Photo by Denis Martin

Montréal, mon amour

As whining about the Tour de L’Île piled up on social media, magic unfolded elsewhere in these city streets.

This past Saturday night, I found myself sitting in the front row of some makeshift temporary bleachers at Place des Festivals in the Quartier des Spectacles, waiting for a dance show to begin.

Innervision was a free, outdoor performance offered as part of Festival TransAmériques (FTA), billed as a celebration of contemporary dance and theatre. Since 1985, the festival has been a harbinger of spring, kicking off a long season of fun (and very often, free) happenings in this city.

Having enjoyed the first terrasse dinner of the season just a few steps away, my friend and I leisurely walked over afterwards to take our seats among hundreds of tightly packed-in Montrealers eagerly awaiting the show.

The night was sweet, with the faint smell of rain in the air, and the unmistakeable, anticipatory vibe of early summer; that hopeful feeling one gets this time of year that the best is still to come.

At exactly 9 p.m., orchestra conductor Martin Messier sat a few feet away from us and started to whisper into his microphone. Some 60 dancers suddenly appeared out of nowhere through the crowds and took their places in front of these lined-up illuminated tables. Taking their directions through a wireless communication system, the dancers suddenly started spasming, gesticulating strangely, each using their bodies to pulsate, point, sweep and swerve, loudly, and in unison, banging on the table with a rock.

Described as a “doomsday ballet,” the piece had a dark, brooding, post-apocalyptic feel to it, which was accentuated by the haunting, electronic score, and the way the conductor would occasionally instruct the dancers to move as one (slightly creepy) human body that swept the floor like a massive wave.

It was so Montreal. Weird, artful, compelling, disturbing, bizarre and beautiful. In front of me and all around me the lights of the Quartier des Spectacles and the city’s illuminated multi-coloured skyline dazzled. Above me, the open sky. Behind me, an eight-year-old kid sat with his parents, watching the show, transfixed, while eating a giant bag of popcorn. It was open-air theatre at its finest. It was one of those “you had to be there” moments. It was magic.

Once again, I found myself marvelling at how lucky I am to be living in a city where large-scale outdoor events happen without a hitch. No violence, no real safety issues, no guns, no worries about who’s to the left of me or to the right of me. Just a joyful multilingual, multicultural human mass of strangers taking a momentary breather from life’s ever-present problems and irritations and coming together to experience something as a collective, as a community.

Earlier that day I had made my way to the Mont-Royal Street Fair, where throngs of people slowly manoeuvred their way through each other, taking in the food offerings and the sales. Mont-Royal was my first home. A modest second-floor apartment on this street is where my parents first brought me from the hospital when I was born. The corner of Mont-Royal and Henri-Julien was where my father opened his very first restaurant. Nothing remains of it, but it was that corner that my dad would point to when we occasionally found our way by there. We moved away while I was still a baby, so the street has no real memories for me — other than the countless stories my father would share — but the sillage of our past lives still lingers in the air. So many immigrants called this neighbourhood home before all the cool kids moved in.

I salivated at the smells coming from the grilled Portuguese chicken vendors, bumped into friends, watched parents gently push their shy kids forward to high-five a giant furry mascot, leafed through French second-hand books and sampled home-made lemonade. I saw Brazilian musicians competing for attention with a bunch of young women across from them on another stage, who were — oddly enough — giving twerking lessons (sorry, Brazilian dudes, you were dealt a losing hand with that one) and did what I, as a writer, love to do the most: people-watched.

Soon, weather permitting, I will meander my way up St-Laurent and grab a beer at the Fringe tent and take in some fun Fringe Fest performances. The Jazz Fest’s amazing line-up of free, outdoor performances will, once again, motivate Montrealers to squeeze into the QDS space and spend more magical nights together. FrancoFolies will soon follow… And so on and so on does summer go in this town.

Of course, I know that nothing is perfect. We are a whiny bunch. I see so much raving and ranting about the city’s daily happenings and (often minor) annoyances online. Humans tend to forget to appreciate what belongs to them, and the everyday often loses its lustre. Like a lover you’ve grown tired of, because you think you don’t risk ever losing them, the shine wears off.

While I sat at home to write this column this past Sunday and waxed poetically about our city, my social media timeline was clogged with annoyed, angry Montrealers wishing a pox on every family member of everyone ever involved in creating and organizing the Tour de L’Île bike race. The annual whine is so predictable and so disproportionate for an event that only takes place once a bloody year, posts its itinerary and road closures well in advance, and is usually over by 2 p.m. that it always makes me chuckle.

There are far too many “Old Man Yelling at Cloud” folks out there and you really need to chill. The Tour is wonderful. This city is wonderful.

Sure, we’re not perfect. We’ve got lots of real problems to tackle, public hearings are underway on important social injustices, there are more pylons than residents at this point, so much can always be done better, and we could drop off those post-apocalyptic Innervision dancers near the Turcot Interchange right now and they would feel right at home in that epic construction disaster zone.

But can we also ease off on the whining and sit back and appreciate how lovely and beautiful and liveable this city is? How every spring it makes you fall in love with it all over again?

“In Montreal, spring is like an autopsy,” says Leonard, the city’s favourite son. “Everyone wants to see the inside of the frozen mammoth. Girls rip off their sleeves and the flesh is sweet and white, like wood under green bark. From the streets a sexual manifesto rises like an inflating tire, ‘the winter has not killed us again!’”

“The winter has not killed us again.”

If you’re alive and complaining on Twitter, it’s because it hasn’t. Rejoice, soak it all in: the good, the bad, and the ugly. You’re still here. And it’s honestly such a good place to be. ■