‘The city and oneself: fragments about residing temporarily in Montreal’ by Andrea Reed-Leal

The City and Oneself.jpg

Illustration by Andres Garzon


Today, May 3rd, the weather is splendid. Seated on a bench at Parc la Fontaine, I observe people picnicking with friends and family, jogging or walking their dogs. The sky is covered in clouds and we are all still wearing jackets. For a Montrealer, this is a splendid day to be outside. The artificial lake in front of me holds barely any water. The winter froze (almost) everything. Some trees around me start to pop light green dots in their branches; the park itself remains entirely naked. Although not perceived aloud, I can hear the excitement of the city (the real sounds of the urban society, ultimately more poetic than the sound of the wind). Well-liked and popular though it is, this city encompasses great contradictions. But which city does not? Montreal is a city of the multiple: language is fluid and accents abound; diversity is desirable. “Where are you from?” becomes a common line to start a conversation. Montreal, a city of merchants and bankers and, also, of beauty, art, and pleasures.


The city is not just an entity—closed, limited, static or invariable; on the contrary, a city is a fluid phenomenon, actively changing through time. A philosophy of the city, proposed by Henri Lefebvre, Roland Barthes, and others, resolved questions about the importance of the space in the making of communities. Relations between society and the space mold the experience of this alive space. The city changes alongside its society—it is shaped by the movement of peoples and their encounters. A city produces knowledge and continually mirrors the being of its society. Social relations determine the essence of a city, while state and economic powers simultaneously maintain the (dis)order of a city. As Henri Lefebvre wrote, “The city is a mediation among mediators.” How long does someone need to be in the city to become part of it?


The resident, as the name defines it, lives in the city. The resident possesses a fragmented space of the city from where she or he can depart and come back to (house, apartment, or room). The migration status limits the time of the resident in the country. If I become something else/someone new—because of the social interactions and intimate mirrorings with a particular city—, the state limits the amount of time I am allowed to be this. Such is the power of states and societies.


There is a radical distinction between an inhabitant and a tourist. The temporal resident, however, stands in the borderline between the two. Contrary to someone simply passing by—seduced by the industry of tourism—a temporal resident notices subtle changes in the space through time, because, although he or she still is a foreigner, everything is new. Slowly, she or he becomes accustomed to the city’s specificities that one moment before had produced excitement. Senses are wide open—as a tourist who visits a city for the first time and can only see the space as an exotic object. The temporal resident, however, also perceives the intimate incidents of the city—the freedom in walking alone in the streets, the hours of light changing every single day, the silent irritation caused by a sudden snowstorm or the fact that no one will say “bless you” after a sneeze. The tourist is an isolated being in a city perpetually moving. Whereas, even for brief moments, a temporal resident becomes a part of the wheel of daily life. Tourists observe life as outsiders, as an anthropologist studying a community or as a spectator in a theater. A society produces and recreates culture and the aesthetics of the space.


Certainly, the tourist plays an important role in the imagining of the city and on the experience of it. But, what is it? That is a different story. What the tourist sees when he or she visits a city differs radically from the experience of the resident.


If the city mirrors the group (or groups) pertaining to a certain historical and social moment, the temporal resident—who participates in the wheel of daily life with actions, decisions, codes, and conducts, shapes the city as an insider. The reality affects the individual: everything, for instance, odors, sounds of voices, errands, sensations of excitement and boredom, mold the experience of being in a place. Somehow, this “reality” defines the temporal resident—who learns to collect instants in memories because he or she understands that all experiences will be soon (or are already) lost. Nothing, then, is more important than the sensations a place gives to you. Only through time, the temporal inhabitant creates attachments to his or her surroundings: some faces become known, temporal friendships emerge, the language transmutes into something less “foreign.” And, suddenly, the resident recognizes himself or herself in the (unknown) other. The attachment resides in how I abruptly feel for the Other: I understand something of the man sited next to me reading Peter Mendelsund or of the lonely woman peeling an orange from afar.


Societies share an understanding of how to manage, approach and shape their spaces. Therefore, in the public space, the essence of cohabitation (how to treat each other) references such agreements.


To know the habits, the rituals, and the way of life one must spend time observing the continuities and discontinuities of the city. Change and movement constantly reimagine the space. A philosophy of the city recognizes the transitions, disappearances, obstacles, and internal conflicts conceiving the social space. Reflections on the transformation of the city emphasize articulations of being in the city. What am I in this city? How have I changed (because of it)?


For a temporal resident, it is acceptable not to treat the city as an object of exploration (although, as a “new” space, in the beginning, it is unavoidable). There is time to discover (and be discovered). The temporal resident appropriates the city by letting it appear by necessity, just as it happens to the permanent inhabitant. Daily life affairs provide excuses to visit new neighborhoods. By giving oneself to everyday life—letting it influence you, while, simultaneously inscribing the space with your own individual history—the resident eventually learns to move around the space. In other words, through daily life, he or she establishes a sense of belonging to that community.


For a resident, the city displays both joy and sorrow, abundance and poverty. Experiences of daily life include those affairs that might not be so desirable but are, nonetheless, unavoidable. That is, temporal residents, share the politics of being a citizen—making lines to pay taxes, paying visits to hospitals, and opening bank accounts—. From a perspective of daily life, traffic, city constructions, and work become annoyances—dealings which, commonly, invite boredom, confusion, and dissatisfaction. To understand a place is to see its aesthetics of decline as well.


The city is, as Henri Lefebvre argues, “an oeuvre, closer to a work of art than to a simple material product.”


Somehow, after some months, I notice the changes in odors. The winter is over, all living things come back (including aspects of myself). Ants make geometrical figures in the pavement. A dead squirrel lies next to the speeding bicycles crossing the park. Owners walk their dogs, taking their time. I notice the smells of new life. My eyes cry and my nose sneezes constantly. The air I breathe changes. I get a terrible (once in a lifetime) sinusitis. I cannot breathe. My eyes continue to cry. I am on antibiotics. I cannot be out (again). Being in this city becomes exhausting.


To feel comfortable in a space, I must first inhabit it. After a few months in the apartment, I still felt like a foreigner leaving soon. I transformed the space forme, and suddenly my (temporal) home became familiar. Temporality allows you to modify, in turn, your life according to space. The public pool near my home became a known space after many visits. On a sunny but cold afternoon of February, I swam for an hour, expiring through my nose and inspiring through my mouth (changing the normal structure of breathing). I could listen clearly to the breath beneath the water and the rhythm of this (new) daily life. As I stopped in the borderline to rest, I felt the heat on my skin. To visit this pool reminds me of all the other pools I have visited in other cities: the blue color of the floors, the warm atmosphere, the movement of the water. It is possible, I thought, to link experiences elsewhere to this particular moment.

Learning to be in a new city requires to let your senses identify and understand the surroundings. It is required first, and foremost, to learn how to move around: Is it safe to walk to the pool at night? Is the bus faster than the metro?


If the city (buildings, streets, transportation, businesses, universities, etc.) reflects its social interactions—that is, the unconscious multiple daily relations between millions of people, then all public displays tell something about the soul (thoughts, aims, identity) of its society. Festivals, museum exhibitions, and public spaces collect the “essence” of the people. I am amazed by all the experimental art taking place in theatres, galleries, and museums. The city (and, therefore, the people) encourages the exploration of new sensations almost all the time. Artists confidently do so. There is a degree of charm and pride in doing (being) something outside the conventional. All this combined provokes something very odd in me: What am I allowed to do (be) here? May I liberate what I have had to hide all this time? What does this freedom mean?


Roland Barthes accompanies me in the library. With him by my side, I notice the particular light of this room: bright white illuminating the walls and shades of yellow and blue coming from the shelves. It is difficult to read Barthes in French, but I try it anyway because I am in a French-speaking city and I desperately want to be like them. I question if, after all this time, I have not become somehow like them and if the borders between “them” and “me” have disappeared. After all, how many people experience the city temporarily just like me?

Hundreds of individuals surround me either reading, writing, or exploring the bookshelves. The couches and tables are comfortable. This is a peaceful space. I sit here for hours until the light of the day blurs out. Today the sun rose at 5:15. The light comes through the green curtain of my bedroom and wakes me. The changing in the space affects me in levels that go beyond the imagined. More hours of light mean more outdoor activities—and more energy in my body and mind.


In the metro, quite full of young people, a young woman with earphones stands next to me. I can hear her Spanish audiobook (she is probably a student here). I get off the train at the next stop. I cannot stand being myself just a student living temporarily in Montreal. I started walking in the deserted neighborhood. Construction invades the streets.  I walk until, forty-five minutes later, I arrive home (quite angry). Time has allowed me to be a Montrealer, and soon I will have to become something else. The nostalgia of leaving defines the experience of residing temporarily. I have become attached to this space. How can I accept change again? Thinking about the possibility of never coming back stimulates my melancholia. I constantly remind myself, “you are here”, “remember this.” Already, however, memories disappear. I cannot picture the city filled with snow anymore. I see only tulips on the streets.


ANDREA REAL-LEAL is a graduate student of history at McGill University. In 2017, she published her first book El Río que no vemos. Crónicas de Tizapán (CDMX: ITAM, 2017). She has also published essays, book reviews, and short stories, in Opción, Luvina, Acentos Review, and Punto en Línea. Her current research project focuses on early medieval female involvement in the production and circulation of manuscripts.

Copyright © 2019 by Andrea Real-Leal. All rights reserved.