MONTREAL — It’s early afternoon on a Saturday in August when a woman stops for a breather in Plateau-Mont-Royal.
She puts down two bags of groceries, sits at the neighbourhood piano and begins to play a haunting melody.
“She attracted quite a crowd. When she finished, we all went crazy, shouting ‘Brava!’ and hooting and hollering,” said ex-Montrealer Kathy McGlynn DeSantis, an actress and singer who now teaches French in Burlington, Ont. “She stood, curtsied, picked up her bags and continued on her way. Fantastic!”
An Australian filmmaker, working in Montreal this summer, has been spending some of his free evenings hanging out in Laurier Park, happily watching the families that gather for picnics and birthday celebrations while he dines on grocery store lobster and the fresh raspberries he picks up at the fruit stand beside the métro station.
Montrealer Olivier Lapierre’s best new discovery happened late one night when he came upon a clutch of fishermen angling along the north side of Cité du Havre near Habitat 67. “We are a tight-knit community and sturgeons are huge here,” one told him.
Caught up in all the bad stuff that has been going down in Montreal over the last year or two, sometimes it’s easy for us locals to miss the mountain for the potholes, to forget what an exceptional, fabulous, remarkable place we call home.
Don’t get me wrong. It is right and proper to be outraged by corruption, stupefied by bulldozer-swallowing sinkholes and befuddled by provocative use of language, culture and religion to fuel fear, animosity and division.
So long as we don’t allow the fog of anger to steal our joy or blind us to those random acts of Montrealness, the crazy salad of flavours and colours and languages, which make the prospect of leaving to live in another Canadian city so, well, foreign.
Yes, there are the fantastic, big buzz initiatives, such as gourmet food trucks and the Quartier des Spectacles, the crush of the Jazz fest or the adrenalin rush of playoff season when the Habs stand a chance, the Mosaïculture topiaries and the shimmer of the Chihuly glass show at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.
But just as rewarding are the small-scale delights — the carillon chimes of the Sun Life building at 5 p.m., a midnight ride on the musical swings, newspaper boxes reinvented as free libraries, those benches in Parc Garneau in Ville Émard festooned by the guerrilla knitters of Tricotons la Rue. Look closely enough and you may even stumble on a secret wonder, like fresh graffiti of Elvis with the head of a bird, or that little garden near the Peel Basin, planted and maintained by a homeless man.
Each in its way helps shape this city’s vivid personality — or, in the words of one small group of involved and dedicated citizens, its general awesomeness.
“There is no shortage of people with ideas and projects who want to do great things in Montreal,’ said Lisa Griffiths, a trustee for the Montreal Awesome Foundation, which offers grants of $1,000 for people doing the kinds of cool stuff that makes a city a better place.
Inspired by a venture launched in Boston in 2009, the Montreal group — the French name is Fondation Formidable — pools $100 donations from its core of eight to 10 trustees to reward and encourage “tiny moments of brilliance and awesomeness” in the life of the city.
“Every two or three months, we get together in a coffee shop to go over the applications. It turns into a night of debates about what is important to us,” said Griffiths. While everyone has their own definition of awesome, Griffiths said the focus is on community rather than on individuals, and on initiatives that are “different, interesting and creative.” Past recipients include a green lane project for kids in Mile End and folks who collect extra food from restaurants for a collective kitchen in Rosemont-Petit-Patrie.
As luck would have it, the latest Awesome grant is going to Nathanaël Lécaudé, who came up with a pilot scheme to put LED lights on one of Montreal’s 13 street pianos. Working with Julien Leblond, the city technician responsible for keeping the pianos working and safe, Lécaudé hopes to add a little dazzle, making them more visible at night and interactive.
For Griffiths, a portrait photographer who previously worked with the civic engagement group Apathy is Boring, Montreal is rich with remarkable adventures, like those sidewalk pianos or Cam Novak’s street art bike tours.
“When you look for it, you find it.”
But first you have to look.
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