The Canadian Writers' CollectiveMONDAY, JUNE 04, 2007
In the Heart of Verdun
Upon hearing I am staying in Verdun, a tsk of pity might escape from some friends’ mouths. But while it isn’t in the hub of Montréal’s trend-setting action, it has its own sort of allure, most notably very affordable rents compared to the St-Laurent or Mt-Royal areas, where one pays for location, ambiance, and culture.
What Verdun lacks in ‘culture’ it makes up for in diversity and local colour. Only 10 minutes away is the relatively wealthy borough of LaSalle, where former prime ministers live, but first you must drive through Verdun, where the people live.
Verdun’s history is working class; its roots a kaleidoscopic blend of anglophone Irish and a wide range of other immigrants, and of course francophones. This wealth of ethnicity means sitting on the balcony—balconville, it’s called, Montréalers’ favourite non-contact sport—offers up a lot of viewing and auditory pleasures.
From the ever-present red and white stickers declaring ‘Je l’ai ma coeur a Verdun’ ('coeur' being a heart shape), and roughly translated as ‘My heart is in Verdun,’ to the four-day community celebration this past weekend called Verdun Days, there exists the palpable spirit that usually evolves within fringe cultures or communities.
If you’re driving along avenue LaSalle in your Lexus on your way home from a hard day of stock marketing or corporate lawyering, you’ll pass along the St. Laurence River and the marina, and see the Cirque du Soleil School (Cirque having started as a fringe street troupe) in all its familiar yellow and blue glory. But you likely won’t bother stopping in Verdun. If you did, this is what you’d find.
Parallel to LaSalle is “Promenade Wellington,” where the locals can promenade to the sounds of soft rock and disco hits, seeping from the mini-speakers the local government has erected on the lampposts in an effort to create some ambiance. This is an amusing contrast to the seemingly erratic bell-tolling from the half-dozen or so local churches. The bells begin at about 8:00 am and continue in intervals past 8:00 pm, with seemingly no pattern or order to them. I like to imagine there’s a secret bell competition going on amongst all the denominations. And I swear one series of bells sounded dubiously close to ‘I Will Survive’, a song I promenaded to on my way to the metro just the other day.
Perhaps the step-sister of trendy rue St-Laurent’s Main Madness, Verdun Days is as much about community perseverance as it a celebration of the stickwithit-iveness of the business folks—from the variety shops selling everything and anything just to make a buck to haute French cuisine in a Dunkin’ Donuts town. (Although, sadly, not all businesses have been so successful, including two personal favourites: the recently closed Blue Monday vegan café and the Kozmic café/launderette, which suddenly closed overnight last week).
Twenty blocks of Wellington were cordoned off, and pedestrians were free to walk along the streets (for once having right of way in this city that seems to have it out for pedestrians). There were no clowns at this festival, no official stalls. Entrepreneurs just pulled out all the best of their wares, set them on tables; furniture stores tied beds to lamp posts; bistros and butchers hauled out BBQs. The only thing planned, it seemed, were the entertainment stages. At the end of my block was the country-cover-tune à la française hub; you’ve not lived until you’ve heard every Elvis and Dwight Yoakim hit covered in French three times a day. I’m just saying.
The highlight of Verdun Days is also my greatest disappointment, in that I did not get a picture of it. Strolling along the promenade was a red and yellow mascot, taking his job very seriously though what it was exactly was not immediately clear to me, a non-resident. See any real Quebecer would know that it was the St-Hubert Chicken. Children ran towards him giggling with glee, mothers took pictures of their kids beside him, and the big polyester chicken waved as if he wereBonhomme. Ah, local flavour.
There are characters that I will always think of when I think of Verdun, who were here last year when I was stayed and seemingly haven’t gone anywhere: the hippies at the end of the block who have brightly painted broken hockey sticks as a fence around their garden; the self-appointed Verdun ambassador who knows everyone by name or face and waves to everyone like the King of Kensington; the raucous yet harmless gang of old folks benched with their sacks from the SAQ outside the metro,
So, even though it’s not Mordecai’s ‘hood, or Roch’s world, sitting on the balcony or promenading to pumped-in disco, watching all this go by, I can easily imagine someone growing up in Verdun and becoming a writer, and having a lot to draw on from his or her own Verdun days.
rue wellington photo by christopher dewolf onhttp://www.urbanphoto.net