Scrapbook #11: Dispatch from Toronto

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The first days in a city are always the strangest – the new routines, new scenery, new living spaces. It’s also disorienting to move back to a city you know well, but not at all. Things have changed and not changed and here we are, changed and not changed. But things are starting to feel normal again and I’m now eager to explore and wander.

The Toronto skyline is more jagged with condos than it was 6 years ago, but it’s the skyline of a big city, and it’s beautiful. We’ve been keeping busy. An anniversary barbecue on Centre Island. The Beach Boys at the Molson Ampitheatre on one of the hottest evenings. Catching up with friends over dinner, drinks. Iced coffee and a hot dog at the nearby farmer’s market and then walking home with garlic scapes, Ontario blueberries, new potatoes. It’s nice to be back.

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Right before we moved, all of our books were packed up, including books I was planning to read over the summer. But when you’ve 95% packed your entire home and there are still stray items lounging about, taunting you, you just stuff them into boxes and don’t really think about it. I remember labelling a box “alarm clock, books to read, etc”, but that box is somewhere in the garage right now and who knows when it will be unearthed again. (In other news, anyone in Toronto have a house they want to sell us? Preferably by a subway line, in a neighbourhood-y neighbourhood, and not outrageously priced? Anyone? That’s what I thought.)

Despite the craziness that comes with moving, I had moments where all I wanted to do was curl up and read, so I downloaded “Heartburn” by Nora Ephron on my Kindle. It had the kind of vibe I was after – someone being funny about not so great life situations, with some recipes thrown in. I highlighted this particular section:

“She must be feeling better,” said Ellis. “She’s making jokes.”
“She makes jokes even when she’s feeling terrible,” said Vera. “Don’t let her fool you.”
“Why do you have to make everything into a joke?” asked Diana.
“I don’t have to make everything into a joke,” I said. “I have to make everything into a story. Remember?”

I related to it, and have already started making up new Toronto stories.

(R.I.P Nora Ephron – I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to read your books.)

Scrapbook #10: Au revoir.

Cozy(Andrew & I at our first place in Montreal)

Our first apartment in Montreal was a huge, sunny loft just east of de Lorimier and Sherbrooke. It was beautiful and impractical. Our landlord had installed a whirlpool with LED chromotherapy lights in the bathroom because somehow that change of colour was supposed to be good for your body. The whirlpool must have used up his home reno energy because he never got around to putting in a proper bathroom door. Instead there was a curtain. It was heavy, but it was still just a curtain. But it was our first place in Montreal and the rent was cheap compared to Toronto and from our deck we could see the Jacques Cartier Bridge and, in the summer, fireworks at La Ronde. And the light that streamed through the big windows was vivid, amazing. Who needed a bathroom door?

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(Bedroom wall at the new place.)

When Andrew and I came to Montreal almost six years ago, we didn’t think we would stay for very long. Maybe a year? It was just to try something different. But then that year passed, and another, and we left the loft and instead of renting, bought a condo straddling the Plateau and Mile End. It was tiny, but the ceilings were high and the bathroom had a door and the neighbourhood had every single thing you could ever want in a neighbourhood. One of the best parts about the condo was the deck in the back, and if you stood in a certain corner you could just make out the cross at the top of Mount Royal.

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We didn’t have air conditioning, so in the summer we would sleep with all the windows open, and sounds would leak through. Bells from the church at St. Joseph every Sunday morning at 9:15. The thud of dance music from the crappy café across the street that mystifyingly turned into a wedding reception hall on the weekends. Drunken laughter from people coming home after a night at the bar. Neighbours having sex. The occasional person practicing opera arias as they walked home alone in the dark. And these days, at 8 pm, you’ll hear someone, somewhere, banging on casseroles.

Pasta dough(So much cooking.)

I guess I learned about food in Montreal. It was impossible not to. Jean Talon Market is best in the thick of summer when everything is open and busy and fruit and vegetables are sold not just in pints and pounds, but in bushels and flats. I made my first batch of jam after buying an overripe flat of strawberries one Friday night before closing time. I liked Atwater Market for the canal, and one of my favourite mid-week meals was a slice of pizza and a bottle of wine from the market, eaten by the water.

Bushels of tomatoes at Jean Talon market
(Summer at Jean Talon.)

I learned that the best time to go to Schwartz’s was on a weekday evening, say around 8:30, when there aren’t too many tourists. And, anyway, if the lineup is too long, you won’t be disappointed by a sandwich across the street at The Main. I pledged my allegiance to Fairmount bagels over St. Viateur. I had foie gras poutine from Au Pied de Cochon, many roast chickens from Romados, too many butter chicken thalis at Bombay Mahal, lobster truffle ravioli at Holder, meals composed entirely of cheese purchased from La Fromagerie Atwater, many summer ice cream cones from Kem CoBa or Bilboquet. Andrew and I had picnics in almost every park within a 15 minute walking radius from our home. We didn’t get married in Montreal, but we had champagne with our friends at Parc Lafontaine a month later.

Birthday cheese plate

It was excessive, all of it, but it was good.

Another group shot(Caro, Les and me New Year’s Eve a few years ago.)

One reason why moving to Montreal felt so natural and easy was because my best friends were living here. On average, I’ve probably seen Caro and Les once a week since September 2006 and I probably shouldn’t think about how many bottles of wine we’ve shared. I also don’t want to think about what it will be like not having them just a few blocks away. It’s one of the hardest things about moving, leaving these people.

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I have the sweetest group of friends here, and over the years we would take turns hanging out with just the girls, or with the boys too, mostly congregating around a kitchen table to eat meals that would last hours, multiple conversations happening at once, the occasional French/English debate, and so much laughter.

Polaroid of girls on a sunny Sunday morning in June
(The girls one sunny morning.)

Montreal is too easy to romanticize. It’s the kind of place that calls the hill in the middle of the city a mountain – everything is heightened. Something about the exposed staircases and all those lovely people riding around on bikes and the fact that the depanneurs sell bad bottles of wine. It adds up.

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It makes people wonder how anyone gets any work done here. But work happens, I promise. I started off working at an accounting firm, and then I quit, started a new job, then another, then went back to the one before that. I got used to that particular Quebecois-style type of conversation with my co-workers where they would speak to me in French and I would reply in English. It was just easier to communicate that way.

Montreal launch!(My book launch at Drawn & Quarterly.)

And I made things. My first book, my first novel, some zines. And I watched Andrew build up his photography practice too. I remember darting into a dep to pick up a copy of the Saturday paper to see one of his photos on the cover, I remember spending a freezing cold Nuit Blanche in the Old Port, hanging out at a gallery to watch people’s reactions as they looked at his art projected on a huge screen. I can’t even list off how much ground he’s covered here in Montreal, often with our dear friend Nel, the two of them discovering parts of Montreal I would never think to bother with. I am still in awe of everything he has created while we’ve lived here.

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There is that cliché of an Anglophone moving to Montreal for a few years in their twenties to go to university or grad school. Maybe they’ll hang around for a bit after graduation, using the city as an excuse to stave off impending adulthood. They work on their art, they get their heart broken, they pay the lowest rent they’ll ever pay in their lives, and then they leave and get a real job. Sometimes I feel like I did Montreal a little backwards. I came here long after I had left school, and I didn’t so much stave off adulthood as grow into the kind of adult I want to be with the kind of relationship I want to have with the city I live in. I’m sure I would’ve figured this out if I had stayed in Toronto or if I had moved to a different city, but because I did it in Montreal, I will always associate it with this part of my life, these tentative half-serious, half-silly early adulthood years. They were so much fun.

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As much as I am excited about rediscovering Toronto and starting a new phase in my life with Andrew, I’m sad to leave this magical, beautiful city. There is so much I haven’t done! I never went kayaking in the canal or cross country skiing on Mont Royal or bumped into Leonard Cohen or got over my bike phobia to be one of those girls biking around the city.

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But I did so many other things, and I will always be grateful and nostalgic and sentimental for that. Merci, Montreal. Merci, merci, merci.