Montreal | Highlights + On Specific Places of Belonging
I arrived in Montreal both exhausted and hungry. Exhausted from the week in Véretz and yet hungry for more inspiration, more culture, more art, dance, performance, and really good food. I think we all have certain cities or places that know exactly how to feed us properly, and I would venture to say that for my tastes, Montreal is an absolute feast.
It was my second time in this quebecois city and I went for just a five day pop-over before heading back to Minneapolis- an un-thought-out but perfect cultural bridge between Europe and America. It was also the perfect excuse to hang out with my brother and see him perform, since he is living there full-time as a circus student at École National du Cirque. Him and a couple friends from the same school put together a quirky street show called The Space Enthusiasts and I was able to see them shine in the Montreal Jazz Festival as well as a circus fest called Complétement Cirque.
Seeing him in his true element was so inspiring and simultaneously, I felt myself slipping into my own element of creative absorption. Seeing performances, finding amazing local restaurants, reading in cafes, staying open and active as I biked around the bustling and beautiful city. I felt the same sensation arising that I had experienced my first time in Montreal a couple years ago- the feeling that this is a city where I fit. A place where I have the ability to belong.
Kyo Maclear, in her book Birds Art Life Death (which by the way, deserves a whole post of its own), writes about how her son once declared that he wants to live by the “Specific Ocean” forever.
“This lovely malapropism set me thinking about the idea of place and where we find our specific oases of serenity and belonging… Places that sustain us.”
I always thought that being a traveler and artist who bounces from place to place for work stripped my being of any sense of belonging. I fancied myself a bit of a nomad. However, with time I started to see how certain specific spots had the power to bring me back into parts of myself that are sometimes hidden. Places that make me naturally brighter, more aware and those which I dreamily yearn for in any moments of self doubt. I think I am more of a specific nomad, if I am any kind of nomad at all. Aimlessly and artfully roaming the world, but finding belonging in those few resonant places that sustain me. Lake Superior, the northern coast of California where my mom grew up, and Montreal are the first three that come to mind. These kinds of places of belonging have the ability to freeze time in order to see a part of ourselves that is more serene and at peace, taking this self-image with us back home for safe keeping.
I suppose this seems like a lot to be waxing on about considering I have only been to Montreal twice- people who live there or who have rested there longer are probably scoffing at me right about now. However, I think when you find a piece of yourself in a big city, it is an instant and magical thing. Something to hold on to and not take lightly. Montreal has this creative and diverse energy that allows me to weave myself comfortably into the city’s rhythm. While it may have only been a five-day trip, I made the most of every second and was lucky enough to have my brother- a connoisseur of things that are un-pretentiously cool- as my personal guide.
In case you ever make it to this beautiful city and find yourself humming happily in its rhythm, here are some of my favorite things from throughout the week.
This Iranian/Persian cafe has some of the most amazing breakfast food I have had in a while. As my brother put it “they do some crazy things with eggs.” Scrambled omelettes with feta and dill, and most notably, an omelette with rose water, spices and a sugary cinnamon topping. Also, I would like to bottle up an entire liter of each of their homemade jams and take them home with me. They have rotating flavors like orange cardamom marmalade and all sorts of things with orange blossom and rose waters. I would probably be here weekly if I lived in Montreal.
Quite simply some of the best pastries I came across in the city. Their almond croissants are flakey buttery pieces of heaven.
I truly believe that all major cities should have bike rental services. It is just genius. Bixi in Montreal is so simple to use and being such a bike-heavy city, is almost a necessity if you are planning on doing some serious exploring. Since my brother bikes everywhere I had to rent one in order to keep up, but also ended up thoroughly enjoying getting a bit lost in new neighborhoods and biking along the river on my own.
One of the coolest, hole-in-the wall, eclectic diners you will find. Amazing breakfasts, amazing burgers, coffee, poutine- just generally all of that good, greasy stuff you may be craving after a long bike ride or walk. Also they are (dangerously) open practically 24/7. My brother confessed to eating here at least once a week.
Delicious frozen custard in a wide variety of flavors including, my personal favorite, an incredible lavender vanilla ice cream. Not gonna lie, we went here twice in those 5 days. They also always have a couple vegan flavors which may be soy-based, but are still pretty good.
6. Atwater Market and the bike ride there from the city center.
I am, in general, a huge fan of lush and varied markets with food and flowers spilling out from every corner. Atwater market, while a little bit outside of the center, is absolutely worth a visit if you are anything like me. My brother and I took a beautiful bike ride there along the river and through back neighborhoods, stopping to wander the market and pick up some snacks, then we trekked on to a park even further afield for a picnic lunch of bagel sandwiches (courtesy of St. Viateur), chips and Rise Kombucha (a Canadian brand that I became momentarily obsessed with during my visit).
Take a long, leisurely bike ride at some point in Montreal. It is a vital part of the city experience, in my opinion.
It may be a chain restaurant throughout the city, but the salads, sandwiches, smoothies and sweets are any health-nut's dream come true. Everything I tried there was absolutely delicious and each location has this sort of zen, plant-filled, friendly energy to the place, making it the perfect spot to come alone and bring a book or your laptop to do some work.
I have heard from so many Australians and people who have visited that Melbourne is the coffee capital of the world. It makes sense in that case that the Melbourne, an Australian themed cafe in the heart of the city, has some of the best coffee I tried in Montreal. The grumpy Australian owner is also quite the character, lurking around behind the counter while you cheerily order your drink.
Finally- Just Walk
I believe there is no better way to feel a city than to walk. Skip the metro in Montreal- take a bike or use your feet. My toe was partially broken during my visit, but I didn't let that stop me from exploring (albeit a bit slower than usual) on foot and soaking in all of the characteristic residential streets, open air bars and cafes with plants and people spilling out of the windows, street shows and festivals and people watching, and of course the serene, wide Saint Lawrence River.
I walked, I watched, and found myself settling into my skin in a comfortable, familiar way.
Where do you find that serene sense of belonging?