Register Sunday | June 16 | 2019

A Tale of Three Cities

Three writers recall the great darkness of 2003

A sunny afternoon in Ottawa, a summer city, but I was deep in Revisionland, working on a novel set in Montreal in the 1980s, and so I couldn’t go out into the breezy day. I was trying to remember the names of metro stops, the names of three or four streets up on the Plateau. How useful it would be, I thought, to pick up my notebook and be magically transported to a French milieu.

My wish was about to be granted, but like a poor girl in a fairy tale I didn’t know it yet. And not only granted, but granted in a manner that would inconvenience fifty million people.

What happened was that the power went out. I ran down to the courtyard where a crowd had already collected.

“Is it just local?”

“It’s continental.”

Official words were already fighting their way through a thicket of static on a balcony radio just above us: terrorism, sabotage, cascading, incompetence, the whole North American northeast, not on the same grid.

Cascading incompetence. Take away the comma and you get to the heart of the matter.

I needed to buy food, but the whole city was sure to be shut down. But then the words “not on the same grid” began to fill me with happiness. Because just across the river in Hull there would be power, Hull would be on the Quebec grid.

I hailed a taxi and as we were racing along the leafy roads skirting ugly Hull, it struck me: I was getting my wish, I was about to be plunged into a French milieu. Still, how French could Hull actually be? Hull is only Hull, I thought. Or only “’Ull.”

But when I walked into a huge food barn, I saw that Hull really was another country, the atmosphere was so at odds with the testy pace in Ottawa. Here too people were walking fast, but they were intensely engaged in conversation with one another and there was a buoyant energy to the ambience. Life fizzed and sparked. I saw a grey husband whose slim wife was wearing a sort of half-fez patterned with a zigzag terrazzo design; they were talking at high speed as they walked in deranged tandem, and when they got to the cantaloupes, they consulted fiercely while prodding and sniffing them.

Not far away, a woman in a backless white dress was waiting at the deli counter. Behind her stood her boyfriend, a workman in a hard hat and canvas overalls, and as I was watching them, she cast a glance back at him that looked sidelong and flirty. A glance that said, “Do you love me? Still?”

A woman with a baby threw a similar glance—intimate, secretive—back to her husband as I met them on my way out into the evening and I wondered if I was so impressed by all this private bliss because there was a love affair between a francophone and an anglophone in my novel. So that when the cabbie turned to talk to me about his bad English, my bad French, then said, “Say things to me in French,” it didn’t seem so strange0that his words would have such a tender power over me, even though I was, as the French so tactfully put it, a woman of a certain age.

By this time we were crossing the moonlit river to Ottawa, a city that sat like an endless black fortress under the star-swarmed sky. And after we reached the great dark hulk of my building at Holland Cross and I’d paid the driver and got out, I turned to give him a backward/sidelong glance. But he was already sprinting off, on his way back to ’Ull, a city that was, like Paris—at least for tonight—the City of Light.