The intangible city

I left Montreal for a place even more ethnically and linguistically divided, even more half-ruined and impossible, even more tentative and spirited and potholey and let’s-just-drink-coffee-all-day-y. I moved to Pristina, Kosovo.

Pristina, Kosovo. Photo by Michael McKenna

I know the rule. Once you leave Montreal, no Montrealer wants to hear you talk about the place. Montrealers don’t care, for instance, that the house you bought in Don Mills in 1981 is worth a cool mil now. We don’t give a shit about how nice it is to speak English at the Calgary DMV. We couldn’t care less that while you miss l’Express and “that little place on Dorchester,” that “it just got so crazy, what with the French.”

We’re not trying to be mean or anything (or maybe we are), but we just think that your whole “just leave it as it was in 1972” program is a little bit untenable, a little bit historically blind, a little bit disrespectful of the tensions and impossible differences that made this city so frustratingly great in the first place.

I want you, however, to make an exception. Just one. One little exception, and only for me. See, I, like all of those hypothetical, Tommy Schnurmacher-listening, would-be refugees listed above… I left Montreal. I didn’t really mean to; I didn’t see it coming. But that’s what I did. I packed up my things, took one last look at my beloved spiral staircases, my heart-attack diners and my heartbroken Mile End, and I split. I flew 7,120 kilometres, crossing time zones, oceans and continents, and I fucking ditched the city… only to end up in Montreal.

That’s why you need to make an exception, I think. That’s why I am asking you to categorize me separately from the multitude of newly enthusiastic Canadians who crow so annoyingly from their quasi-unilingual perches in Vancouver (“I actually think our cereal boxes should be half-Mandarin”) and Toronto. See, I left — but I left for a place even more ethnically and linguistically divided, even more half-ruined and impossible, even more tentative and spirited and potholey and let’s-just-drink-coffee-all-day-y than Montreal. I moved to Pristina, Kosovo.

Here’s an outline of how the fundamentals work, just for the sake of comparison. Kosovo was once an Albanian-majority area of the Serbian-dominated Republic of Yugoslavia. In the 1960s and ’70s, in keeping with the self-determination narrative that was then popular across the world — including in Quebec — Kosovar Albanians began a series of educational and public-sector initiatives that they hoped would help them gain some control of the institutions that defined their lives. Not quite Bill 101-y stuff, but as close as they could come without destabilizing the less-tolerant-of-difference federation that was Yugoslavia. Remember — there are very few francophones who feel like 1960 or whatever was some sort of golden age in Montreal. Only anglos feel like that. In any case, they struggled, and they assembled, and their FLQ was the KLA… until something very un-Canadian happened. That thing was Slobodan Milosevic.

Here’s how that worked: imagine if, instead of Brian Mulroney (bad enough), Canada had elected some sort of insane thug from Red Deer who felt that, not only was Quebec getting too big for its britches, but maybe it shouldn’t exist at all. Imagine if this guy would actually come to Montreal, campaign in anglo strongholds like Pointe-Claire and NDG and demand that we all band together and hit our fellow Montrealers, who just happen to be francophone, with sticks. Imagine if this had gone on for so long that the U.S., aided by an ill-timed presidential blowie, had to step up and sort of peek in and be like, “Hey, what the fuck are you kids doing in here? This isn’t cool at all! Quit it!”

Well, that’s pretty much Kosovo — and Pristina. That’s what happened. It went further than the polite confines of Canada would ever allow, and now you have this sort of super-Montreal — this Albanian-run paradise of cheap rent and potholes and gangsters (and Serbs not getting jobs) that makes Montreal c. 1995 look like Geneva.

But that’s just the politics. That’s just the background static. It might infuse the city with a certain wounded defensiveness, and might keep the standardizing forces of global capitalism at bay a little bit, but politics isn’t the only reason this place can feel a lot like home. For one, there’s also the whole “hanging out all day” thing.

When out-of-town friends would visit me in Mile End, they would often marvel at how crowded the terrasse at Olimpico got at, say, 11 a.m. on a Tuesday. I remember one friend from Toronto asking, “Don’t these people have jobs?” while another, from DC, was more like, “Don’t these people wash their hair?”

In Pristina, there is an Olimpico on every block. Like Montrealers, Kosovars are meticulous hangers of outs, class-A bullshitters, gadflies extraordinaire. As in the cases of many Montrealers, as well, it doesn’t always come down to choice. The Republic of Kosovo has a 45 per cent unemployment rate, leaving a lot of Pristina residents with more than enough time to sip (excellent) espresso, form unrealistic political ideas, gossip, joke and maybe eventually get down to writing that screenplay.

Of course, not every Montrealer is a Mile End type, and not every Prishtinali is an out-of-work café idler. As in Montreal, there are people here with 9-to-5s and, without much of a financial or manufacturing sector to speak of, a lot of them are textile workers, call-centre employees or pencil pushers at vast international concerns. This too reminds me of home; Montreal’s banks and stock exchange may have long since departed for Toronto, but the city remains home to more international organizations than anywhere else in Canada — and who among us hasn’t done a month of telemarketing here or there?

Again, as in Montreal, the gainfully employed folk in Pristina don’t really seem content with investing their wages and paying off their mortgages. Instead, they form a contingent of $30k-per-year millionaires for whose benefit a vast Doucheteria of restaurants, nightclubs, bronzage joints and other opportunities to be socially validated by armed bouncers and girls in stripper heels has been constructed. In its way, it’s almost sort of magnificent how every weekend on Rexhep Luci Street is (a reasonable pastiche of) F1 weekend, and how many blacked-out S600s this tiny, GDP-challenged city can manage to fill with V-necked men and pounding techno.

Of course, in reality it’s never F1 weekend in Pristina, and it probably never will be. Though Montreal can at least offer Ecclestone & Co. the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, Pristina has no such helpful Expo leftover, and the streets themselves make the surface of the Metropolitan look like a ribbon of polished, Alberta-esque glass. Though watered assiduously by every shopkeeper and garden-hose owner in town, the streets of Pristina never seem to grow. They only shrink in a daily cavalcade of triple- (and backwards-) parked Volkswagens, near-instant erosion and dust. Though potholes are just as much of a problem as they are in Montreal, the bigger issue here is manholes: people steal the covers for scrap metal, leaving it very possible to fall in and get parked over by some dude in a souped-up ’91 Golf, never to be seen again.

It all sounds kind of critical — you know, intractable politics, shaky economies, cynical future-related plans, cheaply decadent nightlife — but I’m writing this as much out affection as out of frustration. That, actually, has become a very familiar mix of emotions, and cities that provide one but not the other tend to feel a little bland to me.

It can be hard to write about cities like this; when you have to speak about huge agglomerations of hundreds of thousands of people, and of their collective character, you employ generalizations — stereotypes, even. There are a million personal Montreals and 100,000 such Pristinas that fall totally outside of the things I have described — but these ones are mine. My Montreal and my Pristina have a strange and continuing ability to reference each other, and it kind of tugs at me, sometimes; it reminds me that it was hard to leave, and it’s hard to be away, and that’s why I wrote this.

I don’t know where I will end up after Pristina; though Montreal will always be home, it can be hard to get back in once you have left. It’s such a city of intangibles that it has a hard time making its case on paper. I promise you one thing, though: if I ever make it to a place where the jobs are abundant, the politicians generally above-board and the nightlife responsible and proportionate, I’ll stop reporting back. I won’t shake my head at the latest infrastructure collapse, and I won’t express gratitude for the boring functionality of my new home. For now, though, I’ll request an exception. Just this once. Just one wary sidelong glance for a Montrealer who flew eight hours only to find himself right back where he started. ■

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