Day 2: “The first step to being Canadian” | Disjointed Dispatches from Montreal

I’m on the top bunk and I toss and turn too much. I get up. It’s early. I go downstairs and get some writing done. I’m working on a song. I can plunk out an idea for it on the public piano. I’m excited about this prospect.

I’m also doing a little bit of work, just an hour a day to keep the bills paid. This is the reason I work remotely.

There’s no one in the kitchen until everyone is in the kitchen. Free breakfast every morning here consists of bagels, toast, boiled eggs, cereal. Everyone is here and everyone wants food and then everyone leaves and I want to take a picture of milk in a bag because Canada does that and I find my phone is missing. Panic. Tear apart my purse, backpack, retrace steps, ask the lost and found. Turns out it was in my bed. Whew.

Strange how I have wrapped my identity and functionality around a few key physical objects.

I take the picture.

I get back to writing. I overhear someone talking about the Bay Area. I stop writing. He’s from San Diego, family is in the Bay. He’s a black man that wants out of the US. Montreal is his happy place. People talk to you here. People help you here. He says he could probably make a strong case for asylum here, if he had the energy to do it.

I have to wrap up my work and take a phone call with a client. I then wander to Crescent Street again, hit up a place called Warehouse where everything on the menu is $5.95 Canadian. On top of that the CAD is in my favor. It was a decent and filling BBQ sandwich. The credit card readers here ask you what percentage you’d like to tip before you finalize your payment, unlike the US where we’re rarely prompted to tip, we must do the math percentage ourselves and we’re never given a receipt with the actual total we spent, we have to write it on the receipt ourselves. It’s like we don’t… care… about… tipping…. workers. Or actively making it very difficult. Hmmmm. (I also hate how the insititution of tipping creates jobs that pay lower than minimum wage, and the people who are most rewarded with tipping tend to be pretty white girls who smile lots. I digress.)

I stop at a cafe to take the time and coordinate with friends. I overhear phrases I know like excuse moi and bon appetit and remind myself oh yeah I can say those words for real now.

I’m told to go walking about in the Mile End neighborhood. Outside of a couple of must-dos, like the legendary bagel place and a hip record store, I have no agenda but wander. I give myself a challenge: Can I wander without Yelp? Answer: Nope. Not really. I don’t know how people traveled before smartphones, which is funny because I actually do know how, and it involved going into your local automobile insurance club like AAA and asking for people to highlight your routes and suggest hotels for you and give you free guidebooks with coupons. I know this, because my aunts on both sides were coworkers doing this very job, and that is how my parents met and how I exist now and why I’m here.

Here. Mile End. I arrive and see Orthodox Jewish men walking amongst the other pedestrians, with their long curls of hair, wearing all black. I see signs in Hebrew. That’s the fourth language on sign’s I’ve seen so far, after French, English and Arabic. I will eventually see Greek and Chinese.

I have a Montreal bagel and read news articles framed on the wall about how the staples of Montreal cuisine are rooted in Jewish communities that only made up 2% of the population. They were still not treated well, but bagels and smoked meat was cheap and filling and conveniently located between the lower and upper class neighborhoods. I have a significant percentage of Ashkenazi Jewish background, according to my sister’s DNA test. I feel it.

I unsucessfully wander in a wrong direction until I gave into the yelping from my phone. Back on a street. Oh, wait, this is called Saint Laurent now? Is this still Mile End? Slightly confused but not worried. I go to my other must-do in the area, a record shop where I carefully weigh the amount of records I want to buy with the amount of room I can safely transport them in my suitcase. I’ve done it before, transported vinyl in a suitcase on my plane. I’ll do it again.

I know I want a Leonard Cohen record, seeing we’re talking about the Jewish community in Montreal. I also know I want a Radiohead-y record but that isn’t a main album release because I can get those anywhere. I also consider this my Montreal souvenirs. I overhear a woman singing the name “Suzanne” through the store speakers and it’s not a Cohen or a Weezer cover. I ask the clerk who’s playing. He says her name is Jennifer Castle.

It’s a lovely song, and her other songs are lovely. The clerk says I have many lovely songs with my name and I concur. I tell him about the myth my mom tellls me that I’m named after the Cohen song, and I know it’s not true, mom knows it’s not true, dad named me because it was his favorite name and had nothing to do with the song but it’s a better story and so the myth persists. It’s a better story of why I’m here, which is a question everyone is fucking asking me and the word “vacation” isn’t enough. The clerk asks me the question. Vacation isn’t enough, so I tell him the story of Leonard Cohen first and how I’ve always wanted to come ever since I learned he wrote the song here. He’s why I’m here and, according to myth, why I exist in my Suzanne-y form. Then he rings up a copy of my Thom Yorke solo album and says “oh hey do you know they’re playing here next week?” And that’s when I admit my real intention for this vacation and he lights up and tells me he has tickets too and we talk Radiohead and I’m allowed to be a superfan for a hot minute. After we chat he walks across the store and says “Here, while we’re at it, let me throw in this.” It’s a vinyl of his band’s album. He says he thinks I’ll like it. So now I’ve got 4 albums: Leonard Cohen, Thom Yorke, Jennifer Castle and That Dude’s Band. I leave the records at the store for picking up later since I can’t carry it around right now. But they’re my most pure souveniers of this moment and place.

Oh shit souveniers!!! I have a hella big family and should buy some trinkets or something which is where wandering actually paid off, because if I was busy thinking of destinations I would have missed the gift shops and vintage stores. No other spoilers here.

After that, I cave in and check Yelp because I crave ice cream and I’m about to walk to the Mont Royal park and the weather is nice and I want ice cream. It leads me to a closed shop. Poop. Wander again. Feet are hurting. I don’t want to venture too far, I have a show to attend later. I go into a cafe instead and get an iced green tea with cherry flavor. Turns out IT’S EXACTLY WHAT I WANTED WHEN I THOUGHT I WANTED ICE CREAM. YES FOR WANDERING.

I walk to the park but my feet hurt like hell so I don’t venture too far, I just walk up to a place with a pretty church and an apartment complex attached WAIT IS THIS A CONVENT. THIS IS A CONVENT ISN’T IT. No shit, that song I was writing about this morning was all about giving up this life and joining a convent for shits and giggles. Tongue in cheek. But here I was outtside a complex clearly labeled with the French word “couvent.” I look it up. It was a former convent, some sisters still live there, the rest has been converted to multigenerational family apartments. One is available for rent. The option is still in my mind.

Ugh. Walking. My feet feel swollen. Was planning on smoked meat at Main Deli tonight but it’s an extra 10 minute walk and I’d rather eat closer to the venue. Had a vegetarian burger made of sweet potatoes and beets and tzaziki. They called it a latke burger. Again with the Jewish food. It was delicious.

I hear someone in the restaurant call “Suzanne!” In the US it’s not a common name but I figure I’m in francophone country now, so it must be someone else. I have this thing where when I visit other countries, I always think I see someone I know. I never do. I look up. It’s someone I know. It’s Naghmeh, my friend who is playing a show tonight across the street. We chat a bit, she’s nervous about the show, I understand because I’m always nervous before my show. She’s got to go and set up, I sit finishing the dinner, and finish about an hour before the opening act is set to start. I’ve got time to kill.

I kill it in the best way. I walk down the street to a music instrument store. There’s a shit ton of pianos. I hop on a digital one. I play with the voices on it. One sounds like a Radiohead song. I play Everything In Its Right Place. I mess around a bit more, and then from across the store, an employee hops on the piano and also plays Everything In Its Right Place. We. GEEEEEEEK. OUT. Between customers walking in, he breaks out his guitar and plays note for note renditions of his favorite Radiohead songs, I join him on piano, he tells me seeing them in 98 on the OKC tour changed his life, his voice sounds 85% LIKE THOM YORKE’S, we jam, another employee joins in a bit (but he makes it clear he’s nowhere as into them as we are). Yes, they’ve got tickets. I will likely see him around again. Particularly because I’ve been looking for a place to play piano and do rough recordings of songs that are emerging on this trip. I had been planning on an hourly rental music rehearsal venue… but I may be able to negotiate for this place. I give him my card. It’s got my music on it. They immediately look me up on Spotify and start rocking @ Little Spiral @ in the store. WHAT IS LIFE.

The show is starting. I say goodbye. I kinda don’t want to. But turns out the opener is also from SF and recognizes me from the music community there. He’s pretty entertaining. Then it’s Naghmeh and she rocks it with some modern Americana. Then the last band of the night blew everyone’s freaking brains with some 5-piece rock and roll that was so good it was an insult to remain seated so I stood, sore feet and all, and dance-wiggled around until I couldn’t dance-wiggle no more. Two bands have never played in Montreal before. The opener apologized for the shit going on in the US. Someone in the crowd says “Being sorry is the first step to being Canadian.”

On to way to the Metro back to the hostel. Things are open 24 hours here. 24 HOURS. WHY SF NO 24 HOURS. Grabbed a slice of pizza at a 24 hour pace. That was fucking good pizza. There’s a 24-hour flower kiosk. Why. Who needs flowers at 3am. My feet hurt. There’s lots of stairs. The city as a whole is not handicap accessible. Oh that’s right, most underground stations don’t charge when you exit, there just turnstiles. Fucking BART. I could have sworn that were the tourist whistling Frere Jaques because how stereotypical is that, but now I’m not sure.

Hostel. Bed. I’m on the top bunk. My feet and now back hurts. I have to stretch on the floor for 20 minutes before I climb up the ladder. I will need to switch to a bottom bunk and I’ll do that in the morning.


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