“And so with the sunshine and the great bursts of leaves growing on the trees, just as things grow in fast movies, I had the familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with the summer.”
-F. Scott Fitzgerald
June 19, 2012, Washington, DC: In June 2011, I embarked on a year-long project that would bring me back to each of my hometowns to learn more about the places I’d lived. There were many that had shaped me — from Montreal and Toronto to San Francisco and New York — and I wanted to get a good feel for their geography, their people, their neighborhoods and their pulses. I also wanted to examine, broadly speaking, why people live where they do and what makes a place feel like home. With ample vacation days, multiple frequent flyer tickets, many tanks of gas, several bicycles, and a few good pairs of walking shoes, I covered extensive ground in twelve months. The project, Neighborhood Nomad, is documented on this blog, derived from a love of travel and a longstanding obsession with the power of place.
The study came full circle this weekend, ending up where it started on a Virginia vineyard. And so with the advent of summer comes an opportunity to revisit the year I spent traveling back to my former neighborhoods. I’ve come miles from one year ago, and I’ve logged all of them in hopes of better understanding the places we called home.
Read on for a chronological overview of this year’s travels back home…
May 28, 2012, Washington, DC: It’s on these hot summer nights that arrive unseasonably early in Washington that we romanticize Vieux Montreal. We let our minds travel back down the narrow streets and alleyways in the oldest part of the city and we recall — sweating — what it was like to feel cold there. Downing lemonade with extra ice, we remember fondly our dinner by a fireplace on Rue Saint-Paul back in December when the cobblestones were slick from an icy rain turning to snow. We remember feeling oh-so-Parisian during that lunch of butternut squash soup and red wine at the luxurious Hotel Nelligan, and we consider how quickly time passes — that it feels like just yesterday we ducked into Bon Secours Market for hot chocolate and now we’re darting into DC’s museums desperate for a blast of cold air.
“It is a place not to be forgotten or mixed up in the mind with other places, or altered for a moment in the crowd of scenes a traveller can recall.”
– Charles Dickens on Montreal
January 1, 2012, Washington, DC: In four short days, we didn’t come close to seeing it all. It takes years to discover new and old restaurants, to stumble upon less obvious neighborhoods, to participate in seasonal traditions, to get to know the shopkeepers and the bartenders who invest in cities like ours. Today begins another year during which we will learn more about our surroundings and we enter 2012 inevitably influenced by recent memories of our favorite things about Montreal.
Read on for favorite architectural features, food and more found back in hometown Montreal.
December 30, 2011, Montreal: This is Westmount, technically its own city on the island of Montreal. According to my criteria, it’s a great place to live: It is walkable, it is lovable, it is cultural, it is social, and it is just a couple minutes walk from the heart of downtown Montreal. In 2002, Westmount was forced to become part of the city of Montreal. In 2004, Westmount and 14 other nearby areas voted to “demerge”, officially regaining independence again in 2006. Since then, changes in the island’s tax structure have kept this area intricately tied to the city of Montreal despite its official status as a separate place. Maybe this is where I got my independent streak.
December 28, 2011, Montreal: If there’s one thing I’ve heard over the years about what it means to be from Montreal, it’s that Montreal winters don’t get you down. Nevermind the weather; those from Montreal get out. They go about their days. They are outdoorsy people passionate about winter sports. The evidence is clear in my parent’s photos from the 1970s of sledding by Beaver Lake, playing hockey in Westmount, and meandering between ice sculptures downtown. To visit in summer and declare you understand what it’s like to live here would make you a liar. You need to see for yourself that a little snow and ice isn’t enough to shut in the residents of Montreal. Despite many years spent south of the Mason-Dixon line, today — well, I guess that includes me.
“I want to paint Montreal as a rather fantastic city, which it was, because nobody knows today what it was like. And I’m one of the last survivors, or rapidly becoming one.”
– Christopher Plummer, actor
December 28, 2011, Montreal: Nick’s Restaurant has been a staple on Greene Avenue since Nick Alevisatos first arrived in Montreal from Greece in 1920. At Nick’s place and in the surrounding neighborhood of Westmount, Nick and his wife poured their heart into the restaurant and raised five children, most of whom would later carry on the family business on this bustling street. It’s the same street I’ve seen for many years depicted in the painting above. It’s the scene of memories for our family, too, ever since my father arrived on Greene Avenue from Chicago in 1972 to begin work a few doors down from Nick’s place.
Photo Credit: Family Archives
December 27, 2011, Montreal: What do you remember about your birthplace? Is it a place you stayed? Grew up? Learned to love? Loved to hate? Is the place you were born one you know well? Do you still call it home? Are your roots still there or did you dig them up long ago, letting them trail along behind you like a stick in the sand?
I returned today to Montreal, the very first of my many hometowns.