They say that no man is an island, but even an island isn’t an island because there are islands within islands, and especially if the island in question is a metropolis.
Those of you who do not live in Montreal may be surprised to learn that the city is an island in the St-Lawrence River, and a heart-shaped island at that. I personally find that it’s more of a bat-shaped island, but the heart, like the bat, finds its way blindly in the dark.
On this bat-shaped island, many hearts beat to the tune of islands of their own.
Several years ago, when I was still relatively fresh off the boat, a terrible wave of homesickness overcame me in the fall. A couple of well-meaning Macedonian friends proposed a curative evening at Adria Club Lounge, a Balkan-themed establishment in Little Italy on St-Laurent, where the food and music were supposed to transport me right back home.
They were not wrong. As soon as we ventured inside, I was struck by a wave of uniquely Slavic sadness. The faces gathered around the tables clearly hailed from my neck of the woods and were well worn by its tragedies. The band played a gypsy tune that underscored the pain of forced migration, and the patrons, although in outwardly good spirits, seemed somehow to be weeping into their beer and raki. After what seemed like an eternity - but was probably only half an hour - I escaped from the island of Adria into the Montreal night happy and relieved that I had crossed the ocean to seek my fortune on more uplifting shores. My homesickness was cured: I did not really hail from my island, and could now get busy setting up my life on this one, without looking back.
But the city proved me wrong, for as the years went by, I found that many of its islands contained tidbits of my own, and that it was for this very reason that the bat-shaped island quickly came to feel like home.
I discovered an island on the corner of Rue Rachel and Laval called Patisserie Notre-Dame Du Rosaire. This is an island inhabited by four Portugese women who gather here every night after closing time amidst stale pastries and bread. They sit around a little table next to the window but are too absorbed in their conversation to see me looking inside. They are old women from the Old World, different from the women here - less Amazonian. My grandmother, in her house dress and hair rollers, could have joined them with a cigarette and rolled out a meat pie.
On the island called Café Italia - not too far from Adria - I found Nutella spread on toast. Not on pancakes or crepes, but on bread, brother - the way it should be. And on the island of Mimi on St-Denis, I stumbled upon kaymak, burek, ajvar, and a kind of paté we really like in the former Yugo called pašteta, which everyone says is made of chicken ass.
I noticed that when it rains, the asphalt on the island of Montreal smells like the asphalt in Sarajevo, and that the crickets by the river chirp so loudly in the summer, that when I close my eyes, I am transported to an island in the Adriatic in July.
My favorite island on the bat-shaped island, however, is an island made up of people who come from actual islands. This island, which is located on Rue Wellington in Verdun, is called Movement Social Madelinot –or simply Madelinot– the term designating a person coming from the Iles de la Madeleine – a place I’d never heard of prior to moving to Canada, although I’ve been twice to Chisinau.
I stumbled upon the island of Madelinot on a warm crickety night last summer. I was passing by and saw a musical evening unfolding inside. The singer wore a cowboy hat. The audience was on the late-middle-age side, and strangely out-of-time. Something about the wood chip walls and the modestly appointed tables. Something about the men with their bellies and their beer. Something about the women with their sequins and their straws. Something about it all reminded me of long-gone New Year’s Eves in 1980s Yugoslavia: socialist festivities. These Madelinots were straight out of Adria, only happier, but not too much happier, because it’s always a little sad when on some bigger island, one sets up a forlorn little island of one’s own.
I stared inside for a long time. And then, I suddenly thought: “Madelinot!" What a sweet sweet word!” To my foreign ear, it sounded like a tender term of endearment destined for one’s beloved.
Sometimes, the smallest island is the grandest and happiest of all: the one on which one resides with one's madelinot.