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My wife’s sabbatical is rapidly drawing to a close and we will soon be winging our way back to the warmer temperatures of Melbourne.  During the months we’ve been away, we have spent time in Nova Scotia, Washington DC and Montreal, Canada.  We arrived in Montreal at the beginning of January, unsure if we were going to be able to cope with serious winters after twenty years away. Katherine, our friend with the place in southern Italy, had offered us her condo when she discovered that we were interested in spending a couple of months here.  Katherine likes Montreal, but she doesn’t much care for the months of January and February.  She usually heads back to Europe to catch up with her family obligations and spend the coldest winter months in somewhat warmer climes.

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We would subsidize the utilities and she would have someone in her flat for the coldest months of the year.  My wife likes the food and the culture, the imposing architecture, the mountain within the city and the conviviality that seems to escape the notice of the language police.  She has spent more time here than I have, but we did live here together for three and a half years in the nineties.  One of those winters was memorably cold, like this one.  A bitter North wind brings the cold home in a way that nothing else can.  You know the wind chill factor is off the scale when you are forced to walk with mittens in front of your face to keep your nose free of frost-bite.  It astounds me that brave souls head out on bicycles on wickedly icy streets on the coldest days.

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Katherine lives in an area of Montreal called the Plateau.  It has played the part of Brooklyn in New York, the place where immigrants first put down roots before moving out to the suburbs.  It has hosted wave upon wave of Portuguese, Greeks, Italians, Jews, Poles and other populations.  By 1900, Coteau-Saint-Louis had become cosmopolitan counting Protestant churches and synagogues among its religious edifices. Protestant traders opened shops on St. Lawrence Street (renamed St. Lawrence Boulevard in 1905).  St. Lawrence was known as “the Main,” — the linguistic border between the French-speaking east, and English-speaking west.

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The Depression slowed construction in the district, although some work resulted from the funding for landscaping Sir Wilfred Laurier Park. The University of Montreal moved to the northern slope of Mount Royal in 1943, resulting in the relocation of some members of the English and French bourgeoisie to the Plateau. Schwartz’s Montreal Hebrew Delicatessen was established in 1928, renowned for its Montreal-style smoked meat sandwiches.  Greeks set up many businesses in the decades that followed. More recently, Vietnamese and Portuguese settled in, reflected by the many Vietnamese restaurants in the area and Little Portugal.

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In the 1980s, the area’s bohemian aura and proximity to McGill University attracted both students and professors.  As rents increased, many traditional residents and businesses dispersed to other parts of the city. The neighbourhood continues to thrive, and it is now home to upscale restaurants and nightclubs, and trendy clothing stores located along St. Laurent Blvd. and St. Denis St.   It is the most densely populated borough in Canada, with 101,054 people living in an 8.1 square kilometre area.  The Plateau was the childhood home of Michel Tremblay and Mordecai Richler, both of whom mined their memories for their books and plays. Check out “The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz” in paper or on DVD for a poignant and memorable evocation of the Plateau in the forties.

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My wife lived in a shabby but inexpensive flat on a famous avenue of the Plateau called Esplanade while she was going to Law School.  Fortunately, she had heat but many flats did not.  The tenants had to buy kerosene heaters, barely adequate to warm rooms in stone apartment buildings.  At that time, the area showed few signs of the gentrification that is so obvious now. Katherine has witnessed an amazing transformation of her little neighborhood since she bought her place.  To her astonishment, the most recent wave of immigrants seem to be young French people who have been courted by Quebec and the Canadian government to come across the Atlantic and take up residence.  Every time Katherine does her “courses” now in the supermarkets, she finds herself hearing conversations in what she calls “French French.”

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Despite my partner’s dedication to her working obligations, we managed to slip down to Ottawa to catch up with Darlene and Fred, (the friends who came to Italy with us) and my brother-in-law, Michael.  It was Winterlude in Ottawa, a period in which the city celebrates every positive aspect of winter weather.  Ottawa has a reputation to maintain as the coldest capitol outside of Ulan Bator in Mongolia.  It was only -16 C while we were there, but the Rideau Canal was quite solid and Michael and I took a brief turn on the ice.  It is a wonderfully photogenic venue.

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We couldn’t leave Montreal without renewing contact with friends and colleagues.  We connected at various restaurants around town as well as cozy living rooms with warm, wonderful fireplaces.  Winter brings people together in a way that summer simply doesn’t.  Getting together for conversational catch-up is a wonderful treat in and of itself.  Good food and drinks are the icing on the cake.  I would like to take this opportunity to thank all those who were gracious enough to make time for us during our winter sojourn.

There is a very good piece in the most recent New Yorker about Montreal’s influence on Leonard Cohen.  Check it out at: http://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/leonard-cohens-montreal.

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Finally, what can I say about cross country skiing in the Laurentians that does justice to the experience.  Despite the back-handed compliment by the man in his fifties who told me that I was an inspiration, he hoped he would still be skiing “at my age,” it was soon obvious that the desire for sport had never left us.  My wife and I have such fond memories of slipping through the snow that we had to try to recapture some of that magic during the last couple of months.  Unfortunately, our bodies have aged and our skill on skis has suffered from neglect.  Our final trip took us up the far side of Mount Tremblant to an area known as la Secteur du Diable.   It is an area where you can still spot oldsters on wooden skis.

I wrote a poem about it years ago when we lived in football friendly Florida.  I don’t think I’ve  pasted a poem in this blog before, but there is always a first time.

Please enjoy the best of the rest of my pics by clicking on any of the photos running alongside this post.  That will take you to Flickr.  Au revoir.  A bientot.

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Cross Country

 

I like to travel on pine tar

its odor redolent as sex

flashing me back to cold Iowa mornings,

crunching through corn stubble on crusty snow,

under watchful eyes of neighbor moms.

 

From the time we take a tentative step,

self-propel ourselves across a steep carpet,

we all fall forward.  It’s the falling that counts.

 

Handsome hickory planks, golden as syrup

and smooth as kitten fur.  Cut and crafted with

lignite edges, they inspire disdain in eyes

obsessed with lycra and the look of speed.

 

Skis have taken me wild places.  Snow covered spots,

branded in memory— Lake Michigan’s frozen shore

at sunset, down snow-cat tracks in Yellowstone,

face to shaggy face with buffalo.

 

North of Montreal, near Tremblant, a trail called

Le Poisson.  One whiff of hard wax and I am there,

panting as I climb.  Forcing myself up hard slopes,

working arms to exhaustion.  All for the thrill

of the fall.

 

Freezing and frozen moments of exhilarating down,

past pines and fir, feeling the grace of

gravity pulling faster and faster.

The glorious glide, the wind on skin,

the sense that we were born to do this.

 

Flickr Photos

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