In case you haven’t noticed, most world capitals and other significant cities are built on the shores of a body of water, whether this be a lake or a river, the ocean or the sea. In Ottawa, there is the Canal, for example, while the Danube runs through Vienna, the Nile through Cairo, and the Mississippi through New Orleans. Geneva has its Lake Geneva and Toronto has the Beaches. New York has the ocean and Barcelona has the sea. Johannesburg is among the few major cities without a body of water, while Mexico City has buried about 45 rivers under pavement, some of which now serve to carry its sewage.
Proximity to a body of water matters for commerce, transportation, food and irrigation, but this is not all that there is because even the Underworld borders on the River Styx and they don’t need any of that there - unless you count the final boat ride taken to the Other Side by the souls of the deceased. It is this final passage that speaks about the significance of water: from water that breaks we come into the world and across mythical waters to dust we return. A city’s body of water testifies to the very current of its life.
I lived for many years in a dusty Balkan town whose two rivers had been buried as a matter of policy because they were not loved. When river trash disposal reached proportions threatening public health, the two rivers were killed. The trash continued to accumulate but at least it no longer flowed. And it wasn’t wet. There was something heavy and still in the air of this town, a sort of accumulated pressure, a kind of permanent headache. The town ached and sighed and sulked but it could find no relief. The people too were a bit sullen, what from an excess of bad history, what from this permanent lack of irrigation.
A modest little river runs through my hometown of Sarajevo. The Miljacka (pronounce that) swells up from rain in autumn parading briefly as a real river, then shrinks to a shallow trickle in the summer months. Sometimes, it threatens to disappear altogether, but then manages to carry on, taking succor from every little drop of rain and transporting its charge of plastic bottles and plastic bags on their long journey toward the ocean. And so it is with its host city: survivor of numerous wars and tragedies, titulary of fleeting glories (1984 Winter Olympics!), nearly annihilated in the early 90s, the city is still standing, albeit not like Elton John but more like Phil Collins. Its citizens have their occasional excesses of joy as well as their Slavic fatalism, but overall, little changes and little flows. To gaze upon the Miljacka is to invite melancholy, for in its receding waters filled with plastic one observes the receding and polluted promise of life on these war-poisoned shores.
And what have we here? A raw and bustling North American river, flowing and sprawling and humming and roaring, having seen explorers and traders, pioneers and whalers - and surfers on its still waves. If it were not for the mighty Saint Lawrence River and its electrifying energy, the city of Montreal might very well collapse from sheer dilapidation, irreverence and pleasure seeking.
A winter walk by the River testifies to its immense power of determination. In temperatures of –23 degrees Celsius, semi-trapped beneath the ice and snow, the current of the River emits its powerful sound, humming like an engine with a million horsepowers. In the places where it is particularly strong, ice has not touched it, and here the River continues to host resilient birds which bob on its surface all year long. There where the River is encrusted with ice, it is like a mirror to the heavens, reflecting the light of the skies. And when there is mist over the water on cold mornings, it becomes ethereal and enveloped in mystery.
In its breadth, the Saint Lawrence River appears to the casual observer as large as the sea, and a (spectacular) bike ride along its shores in the boroughs of Lasalle and Lachine feels like nothing less than a maritime expedition. To gaze upon the River, even from the civilized confines of the Old Port, is to be possessed with the power of possibility, to be revived and washed clean.
Despite its immense power, the Saint Lawrence River is gentle and kind. On warm days, picnic blankets, deck chairs, barbecues and babies dot the length of its leafy shores. You can come to the River alone as a pilgrim to be irrigated by its life force, or with friends or books or a bike and ride and ride and ride. You can come with a bag of French fries and feed the yellow-eyed seagulls gathering on its banks, mingling with the ducks in spring. You can stand still on its shores and still feel yourself moving toward the expanse of its horizon, like the surfers riding on its still waves - something that only a few rivers in the world possess. And all these pleasures the River gives for the taking because it is cherished.
And so with its host city, which never stands still, which defies the winter with merrymaking and hosts strange and resilient birds of the human variety. A city which vibrates with warmth and generosity and yet gives space and room to breathe. A city to which you can arrive as both pilgrim and pioneer, washing yourself clean of all Old World history. As the River flows, so the city goes: constant yet ever changing, imbued with magnetic energy, always giving, always hopeful and open to all possibility.