Thursday, July 26, 2007

The Kindness of Strangers, Part One

"Did that Ford just say "le beep beep? I swear it did!"

So exclaimed my friend Maria, trying to put a finger on what makes Montreal so unlike any other city. It's extraordinarily difficult to describe Montreal or Montrealers, since the city is what you would get if Paris and Milwaukee had a lovechild- incongruous, to say the least.

Perhaps an example would explain a little better?

Ness' conference took place at a place called Le Palais des Congres, or "The Palace of the Congresses." We were told that it would be easy enough to find, since it was located quite close to the Hotel Traveldodge1. So we set out, figuring we'd look around for the big palace-looking place. As it turns out, there were a few to choose from. At first we thought it might be this:

or perhaps this:
As it turns out, the Palace of the Congresses looked less like a palace, and more like the facade of an industrial abattoir:

The people of Montreal are similarly difficult to describe, and it makes people-watching not unlike watching a socioeconomic sort of Village People- There's the perfectly accessorized yindie looking smoooooth in the latest in local designers (after all, Montreal is the home of some seriously sweet designers, including David Bitton, whose sole mission in life is to make sure your ass is perfectly shaped in a pair of jeans), the woman in perfectly tailored Versace wrap dress the skinny-jeans and Joy Division black t-shirt, the preppedy popped-collar sporter of green and pink Ralph Lauren cargo pants and polo shirts, looking too cool cool for school by wearing his mirrored sunglasses at night, and this being Canada, you of course get the XXXL team jersey mustachioed man with a beer gut so spectacularly engorged you know that it has never been forced to sink so low as to swill lite beer until he's already put away a six pack. And perfectly completing this tableau of teaming humanity, over the din of the streets rises the sweet sounds of wild rantings of the crazy homeless man2. .

Oddly enough, I saw very few business suits- I don't think I'd find too many Montrealers arguing with me if I said that Montreal is a city where people work to live, not work to live. Coming from DC, I've been horribly conditioned to respond to the standard opening line, "So what do you do?" It was oddly liberating not to have to spew my spiel, which only leads to talking about the minutiae jobs and conversations so inevitably snooze-worthy that one starts to think that the word boring refers to the holes one would like to bore into their heads to make it stop. In fact, I don't think a single Montrealer ever learned what I do for a living. Needless to say, I appreciated being able to delve right into more interesting and creative ice breakers, most of which were designed to suss out one's level of francophone prowess or taste in beer.

[Oh, for those of you following along with the latest controversies of the DC bloggedy world, yes, I was acutely aware of an absolute dearth of flip-flops. Seriously, I was the only one waddling along in them, and I think I might have even gotten a few raised eyebrows. I realized the Sidewalk Blogger was right about women in DC and their flip-flops when my non-DC friends had to talk me out of wearing flip-flops to a club with a dress code.]

Montrealers are not utterly unclassifiable, however. The one almost universal quality that they share is that they are the friendliest and kindest people I have ever met.
OK, we need to stop right here to distinguish between kind and nice. Nice is a horribly loaded word in my personal usage, with all kinds of connotations about the melba toast quality of a person. As a general rule, I'll preface that a girl is nice right before I tear her to shreds for having no other redeeming qualities. Conversely, I will use the absence of niceness to indicate that a person is well worth my time: "Meghan's not nice; she's AWESOME." Kindness, on the other hand, is an attribute I put great stock in. It's an openness to humanity, a willingness to reach out to people, and a general appreciation of life and those living it. The aforementioned Meghan? A most supremely kind woman.
So we've cleared that up, right? Sorry to slow you down. Moving on with the Montreal.

Montrealers= supremely friendly and kind. And it follows logically that if one is kind, one is kind of... AWESOME.

The first day I was there, I was staring at the map, utterly confounded. I spent the majority of my life with a large body of water to the east of me, so I had a very difficult time grasping that the body of water was to the south of me. What really didn't help was that the Montreal street maps are all upsidedown, so that the water looks like it's north of you, despite the fact that it's south of you. It took until the second to last day of the trip for this to stop completely fucking with my mind. As I tried to figure this out, a man came up to me and asked if I needed help getting to where I was going.

Now, DC is a town full of tourists. And I'm sure I'm not the only one who simply abhors them. I snark at them on the metro or walk by them as fast as possible so as to avoid them getting their weird red state germs on me3.. I'm pretty sure that the only people who actually stop to help map-readers in DC are either other map-readers, looking for crack, crack money, or trying to steal your map to sell it for crack. Call me jaded; I speak from experience.

So when the Montreal man stopped and asked if I needed help, I gave a curt "no thanks" and registered the hurt on his face as a fluke. This happened about four more times before I figured out that people just wanted to help me out and literally steer me in the right direction. That's when it became clear to me why Montreal is one of the Great World Cities, despite showing seriously frayed edges after decades of economic hardship: the people are some awesomely friendly kindred spirits. Eh?

It was the kindness of strangers that lead me to one of the best concerts I've ever been to. We're already getting a little long and windy in this post, so I'll leave you to go get some work done this afternoon. Let's all meet back here later, though, and I'll tell you all the rest.


You need a teaser?

Well, if going to an Akron/Family concert is liking going to a tent revival on quaaludes (but in a good way), then the concert I went to was like going to a tent revival on quaaludes in hell. But in a good way.

1. Quick note about the Traveldodginess. Now, I have no right to complain, since thanks to Ness' expense account, I got to stay there virtually free. That said, the room was so teensy that it would not actually fit two smaller than twin-sized beds lengthwise- one had to be turned and crammed up against the other so that they were perpendicular. Well, when our friend Karin showed up on Friday, needless to say, it was in our best interest to upgrade, since the cot proved to be quite the fire hazard. The polite hotel management assured us that a suite would accommodate our needs with style and panache, so we shelled out the extra cash. We packed up our bags and moved to the suite, not anticipating the Ritz, but certainly excited to have enough space to lay our suitcases flat. We opened the door to find a room exactly the same as the one we had come from, except for two bunkbeds hastily nailed to the walls. To be fair, the floors were carpeted and the shower, which we almost fit into, ran hot water, so I can't make the obvious prison comparison. Also, the art in there was just gorgeous, a lovely and original scene capturing the glory of the untold quiet beauty of Quebec winters:

2.All of the homeless people were foaming-at-the-mouth-wow-the-whites-of-your-eyes-are-really-big crazy, which I found really odd. I'm used to having a nice pastiche of crazy mixed in with the-really-down-on-their-luck-just-trying-to-get-by homeless people. The lack of the former category made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end, and not want to wonder too hard about the state of mental health care in a universal health care system. Also, the homeless and/or crazy and/or scary people all seemed to disappear around 1 in the morning, which made the walk back to the TravelDodge at 4 in the morning eerily safe. Which was wholly discomfiting.

3.Actually, I will stop and help people who look like they don't have a very good grasp of English. Partly because it completely sucks to be lost and not know the language, but also so that foreigners don't get the impression that Americans are heartless assholes. I prefer only the pink patriotic kitty sweatshirt ladies to know that about me.

4.Actually, not so much experience as unfounded misanthropy.


Anonymous Chris Chan said...

Speaking of your distinction between "nice" and "kind," there's a wonderful line in Alice Thomas Ellis's "The Summerhouse Trilogy" where the disapproving mother of the groom describes a family friend by saying: "She was commonly referred to as a "nice girl," which meant that she was as boring as hell but at least she wasn't a whore."

Hmmm, in college, didn't you say once that I was the nicest guy you had ever met? Well, if you change the gender in Ellis' quote, I suppose that could apply to me pretty well.

4:13 PM  

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