Two September days in Montreal

By Caitlin Kelly

 

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My hotel room on the 15th floor faced north, to Mount Royal — aka the Mountain. It’s really a very large hill, with a very large cross on top that glows white in the night, but a great landmark.

I used to fly kites there when I lived here at the age of 12 and took the bus along Sherbrooke Street — a major east-west thoroughfare — to school, a place that felt exotic and foreign to me because it was both Catholic (I’m not) and co-ed (I hadn’t shared a classroom with boys in four years.)

Half a block from my hotel is where I used to live, 3432 Peel Street, but that brownstone is long gone, replaced with a tall, new apartment tower.

Montreal is a city unlike any other, a mix of French chic and staid British elegance, of narrow weathered side streets and wide busy boulevards named for former politicians. One distinctive feature are the spiral or straight metal staircases in front of old three-story apartment buildings, which are hell to maneuver when they’re covered with snow and ice.

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Street names reflect the linguistic mix: Peel, Mansfield, Greene, Drummond — and St. Laurent, St. Denis, Maisonneuve, Cote Ste. Catherine.

It’s always been a divided city, between the French and English, and at times deeply hostile. Signs, by law, must be in French. Everywhere you go, you’ll hear French being spoken or on restaurant and store playlists.

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Sidewalk closed; use other sidewalk….a common sight there now!

 

I worked in Montreal as a reporter for the Gazette for 18 months, enough for me. The winter was brutally cold and two months longer than Toronto. (Two of my colleagues from the 80s are still at the paper, now in senior positions.)

I loved my enormous downtown apartment with a working fireplace and huge top-floor windows, but I hated that our building was broken into regularly and that shattered car window glass littered our block almost every morning.

On this visit, I met up with a younger friend at Beautys for brunch, (in business since 1942), and got there at 10:00 a.m.,  before the Sunday line formed outside. The food was good, but hurried, and we were out within an hour, meandering in afternoon sunshine.

 

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We ended up at Else’s, a casual/funky restaurant named for the Norwegian woman who founded it and died, according to her bio on the back of the menu, in 2011. It’s quintessentially Montreal, tucked on a corner of a quiet side street, far away from bustling downtown where all the tourists go. Its round table-tops were each a painted work of art, signed, and covered with layers of clear protective gloss. We stayed for hours, watching low, slanting sunshine pierce the windows and hanging ferns.

 

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The city’s side streets, full of old trees and flowers and narrow apartment buildings with lace-covered glass front doors  — Duluth, Rachel, Roy, Prince-Arthur — remain some of my favorite places to wander.

Montreal, (which this visit had too many squeegee guys at the intersections, never a good sign), always has such a different vibe from bustling, self-important Toronto, where I grew up, and where ugly houses now easily command $1 million; In the Gazette this visit, I saw apartments for rent for less than $800, unimaginable in most major North American cities now.

I visited my favorite housewares shop, in business since 1975, Arthur Quentin (pronounced Arrr-Toor, Kahn-Tehn), on St. Denis, and bought a gorgeous burgundy Peugeot pepper grinder. Everything in the store is elegant, from heavy, thick linen tablecloths and tableware to baskets, aprons and every possible kitchen tool.

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Downtown has many great early buildings with lovely architectural details —- this is the front door of Holt Renfrew, Canada’s top department store, in business since 1837

 

I went up to Laurier Ouest, a chic shopping strip frequented by the elegant French neighbors whose homes surround that area, Outremont. It has a great housewares store, (love those brightly colored tablecloths!) and MultiMags, one of best magazine stores I’ve ever seen anywhere, with great souvenirs, pens, cards and notebooks; (it has multiple branches.) A great restaurant, Lemeac, is there as well.

I savored a cocktail (OK, two) at one of my favorite places, the Ritz, where we used to dine every Friday evening the year I lived here with my mother. On our visit after 9/11, when hotel rates plunged enough we could afford to stay there, my husband and I noticed a group sitting near us at breakfast — Aerosmith!

Montreal is also a city of students, with McGill’s handsome limestone campus starting on Sherbrooke and climbing Mt. Royal from there; UQAM is just down the street and there’s also Concordia, (where I first taught journalism.)

 

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Great reflections in the window of a tearoom on St. Denis — the words above the window say: Drink, Laugh and Eat

 

I’ve visited in glorious 70-degree sunshine — like this past week — and bitterly cold, snow-covered February.

It’s a fun, welcoming city in every season, with great food, cool bars, interesting shops, small/good museums and 375 years of history.

And 2016 saw more visitors than any year since 1967.

If you’ve never visited, allez-y!

 

Where is home for you in the world?

By Caitlin Kelly

I’m writing this post from London, where I’m visiting for nine days, staying with Cadence, a fellow blogger who writes Small Dog Syndrome. She and her husband moved here a year ago and are settling into a city that — according to yesterday’s newspaper front page — is bursting at the seams.

I believe it!

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I just spent two weeks in Paris, another major city, but London feels really jammed to me. If one more person bumps into me with their body, backpack or suitcase, I may scream!

Cadence loves it here and hopes to stay here permanently.

She also spent much of her younger life — still in her late 20s — living all over the world in a military family: Belgium, England, Guam, Virginia, Germany.

It may well be that early exposure to the world through residence shapes us permanently for it; I was born in Vancouver, Canada; moved to London at two; to Toronto at five, to Montreal twice, to Mexico at 14, to Paris at 25, to New Hampshire at 30 and — finally! — to New York at 32.

I like having lived in five countries and speaking two foreign languages, French and Spanish. It makes me realize that every place has some kindness and welcome, but some are far better fits for me than others. I loathed rural New Hampshire, (no diversity, stuffy, no work available), and, much as I adore visiting Montreal, as a resident I hated its punishing taxes, long winter and high crime rate.

I like London, and have visited many times and lived here ages two to five. But I find its scale overwhelming and too often exhausting. I’m limiting my activities to one or two a day because of it…knowing I could do twice as much even in New York, where cabs are cheaper or Paris where Metro stops are a hell of a lot closer to one another — 548 metres apart on average.

I prefer Paris.

Which makes me wonder — what is it about a place, whether it’s a cabin in the woods, or a penthouse city apartment or a shared flat in a foreign country — that makes it feel (most) like home to us?

Maybe because I’m a journalist and my husband is a photographer and photo editor — or because we have fairly adventurous friends — we know many people, non-native, now living happily very far from where they were born or raised, in rural Austria, Shanghai, Eindhoven, Rome, South Africa, New Zealand, Paris, Plymouth, Cairo, Manhattan, Toronto, Rhode Island, Australia…

For me, Paris is the city I was welcomed at 25 into a prestigious, challenging and generous journalism fellowship that lasted eight months. So my memories of it are forever somewhat colored by nostalgia and gratitude for a life-changing experience and the warmth and love I felt during that time.

On my many visits back since then, though, I still feel the same way…more so than in New York (I moved to a NYC suburb in 1989).

More than Montreal, where I have lived twice, in my late 20s and when I was 12.

One of my favorite Toronto sights -- the ferry to the Islands
One of my favorite Toronto sights — the ferry to the Islands

More than Toronto, where I lived ages 5 to 30.

The place I feel at home is a combination of things: climate, the light, the way people speak and dress and behave, its political and economic and cultural values. It’s what things cost and how much of them I can actually afford.

It’s how quickly and easily I can navigate my way around by public transit, on foot, by car, by taxi, by bicycle.

It’s how much sunlight there is on a cold afternoon in February. How much humidity there is. How much it rains or snows — or doesn’t.

Basically, regardless of other circumstances, how happy are you when you wake up there every morning?

Even newly divorced, unemployed, lonely, I was glad to be living in New York.

The view from our NY balcony -- we have great river views
The view from our NY balcony — we have great river views

But also how much silence and natural beauty it also offers — parks and old trees and a river and lakes. (London beats Paris hollow on that score!)

History, and hopefully plenty of it, at least a few centuries’ worth, with buildings and streets filled with stories.

And yet…it needs to be open socially and professionally as well, which can be a tricky-to-crazy-frustrating combination if you arrive as an adult who didn’t attend the same schools, ages five through graduate school, as all your would-be new friends, colleagues and neighbors.

I moved to a suburb of New York City in June 1989, just in time for the first of three recessions in the ensuing 20 years. Not fun! I had to re-invent in every respect.

Our apartment building in Cuernavaca, Mexico where I lived at 14
Our apartment building in Cuernavaca, Mexico where I lived at 14

But choosing to live in Tarrytown, which I love, has been a great decision; the town is 25 miles north of Manhattan, which I can reach within 40 minutes by train or car. We have a terrific quality of life for a decent price.

(Here’s a blog post I wrote about 20 reasons why I love living there.)

I chose New York for a variety of reasons:

— My mother was born there, so I had some curiosity about it

— It’s the center of American journalism and publishing, my field

— It’s New York!

— Culture, history, energy, art, architecture…all the urban stuff I enjoy

Having said that, and all due respect to the many other places in the U.S. that people love, I wouldn’t move within the U.S. It’s too hard to establish yourself in New York and the only other city that appeals to me is L.A. which my husband vetoed.

If we move when we retire, which we’re discussing, we’re trying to choose between my native Canada, France, his home state of New Mexico…or, if at all possible, some combination of these.

Jose misses his mountains and a sense of Hispanic community.

But I miss speaking French and I miss my Canadian friends.

How about you?

What makes home home for you?

 

Visiting Use-ta-ville

By Caitlin Kelly

Use-ta-ville…The place you go back to that’s now gone.

“It used to be…”

We’ve all got them, the places where we once lived or attended school or loved visiting or eating in or shopping at. As life changes, sometimes at a dizzying pace, it can be comforting to re-visit these spots. Many are filled with memories — great dates, a proposal, a graduation, a terrific meal — and the physical place becomes a touchstone.

One of the most-loved indie bookstores in Manhattan, Posman Books, is closing its Grand Central location on New Year’s Eve — to make room for (what else?) some costly new building. So annoying!

It’s been such a lovely respite, while awaiting a train or a friend, to browse its well-edited selection of books and cards. I’ve made some great discoveries on its front tables over the years, and was thrilled when my own book, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail” briefly ended up in their front windows.

I grew up in Toronto, a sprawling city of 3 million people, and moved to New York a long time ago, but I still go back once or twice a year to see old friends and to enjoy places I’ve been visiting for decades.

Gone! One of my favorite antiques/vintage clothing shops in NYC
Gone! One of my favorite antiques/vintage clothing shops in NYC

Like Courage My Love, one of the city’s best vintage clothing shops and The Papery, a great little stationery store I once sold my home-made envelopes to when I was in high school, and — for many years — a beloved cafe called The Coffee Mill, which served strudel and espresso and schnitzel on its lovely outdoor terrace and cosy interior.

It closed in September 2014, after 50 years in business, back in the day when those kinds of foods were exotic to white-bread WASPy Toronto.

We also lost a favorite restaurant on Queen Street, Prague Deli, who had renovated it into an even more welcoming spot, a perfect refuge on a bitterly cold winter’s afternoon. Gone.

Toronto also recently lost the 65-year nightclub, the El Mocambo, where the Rolling Stones once played.

I often go back to my high school, Leaside High School, to talk to the students about what it’s like to make a living as a writer. It’s very odd, but also oddly comforting, to walk those terrazo-ed hallways once more. It looks exactly the same!

Every city, especially when there are millions or billions to be made flipping and developing commercial real estate, loses bits of its past, and we stand by helplessly mourning all those lost memories.

One of my favorite Manhattan cafes, Cafe Angelique on Grove Street in the West Village, disappeared overnight in the fall of 2014 when the landlord demanded $45,000/month in rent — for 1,000 square feet. My lasting memory of it now was a lunch I had there with a fellow journalist I’d long admired and listened to on American Public Media’s business show, Marketplace.

Now its gutted space is one more about-to-be-gentrified spot filled with a mega-brand.

Soul?

Fuhgeddaboudit!

One of the most poignant of these moments happened for me early in my courtship by Jose, my husband, who grew up in Sante Fe, New Mexico. His father was the pastor of a small Baptist church and they lived in church housing — all of which was torn down and replaced by the Georgia O’Keefe Museum.

So we stood admiring one of her legendary paintings as Jose said, wistfully, “This used to be my bedroom.”

All that’s left of his childhood home is a small courtyard with an apricot tree, whose fruit his mother used to make into jam.

Is there a place like this from your past you (still) miss?

Still there, since 1927, the Monte Vista Hotel in Flagstaff, Arizona
Still there, since 1927, the Monte Vista Hotel in Flagstaff, Arizona

Backstory: How I got my Ubisoft profile for The New York Times

By Caitlin Kelly

Many of Broadside’s readers are journalists or student journalists, so occasionally I explain the backstory of how one of my major features comes to be. (With tips!)

English: The New York Times building in New Yo...
English: The New York Times building in New York, NY across from the Port Authority. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here’s the story, which ran April 27 in The New York Times.

Here’s the lede:

When Tchae Measroch leaves work, his hands usually bear a fresh cut or bruise. He works, often on his knees, in a small room crowded with an odd mix of items: a dried-grass hula skirt, a car door, baseball bats, swords and knives of varying length, a camouflage net typically used to disguise military equipment from enemy eyes.

Mr. Measroch, a lively 36-year-old sound-effects artist, spends his days figuring out how to make noises he’s never heard — like that of an 18th-century musket being loaded or the thump of someone’s skull hitting the deck of a warship. A selection of wooden flooring samples also helps him create the sounds of each character’s footfalls, no matter in what location, or century, they appear. “A big part of the job is footsteps,” he explains.

I came up with this idea many months ago and pitched it to my editor at the Sunday business section, who had already bought four previous stories from me, so I felt confident he’d be ready for more. (Tip: Repeat business from someone who knows and likes your work is the best!)

I know the Times doesn’t do much on Canada, where I grew up, and not much on business there (Tip: Look for something unusual, less covered by your outlet.)

I knew this story had a number of really interesting elements: it’s based in Montreal, uses a huge, multinational workforce and is based in France. I wanted to focus on a sort of story, and industry that gets relatively very little coverage in the mainstream press.

I had never played a video game in my life! (Tip: Don’t be scared to venture into a subject you know nothing about. You will be sure to ask a lot of questions that an expert overlooks, but which your readers might wonder as well.)

Ubisoft Stage at Press Conference E3 09
Ubisoft Stage at Press Conference E3 09 (Photo credit: Colony of Gamers)

I reached out to the PR contact to set up a day of face to face interviews in early February. During our very first (of many) conversations, he warned me not to even ask about video games and violence. (Tip: I did anyway, with him in the room after I’d interviewed the writer of Far Cry Three. They may tell you to behave a certain way, but that’s not your job.)

He chose a few people to speak with me and I started reading as much about the industry and this company and their games as I could. I speak fluent French so could also read articles in French, (and do some of my interviews there) if need be. (Tip: You have to have some context for every story, no matter how short. Why does it matter and why now and to whom?)

I planned to do a basic company profile, but the challenge with focusing on only one company is not producing a puff piece — uncritical blather. A major company literally choosing to open its doors to a Times reporter is nervous as hell and tightly controls what we can see or hear. (Tip: Be sure to find people who are not pre-selected by the PR staff and talk to as many sources as possible, including former employees, to get the best-rounded picture you can.)

So it’s something of a battle of (polite) wills from start to finish, as they hope to put everything in the best light possible — naturally — and I look for a compelling narrative or drama or conflict.

By the time I found it, the loss of one of their most talented writers, no one would discuss it! I spoke to a few people who knew all the details but they wouldn’t tell me anything much and certainly not on the record. (Tip: Do it anyway):

There was much industry speculation when Patrice Désilets, who created Assassin’s Creed, left Ubisoft in 2010 to work for THQ, a rival in Montreal. Had his bonus been insufficient? His pay too low? Neither Mr. Désilets nor his Los Angeles agent would discuss the matter; after Ubisoft acquired THQ Montreal in an auction of THQ assets in January, he returned to work for his former employer.

One of the books I was reading at the time, for pleasure, was book of reporting tips, one of which was “Go early, stay late.” So I got to the Ubisoft studio 15 minutes early — in seriously frigid weather — and stood on the street corner to watch staff arrive…almost all of whom were young men, a fact I could easily have overlooked in my rushed and controlled tour of the place.

While freezing my butt off, I noticed that the next door neighbors were a gas station and an upholstery shop; the latter detail made it into the story, contextualizing the neighborhood and Ubi’s choice of low-cost real estate. (Tip: Notice everything — and select later. Use your cellphone for reference photos and all the interesting visual details you will forget or get wrong or not notice in the moment. Your writing should be visual and auditory, taking readers into that place with you.)

Ubisoft office in Montreal
Ubisoft office in Montreal (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Interestingly, and not unusually, the two most compelling elements of the story came about unplanned and by accident. The man in the lede was someone I met for perhaps 10 minutes of an entire day, but knew immediately his piece of it would be cool and unusual.

The second was discovering that the game’s writer Jeffrey Yohalem, is American and a graduate of Yale. Perfect for the Times audience, so I added another spontaneous meeting with him to my agenda in Montreal; I did more than 13 interviews, most 30 to 60 minutes, for this story, many of which are not in this version (Tip: Over-reporting means you’re likely to much better understand and explain the nuances of your story, even if you cannot use the quotes or details as you or your source might have hoped. Better to know more than less!)

Writing this story became much more challenging than I’d hoped; as a freelancer, I know my fee in advance and have to budget my research, reporting, writing, revising and editing (with editors) time into all of that before I begin. This story became too big and too unmanageable. I had a ton of information but no clear story line.

Shit!

I was also between editors, a perilous spot for everyone as my new editor and I had never before worked together and she had not commissioned the story and it was changing shape under her direction. It worked out, but needed yet another 10 hours’ reporting (much of which ended up on the cutting room floor.)

I’m happy with the final product, and received a nice note from one of the players in the piece, which was pleasant. It also became the third most emailed and fifth most read of the entire day’s paper — something I do with almost every business story I’ve written for the Times.

I’ll be starting work on my sixth piece for this section in June and hoping to do many more. Who knows business writing could be so enjoyable? (Tip: You never know what sort of writing will most engage you.)

10 over-rated tourist spots — and 10 much better alternatives

By Caitlin Kelly

Having visited 37 countries, and a fair bit of Canada and the U.S., I’ve had that moment when you think — Really?

Some spots get breathless copy, (hello, free trips!), from travel writers who might never have gone there if they’d had to pay, and secretly hated the joint.

Toronto Skyline
Toronto Skyline (Photo credit: Bobolink)

In June 2012, my husband and I visited the Thompson Hotel in Toronto, lured by the fawning copy we’d read everywhere about how amazing it was. Not so much. The famous rooftop pool was closed the four days we were there, the bathroom door was so poorly designed it didn’t even close fully and they’d forgotten to put a handle on the inside of it. Like that…

Here are 10 spots everyone tells you are so amazing but aren’t:

The Paris flea market. Merde! I’ve lived in Paris and been back many times. An avid flea market and antiques shopper, I’ve been to the markets there and most often have come away weary and annoyed: snotty, rude shopkeepers, overpriced merch, items so precious you’re not allowed to even touch them. I’ve scored a few things, but the emotional wear and tear is so not worth it.

Instead: Go to London’s flea markets and Alfie’s on Church Street. I love them all and have many great things I’ve brought home from there, from Victorian pottery jugs to silk scarves.

English: Broadway show billboards at the corne...
English: Broadway show billboards at the corner of 7th Avenue and West 47th Street in Times Square in New York City (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Times Square, New York. Puhleeze. If you want to be shoved constantly by throngs of fellow tourists, their backpacks jamming into your face and their five-across-the-sidewalk amble slowing you down, go for it! It’s a noisy, crowded, billboard-filled temple of commerce, with deeply unoriginal offerings like Sephora or The Hard Rock Cafe. They have nothing to do with New York.

Instead: Washington Square. It’s at the very bottom of Fifth Avenue, and leads you onto the New York University Campus. You can sit in the sunshine and watch the world go by, then walk down MacDougal Street to Cafe Reggio, an 85-year-old institution, for a cappuccino.

MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village, New Yor...
MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village, New York City, between Bleecket Street and West 3rd Street, facing North. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Austin, Texas. I simply don’t get it. I was bored silly.

Instead: Fredericksburg. A small town in Texas hill country, it has antiques, great food, fun shopping and history.

Miami. Meh. Maybe if you’re crazy for dancing and the beach.

Instead: Key West. I’ve been there twice and would happily return many times more: small, quiet, great food and you can bike everywhere. But don’t go during spring break!

Vancouver. I was born there and have been many times. Its setting is spectacular, no question. But I’ve never found it a very interesting place.

Instead: L.A., baby! One of my favorite cities. Yes, you have to do a lot of driving. Deal with it. Great food, great shopping, beaches and Griffith Park, one of the best parks anywhere. I had one of the happiest afternoons of my entire life there — galloping through the park at sunset on a rented horse then dancing to live blues that night at Harvelle’s in Santa Monica. Abbott-Kinney rules.

Santa Fe, N.M. Heresy, since my husband grew up there. Cute, charming, gorgeous — for very rich people!

Instead: Taos or Truth or Consequences. Both are much smaller, funky as hell.

Quebec City: Beautiful to look at, some nice restaurants and an impressive setting on the St. Lawrence.

English: Atwater Market, Montreal, Quebec, Canada.
English: Atwater Market, Montreal, Quebec, Canada. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Instead: Montreal. You can get the same sense of history in the narrow, cobble-stoned streets of Old Montreal, but still enjoy fantastic meals, great shopping and the legendary Atwater Market. Take a caleche up to the top of Mt. Royal then go for brunch at Beauty’s.

Las Vegas. I’ve been there twice, only for work. If you want to shop or gamble, you’ll love it. If you want to do anything else, forget it.

Instead: Stockholm. If you’re planning to blow a ton of cash  anyway, go somewhere truly amazing to do it. The city is beautiful, the light unforgettable, and the Vasa museum one of my favorites anywhere — a ship that sank in the harbor in 1628 on its (!) maiden voyage. I’ve been watching Wallander, a fantastic cop show shot in Ystad, and am now dying to return to this lovely (if spendy) country.

The South of France. I love it and have been several times, but $$$$$!

Instead: Corsica. I wept broken-hearted when I left, after only a week there. People were friendly, food was excellent, the landscape simply spectacular. One of the most beautiful landscapes on the planet; here’s my Wall Street Journal story about it.

Bonus:

Sydney. Call me fussy, but after 20 freaking hours in an airplane that cost a mortgage payment, I expected Heaven On Earth from this Australian city. Yes, it’s attractive. Lots of beaches. The Opera House. But I found the people there bizarrely rough and rude, much more so than anyone I’ve ever faced in New York City. I made a friend on the flight over and we went out for dinner — and were (!?) told to leave the restaurant because we were disturbing the other patrons. This was the oddest and most unpleasant dining experience of my life, especially when all the other diners applauded our exit. I assure you, we were neither drunk nor disorderly.

Melbourne_Flinders_St__Station

Instead: Melbourne. Lovelovelovelove this city! The Yarra River. The ocean. Elegant neighborhoods. Flinders Street Station. All of it. I’ve rarely enjoyed a city as much as this one.

Here’s one list, by a travel writer.

Here’s a list of 31 others, including the Grand Canyon (!), from readers of the Los Angeles Times. (They, like me, think Austin, Texas and Santa Fe, N.M. are totally not worth it.)

Where have you been that left you disappointed?

Where have you been that — shockingly — knocked your socks off?

Montreal, in the snow, swirling with memories

Montreal — like much of the Northeast U.S. right now — is in the middle of a heavy snowstorm. The streets are thick with snow. Pedestrians trudge and slip and slither, gaze firmly downward, their mouths covered by heavy, thick mufflers. The bus fills up fast, between puffy parkas and oversize backpacks.

A hallway light at the Nelligan
A hallway light at the Nelligan

When I got into the cab this morning to head north from Old Montreal — we’re at the Nelligan — to my appointment, I asked the driver, in French, “How’s traffic?”

“Terrible!”

“Are they plowing the roads?” It was then 10:30 a.m.

“Not yet,” he replied. “They won’t do it until later today.” (We only started to see plows at 3:30.)

I’m here reporting my fifth New York Times business story. It’s been interesting, since I lived here in 1969 and from 1986 to 1988 when I was a reporter at the Montreal Gazette. Jose is here with me, my husband, and he’s loving the crazy cold as much as I am.

As I move around the city, on foot and by bus and by taxi, so many memories! It was here I flew kites atop Mount Royal with my Mom and took a freezing cold caleche ride with my American beau, the man I would later marry (and divorce.) It was here my Dad took me to Expo ’67; the grey concrete cubes of Moshe Safdie’s Habitat still stand, a few blocks from our hotel.

It was here I lost a tooth — yes, really — at the Ritz-Carlton, when my father was staying there. Jose and I later took refuge there, at bargain rates, after we both reported on 9/11, terrified and exhausted. We came downstairs for breakfast and wondered who the raspy-voiced, long-haired guys were at the next table — Aerosmith.

We drove past the Royal Victoria Hospital, an enormous gray Victorian stone pile on a steep hill — and I remember the day I slipped and fell on the ice outside my hotel and tore all the ligaments in my left ankle. It took six hours to get a pair of crutches. (I was on assignment then for The Globe and Mail, and [of course] kept working, in snow and ice, on crutches.)

Here’s a photo of what was our 1969 address — now transposed to a glam condo tower from the gray limestone apartment we lived in, since torn down.

former home

It’s 3432 Peel Street, a block north of Sherbrooke. We were here for a year — my Mom had a TV talk show and I attended a private, co-ed Catholic school. It was a hell of a shock. I’m not Catholic and I had not attended school with boys since third grade – this was Grade Seven and all the girls were a year older and hopelessly sophisticated in comparison.

I promptly developed a huge crush on a pink-cheeked boy named, of course, Michel.

I love how French are this city’s aesthetic choices and offerings; I bought heavy stock Lalo notecards the exact color of raspberry coulis and an opera-length black bead necklace at Agatha, a Paris-based jewelry company. And I always enjoy Montrealais’ consistent chic — even in the bitter cold, one young woman on the subway platform, swaddled in her coat, sported a gamine pixie haircut and bright red lipstick.

We have been utter gluttons on this trip, as some of it is vacation. Yesterday we indulged in a 2.5 hour lunch, with wine at La Chronique. The restaurant, ironically designed with a menu that looks like a newspaper and a ceiling design that mimics a printer’s tray, had only four tables filled, people staying away because of the weather. It was silent, the food fantastic.

Gravlax appetizer at La Chronique
Gravlax appetizer at La Chronique

We ate one night at Lemeac, a neighborhood restaurant for affluent Francophones, and the couple at the next table were intriguing. She wore a gold signet ring the size of a grape, a leather skirt and expensive manicure. She sent back her food because they brought her a steak — not steak tartare, which is essentially uncooked ground meat. The picture of polished, wealthy, mid-life elegance, she sounded soigne en francais, and crude in English. “He’s a fucking idiot,” she snapped to her companion of someone they were discussing.

He was Asian and they slipped easily back and forth, as so many people do here, from French to English, like otters slipping in and out of water. I miss living in a place where language is so fluid and thinking done automatically en deux langues.

I took Jose to one of favorite haunts from my time here in the 1980s, Stash Cafe, whose apricot crumble is a thing of magnificence. Here he is, post-stew.

jose@stash

One major difference between Montreal and New York is that so many people, here, wear fur — trimming their parka hoods or full-length unapologetic mink and sable that sweep to their ankles. There are boutiques selling fur in a variety of forms.

It was also here, on a face-punchingly, nostril-shuttingly frigid day in February 2007, that I bought mine. (Fur horrifies many people, I know.) It is also both light, non-bulky and extraordinarily warm, making it perfect for this sort of unforgiving cold. It is nice to wear it here, and be completely unremarkable — in New York, some PETA fanatic might well douse me with red paint in fury.

Caiti:winter

People mocked us for heading north in February  — again! — for this holiday.

But, as my most Canadian friend — a former wildlife biologist — reminded us: “Cold is not the problem. Improper clothing is.”

Define “vacation”

As we were preparing to leave New York for two weeks’ vacation — visiting my Dad in Ontario, doing a NYT story in Montreal with some leisure time there as well — everyone at Jose’s job was making fun of him.

“North, in winter? You’re heading north?”

Take a Vacation!
Take a Vacation! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Well, yes. Packing hats, mitts, boots and lots of warm clothing is pretty normal for us. In our 13 years together, we have yet to take a beach vacation, mostly because Jose does not swim and money is usually too tight. (Although we did squeeze in two two-week trips to Paris in 2007 and 2008.)

Our last really big trip was three weeks in Mexico in May 2005, far too long ago. It was completely wonderful in every way: we visited Mexico City, Queretaro, Patzcuaro, Oaxaca and Cuernavaca, where I lived when I was 14. We even went back to my old apartment building there — totally unchanged.

Vacation, these days, is often a time to simply eat, sleep, read for pleasure, repeat.

Jose’s job, as a photo editor for  large daily newspaper, means six meetings every day and answering hundreds of emails. By the time we take some time off, he’s whipped. My workdays are a blur of email, calls, pitching ideas, following up with editors, reading and writing.

My perfect vacation means getting off the computer, out of the car and never touching a telephone. It’s also a blend of city excitement and, when possible, some spectacular natural landscapes.

Day One of this trip meant a lot of sleeping. I read an entire book, ‘Rules of Civility”, something I have no time and less attention for at home; it’s set in 1938 Manhattan and is a good read. We played Bananagrams with Dad and his partner, and Jose took a terrible photo of me gloating when I won.

Our plans include time in Toronto and Montreal, for shopping, some good meals, seeing friends and (yes) some business meetings for me as well. It’ll be a mix of the familiar — lunch on Queen Street, upscale at Nota Bene or low-key at Prague, where the schnitzel is plate-sized and amazing — and exploring some new-to-us spots.

Last time in Toronto, in June 2012, we tried, (and didn’t enjoy), the oh-so-trendy Thompson Hotel. This time we’ve voted for the Hotel Ocho. It’s…interesting. It’s hilarious to be in a place where every single person is about 12, O.K. maybe 26. Every time we step into the lobby, they all look at us in puzzlement: “Old people, why are you here?”

We’re also here facing two pieces of Canadian currency history — the new polymer $20 bill, (which is hideous and even has the wrong maple leaf on it), and the end of the penny next week as legal tender; it’s been costing the Mint 1.6 cents to produce each penny.

We’ll be in D.C. for a few days in early May when I go there to accept a writing award, and in Arizona and New Mexico in May/June. Our big trip this year will be two weeks in Newfoundland, and I’m eager to finally visit Gros Morne National Park, a UNESCO Heritage site since 1987.

I’m dying to visit many more spots, from Japan to Buenos Aires to Croatia, returning to Paris, London and Istanbul, to canoeing in the Arctic. I live to travel and would happily spend almost every spare penny on it. The endless challenge is making enough money to be able to go far away and really relax — when every single minute not working, freelance, means not earning income.

When you go on vacation, where do you like to go?

What do you enjoy doing?

What does it cost you to live these days?

Apartment buildings in the English Bay area of...
Apartment buildings in the English Bay area of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Beautiful but oh so spendy!!! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A recent New York Times article made clear — again — why living in Manhattan is increasingly for the wealthy:

The average Manhattan apartment, at $3,973 a month, costs almost $2,800 more than the average rental nationwide. The average sale price of a home in Manhattan last year was $1.46 million, according to a recent Douglas Elliman report, while the average sale price for a new home in the United States was just under $230,000. The middle class makes up a smaller proportion of the population in New York than elsewhere in the nation. New Yorkers also live in a notably unequal place. Household incomes in Manhattan are about as evenly distributed as they are in Bolivia or Sierra Leone — the wealthiest fifth of Manhattanites make 40 times more than the lowest fifth, according to 2010 census data.

Ask people around the country, “Are you middle-class?” and the answer is likely to be yes. But ask the same question in Manhattan, and people often pause in confusion, unsure exactly what you mean.

What many people outside New York don’t know, necessarily, is that many “New Yorkers”, and I include myself in that bunch, have never lived in The City, as we call Manhattan. It’s too damn expensive!

They live on Staten Island or Queens or the Bronx or Brooklyn or (as we do) in Westchester or New Jersey or Long Island or Connecticut. We waste hours of our lives trading time for money, commuting an hour or more each way.

Since leaving my hometown, Toronto, in 1986 — where real estate is insanely expensive, (only Vancouver is worse), — I’ve lived in Montreal, a small town in New Hampshire and in suburban New York. I’ve seen huge differences of the cost of living firsthand.

In Toronto, rent/mortgage costs are high, almost no matter where you live. In Montreal I rented a stunning apartment — top floor of a 1930s building, with a working fireplace, elegant windows, two bedrooms, dining room, good-sized kitchen — for $600 a month. It was the 1980s, but my then boyfriend was paying $125 a month to share the entire top floor of an apartment building. I didn’t need a car, food and utilities were reasonable, but the taxes! Holy shit. I moved to Montreal with a $10,000 a year raise, and looked forward to extra income. I only kept $200 a month of that, the taxes were so bad. More to the point, I hated the lack of services I got in return — a high crime rate, pot-holed roads, lousy hospitals and libraries. I moved away within 18 months. (Not to mention a winter that lasted from October to May. Non, merci!)

Rural New Hampshire, with the U.S.’s lowest taxes, was cheap enough, but we needed two working vehicles, plus gas, insurance and maintenance, an expense I never needed in Toronto or Montreal.

Moving to suburban New York, where we bought a one-bedroom 1,000 square foot top-floor apartment, with a balcony, pool and tennis court, allowed us a decent monthly payment, thanks to a 30-year mortgage, all we could then afford on one salary, his, a medical resident.

I still live here, now with my second husband, paying $1,800 a month for mortgage and maintenance combined. That may sound like a fortune, but it’s pennies in this part of the world. We could easily spend that for a tiny studio in Manhattan. He pays $250 a month for his train pass to travel a 40-minute trip one-way into Manhattan.

The larger problem?  Our salaries are stagnant, if not falling. I earned more in 2000 freelance than any year since then.

Gas here in New York is just under $4/gallon — it was 89 cents a gallon in 1988 when I came to the U.S. Food is much more expensive than even two years ago, so we spend about $150+ every week for two people. We do eat meat and I work at home, so I often eat three meals a day out of that.

Our cellphone bill is absurdly high and something we need to lower. Electricity is about $75 a month as is the basic land-line bill. We also pay about $100 for a storage locker and $75 a month for our (unheated, unlit, no automatic door opener) garage.

The local YMCA wants $89 a month, (which I think really expensive) for a monthly single membership. One of the worst issues here? Tolls! It costs $4 each way to cross the cheapest bridge to get into the island of Manhattan, and another is $9 each way. Parking, if you choose a garage in the city, is routinely $25-50 for a few hours, while a parking ticket is more than $100.

These smack-in-the-face costs are only bearable, for me, because I’m self-employed as a writer, and can write most of them off as business expenses.

So why stay?

— My husband has a steady, union-protected job with a pension and a decent salary

— He likes his job

— I have ready access to the editors, agents and others in my industry I need to support my writing career. Online is not enough to build profitable relationships, at least for me

— I enjoy New York City a great deal. I love ready access to Broadway, Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, fun shops and restaurants and quiet cobble-stoned streets to wander on a fall afternoon

— Where would we go? I have learned (after two deeply disappointing moves to Montreal and New Hampshire) that being happy somewhere is often a complex mix of things: housing (and its cost and quality), access to culture, a liberal (or conservative) environment politically, neighbors who share some of your interests and passions, weather, climate, taxes, government, your job/career/industry.

As several fellow Canadians I know said, “I moved to New York, not the U.S.” I’ve seen a lot of the States, and can appreciate the appeal of many other places here. But almost nowhere has made me feel confident enough to up stakes and start all over again. I was up for a cool job in San Francisco once, but the dotcom collapse ended that. I like L.A. a lot, but Jose refuses. (Next stop? South of France, s’il vous plait!)

— I love the Hudson Valley’s beauty and history

— We have some good friends, finally.

Here’s a fascinating blog post by a Canadian then living in Sardinia, now in the Cayman Islands, about the cost of living there. Many of her followers weighed in, from Hawaii to China.

What are your costs of living these days?

Are you thinking of moving to lower them?

How about Plans C, D and E?

University College, south side, University of ...
University College, south side, University of Toronto….My alma mater, (Victoria College, actually.) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I think many of us have a Plan B — or are already living it.

But how many of you have thought far enough ahead about plans C, D and E?

Here’s a recent blog post chosen for Freshly Pressed by a woman who’s 40, in Toronto, the hometown I left in 1986. In it she discusses how it feels to face a life she did not plan for:

Life sure hasn’t gone the way I planned. That’s an understatement. I thought things would be different. As a kid, I used to think that life got easier as you got older. Now here I am pushing 40 and boy was I wrong about that. The older I get, things seem to get more complicated and every decision I have to make feels like the weight of the world.

Being a grown up is hard.

Hell, yes!

I am now at an age that feels absolutely geriatric, 55. Ahead lies a diminishing number of years on this earth, and physical decline. Cool! If I don’t have a few back-up plans (what if I get really sick? what if my husband dies?), I’m toast.

I’m writing this post sitting in a hotel room in Washington, D.C. I came by train from New York on Sunday to compete Monday for a fellowship that, if I win, offers $20,000 for six months to research an issue of interest to me. There are 14 finalists and they’ll pick maybe six.

I have to plan on not winning. Not to be negative, but realistic.

I have so many other ideas I can barely keep track of them all: writing (and I hope selling) two more non-fiction book proposals; three assignments from The New York Times and another which I hope will send me on my next trip; a conference I hope to create next fall; rustling up people to donate their talent for a fund-raiser; planning travel for 2013…

My point is that “planning” your life is truly a fool’s errand, no matter how comforting it appears. You can aim for goals, and likely hit many, if not most. But some you are going to miss.

If you do not grasp this reality, young, you may face a life of tremendous frustration and bitterness.

Some dreams will be snatched out of your grasp. Some people will disappoint you and betray you and lie to you and disappear. Some things are just shitty luck: infertility and/or miscarriage; accidents; disability or chronic illness. You still have to deal!

Here are some of the twists and turns my life took after I chose to leave my hometown of Toronto, age 30:

— Took a newspaper job in Montreal. Hated it! The winter was brutally long, cold and snowy. The crime rate was crazy, and frightening. The paper’s management were…not what I wanted.

— Moved to a small town in New Hampshire to follow the man I planned to marry, an American. I tried harder than I have ever tried in my entire life to make friends, and it proved impossible. He was doing medical training, so he was either gone, exhausted or emotionally withdrawn.

Moved to New York City to make it as a journalist. I was promised a month’s try-out, paid, at Newsweek International. When I called to confirm my start date (after we had moved to NY and bought an apartment and he had changed training programs) they said “Oh, we have an internal candidate. We don’t need you.” I insisted and still did not get the job.

And that’s only the first five years!

My life since 1989 has included a two-year marriage to the doctor; three recessions, four orthopedic surgeries since 2000, losing a few staff jobs, three days in the hospital with pneumonia, dating a convicted criminal…and writing two terrific books, finding a lovely new husband and enjoying my new left hip.

None of this was planned.

Sure, I had some hopes: good journalism jobs (check); get married (check, check); write a book (check, check). So I’m happy with this. But so many things have blown up in my face, metaphorically speaking, along the way as well.

If you are not ready — emotionally, physically and financially — to adapt to whatever life throws at you, you’ll waste a lot of time when things go south in a fog of cognitive dissonance, moaning “What happened?” instead of packing your parachute.

Here’s a great blog post by a young woman writer whose blog I enjoy, about being prepared and knowing she’s not a victim. It is a choice.

How has your life turned out?

As you’d hoped and expected? Or…?

Back again, 24 years later

The women are still lean, in Tevas and cargo pants. The men wear beards and drive pick-up trucks. The kids are plentiful.

I used to live up here, far from a big city. Muddy Subarus everywhere. Ads at the local cinema for a tattoo parlor. I knew Route 89 like the back of my hand.

I came to live in New Hampshire, in a small town, in the summer of 1988, with no prior experience of rural or small town life. I’d always lived in large cities: London, Paris, Montreal, Toronto. The absolute silence of our street was astonishing.

I followed the American man I would marry in 1992 — and who would walk out of our apartment, and our marriage, barely two years later.

The woman who lived here 24 years ago was terrified.

She — I — had left behind her country, friends, family, a thriving career. My whole identity. Anyone who moves to a new country “for love” better have a Teflon soul, a full bank account of her own and the stamina for re-invention.

I remember exactly how I felt as I crossed the border into the U.S. from Canada to move here — like a raindrop falling into an ocean. The United States has a population 10 times that of Canada. Surely I would simply disappear, never to be heard from, or of, again.

How would I ever re-build my career? New friendships? A sense of belonging? Who would I be(c0me)?

And so I used to look at all the women here — almost every one of them mothers or pregnant — apparently so secure in their identity and their marriages, roaming in packs.

I didn’t want children, and everyone here did, eagerly. I’ve never, anywhere — not even far, far away in foreign countries — felt so alien, isolated and disconnected. There were no jobs for which I was qualified. I knew not a soul. My boyfriend, then a medical resident, was always gone, returning home exhausted and grouchy.

That we were unmarried, even then un-affianced, seemed to make everyone deeply nervous. What was it, 1933?

It was the loneliest I’ve ever been.

I did love our apartment, the entire ground floor of a big old house. I did a lot of sailing. I spent every Friday at the local auction house and learned a lot about antiques.  Eager for more, I drove 90 minutes each way to Massachusetts to take a class in it there. For amusement, alone, I drove the back roads of Vermont and New Hampshire. I drew. I even drove every Monday back to Montreal to teach journalism.

But, after 18 months of my best efforts, I was desperate to flee, to re-claim a life that made some sense to me, socially, professionally and intellectually. So we moved to New York, just in time for the (then) worst recession in journalism in decades. After six relentless months of job-hunting and with no contacts to help me, I found a magazine editing job that required my French and Spanish skills. I’d never edited a magazine before.

Coming back now, I sat in the sunshine at the farmer’s market, listening to a band play bluegrass and eating a slice of wood-fired- oven-made pizza. I stared at all those mothers with their babies and their swollen bellies — and felt at ease.

I’d gone to New York. I’d achieved my dreams, surviving three recessions; in 2008, 24,000 fellow journalists lost their jobs nationwide.

Achieving my dreams would have been impossible here, then. There was, in practical terms, no Internet or cellphones. Social media barely existed. And no one had ever heard of me or read my by-line.

Nor had I yet paid my American dues — attending all those meetings and panels and conferences, getting to know editors, serving on volunteer boards, showing up, landing a few good jobs, getting fired, getting other jobs, getting laid off. Finding an agent, and then another one, and then another. Selling two well-reviewed books. Mentoring other writers.

It felt sweet to sit in the sunshine here, now, content in having done what I’d hoped to and which looked impossible, here, nestled deep within these green hills.

I no longer have to prove myself to anyone here.

Especially myself.