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Good Neighbours

Good Neighbours

Letter from Montreal

As my partner Ziya and I stroll down Saint-Zotique, our route turns wavy and nonlinear with the gentle detours we make around other pedestrians. We give slower walkers wide berths of careful distance, hopping down curbs or around trees to avoid the close proximity of others. 

In the winter, it was difficult to even see the people I was trying to keep away from, thanks to  the fog that my mask sent up into my glasses. But as the warm weather has gifted clarity to once slush-clogged streets, it’s also gifted clarity to my line of sight. This is important because I like to scan the street for my friends, the only neighbours I can be close with right now—the cats of Montreal. 

I settled into Montreal in the dead cold of winter at the end of 2019, after ferrying my books, clothes and cats in a cube truck over Highway 401 from Toronto. All my prospects in Toronto were drying up. At some point, you get frustrated with moving every six months, each room smaller than the last. 

I’d visited Montreal dozens of times, most recently to see my long-distance sweetheart. Ziya regaled me with stories of their Montreal adventures—exhilarating evenings running into friends at arts events, relaxing afternoons in parks and on patios. I was seduced by the idea of a city with a culture grounded in a sort of relaxed eccentricity. Wooed over by the promises of a fun and community-oriented city, I decided to make the move. I wanted a place where people walked languorously and waved to you from balconies. Where people had balconies to begin with. 

I waited out the winter like a patient animal in hibernation. Every couple of weeks, someone new would ask me how I was adjusting to the city, and I’d respond that I hadn’t managed to experience much of it yet. Wait until the summer, they’d invariably respond. Montreal in the summer is truly something… and they’d trail off, gazing into the distance with a half-smile like a drowsy person recalling some faraway, delectably sweet dream. 

I waited and waited, fiddling my fingers. Then the winter thawed, and out of its darkness jumped the terrible fiend of the pandemic, stealing away any promises of a genuine Montreal summer. Montreal has become as emotionally stunted as a bad ex-boyfriend because of the pandemic. The primary feeling it relays is anxiety. For a city which prides itself on its eccentricity and depth of character, this suppression is rather miserable.

But I’ve managed to excavate the true personality of my new home through my tiny, mewling neighbours: the city’s cats, whom I’ve gotten to know extremely well. There’s the beautiful tortoiseshell Croquette, who lays outside the hair salon all summer; Beanut, the skinny tabby who screams and runs over to say hi when she sees you; and the one I affectionately call Big-Guy, who is indeed a massively big guy. (Aside from Croquette, whose name we gleaned from her collar, we nickname them all in the spur of the moment.)

Montreal’s cat situation is distinctive, nothing like what I was used to in Toronto, where running into an outdoor cat was rare. Here, they’re as ubiquitous and as prone to suddenly appearing in strange places as the city’s ever-present construction cones. The cats don’t just provide solace through the social isolation and terror of this anxiety-inflected year. They’re also a microcosm of the character of the city—lazily friendly, personable, disinclined to meaningless labour and not a little bit odd. Gently presenting my hand to every cat I see to sniff, I feel hope for the resilience of Montreal’s personality. 

“Let’s go see if Beanut’s out today,” Ziya says to me, motioning towards the street where our favourite cat lives. We spot our beautiful little friend, napping regally on the winding stairs of a duplex. “Beanut!” we both yell, and the tabby perks up and gallops over to us, pressing her head into our hands affectionately. 

We coo and babble at her before saying our goodbyes and continuing down the street, feeling as though we’d just had a happy spontaneous run-in with a neighbour. For a moment, it’s like the personality and sociability of the neighbourhood is still present, just shrunk down to a tiny, four-legged size.

Nour Abi-Nakhoul is a Montreal-based writer whose work has appeared in the Cut, Xtra, Chatelaine and elsewhere. Find her on Twitter@nourmal_woman.