An Episode in the Life of a Diasporic City
February 5, 2010 § Leave a comment
Montréal is a city of literature. It has been the home of many great novelists, both of Canadian and international reknown. It is also a city that has been the setting of many novels, bestsellers at home and abroad. For years, I lived in the neighbourhood that was the setting of Gabrielle Roy’s Bonheur d’occasion, Saint-Henri. Prior to that, I called Duddy Kravitz’s Mile End home. Presently, I call the setting of Balconville home. The Plateau-Mont-Royal has been immortalised by the likes of Michel Tremblay, Mordecai Richler, and Rawi Hage. One of the best academic reads of recent years was Sherry Simon’s Translating Montreal: Episodes in the Life of a Divided City. Simon explores the cultural and social history of her Montréal through the literature, in both official languages, that depict the city’s multicultural landscape and lived experience.
Montréal’s literary authors, to say nothing of Simon herself, have projected and reflected the experience of immigrant groups and their diasporas through their works. It was from Richler’s works that I learned so much of the Jewish experience of Montréal, that I came to understand the city as a Jewish one. Indeed, Richler was instrumental in re-casting Montréal as something more than just a bifurcated locale, a city caught between French and English, in that he inserted the city’s Jews into the dialogue, his writing maturing with the city throughout the 2nd half of the 20th century.
Today, however, in trying to find a bowl of matzoh ball soup, I was kind of stunned by just how much Richler’s Montréal has changed. As I wandered through the city’s downtown core, both searching for the soup and running a handful of other errands, I got to thinking about not just how diasporas inform and reflect off each other, but also how diasporas evolve, shift, and replace one another. This was especially true, I thought, in a 5-block section of downtown just west of Concordia’s downtown campus. In this stretch, there are, amongst other things, a German restaurant that has been there for most of my life, as well as newer Russian, Indian, Iranian, Lebanese, Irish, Armenian, Mexican, Central American, Chinese, and Thai restaurants. And not a single place that served matzoh ball soup. During Richler’s years studying at Sir George Williams University, one of the founding institutions of Con U, I’m sure matzoh ball soup could be found in the vicinity of the campus. Of course, one would not have found the plethora of “ethnic” food (the term is in quotations because it is such an unsatisfactory one to use in this instance).
This is neither a lament nor a complaint, I eventually found the matzoh ball soup at Dunn’s, an old Jewish deli, on Metcalfe. It just is what it is, an episode in the life of multicultural, diasporic city.