Around this time of year in Jewish homes all across the globe, families will gather around the dinner table for the Passover seder, and will remember the Children of Israel’s joyous exodus from slavery in Egypt. At my house in Toronto, however, a different exodus is discussed; one that is just as bitter as the herbs that are traditionally choked down that same night. The event I’m referring to is the great anglo-exile of the 1970s and 80s, an incident which left my ex-Montrealer parents with considerable animosity toward the Parti Quebecois (PQ), and toward La Belle Province in general. The city of Montreal itself, however, was never on the receiving end of any post departure acrimony. Instead, it is fondly remembered by my parents and occupies a central place in our familial lore.
No special holiday is needed to talk about Montreal at my house, and with my grandparents, aunts, and uncles on both sides all hailing from various Montreal neighbourhoods, it is often the centre of one nostalgic conversation or another.
At my house in Toronto, however, a different exodus is discussed; one that is just as bitter as the herbs that are traditionally choked down that same night.
Growing up, I heard tales of deli sandwiches filled with so much juicy meat you had to unhinge your jaw just to take a bite. “Not like the crap you get here,” my grandmother would scoff. I listened to descriptions of bagels baked in brick ovens, that were crispy on the outside, and deliciously soft on the inside. Toronto bagels, derisively referred to as “bread with a hole in it” by my father, could never compete. Toronto, through little fault of its own, bore the brunt of my family’s frustration at having left Montreal. It is not easy being a step-city.
According to my parents, everything about Montreal was better than Toronto. Montreal sports were the most exciting, and anyone who has not been to a Montreal Expos game has not truly lived. Montreal weather was the most exceptional, with snow banks so high, people used to jump into them from second story balconies. Even the street lights were apparently brighter in Montreal. I once heard my maternal and paternal grandmothers discuss quite seriously how they can hardly see at night anymore, and it is probably because the streetlights in Toronto are dimmer than those in Montreal used to be. Never mind that they can’t really see during the day either, because that’s definitely unrelated.
According to my parents, everything about Montreal was better than Toronto. Montreal sports were the most exciting, and anyone who has not been to a Montreal Expos game has not truly lived.
It’s easy to see why I was so excited to be accepted to McGill. I would finally return to the promised land, a land flowing with cured meats and Orange Julep smoothies. I was thrilled to come to Montreal, and I practically thought the city streets would be paved with gold.
Imagine my surprise, however, when I found out that not only were the streets not paved in gold — they weren’t paved at all. I discovered this shortly upon arrival, after nearly falling into the bottomless pit which took up residence in the middle of Sherbrooke street for the majority of last year. My first experience in Montreal had an ominous undertone. This feeling was compounded when I tried to take a taxi to Olympic Stadium to catch a Blue Jays pre-season baseball game. According to the driver, I was an idiot, and the Expos had not played in Montreal for 13 years. As I stepped out of the car to the sound of the cabbie’s rather imaginative French cursing, I began to seriously worry. Maybe this city was not the El-Dorado I had heard so much about.
All doubts were expelled, thankfully, when I took my first bite of a real Montreal smoked meat sandwich. It was damn good. And when I tried a bagel from St-Viateur a few hours later, all was once again right with the world. Of course I had eaten Montreal bagels in Toronto, because it is a sacred duty for any ex-Montrealer visiting the city to bring back several tons of the stuff to feed the hungry diaspora community. But after several weeks of storage in a freezer, the refugee bagels I used to eat could not compare to the fresh, piping hot masterpiece I enjoyed at St-Viateur. I went to bed content that night, knowing my childhood was not a lie after all.
As my freshman year came and went, these conflicting impressions of Montreal continued. There were some things that were great, like the beautiful mountain scenery. There were some things that were awful, like the fact that the city views salting icy streets as an optional activity. Overall, I found Montreal to be not all that different from Toronto. There’s not that much distinction between Starbucks and Café Starbucks, after all. Montreal has its strengths and weaknesses, just like any other city.
As my freshman year came and went, these conflicting impressions of Montreal continued. There were some things that were great, like the beautiful mountain scenery. There were some things that were awful, like the fact that the city views salting icy streets as an optional activity.
Now, in my second year, I realize that I’m starting to miss Toronto a bit. I wish I could go to a Raptors game now and again, instead of streaming them from my laptop. I certainly wouldn’t mind being able to understand what the street signs mean. What the hell is an arrondissement anyway? I even miss Drake.
I suppose that in this regard I am similar to my parents. If you leave your home city, even by choice, its flaws become less important over time. All that stays in your mind is a sense of nostalgia for where you were raised, and a lack of familiarity for where you live now. Perhaps if I end up living in a city other than Toronto I’ll become just like my extended family. I’ll be telling my children and grandchildren wistful, quasi-true stories about a long lost home, when they are just trying to watch TV while enjoying their bread with a hole in it.