Jaywalking in Montréal: A Meditation on Home and Belonging

I’m a big fan of making overly dramatic statements about fairly inconsequential happenings. Last weekend, I was in Montréal in the first part of a week-long vacation that included that city, Utica/Cooperstown & Buffalo, New York, and two days of Phillies baseball in Denver before heading back to Casper. In the course of walking toward the Métro station near our little hotel, I said something to my husband that went something like “Death before looking like a tourist.” I had just jaywalked through an empty, but orange-hand-marked crosswalk, though at least twenty seconds after all of the native Montréal folks had gone through it. My husband is not a jaywalker.

People in Montréal do not wait for walk signs. I didn’t see anyone defy death and step out into traffic or anything like that–the issue was just that if there was no reason to wait for the signal, if the streets were empty, why, in fact, should anyone wait? (This makes perfect sense to me.) At busier intersections, it almost seemed as if there was a silent competition to see who could cross first. No one dashed out–people in Montréal seem to only run when they mean to, particularly on the paths of Mont Royal, in terribly attractive running shorts and coordinated shoes and with appropriate and attractive accessories. (The citizens of Montréal are collectively at least sixty percent more gorgeous than people in other places, excepting maybe Brazil. I had heard Montréal was full of beautiful people. I admit I hadn’t believed it, but I should never have doubted.) But all of this is to say that people jaywalk there. Not stupidly, at least in my estimation, but with a decided lack of patience for the technicalities of timed lights in the face of stopped or absent traffic. 

I was doing likewise at the first intersection we came to after disembarking the bus from the airport at Berri-UQAM. I am not, on the whole, an impatient person, at least when it comes to things like that. I queue like a champion. If the necessity is to wait, I can wait, quite happily. But leaving that bus station, because it is the drop-off point from the airport and thus many tourists, I saw a lot of people with maps tiptoeing up to intersections. 

Let’s not pretend: I had a map. It was definitely in my hand. I was dragging a suitcase. But I couldn’t bring myself to tiptoe up to the intersection like I didn’t know where I was going. Nevermind, of course, that I didn’t know where I was going, not with terrible certainty. I’m just lucky with directions in the sense that luck favors the prepared (excepting that one time on the Tube when I was distraught over not getting to see the Beowulf manuscript and got myself and a friend going in the wholly wrong direction for a bit, but I blame acute emotional distress). The heart of it: it’s not like anyone was fooled by my attempt at feigning nativeness. It’s not like Montréal, at three in the afternoon on a Saturday, is one of those places where appearing to be a tourist is dangerous or ill-advised. 

And so I have to ask myself: what is so terrible about being the person on a journey? Why am I apparently so invested in not being that person, at least from the outside? Because I really am invested in it, it seems.

I’ve noticed it on the last several trips I’ve been on, this impulse to pretend I belong, to feign being a native. It didn’t work on the trip to Sweden for many reasons (being short, dark-haired, and possessed of a striking lack of Swedish language skills being among them), but we did succeed in being taken for German tourists rather than American tourists (quite unintentionally and without speaking a word of German). It worked quite well in the UK, and I think it worked out all right in Vancouver. 

Since coming back from Montréal, I’ve tried to figure out why that is. It’s not necessarily that it makes things easier. I actually got myself into several moments of intense awkwardness by replying to hellos in French (which is just about as far as my French can get me), and then having to backtrack and repeat the ensuing conversation in English. One of those happened over a pint of strawberries at the Marché Jean-Talon, and my apologies for being a doofus and my gratitude to the young woman who spoke with me for being kind. I want to participate even when I actually can’t do it. I can’t fake knowing a language. I know that. It was silly of me to do. Terribly silly. But it’s become a reflex, a desire to respond in-kind.

Last summer, I spent two weeks in the UK and Ireland, and it included my third trip to Edinburgh, the only city that is currently vying for my affections the way Montréal did. There, of course, when I open my mouth, everyone knows I’m not From There. But it’s not often that people can pinpoint where I am from because I’m a sponge and an Anglophile and I use strange syntax that’s peppered with pieces of language from the things I’ve read and the places I’ve visited and the places I wish I lived. People often ask me where I’m from. 

I don’t know how to answer the question. I feel obligated, always, to say that I am from Pennsylvania. I always specify that I’m from the middle of it, too. (The middle, of course, is quite different from the sides, culturally, linguistically, and so on.) But I haven’t lived there since 2003, and I’ve been in Wyoming three years and have a career and a life here, and so I have to say Wyoming, too. But it’s not possible to say that I’m from Wyoming–that’s untrue. Even in the sense that people say they’re from wherever they’re living all the time–it’s too untrue for this place. Being truly from Wyoming is a fairly rare thing; it’s too disingenuous to own that to let even a perfect stranger leave with the wrong impression. (Maybe this is part of the root: if overtly identified as “not from here,” I stand a likely chance of being asked, then, where I am from. The answer I am compelled to give is complicated and probably longer than the asker really wants to know. If I blend in, I save us all the trouble.)

On occasion, people will ask, instead, “Where’s home?” Technically, that should be easier, shouldn’t it?

But the word “home” is one I will use interchangeably. Central PA is “home” in that it is where I grew up, where the bulk of my family is. That home is the place that shaped so much of who I am. I “go home” at Christmas, and it takes three flights to do it. Home, though, is also any place to which I am returning. In the space of a weekend, I can refer to a hotel as “home.” After Christmas visiting is complete, I also go home, to Casper, to this house. I’ve often wondered if this bothers my parents, to hear me call so many different places home, if it feels like a slight. (I used to call going back to college in my BA days “going home,” too, even though I was also going home when my dad picked me up outside of Skeath Hall.) Home is wherever I happen to be. And there are a thousand clichés about that, and a Billy Joel song that connects home to another person, and so on. But there is a sense that home is the place that one misses most, maybe, the place one would rather be. It’s the last part that I am missing, it seems.

I have never been homesick, not that I can remember. There was one morning–I think I was in the fifth grade–when I really desperately did not want to go to school. There wasn’t any reason for it–I loved school until high school, and even then, it wasn’t bad. I simply did not want to leave home (and I am often like that now). But when I am gone, once I leave for parts distant and/or unknown, I don’t miss it. I would not rather be at home than in Montréal, or in Denver, or in Thermopolis, or in York, England.  

The altar of the Notre-Dame Basilica of  Montréal.
Everything is so lovely and blue.

That’s a terrible thing to say. At least it feels like a terrible thing to say. There are people I love and adore in all of the places I call and have called home. But I don’t generally ever want to be back. I often wish X person were where I am, but until the moment I get on the plane or in the car, the idea of a fixed home, of the place of belonging, evaporates*. Why should I be so happy to be gone from so much that I love?  It’s a question I haven’t found an answer to. Maybe it’s because I love places easily. Especially places with public transportation and cassis beer and maple cotton candy and the Notre-Dame Basilica of Montréal**. But also places with no transportation and only the peanut butter sandwiches one has to carry in oneself.

But I have to see all of this as related: perhaps part of feeling at ease and at home almost anywhere, part of not missing home, is the sense that there is no home for me, no one true place. (I like to think Edinburgh could be it for me, and maybe someday, but I’m not there now.) I tried on the habits of those who call Montréal home, at least in crossing the streets, and it was grand. Even fooling no one at all–except maybe myself, for a little while–I was in one place where home was.

On the plaza of Kondiaronk Belvedere at the top of Mont Royal. 

*Once the trip back starts, though, I generally want to skip it. Usually because the route involves O’Hare or I-25 between Douglas and Casper***, which makes fifty miles feel like forever because it’s always after at least four hours of driving. Sometimes it involves both.

**I should really do a post on the food of Montréal. I would use so many superlatives.

***The ninety miles between Casper and Shoshoni, though, is the longest distance I have ever driven. Nebraska is shorter than those particular ninety miles. Be careful in Wyoming. Time and space behave differently here.

5 thoughts on “Jaywalking in Montréal: A Meditation on Home and Belonging

  1. Lovely post, one I can relate to. I have an issue with calling Brooklyn home though I haven't lived there for the past 6 years. But I think your ability to feel at home wherever you go is a big advantage. Did you not move a lot in your youth because I wonder if that has something to do with it. My family moved too much which created in me a need to root somewhere.


  2. Brilliant, mate. And that paragraph on the morphousness of the word “home” is so familiar. I usually DO want to go home, though I think for me its mostly about hating living out of suitcases and having routines disrupted. If I am in a place long enough to put clothes in drawers and develop a new routine, I am usually “at home” wherever I am . . . .

    These ninety miles are worse than the 50 from Athens to Parkersburg? Yikes.


  3. For me, Home is a place I never really lived—-my grandmother's farm, where my parents lived after I had left “home”, where my brother and his family now live, where my niece hopes to raise a family of her own. Driving down the road to that place gives me a feeling of coming back that I don't get anywhere else.

    And Laura…I knew you were going to mention that Athens to Parkersburg drive. Although I seem to think of it the other way around.


  4. Yes! The “going home” thing! Living in London, I could confuse everyone with my use of the word. Context is everything. Could have been the hotel I was staying in, or my flat in London, or my parents' house in the US. I'm thinking of adopting “heading back to base” instead. But then why should the word “home” be allowed to tyrannize the rest of my vocabulary?

    Also, I skipped a lot of big things when I lived in London, because “only tourists go there.” Therefore I never toured the Tower Bridge, never did the London dungeons, the Transport Museum, the City of London museum… so much. But I did abuse my American accent in order to ask stupid questions in public on behalf of locals who didn't want to look like tourists. Then, I could internally comfort myself with the fact that while no power on earth or under it can shift my American accent, at least _I_ knew that I was a local.

    Is it the contempt for the ordinary? “If I live here, it must be shit, and therefore anyone who visits here has really bad taste”? Would we still feel like that if we lived in Neuschwanstein, or Bucks House, or the White House? I vote we find out.


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