weeks, found a sublet on the 31st floor of a high-rise at 2250 Rue Guy, near Maisonneuve. I spent a few months there before decamping, midwinter, for 6107 Avenue du Parc, near the north-western edge of Mile End.
My time in Montreal was not entirely without its pleasures. On Tuesday nights I took “French as a Second Language” from the Catholic School Board. I ate a lot of bagels. I spent a lot of time on the Walden Commune BBS. I had a tiny black and white television and every night I’d stay up late to watch Newhart followed by the late movie on the local CTV affiliate.
But I didn’t really have enough money, or friends, to truly enjoy living in Montreal, and the alienation of the long, snowy, cold winter combined with the alienation of being a mostly-unilingual anglophone meant that I did not feel wrapped up in the warm embrace of the city.
It’s not without irony that when I return to Montreal these days, it’s Mile End that I often find myself returning to; Oliver and I were there just last month, and it looked and felt nothing like the cold, austere place I remember it being.
By spring–arguably the nicest time of the year in Montreal–I was ready to get out, and when a job opportunity at the Peterborough Examiner presented itself, I jumped at the chance, calling up my friend Stephen for help, loading my life’s possessions into my Toyota Tercel and a rented van, and re-entering the Peterborough orbit after only 9 months away.
This adventure would have an unhappy ending if not for the fact that I happened to move into 621 George Street North to become roommates with my friends Tim, Dy and Richard; next door at 627 George Street North lived a young woman named Catherine Miller. Because Tim and Dy were out of town when I landed, it was Catherine who handed me the keys to my new place. It was the first time I laid eyes on her. We’ve now been together almost 26 years.
It’s taken me most of that time to be able to look more fondly on Montreal. Having a brother and sister-in-law there and two strapping young nephews helps, of course, but it’s mostly the passage of time that’s allowed me to experience Montreal’s many pleasures.
But there’s no getting away from the fact that, the first time around, I absolutely flunked at Montreal.