27 Aug 2015

Square Dance

"Was nichts kostet, ist nichts wert" goes a German saying; whatever is free can't be worth anything.

Montréal is challenging this saying every summer, with its countless festivals abounding in free performances of all kinds. But the complimentary entertainment is not limited to the Quartier des Spéctactles, as I found out on a recent summer evening.

I had just gotten off the Bixi I rode home from work, and returned it to the station on the square close to where I live. As I did, I heard a swing band playing. Turning around, I spotted a small stage on the square, featuring a few musicians and a surprising number of locals dancing to the tunes.

The town square harbors a little park, complete with a statue and a small pavillion. For at least as long as I am a resident of the area, it also hosted a semi-permanent population of homeless people. And while they were never really aggressive, they were often drunk and their jeers and begging did not invite one to linger.

That changed this spring, when the square reopened after a major revamp. The city has invested in enlarging it, rearranging the surrounding bus traffic, adding new pavements and benches, upgrading the lights to colorful LEDs, and opening a seasonal coffee shop in the rotunda. They even threw in free WiFi. Crucially, they also worked with the police and the charitable arm of the YMCA to find a better home for the itinérants. Overall, it was a job surprisingly well done.

But how about that dancing? That's where Montréal's charm comes into play. In early summer, I found a booklet in my mailbox that detailed a jam-packed 3 month program of events celebrating the revitalization of the square. From open-air cinema to puppeteering, from magicians to tai-chi and from gardening classes to yes, dance nights, the city offered an abundance of free activities all summer long.

I smiled as I watched my neighbors swing the evening away. This was one of these frequently conjured up moments defining Montréal's joie de vivre. All these activities were offered by the city as a matter of course, and welcomed by the residents in much the same way. It is hard to imagine an equally lavish schedule of performances taking place on a similar occasion in another city.

Judging by the many happy faces, and the alternatives,  it seemed like a good investment. For of course, the German saying still holds true:  The Sultans of Swing did not play for free. While the residents shook a leg, their tax dollars were hard at work.

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2 Aug 2015

Smoke on the water

While it can't be said that we all came out to Montreux, on the Lake Geneva shoreline, we did certainly come down to the water: To the St-Lawrence river just past the Jaques Cartier bridge in Montréal, in our case. It was a gorgeous summer evening, with a full moon just rising over the south shore.

We were not alone: Thousands emerged from the metro and took position along the riverfront. The bridge overhead was closed to traffic, and equally mobbed. In the distance, on Ile Ste-Hélène, the stage lights of the Osheaga festival could be seen. That performance, however, paled compared to what was about to erupt right in front of us.

At 22h sharp, we put on our headphones and tuned in to the right radio frequency for the soundtrack. And then, the sky exploded with lights: Another contestant in the international fireworks championship had fired his opening salvo. 

For over a month every summer, Montréal is treated to weekly fireworks displays. Launched from the La Ronde amusement park on an island in the river, they can be seen from across the east of town, and they always draw huge crowds. Participating companies chose their own musical themes, and showcase a bedazzling array of visual effects, colors and timing to match the fireworks to the sound.

When Deep Purple's signature guitar riff started playing one night, and the sky lit up in fiery reds, it was definitely appropriate: The evening was calm, and during the previous 15min of rocket launches, a thick blanket of smoke had accumulated over the river. And now there was 
Smoke on the water
A fire in the sky
Smoke on the water
Pessimists could have been reminded of CNN's legendary coverage of the Gulf War, but positivity dominates in Montréal, and people were having a jolly good time. Every single Saturday. 

When Zurich has a 30min fireworks show for two evenings every three years during the city's Züri Fäscht,  the talk of the town is typically centered on the million-dollar price tag and the amounts of heavy metal residues in the ecosystem. In Montréal,  nobody thinks twice about cost, no Funky Claude was running in and out and no one burned down the gambling house - a good thing, given that Loto-Québec, and therefore by extension the slot playing part of the population, funds the extravaganza.

This relaxed attitude and momentary indulgence in a folly of smoke and lights seems an apt reflection of Québec culture: No matter what we get out of this. The Swiss could take a page out of such open-hearted generosity. While this year's competition patriotically started with a "salute to the troops" on Canada Day, the finale was kindly set for August 1st - Swiss National Day.

So here we stood, music in our ears, and a complimentary light show in front of us that made anything launched back home look like child's play. Life was good.

I know, I know we'll never forget
Smoke on the water
A fire in the sky

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