"The city is a fact in nature, like a cave, a run of mackerel or an ant-heap. But it is also a conscious work of art... Mind takes form in the city; and in turn, urban forms condition mind." -Lewis Mumford, The Culture of Cities.
I fell in love with Montreal long before I ever set foot in the city. Growing up in Hamilton, Ontario, reading novels set in Montreal like Gabrielle Royís le Bonheur d'Occasion and Mordecai Richler's The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, I was convinced Montreal was filled with romance, tragedy and people who somehow lived life on a grand scale. This fictional city, put to paper before I'd been born, drew me to live here.
There are no official guidelines to gaining membership to the community of Montreal, no tests or ceremonies such as one expects in gaining citizenship to a country. You do not have to know when moving day falls, or what a three-and-a-half is. No one will ask you to describe the qualities of a Montreal bagel or explain the differences between a bagel from St. Viateur or Fairmount Bakeries. And there is no passport to hold up as proof of having become a citizen. It takes many people a long time to feel as if they belong here. "It is almost a subculture," says Will Straw, professor of communications at McGill University and co-investigator of the Culture of Cities, an interdisciplinary project looking at the cultures of Toronto, Montreal, Dublin and Berlin. "You can't just buy your way into Montreal."
What I used to consider typically Montreal was its joie de vivre. After all, this is a city that closes down its busiest streets on a regular basis for celebrations, festivals and sales. It wears its badge of sin city just as proudly as Toronto carries the mantle of the good. But behind that, one sees a deep tolerance in local citizens. When it comes to language , Montrealers go out of their way to accommodate one another. Store clerks and bank tellers greet new customers "Bonjour, Hello. May I help you? Je peux vous aider?" Answering machine messages are often recorded in both languages, even in unilingual households. And it is common to hear conversations that use both languages at the same time, switching back and forth between the two. "Because every encounter and transaction requires that you think about language, there is a kind of tolerance in what we do," says Straw. As a result, a hybrid Franglais has become the dialect of the city.
Even now, after ten years, I would not say I come from Montreal, but the city does claim my loyalty, my affection, and so owns a part of me. In that sense, I am of Montreal—I belong to it. Oliver Wendell Holmes once wrote, "The axis of the earth sticks out visibly through the centre of each and every town or city." For me, that axis has shifted from the place of my upbringing to the city I have adopted. As Montreal has become my home, I have come to see it in a less romantic light, one that allows for pot-holes and cracks in the pavement; now, after ten years, I savour the feeling of the place and the character of its people more than that city of tragedy and romance I first read about. People still live large here: it's the meaning of living large, for me, that has changed.