Nord of the Border

Three weeks back in the U.S. and we already wanted to escape. The political circus here was too much, but by living in Italy part-time, we were missing some of our favorite places in North America. One of them is Montréal, a straight drive up I-87 from New York. One of our kids lived there for a while, going to university, and we missed the French-accented vibe, the combination of North American laid-back attitude coupled with Latin hedonism.

So we pointed the VW north. With Liv and Al, plus Lola the dachshund in tow, we joined Martina and her boyfriend Dan for a family long weekend.

I’d forgotten how different the city is from New York—it’s like, in a different country. Beyond the obvious—the street signs in French, the metric measurements—it feels a lot like Europe these days, and less like the U.S. For one thing, at least in Montréal, the cars on the streets are smaller. You don’t see many hulking pickups, or huge monster SUVs (Escalades, the big BMWs and Mercedes, etc.) VW Golfs and Mazda3s are more typical. And there are bikes everywhere—New Yorkers like their two-wheeled transport, but the Montréalers have them beat. There are clusters of bikes everywhere, in front of every dwelling, scattered around in front yards. A lot of streets have dedicated lanes, and Montréalers ride in the worst weather, too.


Montréal wasn’t immune to political tumult. Earlier this month, the Coalition Avenir Québec (Coalition for Québec’s Future) won a majority in provincial elections. Variously described as center-right, populist, or anti-immigrant, Montréalers gathered while we were there to protect what they see as the CAQ’s racist stance.

But we were there to escape, and we did for a bit. For one thing, we got to know Child No. 1’s boyfriend better over a couple of dinners, and that was good. Dan, you passed. Speaking of dinners, we first gathered at Restaurant Alep, a cool and elegant Syrian restaurant near the sprawling Marché Jean-Talon. Amazing, refined takes on the usual dips along with some really interesting dishes. With so much to choose from, we put ourselves in the hands of our server. She just brought food out that she thought we’d like. And she was right.

Version 2

We came, we ate, we demolished

The next day, after the obligatory cappuccino and croissant—okay, a pain au chocolat—we walked around the old port doing some shopping and then it was time for culture. Having an architect in the family meant that we had to visit the CCA—a museum and foundation whose acronym works in both French (Centre Canadien de l’Architecture) and English (Canadian Centre of Architecture).

There’s always something interesting going on there, and so it was that day. Unfortunately for you guys, it was the last day of an exhibit on revolutionary Italian architects of the 1960s and ’70s. A couple of them eventually became famous, like Ettore Sotsass, a leader of the whimsical “Memphis” movement. You can see his influence in a lot of the furniture sold today, even in places like Ikea.

Naturally, a lot of it was unintentionally hilarious. There was one grainy video manifesto, full of Big Statements about contextual dichotomies and stereotomic liminal tectonics, in Italian no less. That took the voiceover to another level. There were dinner tables set with plates representing different constituencies and capitalist considerations, and models of cars going through apartment buildings. Anyone wanna deconstruct that?

This needs no deconstruction. It was, for whatever reason, a comment on modern Italian TV culture:

The trip was way too short, and made me just want to go back up and spend a few more days. I’d love to stay at Hotel10 again—for some reason, we reserved a normal room and ended up in a palatial suite, with a huge living room, a couple of bathrooms equipped with every toiletry you’d ever need, plus comfy bathrobes, all of it in a cool industrial style package, complete with polished concrete ceilings. (Yes, we noticed the ceilings.) It was the kind of place you’d imagine a band hanging out in, calling out for bottle service and some, um, company.

IMG_5366We ended our stay with a visit to Habitat 67.  The apartment complex was conceived as architect Moshe Safdie’s thesis project at McGill, and was built for Expo 67. We’d never been, and the place is pretty amazing, if isolated from the urban fabric. There’s always a surprise in Montréal, though, and this was pretty cool. Despite all the “propriété privée” signs, a friendly groundskeeper pointed us to a trail behind the complex, on a slight bluff above the St. Lawrence. It’s a hot surf spot, and despite the drizzly, chilly day, intrepid Montréaler surfer dudes and dudettes were taking to the rapids. Très cool—literally.


Boy trouble (time out from the travelogues)

I have no idea why I’m writing this, or whether it’ll be any good. I guess I just have an urge to write and to react to what we found when we got back to New York.

This place feels crazy. I honestly can’t remember when the U.S. felt weirder to me. I’d been away a few months, and I guess that time alone had something to do with it. But really, Watergate, Reagan’s election, the Bush I and II years all seem relatively normal.  You can feel it on the street. People just drive weird, and my friends here are all justifiably upset and unnerved. It’s a strange feeling.

I don’t think I can say anything profound about the Brett Kavanaugh torture. I vacillate between detached disgust and complete obsession. I hate the nastiness, the incredible contempt for civility shown by the old men on the Senate judiciary committee.

I can only write about my own experience, and how common this casual abuse of women was—and is. And seeing what I saw, I completely believe Christine Blasey Ford. As a teenager, I was peripherally involved in an attempted assault of a female friend of mine, and I witnessed disgusting behavior by a friend’s father at her 16th birthday party.

I’ll start with the first. I was at a party in a big Victorian house in an outer borough. The parents were either out or on vacation, and it was a typical 1970s party, with lots of alcohol, weed and god knows what else being consumed. I wandered outside for fresh air, and it was dark. I heard a friend of mine, let’s call her Beth, saying no and I think she was saying “stop.” I looked around and there was a space under the front porch and Beth and this kid my age were sitting under there. There may have been others. I looked in and saw the neighbor of the host, a boy about my age, maybe 16-17, pawing at my friend, who was definitely out of it, much more than I was. He was making kissing sounds and saying “c’mon” over and over again.

I don’t think I’m the bravest guy in the world, and the neighbor was an athlete. I wasn’t. Whether it was the vodka I was drinking or weed that made me act, but I dove in and shoved the guy off Beth. I remember him saying to me, “hey man, what the fuck?” and I thought he was going to punch me out. But I grabbed Beth and pulled her aside, out of his reach. He ran off back to his house cursing. I wasn’t trying to be a hero, and I don’t think of myself as one now. I was just reacting to seeing a friend hurt, and thinking back to that now, I can almost—almost—feel what Blasey felt that night.

Also in high school. One of my classmates was a girl from a wealthy family. They had the whole deal, a huge house in a posh neighborhood, servants. Her parents were both college professors, who earned a decent living. What made them wealthy, though were the people next door, my friend’s maternal grandparents. My friend, just about to turn 16, knew she had a trust fund. She would talk every so often about what she’d do “when I get my money.”

For her 16th birthday, her parents threw a big house party. It was a catered thing, and we had to dress up: girls in gowns, guys in jacket and tie. Mom and pop would’ve gotten arrested now for the party beverage, Moët Champagne. It was my first taste of the real thing, and we were chugging it down like it was soda.

Her dad wasn’t chugging, or sipping. He decided it would be fun to walk around and pour Champagne down the front of the girls’ dresses. He was in great spirits and he succeeded a couple of times. My friend got wind of it and told her dad to stop. He whined like a little boy: “Aw —–, you always spoil my fun.”

I later learned that my mother-in-law worked for him for awhile, but requested a transfer. Why? He’d chase her around the office trying to grope her. “You’re so zaftig,” he’d tell her.

I’m relating this, I guess, as a way of saying that without even looking for it, I saw two egregious instances of sexual harassment and attempted abuse in the space of a couple of months. I don’t doubt Blasey’s account, nor do I doubt those of the others who have come forth. And I don’t doubt that this casual abuse happens every day. We haven’t evolved, and that’s a profoundly depressing thought. And here’s the thing: The Republicans are defending this guy as though the fate of Western civilization is at stake. It’s just mind-blowing.

I didn’t understand it then, and I don’t now. And seeing Brett Kavanaugh’s sneering self-defense just let loose emotions and memories I’d almost forgotten. I wasn’t the victim in both cases way back then, but I was horrified at how guys could so casually mistreat women. In the first party, it was a situation that was probably similar to the “skis” party that Kavanaugh’s calendar alluded to. And I remember throwing that kid off my friend pretty vividly. You don’t forget stuff like that.

When I started editing for a magazine, my boss would bounce articles back to me, saying they basically were fine, except for one thing: the ending. I’m pretty good at starting something, but I have trouble ending it. I guess that for a post like this, there’s no real conclusion. Should I apologize on behalf of my gender and profess to be better? Maybe, but it’s kind of a wimpy windup.

So. I think we’re talking about a lack of respect and empathy. Of humanity. Kavanaugh and the good old boys on the Senate committee are all of a piece. They disrespect women, and they disrespect the people they’re supposed to represent. No, more. They hate them; they objectify women and they sneer and dehumanize at people who aren’t part of their tribe.

Men have to do something. Men of conscience, those who’ve evolved past these Neanderthals (apologies to our ancestors). They say we get the government that we deserve, but nobody deserves this bunch of creeps. Women are leading the way here. But it’s also up to men to man up and join them in calling this shit out.