Efforts to Make Friends in Montreal, and My Deep Inner Life
I am feeling a bit lonely and am excited to make some local friends my first week in Montreal as I walk through an open door labelled 309. To the left of this door is 309A. I am looking for 309B. The lights are off. It’s an odd place; I can’t tell if it’s a business or a residence. For sure it has served both purposes and it’s in a commercial/residential area.
I’m standing in what is like an open concept, basic, urban kitchen. To the right of the door is about an 8-foot span of wall with makeshift open shelves, a basic counter and sink, a stove and a fridge. The usual details for preparing a meal but not really cooking so much. The shelves are fully stocked, colourful boxes and packages and dishes and cooking implements. Otherwise the room is grey. Grey industrial carpet, grey walls.
There are several tables with chairs pulled around. I feel like this would have been a small living room. It’s an odd space. Do people work at these tables? Are there bedrooms made into offices and this is the common area? I notice a cycling helmet and a jacket have been tossed onto the table closest to the entrance. I can’t say why, but it seems like they were just tossed there moments ago. Perhaps I perceive settling of the jacket but not consciously. Where is everyone?
“Hello? . . . Allo?” I call into the darkness. I hear a stirring but no one answers. “Allo?”
A middle-aged man pokes around the corner, friendly and curious. He is not expecting me. “Roberto?” I ask. “Qui?” “Um, I emailed with Roberto and he said the group would be meeting here?” We stand for a moment, staring at each other. He’s clearly thinking. Who is this Roberto and why would he be having a group meet in my space?
“Oh, you want that one!” he says after a moment and amicably, turning me around and pointing to a third door outside. It is labelled 309B, but was not noticeable when facing the direction of these doors, it corners the left side of 309A.
Door 309B leads directly down a staircase. Seems to be the same grey industrial carpeting as in the previous unit. I can hear laughter and friendly voices. It seems more obvious now that this is a commercial space that had perhaps previously been residential. I go through a living room cum storage room following the voices around the corner.
Four large brown rectangular tables are pushed together making one big work surface. The room is brightly over-lit by fluorescent tube lighting so I choose and dawn the appropriate eyewear before even entering. (I am highly photosensitive.) Around the tables sit naked illegal immigrants measuring and packaging what looks like some kind of exotic sea salt.
“I’m here to volunteer?” I say with some uncertainty to the first person who looks towards me. A stocky, well-built shorter man wearing a green t-shirt and blue jeans jumps up to introduce himself. He is happy to try a bit of English and I am happy to finally try the only French I know, which is only a tiny bit. Oh, and I was kidding about the naked illegal immigrants measuring and packaging what looks like some kind of exotic sea salt. I mean, how would I have even known if they were legal or not.
“I’ll take him over here,” someone calls over, “I’ll show him what to do.” The first guy looks unsure, he was happy to welcome me too. But this other fellow wins-out with English fluency, calling again until the first guy relents and gestures me to go ahead. I have no idea how this works so I just accept being called over. He seems to be the guy in charge.
Well, he wasn’t in charge, he was just bossy. And interested in me. And he doesn’t want to share. Me. He shows me what to do. We chat in English and very quickly I lose all hope of ever conversing with anyone else in the room. I have found much the same in coffee shops here in East Montreal, people shy away from English. They may speak a little but generally prefer not to. And when I try my little bit of French they also reply that they don’t speak English. In this case they may have made an attempt to communicate with me, had I been the lone Anglo guy in a room of Francophones and happy to struggle communicating in my barely existent French some of them might have playfully interacted with me. The desire to communicate can easily outweigh language shortcomings, I have experienced this all over the world. But not in this case, not with the Brazilian fluently conversing. I very quickly became invisible to the rest of the group. The “welcome” switch flicked to “avoid”, perhaps even, “invisible”.
“Where are we going for a drink?” he asks after we emerge into the urban Montreal street. “I’m still going to Chapters, I don’t want to go for a drink,” I reply. I had told him of my plan to look for some specific books this evening after volunteering. He clearly wanted to spend the evening together but I didn’t. “I don’t really drink either,” he says, ignoring my lack of interest,”you know the village better than I do.” That’s just stupid. I’ve been to two bars and anyway, he doesn’t know how well or not I know the village. “Are you going to Beaudry Station?” I ask at the corner of Rue Ste Catherine, gesturing that this is where we part. “No, I’ll walk with you to Berri.”
He walks with me well past Metro Berri and some distance later we come upon a fashion show around the Plaza Des Arts. We wander in and there I leave him, which I have to do pointedly. I am feeling very crowded by this fellow who, in his head, seems to have already settled down and had babies with me. “There’s a station here?” “Yes, right there.” “Okay, I’m leaving you now, it was nice to meet you,” I lied. We farewell and I continue to the bookstore where I can find travel guides in English. I need to start reading about Southeast Asia.
I felt like my chance to meet some locals was hijacked by this friendly Brazilian. “It’s the first time in months that I came to help-out here,” he had exclaimed, suggesting the destiny of our meeting.
If we were meant to meet, then I guess I wasn’t meant to make some new friends that night after all. A group of friends where I was the token English guy would have been fun. That’s what I was hoping for – accept me in your group even though our communication is limited. I might not want to go to a German film with French subtitles, but there are lots of other activities I would be happy to join. I’m used to being in groups where I don’t understand what most people are saying, being the white guy in China and the only non-Japanese in my schools in Japan, I’d be happy to catch a word or gesture here and there. “Ah yes, a tree, I understand fully. . . ” (Really? They’ve been talking about a tree this whole time?) “Yes, tree, ha,ha, you speak Japanese very well!”
(He thinks we’re talking about a tree?)
Happily I have a “very deep inner life” that allows me to enjoy such situations. Sometimes I even do that with English speakers. Some might call it “zoning out” and see it as a defect of having ADHD, but I prefer my view. My internal world is quite developed and I am someone who rarely gets bored. There are strengths to be found in any attribute. I think my former partner may not have fully appreciated that I substituted, “Sorry, I wasn’t paying attention, what did you say?” with, “Sorry, I have a very deep inner life, what did you say?”
The men in my family also seem to share a delay in attention change. If you start suddenly talking to us, don’t expect us to have heard the beginning of what you said. Because it takes a moment to shift our focus from our very deep inner life over to you. We need some advance notice that you are about to speak, how else are we to know that we need to listen? You will most always have to repeat the first few lines unless we were already presently engaged in conversation. Except there’s no guarantee in my case, “Sorry, I forgot you were talking to me for a moment.” Don’t take it personally. Unless you want to, I know that some people love to take things like that personally, keeps life more excitingly dramatic or something. I won’t even talk about our inability to multi task. Another time.
I was very much happy to be alone again. Thankful, in fact. Perhaps that was the purpose in our meeting; I had been feeling a bit lonely. And now I’m just grateful. More space for my deep inner life again.
Click on the videos below to play them.
Cycling across the Jacques Cartier Bridge:
I had one song stuck in my head all day, so you might notice me humming it in these videos. The next one, for sure. (Maybe called, “This Land is Mine”, I might share the video sometime but some might find it offensive even though it isn’t.)