There is enormous pressure nowadays to be present: present in the present moment, that is. This ancient Eastern wisdom was popularized by Eckhart Tolle in the Power of Now and now terrorizes the absent-minded western world. If you only pay attention – which, also, requires you to be present – you will notice that this insidious message rears its head at every turn, especially if you’re seeking some sort of wellbeing. Everyone’s all over it, from Tich Naht Hanh to Deepak Chopra to every other Ted Talk speaker and your local radio show host. To my horror, I recently pulled out a teabag from its box only to find the following wisdom message printed on its paper tab: The time is now (this is the modern version of reading tea leaves – now everyone can). And yet, the mind flitters, persistently and unacceptably – if you’re normal - between the future and the past.
Thankfully, the burden of presence is significantly lightened for those of us who live in Montreal because the entire city is one magnificent time warp. Here, one can easily be present in the past – which feels altogether more natural.
This year, the city celebrates its 375th anniversary and much of its infrastructure seems to date back from the founding moment. Years of ongoing repairs now seem likely to run on into eternity - a future impossible for the mind to grasp. Whole neighbourhoods boast woodwork so rotten that every excursion out onto the balcony threatens to be the last, and yet parties are hosted on these frail structures all summer long and they hold steady with charm. A walk along The Main is a veritable time machine, as every other commerce offers items and services that could only have been useful in the 80s. There is Voyages Comfort on the corner of Duluth, for instance, whose travel agents work just as hard as lawyers in any corporate law firm. If you're on your way to Schwartz's at, say, 10 pm on a Sunday night, you will inevitably see a lonesome soul in there plotting away at God knows whose travel plans. And, it has competition (!) from Voyages Tagus further up the street. The second-hand bookstore T. Westcott still offers chicken cookbooks from the 1970s, the mysterious shop Catwalk sells corsets from an indeterminate other era, and the Charcuterie Hongroise features products from an Eastern Europe dating back to before the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Despite all this, I could not help but be surprised when I stumbled upon the unassuming J.G. Bouré on the corner of Jean Talon and St-Denis whose storefront looks exactly like something out of 1980s Yugoslavia. I have since returned on numerous occasions and the storefront never fails to deliver this fragment of my childhood which is now nowhere to be found in, say, Sarajevo, Belgrade or Ljubljana. This is because J.G. Bouré's display carries an ongoing selection of house dresses and undershirts such as were once produced by the understated but resilient Croatian underwear brand Galeb ("Seagull"). Montreal thus embodies not only its own past but even that of places no longer on the map.
Some don’t like this. They say that if it hadn’t been for all the language politics and the occasional bursts of separatism – and the 1960s acts of terrorism - Montreal could have maintained its pre-eminence as Canada’s financial and business center. It could have been Toronto, only better. Instead, all the money and big business trickled away. Good riddance, I say. Now we can all relax and have a good time, including the seagulls which dot the city’s landscape emitting their resilient cries.