29 December 2015

On every street

"It's just past Avenue Christophe Colomb, between Mont-Royal and St-Joseph", said my colleague of his newly bought home. I tried to evoke a mental map of Montréal's Plateau neighborhood to get a sense for where exactly this house was located, but had limited success: Despite nearly 7 years in Canada's second-largest city, my sense of place remains pretty superficial. (So much so that I had to consult a map to accurately reproduce the above example.)

While I no longer get lost in the city, and have a reasonably accurate sense for which way to turn upon emerging from a metro station, the specifics remain vague. Often, I suddenly find myself at a street corner that I had believed to be elsewhere, or I struggle to recall at what intersection a particular store of coffee shop is located. Not driving regularly means that while the city's streets are not completely foreign to me, the best way to get from A to B behind the wheel remains obscure. Throw in the usual construction and road blocks, and I am mazed.

This lack of on-the-ground knowledge became particularly obvious over the last few days, which saw me return, as usual for the holiday season, to Switzerland. Stepping off the bus in the village where I have lived for 20 years, I noticed a young woman looking lost. She had only just moved to the town, and had accidentally gotten off at the wrong stop. Without thinking, I was able to direct her through a maze of alleys and walkways to her destination - something that I'd be hard-pressed to do in Montréal.

The following days, with their exceptionally mild and sunny winter weather, saw me going for walks rather frequently. One of the nice features of the Swiss countryside is that, unlike Canada,  it is lined with hiking trails. Not that I would have needed the yellow signposts: Every path, junction, trail and road is intimately familiar.

Effortlessly finding my way through neighborhoods, fields and forests, I came to realize that the region was covered by more than just landmarks. Every street was overlaid with memories, making it unique and unmistakable: This is where we once lit a fire with the boys. Here, the farm dog always ran after my bike. Down there is where we used to hang out after school. And in that orchard stood the apple tree of seasonal temptation. While change is inevitable and indeed visible, it is this intangible layer of memories that makes this particular area so cozily familiar, and walks through it so enjoyable.

Others agree: In recent years, a childhood friend, who has long since moved away as well, has joined me in a tradition of Christmas Day walks through the village, taking advantage of our both's return to the old stomping grounds for the holidays. She too, commented to the fuzzy warm feeling of walking through this terrain des souvenirs.

Will a stroll through Montréal ever feel the same? Maybe - after all, I'm less than 7 years in, compared to the 20+ lived in the tiny Swiss town, so there is still time. Or maybe not - perhaps only the experience of growing up and gradually exploring one's surroundings can create such a tapestry of memories. Which is probably for the better, since nostalgia is best enjoyed in small doses. Unlike the other thing I indulge in these days, upon returning from every walk: Swiss chocolate!

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