Montreal, la version longue

I am counting the 12-hour train journey as part of this Montreal chronicle, which began when the train I boarded before daybreak left Philadelphia at 5:52a and arrived in Montreal after sunset, at 7:33p. The sky was beginning to lighten slowly as the train pulled away from 30th Street Station, but we were nearly halfway to Trenton before the day was broken into by streaks in the sky that looked like a very large animal had torn into the atmosphere revealing a blood orange color with lava-like brilliance. Truly day break.

My sister came on the journey with me and, as she pointed out more than a few times, this may be the longest amount of time we have spent with each other as adults without other family members present. She was right. We are also each enjoying a break from our respective fields of work at present – me, on sabbatical, and she having just resigned from her position in an administrative wing of a local department of education. Whereas I embrace, with great joy, meeting-free days and a schedule-free existence, she is less prone to feelings of joy about the same. And while her resignation was self-initiated and motivated by a desire to find and pursue work that better stimulates and inspires her, she only now, after more than a month away from the routine, has resigned herself to the reality that the journey may be the “there” and that one person’s “there” is another person’s “nowhere.” So it was only natural that she, without anything keeping her from accompanying me, should come along and see what a bunch of anthropologists do when they get together. Her own emergent ethnography found the following:

  • They speak in their own jargon as equally self-referential as any talk of “rubrics, deliverables, and outcomes” (although, in my *completely unbiased* opinion, talk of “positionalities, spaces, and being” is far superior to the latter!);
  • They socialize. A lot. Over drinks, breakfast, lunch, and shared love of chocolate.
  • They like to celebrate one another, pay homage, give respect, and illustrate connections and lasting legacies through stories and other practices of situatedness.
  • Some of them are not very self aware.
  • Yes, some really do wear ponchos and socks with Birkenstocks. (I had already prepared her for this; the anthro dress code is one of the main reasons I hang a part of my proverbial hat there.)
  • They, at least the ones in the sub-section I’m associated with and with whose members she had several chances to interact, are quite friendly, welcoming, and at the ready with advice and ideas.
  • Some of the new and first-time presenters lack the finesse and depth of more practiced anthropologists. Apparently in a few sessions she attended, presenters felt no need to connect to other work (e.g. lit review) and meandered as they talked without any sense of purpose or timing (I witnessed one such paper with her – oh my…).
  •  Anthropologists are not saints and also have their share of hypocrisy, lack of judgment, questionable decisions and ethics, and plays of power and authority.

As a member of the afore-not-mentioned organization, it was both a treat and source of nerves to have my sister along for the ride. A true boon of this experience was the opportunity to truly engage in that ethnographic practice of making strange something that is by now so familiar. As was the opportunity to spend time together talking through ideas, and doing so (on my part) without frustration that various concepts were not obvious. For this, I had to view dear sister as a nascent and interested interloper and not a judgmental family member; the shift in orientation does wonders for assuming a dialogic stance rather than a similarly judgmental one. I willingly offered examples when she asked for them rather than changing the subject as I might have done in a move characteristic of a self-protective, “my family doesn’t get what I do” attitude leftover from the past. (Stunning, isn’t it, how quickly we retreat to these familiar corners and postures, and how truly challenging it is to dislodge oneself from these habit patterns.)

We also took in this fine city whose citizens entertained my inclinations to speak French, which of course thrilled me endlessly. We walked up rue Saint Laurent through the Quartier Latin, traipsed through McGill University and its surroundings, made our way to the Mile End neighborhood, and back down for some delicious mushroom tacos and tequila at the aptly named Tequila Taco House.

And I can definitively say that the café Olive et Gourmando is one of my absolute favorite spots for eating and communing in the world. During our short stay, I visited this eatery no less than four separate times and everything I consumed was prepared on site and simply delicious — food, atmosphere, and friendliness. Allow me to demonstrate with a vignette.

Two women, sisters perhaps, sit opposite one another enjoying their lunch. One has ordered a grilled cheese. But this is no ordinary fromage grille; this is goat cheese with the brie-like rind still attached, smothered in between two slices of le pain magnifique, topped with carmelized onions and accompanied with a veritable vat of slightly thinned ketchup for dipping that boasts and delivers the flavors of autumn harvest: apple, nutmeg, and cinnamon. Across from her is the sister’s order: truffle macaroni and cheese; that is, a mélange of mushrooms delicately tossed and presumably sautéed in truffle oil before joining spiral macaroni cooked to al dente perfection and bound together with a generous (but not overwhelming) amount of gruyere cheese, all served in a square cast-iron skillet in which the dish was clearly prepared and broiled as the browned edges of the cheese on top indicate. The mac ‘n cheese skillet was accompanied by a simple green salad with the complex flavors of tarragon, citrus, and an as-yet-undiscovered flavor running through a mixture or arugula, dandelion greens, fennel greens, and toasted almond slices.

But this is not the best part. No, that happened when the man sitting next to the sister with the grilled cheese asked the other sister what she was eating, and expressed interest when she replied “truffle macaroni and cheese.” He, with his perfectly round, thick, black-rimmed glasses and red knit hat and scarf tossed casually over his left shoulder, had already caught the sisters’ collective attention. The rest of the exchange went something like this:

Red hat: Is it any good? (nose wrinkles with anticipation)

Truffle Sister: Oh yes, so good. (nodding, fork in hand ready for another bite)

Red hat: Well (nodding) I’ll have to look for it next time. (momentary pause, while he continues to smile and look at the artfully designed wooden board on which the dish was served) Ok, class is over! You can go back to eating in peace now. (another smile, a bit more devilish this time)

Truffle sister: Thanks (a smile, presumably related to the joy that comes from someone else validating one’s food selection)

The sisters continued to eat their meal as Red Hat and his companion – another man with thick rimmed spectacles that are more rectangular in shape and whose manner is less animated than his friend’s – consume their meals and move on to dessert. Truffle Sister spots Red Hat’s dessert: some kind of chocolatey, bready item served in an oval basket with a perfectly-sized (not too big, but more than an espresso) cappuccino on the side. Another exchange ensues:

Truffle Sister: Ok, now I must ask you, what is that? It looks delicious. (not even trying to hide her covetous eyes)

Red Hat: Ooh, I’m in school now! (laughs – infectious was a word designed for this man’s exhortation of delight) This is the chocolate brioche. They make wonderful desserts here, but you can’t go wrong with Valrhona (referring to the brand of chocolate that decorates the inside, outside, every-side of the magical item in front of him)

Red Hat’s English reveals a lilt of something else when he pronounces Valrhona and it is only then that Truffle Sister realizes that they are talking with Quebec natives – later she learns they are Montreal natives, partners (in business and in life) for over two decades. Food, as it turns out (yet again), is the true uniter and for the next twenty-five minutes, the New Yorkers and Montrealites exchange stories, with the latter giving the former restaurant recommendations and an invitation to their food shop in a local indoor market. In this conversation, the New Yorkers learn that Rene (Red Hat) and Glenn have just bought a new home, are in the throes of home renovation and repair craziness (which Truffle Sister, aka yours truly can empathize with), have traveled the world and have made friends with great characters along the way, and that they think the sisters are the friendliest New Yorkers they have ever met.

Merci, Rene et Glenn! We think you’re fantastic, and merci aussi for the tres yummy fleur de sel chocolates you treated us to during our visit to your store, Les Douceurs du Marche, that I highly recommend to all who visit Montreal. We had the great pleasure of participating in a few tastings (olive oil, olives, and something heavenly called pistachio crème that puts nutella to shame!) before departing Montreal and returning to the States. Meeting this duo was certainly the highlight of a trip that was also filled with good conversation, meeting new colleagues, and some quality time spent with my never-former, always-current mentor – I wonder when she’ll tire of giving counsel. I hope and suspect the answer is never. – and intellectual fuel for my ongoing inquiry into questions of belonging, being, and becoming and how the combination of travel, food, and laughter inspires new learning and openness in seemingly magical ways. (hmmm… I suspect I may have stumbled onto the subject of my next post. But much nanowrimo-ing must come first! Especially as I received the very welcome news that a chapter originally due at the end of the month can now be submitted in early 2012. Joy!)

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