une lettre pour vous


dear Montreal,

I’m writing to you from Ottawa, having just left your soft, cheese-filled embrace, and I miss you already. (Just to be clear, I do NOT miss your traffic, and I do not miss your construction)… but I do miss the way the morning light shines through those big beautiful windows of a third floor flat at the top of those crazy wonderful circular stairs.

I miss the view of flat-topped row houses, weathered doors and every-colour colour-schemes.

I miss your windows.

Your biggest buildings.

And neighbours who have different uses for their balconies and which make me think of poetry about loaves of bread and hyacinths for the soul as I pass.

I miss your alleyways and secret gardens with statues of buddah and jesus and others, like you’re covering all the bases.

And those green olives swimming in spicy red pepper schmoo.

I miss your cars, so well disguised we hardly know they’re there.

Things seen under stairways.

Your art.

I miss your shadows.

Hells bells, even your handyjustdownthestreet IGA is all meilleur…

Tea and trumpet by the canal.

Oh and dear Montreal… who wouldn’t miss your signs?

I miss your public napping chairs.

I miss being able to buy handmade paper at an unassuming factory that prides itself on being almost impossible to find (discovered by reading the absolutely wonderful Gutenberg’s Fingerprint).

I miss the doodle I mistook for a labyrinth until I tried to walk it.

Community gardens-in-the-hood, enclosed by fences covered in morning-glories.

Views from unlikely places.

And let’s not even talk about the food.

So, yes, much missing but enough sniffling…

a bientot, eh…


     More from Montreal here.


Up Next: Hello/Bytown


this is not a review: ‘five roses’, by alice zorn

So much of how life feels lies in the phrasing,
in the way a thought starts, then turns back upon itself
until its question hangs unanswered in the breeze.”
— from ‘North Point North’, by John Koethe

When I read these lines in Koethe’s poem I immediately thought of Alice Zorn. It’s such a perfect description of how her new novel, Five Roses, is written… all rhythms and patterns, loops, questions and connections that satisfy in surprising ways while leaving us with yet another question we’re only too happy to contemplate until the loops and connections bring us to the next answer. And so on.

It’s a delightful ride.

The story is set in Montreal, in the working class neighbourhood of Pointe-Ste-Charles where Zorn has lived for close to fifteen years. (In the spirit of disclosure may I say that I have the pleasure of calling Alice Zorn a friend, which allows me to confirm that she knows well, and loves, this part of the world. And her humour is delicious.)

“The women in tight skirts standing at the corner of Wellington, leering at the traffic, weren’t waiting for the bus.”

Not only is the story set on her home turf, but this funky ‘hood is pretty much one of the characters—a neglected and, in many ways, unknown part of town. Apparently bus service didn’t even arrive until 1992. A place of historic but crumbling townhouses once home to the workers that built the Lachine Canal, Pointe-Ste-Charles has only in recent years been ‘discovered’ and is still being gentrified. But Zorn has not written about the now. Her interest is in that sliver of time between the 1970’s when the hippies were still there, to the early 2000’s, when life in these increasingly derelict houses just trundled along, when police avoided the area and “People… knew to ignore what didn’t concern them.”9781459734241

And the people are as richly drawn as the ‘character’ of place. One man “…chewed gum with his front teeth.”  In another case “A comma of shaving foam hung from one earlobe.”

In a tiny but telling scene, a woman rides her bike to a corner shop, outside of which sits an eccentric old man in a battered kitchen chair. “She said hello so he would know she knew he was there and expected him to watch her bike, which she leaned against the storefront.”

No words are exchanged yet the moment says so much about the community that exists here and the importance of knowing how to navigate it.

Of course not everyone knows the rules of navigation and part of the happy trip of reading Five Roses  is being privy to the learning process, watching the naifs and the newbies try to ‘get it’.

Fara and her husband are two such newbies. They’ve purchased their first home, thrilled with the bargain price. The catch is that a former resident hung himself in the front room. Not a detail easy for anyone to overlook but, for Fara, it serves as a constant reminder that her sister also killed herself several years before, something she has yet to come to terms with, the guilt of the survivor. “… it wasn’t ghosts that haunted people. It was memories.”

There is Maddy, who we first meet in the 70’s when, as a naïve teenager, she finds herself living with hippies in a Pointe-Ste-Charles flophouse where “…They weren’t homes but steps toward homelessness.”  The hippies ultimately leave but Maddy stays, eventually owning the house and working as a *baker at the nearby Atwater Market. It all sounds nice enough but survival, unlike so much in The Pointe, doesn’t come cheaply and she’s made some hard choices over the years.

Last, is Rose. Named for the iconic Farine Five Roses sign. A young woman raised in a cabin in the woods north of Montreal. (Who even imagines woods north of Montreal?) She comes to the city, a complete innocent, totally unfamiliar with ‘society’, hardly able to converse; her greatest comfort being time spent weaving on a loom back at the cabin (a loom she eventually moves to an empty factory she uses as a studio; squatting is big here). One of my favourite lines, a playful adaptation of Woolf: “A loom needs a room of its own.” (And there is a stunningly beautiful description of weaving that I can not now find… but will add when I do.)

The women well represent the burden of secrets and private lives that each of us carries. Meanwhile the neighbourhood, The Pointe, where it’s assumed there are secrets (what’s life without secrets?) is a mecca of mash ups and messed up lives within which a unique community is formed. Both the women and the neighbourhood share a history of harshness, yet there’s forgiveness at the same time. Whatever you call it, there’s comfort there once you accept it, and it accepts you.

The book reminds me that every kind of neighbourhood, no matter how unassuming, has its own vibe and perhaps even draws a certain kind of person to it for whatever reason. Sometimes it’s so the person can give something to that particular place, other times it’s because they need to receive something that could come from nowhere else.

I like walking around neighbourhoods, seeing how they’re laid out, where do people buy bread, how far is it to the library? I like getting a glimpse of life through the windows and wondering who lives there and who lived there before. It’s less the way a place looks that strikes me as how it feels. And this is what Alice Zorn does she takes the reader by the hand and says see this house, this street? Let me tell you the story of it. And it’s not a story you hear or even read so much as feel.

You know an author has done her job when you close the book and for a while you continue to wonder what the characters are getting up to, you miss them a little, that guy in the kitchen chair (is he still watching bikes?)…

So, yes, if there’s ever a Five Roses  walking tour, sign me up.


Not incidental that before moving to Montreal, Zorn worked at a Toronto bakery where, among other things, she learned to make creampuffs. In a  promotional postcard for the book she shares a recipe that must not be missed. (I don’t even bake and they were flawless.)


Support Indies!

Five Roses  can be ordered on-line from Blue Heron Books.

journal notes – montreal

Me on flagstone patio in wicker chair—a collection of mirrors among the clematis and to my right a pool of much-loved fish that have recently received an infusion of ice, so hot has it become—reading about Ringuet’s life while somewhere a piano is played, windows open.
Dinner: mackerel and greens, marrow and baguette, pickles, asparagus salad, followed by tea in the park.
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In my room I find a book of photos by Annie Liebowitz who says that The Summer of Love was the end of flower power culture, not the beginning—that you could get mugged in Haight Ashbury by then. This reminds me of a story I wrote, inspired by my regret at having never been a Haight Ashbury flower child.
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Lunch: spinach salad with smoked trout, frites.


(“One man’s meat is another man’s poisson” ~ A. Lismer)

The advantages of living with two cultures
Strike one at every turn,
Especially when one finds a notice in an office building
“This elevator will not run on Ascension Day”‘
Or reads in the Montreal Star:
“Tomorrow being the Feast of the Immaculate Conception,
There will be no collection of garbage in the city”;
Or sees on the restaurant menu the bilingual dish:
This city is like a favourite wild child the way it makes you love it one minute then annoys you the next. How can you be angry with it for being so alive… except that its noise can sometimes be inconsiderate. Those voices… Hear me! See me! Hahahahaha! And to the neighbours’ wee hour reveries, you want to shout: does no one own a watch?? You spend the night awake cursing the irony of a hall clock that chimes every quarter hour then nap in the light of the city’s eccentric decadence and wake to offerings of freshly baked bread and strong tea and you forgive it as you always knew you would.
Today, a lunch of six pois, beans really, and gazpacho, conversation. A walk along heated streets, laughter en route, no sparrows, thank god. And at 6 p.m. bells are ringing beyond this mirrored garden, these rooftops, and I know that on the street they are also heard by those smoking and drinking and tabernacking at those hightop tables near the boulangerie where I bought my dinner to go… a saumon quiche epinard and salade verte, une petite s’il vous plait… and where when I paid and was desperately trying to keep up my end in French with the lad at cash who kindly didn’t switch to English, or didn’t know how, I unknowingly dropped a $20 bill on the floor and he tried to tell me but I didn’t understand and then an English-speaking girl picked it up and said: “Excuse me, is this yours?”
And now on this patio, a breeze. Montreal wanting to kiss and make up, all quiet innocence tonight. There is always kissing here. Parties and smashed crockery, foul language, slammed doors, a broken swing, no chance of sleep causing more foul language… and then the embrace… none of it more or less sincere than the other, all of it adding to the whole. Impossible not to love this mad relative.


More Travel:

Prince Edward Island
Niagara Region