Saturday, July 14, 2012

Playfulness in Quebec

Our time in Montreal has been infused with Montrealers' and Quebeckers' sense of fun.  We spent Friday and Saturday nights hanging out at the Montreal Jazz festival where we heard wonderful music.  But also fun was watching people's willingness to carve out two square metres to dance or their willingness to celebrate rhythm and melody with their bodies, their smiles, their gestures, their conversation with one another.

We walked endlessly, it seems, down St. Hubert looking for fabric stores, strolled along St. Denis which combines tony chic boutiques with funny little paper shops and bead palaces.  In fact, almost wherever we went we found enormous, well-organized, off-kilter bead shops where you could find the means to make any decoration your heart fancied and your imagination could dream up.  We walked Old Montreal, where the architecture has become a bit cliched and cute, but where artisans join in collectives to support their creative habits.  The saddest moment of our time came in old Montreal, in a very upscale shop selling Inuit art.  There was an entire wall of carved bears, all of them dancing like circus animals to music someone else had forced on them, the way teen aged boys with ghetto blasters force the entire beach to pretend they're enjoying the party.

Halfway through our time in Montreal, we drove to the Eastern Townships.  If you've read Blue Duets, you'll know that I've set an important scene there, based entirely on the evidence of reading and photographs.  But I'll confess I've never been.  So I braved the super-speedy Quebec drivers, secure in the knowledge that driving 110 km/hr gives you better mileage than 130.  I also had a map that was only initially helpful, but fortunately once you leave the numbered highways behind, the area has put up royal blue signs to direct you through the twisty, turny, hilly landscape of the northern range of the Appalachian mountains.  It's remarkably beautiful; its densely treed hillsides are probably Quebec's lungs, creating the heady, airy atmosphere of the place.

What we found most remarkable, however, was how friendly everyone was and how playful.  The very chic woman from whom I bought an iris and blue silk scarf wanted to know what I taught (Somehow we began talking about governments and how they're not funding the right things.  This led us to talk about underfunded universities and my work).  When I said I was going to be teaching Virginia Woolf to graduate students and literature and the environment to first years, she looked puzzled, so I told her we would begin that class with Lorna Crozier's series of poems "The Sex Lives of Vegetables," a part of her book of poems The Garden Going on Without Us.  My chic clerk was delighted with the idea of sexy, funny poetry to read in bed at night and made me write down the title.

In the tea shop, the owner offered us some iced tea, which Veronica accepted, but which I declined.  It turned out to be a rooibos, which Veronica didn't like but I did.  "You see.  It really was meant for you all along," the owner quipped with a glint in his eye.

Then we discovered the yarn shop, Mon Tricot, where they were having their playful Sunday.  The owner explained that running the shop was relentless work--putting more of their stock online, writing their blog, keeping the shop itself going--so on Sunday they played.  You could hear the playfulness in their conversation around the central table.  One women was crocheting earrings.  A young girl was making a skirt out of two "rainbow balls" of yarn, with knitted and purled pleats (she was knitting it vertically) so she had two rainbows running in vertical stripes around the skirt.  They laughed at my indecision when I went outside to check the colour of hand-dyed sock yarn and came back with a cowl off a model standing in the doorway to ask whether their fabulous alpaca would work for it.   I bought a modest amount of wine red alpaca.

Tea shops.  Bakeries.  Art galleries (not all of them full of art, unfortunately--but still playful).  More bead palaces with playful samples.

Our final morning in Montreal, we went back to the Musee des beaux arts to explore their third building, which we hadn't gotten to earlier.  It was full of playful design, sometimes even more playful in its arrangement.  An eighteenth-century German sleigh with a dragon head was displayed next to a snow mobile.  There was an "architecture desk," decorated as if it was a miniature eighteenth-century building on stilts.  Jane Timberlake  had contributed plates, cups, and bowls of simple white porcelain with advice on etiquette in clear blank print--how to eat your soup, how to get a piece of bone or gristle out of your mouth, reminders to wipe your mouth with your napkin before you drink your coffee so you don't leave goop on the edge of the cup.  Another potter had produced intensely coloured, compartmentalized plates and bowls meant for "fast food," so that the irony of the hand-made plate and the machine made food jarred and clanged.  There was a whole room of brilliantly coloured glass, including a clear smiley faced water pitcher made by Picasso.  (No, I'm not kidding.  Yellow glass on the clear made a cross between the smiley face and the Kool-Aid guy.)

I've often said that the least mature, most childish people I know are seldom child-like.  They've forgotten how to play, how to joke and cajole.  They take themselves way too seriously.  If our experience is at all typical, Quebeckers are grown-ups indeed, knowing when to parade with pots and pans (if you haven't seen the viral video, check it out now:, knowing when to get out their knitting needles and make a pot of tea.

The wonderful photographs are, as usual, by Veronica Geminder.  My camera battery died the minute I got off the plane and I'd forgotten to pack my charger.

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