Sometimes, my mind wanders, during that brief moment between dusk and night, as my eyes adjust to the dimming light and advancing twilight makes the edges of tree branches seem soft and hazy against the paling sky. My mind wanders back through misty memories to moments I would like to relive or retrieve.
Perhaps it is my Gallic genetic heritage calling, but there is something about Montréal that gently pulls me into reverie. The city softens my hard shell and opens me to emotion and reflection. During the last few days, while I was visiting Montréal to give an academic presentation, I felt that tug and perhaps because I was with trusted friends, I allowed my thoughts to swirl and stream back to moments of quiet joy.
French cities are places of hidden treasures and sombre wooden doors. To enter behind, you have push open the door, pull apart the ivy and let your eyes adjust to the dusty shadows of the room that opens to you. The French are not obvious or literal. Allusion lies at the heart of their conversation and subtlety at base of their aesthetic gaze.
We gave our talk on political communication at Concordia at 2pm. It was a success and we left feeling satisfied that we’d done honour to our duty as conferenciers. I felt happy for once – that I am with my colleague, the incomparable Philip Savage, gallant and cheerful, always ready with a good pun or a little song. Paul Bullock, our sober lab manager was with us too – quiet and vigilant, noticing the details of our interactions and building a picture of a future life for himself in his mind. We do build these fragmentary snapshots of the future while we live through unusual moments in the present.
The conference done, we went to a hotel bar and sat on the terrace to drink a bottle of Ruffino Chianti, nibble through a selection of Québécois cheeses and savour prociutto-wrapped canteloupe. We capped it off with a delightful dark leafy salad with a subtle vinaigrette and roasted olive-oil soaked cashews. Heavenly. Elegant Mercedes-Benz and Audis rolled by as we sipped and munched and bantered with the waiter about politics and public relations. We laughed a lot and told stories of the talk – building our own mythology and setting the story in our memories. Our waiter was efficient, demonstrating mastery of his métier in his crisp movements, his perfect pouring of the wine, the Badoit sparkling water and his look of worry as he laboured to place the plates just so on the little bistro table we were seated around.
We decided, after several toasts and lots of sharp, stinky cheese, to leave our bags at the coat check of the Musée des Beaux Arts and walk up to McGill. It was a chance day, for there was a convocation going on, and we found ourselves surrounded by elegant and winsome young women and their parents. Sometimes a wayward beau followed in tow.
After a stop at the Graduate students union at the top of the McGill campus hill, we returned to the Musée des Beaux Arts and took in the Miles Davis exhibit. What a life of art and adventure he had lived. Iconic and fruitful. Troubled and sincere. I couldn’t help but notice the eyes of those around him in the pictures we saw: full of anticipation, thinking that something new, something great, was about to happen. Just then, as they walked with him.
Feeling lazy, we eschewed our original plan to dine at the Entrecôte St. Jean on the rue Peel and supped in the Café des Beaux Arts in the Musée. What a glorious meal – I had a magret de canard and wonderful bouillabaisse. We accompanied it with a chalky Côtes du Rhône recommended by the hostess for duck and soup. She served us in that friendly, yet efficient French way – clipped speech accompanied by a broad smile. She had the preoccupied look that French women who are working often have – attending to every detail and thinking of the most appropriate thing to do and say given the circumstances, whatever they may be. She checked on us often and apologized for the lack of patrons in the restaurant twice, her brow knitted, a look of sincere worry flitting across the canvas of her face. Then her eyes opened wide and she said, with a brilliant smile: “Mais nous sommes très contents que vous êtes parmi nous, messieurs!” (but we are happy that you are with us, gentlemen).
To end the night, we took a cab through the Parc Mont Royal and up to the base of the steps of the Oratoire Saint Joseph. There we climbed the pilgrims steps, through the light drizzle until we reached the top and saw the Ville de Montréal extend beneath us – a dazzling tapestry of stars, fallen to Earth for the evening, making the city feel liquid and shimmering, full of possibility.
I found my thoughts and memories overtaking me during this night of movement and light and darkness. My mind drifted back to moments I had shared with people whom I have loved, some of whom I have lost. I remember one person with whom I only went out twice, but whose conversation has marked my thoughts and troubled my memories so profoundly. I think back to how a day of anxiety and a moment of insecurity could make one say things that put another off. Normally I am tough, but I felt that I lost something – a beautiful friend, a kindred spirit. We meet so few who inspire us and open up landscapes of possibility in our minds and hearts. What a tragedy when they leave our lives.
Now, that loss caused me to change my life, a couple of months ago – to eliminate the sources of stress and burden and anxiety. To privilege beauty and creativity. Those have been good changes and my heart has opened. But it is hard to put a broken shell together again. I fear I have lost what I had – or at least that I have lost a glorious possibility – and I am sorrowful for having lost it.
I do so regret my missteps. I do wish I could change the past.
As I gazed over the flickering lights of Montréal, under the illuminated arches of the Oratoire Saint Joseph, as cars glided by on the road far beneath and as the hipster kids smoked and flirted in groups on the steps around me – I felt happy and yet alone. Feeling alone is new to me – I used be something of a lone wolf. For the first time in my life, I feel this growing longing to share what I see and feel. To open my heart and mind to others and, with those others, to smile and laugh and …
… just be.