In 2017, I had the honour of serving as the Writer-in-Residence for the CBC and the Quebec Writer's Federation. I wrote a series of five essays about my experience of living in Montreal, and loved every minute of it.
You can read them all below, with links to the original articles from the titles. I hope you'll have as much fun reading them as I did writing them.
How far is a Montreal mile?
Published by the CBC on January 15, 2017
Click here to read it on the CBC website.
Back when my husband was still my boyfriend, I used to joke that we lived 13 subway stops and a good book away. His apartment was close to the Jane Street subway station in Toronto. Mine was beside the Mont Royal metro station on the Plateau. The actual distance was over 500 kilometres. But with the STM, VIA Rail, a Dick Francis mystery novel and giddy anticipation propelling me forward, the miles disappeared.
My accountant, on the other hand, was just a 20 minutes walk away in Mile End but making the dreaded trip to his office at tax time could take days. Even weeks.
When I wasn’t seeing him (my boyfriend, not my accountant, although both, really), I was typically hanging out with my friends Melanie and Nat, whose apartment two kilometres to the east was either just around the corner or an insurmountable distance away, depending on the weather. On frigid days, the journey was impossibly far. But if it was sunny and warm, the wind nothing more than a whisper, the Heel-Toe Express had me there in no time.
Back in those days, public transit was a key warping agent for me. Jean Talon market was three times further than my local Provigo. But since the market and I were both on the orange line, reaching the smelly cheese heaven of Qui Lait Cru and laying my hands on a cellophane-wrapped rectangle of mozzarella from Aisle 12 took the same amount of time.
Unfortunately, perception of distance cuts both ways. The maze of one-way streets and vignette-only parking in my part of the Plateau meant that people who drove were reluctant to visit. “Come over for dinner!” I’d beg my friends from… well, anywhere, really. There would be a short pause. “Or you could come here?” they’d suggest.
Ironically, something that was never far away when I lived in the heart of the city was the feeling of being far away from the heart of a city. Just a mile west was Mont Royal park where I could, in a matter of minutes, trade asphalt and concrete for gravel paths and leaves.
In winter, when the falling snow sang a siren song to my cross-country skies, I could even sneak out for an extended lunch hour of reverential gliding. One memorable afternoon, I nodded amicably to another skier, then experienced a flash of recognition. The mile separating me from my desk vanished. The skier was one of the clients whose work was waiting for me back at home.
What is the longest mile you’ve ever travelled in Montreal?
What is the shortest?
The Montreal mile of a warm summer’s night after a raucous dinner party, the streets calm and leafy, the only sound a “tick tick” from the spokes of your Bixi bike?
The Montreal mile of a snow-choked weekday morning, flakes coming fast and furious, and you sweating into your parka as you fight to open the frozen car door?
The mile you can’t even start because of the orange detour signs in your path?
The mile you don’t even notice aboard a swooshing metro car?
Or the Montreal mile you stroll on a misty spring morning, raindrops pattering on your umbrella, puddles rippling around your boots, and all your worries miles and miles away?
Unearthing Montreal's hidden gems
Published by the CBC on March 5, 2017
Click here to read it on the CBC website.
I had only been living in Montreal for a short while when I discovered it: the world’s coolest café.
It was located a few neighbourhoods away from my newfound home in the McGill ghetto and, unlike the coffee shops there, it was devoid of university students or recent graduates like myself. This was a real local’s spot.
The décor was sparse. The barista took orders by way of raised eyebrows, then worked the espresso machine at a break-neck pace with a nonplussed expression. There were no loyalty card or fancy names for the drinks. The coffee was so incredible it took my breath away. Even the cryptic name, written on the glass transom over the door, was cool: “Open Da Night”.
I held my glass of caffé latte with both hands and gazed out the window at the foot traffic on Saint-Viateur street, the beverage warming my fingers, the discovery warming my heart.
Like many Montrealers, I was born elsewhere. I emigrated to La Belle Province as a 23-year-old with no experience of big city living, and the grit and pulse of Montreal excited me. I signed a lease and bought a metro pass. I learned about shish taouk and bagels.
But it wasn’t until I was able to make a good recommendation to someone who knew the city even less than me that I started to feel a sense of belonging here.
Being able to say “I know this great little place” was like suddenly having an inside joke with a new friend.
Not long after, my friend Sarah and I ventured through a non-descript door on the sparse end of Clark street, down a flight of poorly lit stairs, and into the bohemian bar Café Sarajevo. A gypsy band played its heart out, patrons drank red wine from tumblers, and we were made privy to the vaguely illicit-feeling requirement that we order food if we wanted to drink alcohol. Sarah and I exchanged the beaming smiles of people who can’t believe their luck. Another gem, made ever shinier by the unexpectedness of its discovery.
The more I explored the city, the more wonders I found. In Chinatown, I stumbled upon a tiny store where an old woman with deft fingers pulled little clouds of Dragon’s beard candy. On the mountain, I located the running trail with the best scenery and fewest tourists. On the Plateau, I discovered the discreet sophistication of weekend breakfasts eaten at the counter at L’Express.
It wasn’t just establishments, either. Take the first laneway north of Laurier off Saint-Laurent and you’ll find a wall-sized graffiti image of a Habs goalie that’s a tribute to Serge Lemoyne’s iconic painting of Ken Dryden. Study the wall ahead as you ascend from the Saint-Henri metro station and you’ll see an homage to the neighbourhood’s most famous author: “Bonheur d’Occasion”.
There are hidden gems of knowledge, too. The name of that cool café I found? Turns out it’s actually Café Olympico. “Open Da Night” is just what was left when the “y &” faded from the advertisement of its opening hours.
Do you get that feeling, too? That sense of belonging that an inside scoop imparts? What are the gems that stand out like push pins in your mental map of the city?
This year marks the seventeenth anniversary of my move to Montreal. You’d think that after so many years of exploring the city, some of them as a travel writer, there’d be no gem left uncovered.
Last spring, my toddler started waking insanely early and refused to fall back asleep. I killed time in the pre-dawn hours by fitting her into the backpack carrier and taking long, purposeless rambles through the neighbourhood. Up and down the Plateau streets I went, glancing bleary-eyed into storefronts, turning corners at random.
One morning, as dawn was breaking, I took a turn just three blocks from my house and suddenly found myself in unfamiliar territory.
To one side was a red brick building, to the other a butter-yellow wood-paneled dwelling with doors and window trimmed in forest green. In the middle was a strip of lush foliage flanked by flagstone paths. Fern fronds and hosta leaves reached out welcomingly. Ivy meandered about. There was a water feature with a decorative bridge, and a lending library in a repurposed bird feeder.
Was this private property? I double-checked but there it was, plain as day: a municipal street sign that read “rue Demers”.
I walked the street’s entire length—three blocks—marvelling at its charm. How could I have lived around the corner for ten years and never found it? It was like a Plateau version of Brigadoon.
Another Montreal gem, hiding in plain sight.
The fine art of parenting in a Montreal winter
Published by the CBC on February 12, 2017
Click here to read it on the CBC website.
I was going out of my mind.
It was February, it was bitterly cold, and I was stuck in a third-floor condo with a one-year-old who was literally bouncing off the walls.
We had read all her books. We had played with all her toys. We had pillaged the plastic-container drawer for its mysterious offerings. And I had chased my daughter up and down the hallway in my role of Tickle Monster so many times that I could feel myself losing brain cells.
Every so often, I would catch a glimpse of my haggard reflection in the mirror.
"You have a master's degree in Experimental Medicine," I would remind the exhausted mom I saw. She would nod. Then we would both head off to sing another round of The Wheels on the Bus.
But where could we go to blow off steam? Friends' places were out: everyone I knew lived in similarly cramped quarters.
Our local library had a cozy play area we loved, but it also had a self-important monitor whose favourite word, in both French and English, was "SSSSHHHH!!!" And one disastrous trip to the mall made it clear my daughter couldn't handle the amped-up music and lights.
"Have you tried the Musée des Beaux Arts?" asked my stylish friend and fellow mom Jacquie. "It's a great space. And with a membership, you get unlimited access."
A gallery? With my toddler? It seemed ridiculous. But as any new parent can attest, desperation will make us try anything once.
So off we went into the howling, frigid world, knotted up in all our winter gear, my daughter kicking her feet against the stroller in cheerful anticipation and me praying to Saint Exodus, patron saint of cooped-up parents, that this would actually work.
I had to try twice to pry the glass gallery door open against the bitter wind but when I finally did, muscling the stroller inside, we were immediately surrounded by calm.
The glass atrium soared above me, lifting my eyes and my spirits. I unzipped my parka and helped my daughter out of her snowsuit. Just shedding our winter clothes in such a vast space was liberating.
The special exhibit was crowded with visitors and what I wanted was an open expanse, so I turned the stroller towards the new pavilion that houses some of the permanent collection, entered the elevator and chose a floor at random.
When the elevator doors glided open, we found ourselves alone save for a kindly security guard.
The lighting was bright but soft.
The room was open and calm.
The paintings were up beyond my daughter's reach.
"Okay, kiddo," I told her, unbuckling the straps of the stroller. "Have at it!"
Alison giggled with happiness and toddled off, her destination the bench in the middle of the room.
With my daughter occupied, I cast my eyes around. The golden wood floors were devoid of plush toys. The air carried no smell of mashed bananas. Lining the walls was beauty, beauty and yet more beauty.
As Alison circumnavigated the bench, giddy with freedom of movement, I drank in the perfectly composed landscapes, city scenes in vivid colours and thought-provoking portraits.
When the bench had been thoroughly circled, we wandered through the Decorative Arts section, where none of the furniture could be undone with an Allen key, and none of the jewellery was made of macaroni.
Hand in hand, we climbed the low risers of the central staircase, which seemed designed for tiny legs. We even ducked into the special exhibit. "Boobies!" my toddler observed, pointing at a nude.
Within an hour, my daughter had spent all her energy. But I was feeling unexpectedly invigorated. The gallery delivered the running space I'd hoped for. But it was also a tonic of serenity and sophistication that I needed more badly than I realized.
As we were leaving, a chic woman with coiffed grey hair saw Alison and clapped her hands together in delight.
"C'est magnifique!" the woman exclaimed. "You know, to see art like this, it's so good for the brain's development!"
"Oh, I agree," I said, tapping my temple. "I don't know what I'd do without it."
"Labour Cake": A Mother's Day Essay
My essay on entering motherhood appeared in the May 2014 issue of ELLE Canada.
Want to read it? If so, just get in touch. I would be thrilled to send you a copy.
You can also read my blog entry on how the essay came to be and the valuable lesson that getting something done is often better than getting it just right.
Emily and the Mighty Om
My first children's picture, entitled "Emily and the Mighty Om" was published by Simply Read Books.
"Emily and the Mighty Om" has been illustrated by the talented Kaori Kasai. The main character, Emily, helps her next-door neighbour get out of a sticky situation using the power of something she learned in yoga...
Want to know more about it, or about the process of publishing a children's book? Just send me a note.
QWF Writing Workshops
In years past, I have led Quebec Writer's Federation workshops on the art of the short personal essay; from idea to publication. I always have fantastic students who are enthusiastic and committed to the process.
It's a great joy, after the course ends, to heard from students whose work has been published, particularly if it is an essay that featured in our class.
Here are a few selections from former students:
"I Wanted Fries With That" by Amy Fish.
"How Telemarketing Saved My Life" by Natalie Willett
"How GPS Lets Me Get Lost -- On Purpose" by Prue Rains
"A Planet Called Montana" by Prue Rains
"For My Son's 21st Birthday, I Decided to Reach For the Sky" by Karen Zey
"Living With Mature Skin" by Karen Zey
"Rememberance of Coffee Crisps Past" by Shannon Tien
Want to know more about the QWF and the workshops currently on offer? You can find it all on the QWF website.