Thursday, October 13, 2011

Going Home: A Stranger In a Familiar Land

It had been 34 years since we moved in what seemed to be a rush.  The only place I had ever known as home, 5067 Claudel Street, in Chomedey. Laval. Montreal.
I had been back to Montreal a few times throughout the years, but never back to my old neighborhood, or street, or house.
The memories had always been there, but to actually see it one more time would have been great. I had googled it a few times, and it was still there. Why wouldn't it be? It was a very nice house on a great street full of great houses. But even when I googled it, something didn't look right. The house didn't seem to be in the spot I remembered it to be..and the street didn't look the same. The number was still right. You never forget that, the number of your first house. But the whole thing looked wrong to me. Nevertheless, I was going see for myself. Maybe my memory was just foggy.
Being young when we moved, I knew all the places,  but I didn't really know them in relation to each other. When you don't ever drive them, you don't have that bearing.
We started out Friday afternoon on our way from Toronto to Montreal. We left a bit late, so we got caught in heavy traffic. Such are the realities of living in the big city. It was a long weekend, so that made it much worse. It took 2 hours to get out of the city, when normally it would take about 20 minutes. We weren't in any rush anyway, as we had the whole weekend ahead of us. The trip was mainly to see the Just For Laughs festival in Montreal, and our day to see most of it was Saturday night.
When we left Montreal all those years ago, sure there were traffic jams, but nothing on the scale of what we had to deal with that day. Times had changed, places had changed, and people had changed. That was to become evident on this trip.
We were making a whole weekend out of it,  and Saturday was to be our morning to see my old neighborhood. I had plans to hit all the spots I remembered as a child, all those years ago. One of those was to be my old house, which I now had not seen in 34 years. Before that happened, we arrived Friday night at the hotel and checked in, then grabbed some dinner and took a quick trip around the area of the hotel. The hotel was in Laval, which is basically where I had grown up. I may have passed this hotel hundreds of times as a child, but I had no recollection of the area. If all these malls and hotels and stores were there before, I had never noticed them either.
I had been back a few times to Montreal, although I had not been in my old neighborhood.  Once a couple of years after I moved, then once in 1991 with some friends for the weekend, and then finally for business around 1996. In all those times, I did notice one major change: People rarely spoke English anymore. When I grew up, where I grew up, all you heard was English. When we went back two years after we moved, the same restaurant that we had ordered at many times now would not respond to anyone speaking English. That was the main reason we had moved in the first place. When I was back in 1996, again it was obvious you had to speak french to order at a restaurant. I was with others who did, so it wasn't an issue that time, but it would have been otherwise.
I expected all that. I live in Toronto, not Siberia, so I know the nature of how the country has changed. Montreal and really Quebec..was basically a city and province unto itself. It was still part of Canada, but it really wasn't anymore. As soon as you left Ontario, you knew that.
On this trip, that became clear as soon as you crossed the border on the highway.  I needed to get gas and stopped just as I crossed over from Ontario to Quebec. When I went to pump the gas, all the instructions and words were only in French. I have some french knowledge so it was not a big issue, but it was certainly noticeable. It was like crossing from San Diego into Tijuana, which I had done before.  It was only 2 miles, but it felt like a million miles difference. It reminded me of that Dwight Yoakum song 'A thousand miles From Nowhere'.
After we checked in, we went to get dinner. We stopped at a local Harveys, which is a huge chain restaurant in Canada. I had no idea what to expect. All the people outside the restaurant spoke french,  all the people inside the restaurant spoke french. I approached the server and asked if he spoke English. He did. He kind of looked surprised that I asked. Such were the realities of 2011. French was the official language, but now English had to be spoken to restore the city back to the prominence it once held.
Growing up in Montreal, we made many yearly trips to Toronto to see my many relatives. My mother was from Toronto and most of her family was as well. In that time Montreal was the biggest city in Canada, by far.  Toronto, while a big city, was clearly a long second to that. Montreal was an international city, while Toronto was a big city in Canada, still way behind the times relative to Montreal. That changed just before we moved. 
In 1976, the leaders of the Quebec government clearly had their minds set on changing the culture of the province from English to French speaking only.  In that vain, they intended to separate from Canada,  and held a vote as such to try and make that happen.That vote failed and Quebec remained a part of Canada.  But that day, lose or not, Montreal was never the same city, and has never recovered its status. The following year, most English speaking Montrealers moved away to Toronto, as did most major companies, who had previously headquartered in Montreal. My high school was scheduled to change over the next year from English to French speaking only.
The previous year before we moved Montreal was at the height of its popularity.  The 1976 Olympics had just happened in Montreal, a new International airport (Mirabel) had just been built, and both the Montreal Expos and Montreal Canadians were either winning championships or contending for them.
Toronto, on the other hand, didn't yet have a baseball team, and had a hockey team that hadn't done much in ten years. It was sometimes referred to as Hogtown. I remember that there was not even a Sunday newspaper, and all stores were closed on a Sunday.  There was no live sporting events and basically the city shut down on Sundays, which was the total opposite of Montreal. When we moved, the cities basically switched places and Toronto became the world class city and Montreal became a second class best.
Of course growing up, that is not how I remember it.  I was not conscious of all this at the time, but I was now.
Saturday morning came, and before we made our way, I decided to take a walk,  as I had got in the habit of doing every day back home in Toronto.
Of course, the first thing I noticed is that all the streets were now named in French instead of English. As I walked, I did not recognize a thing. That could have happened anywhere in any city when you have not been back in 34 years. But this was different.
It was at this point that I got the idea for this story. I was in the town I grew up in, where a great portion of my childhood memories were formed, but basically it was not the same town anymore. It was a foreign land. I was going home, but I was a stranger in a familiar land. I was still me, but it was not it anymore.
And why would it be? Places change, people change,  I had changed. My memories were those of a young child,  but I was now a grown man of 46. I made my walk and didn't recognize any places at all. I got back  to the hotel and in about an hour we were off to make the tour.
Being a young child, I never had driven in this area. You get a totally different perspective of a place when you are just a passenger. Now I was the driver. I had to map out my route, because I really didn't know the way. As we got close to my old street, my old house, it was becoming eerie. None of this looked the same. I understood that things would change, but I didn't live in the middle of nowhere before. My whole area was quite built up when I grew up, and for the most part should not have needed to be altered.
We made our way onto my old street. It did not look at all how I remembered. We drove the whole street and I had always remembered my house and how and where it was in relation to the whole street. As we drove, it just wasn't there. We got to the end of the street and were back on the connecting street. We pulled over. I said to my wife "Something isn't right, it doesn't look the same". We went back and started again, slower this time. The second time around it became clear: They had knocked down all the houses, reformed the street and built new houses on different spots. They kept the house numbers, so my house number was in a different spot and was not the same house.
Time had changed everything. It was at this point that it dawned on me.  Home is that place that exists in your mind, but when you go back to revisit it, its not the place you remembered, because life changes that place over time. Only in your mind can you suspend time to make it seem real and the same as it once was. You can go back but you can never go home again.
It was like I had finally closed a chapter I didn't get to close the first time around. That period of my life was finally over, and while I still have all the memories,  they are now filed as memories. I will always have those memories, but that is all they are and all they ever should have been.

No comments:

Post a Comment