Some years ago, my mother came to visit Montreal in order to inspect my living conditions and what I eat for breakfast. I also showed her all the city’s wonders, and one sunny afternoon, as we were standing on Saint-Laurent in front of Schwartz’s (having just wolfed down our medium smoked meat sandwiches), she proclaimed: “This is paradise!” She meant the city, not the smoked meat, which she found altogether inferior to Sarajevo’s cevapcici. She then proceeded to add: “What a tame place this is!” meaning Montreal, not Schwartz's, obviously.
My mother meant this as a compliment. She’d arrived here expecting a frenetic North American metropolis of steel and glass and found herself instead in a slow 1960s time capsule of aging red brick, tattered ruelles, pot-holed streets, old-fashioned shops, and an abundance of parks, cafés and restaurants. It is precisely this run-down, life-loving charm that is so sought after by Montreal condo buyers who prize cachet. Never mind that it’s dark and narrow and bursting at the seams: it’s got character. Several Montrealers took offence at my mother’s proclamation – the tame one - because it suggested that the city had no edge, which it most certainly does. Tame's for Toronto, they said.
When my father came to visit the following year, he declared: “This is civilization!” This is presumably something one would say in Zurich or Geneva, or maybe Singapore, and God only knows what prompted him to arrive at that conclusion here. He was, just at that moment, lounging on a bench in Parc Lafontaine observing all the friendly dogs sniffing each other peacefully by the pond. In the Balkans, any two dogs crossing paths in the street are bound to lurch at one another’s throat with no warning and for no reason whatsoever, which is why most of them are muzzled. Then again, the most dog shit I ever saw in my life was on the sidewalks of Geneva in fact. Conversely, random people here have called me out for not collecting the shit of the neighbour’s dog whom I walk from time to time. I just say that he’s not mine.
I had a very civilized moment in Montreal some years ago when an official sign alighted on an old tree in front of my building informing street residents that the tree was going to be cut. It was infected with some incurable tree disease, details of which were also provided in the annonce. Residents were further assured that a new tree would be planted immediately after the old one had been removed. It was a very Swiss kind of moment, maybe even Scandinavian. Then again, no one has ever bothered to explain to the city’s 4.5 million residents why the reparation of its roads has lasted for the greater part of their lifetimes.
Whatever the city may or may not be – paradisiacal, tame, civilized or wild, it sure is generous and kind. Here is a selection of random acts of Montreal generosity and kindness:
If you approach the potheads hanging out at Square Saint-Louis on a summer night, they will offer you as many puffs as you like.
In order to accommodate his passengers, a bus driver does not stop at the snow-heaped bus stop, but slows down and searches for the nearest clear spot on the sidewalk where he can comfortably deposit his charges.
The operator of a snow removal vehicle waves at a lonesome passer-by on an empty street at 1 am. The passer-by waves back.
When you look into the eyes of strangers strolling by the Saint Lawrence River in Verdun, they immediately smile and say Bonjour!
When I recently bought a bouquet of flowers downtown, the florist insisted that I pick a flower for myself free of charge.
When my grocery bags ripped open in the street a few winters ago spilling oranges down Avenue Mont-Royal, the passers-by immediately began chasing the escaping fruit and returned it to me.
When I lost my office access card, I received a call from one Michelle, a saleswoman, who'd found it in front of her shop.
A friend whose wallet got stolen found all her ID cards in her mailbox the following day.
My Lebanese food joint keeps adding extra balls of falafel to my lunch.
Sometimes in Montreal, you get mugged. It's practically unheard of, but it happened to me on Christmas Day last year. It was a gentle mugging without much fuss - practically a gentleman's handover. I tried to negotiate and the muggers heard me out before deciding they’d better run off into the night.
Mom and Dad were right.