Amélie & Montreal

Amélie & Montreal

by

Elliot Fowler

The bus hummed through the city’s cross junctions, the new and clean engines gave off such a subtle rattle that it was easy to slip into a feeling of floating. Amélie stepped on the bus with delicate but confident grace. She shared a smile with the bus driver who showed sincerity and presence behind a face that had fallen into a stern frown long ago; years of working with the public hardens a pained expression onto even the most patient and warm people. After paying for her ticket with the exact change she glided down the aisle to the double takes of her fellow passengers and sat down on the soft cushion chairs that greeted her by easing itself around her and complimenting her shape. The wheels of the bus rolled itself into a steady acceleration on the wet and black road. The traffic of the city would know to take care on these mornings for patches of black ice, and so every machine on the road seemed to glide at a steady and patient pace, setting a calm tempo for the city to wake up under the warming sun and fresh air. The windows were clean, almost transparent, and gave Amélie a sublime view of the colourful and marvellous city that was still dripping with the slow melting snow.  She would smile out at the people and places she would pass by and those looking back at her seemed to be such interesting and lovely individuals; the occasional soul would wave when Amélie raised her soft hand to the window. The cars passing alongside the bus were drifting along and consistent in each stop and start, the vehicles playing their cardiovascular role in the veins of Montreal.

Every Sunday, Amélie would wake early, don a thick coat and float downtown on the 116 bus with whatever book she was reading at the time. The updated 116 bus was pristine; its sweet artificial lavender smell floating through the air conditioning and soft carpet beneath the feet of the people brought easy luxury to the commuters. It brought Amélie to Clement and Scotia, a crosswalk two minutes from her favourite café in the city: La Porte du Paradis. The café’s warm floorboards and brown leather soothed with heat no matter what kind of weather Montreal was showing. She would order a flat white and float over to a corner where a couch waited for her to lounge. The corner gave her a view of the whole café and the shining city outside, but usually her mind was away in whatever book her eyes tumbled through.

The morning was cold but comfortable in direct sunlight and the air greeted each inhale with a sharpness. Amélie found the coldness oddly comforting; it was a confirmation of the season. She took off her coat, adjusted her winter hat, and rubbed her hands together, kindling heat, doing her best to shake off the outside and let the warmth of the bus in. Her elbows hugged her ribs and her shoulders were shrugged – her body wouldn’t ease itself into the air for a while but she smiled in spite of this. This was part of Montreal and cold mornings were in the DNA of the locals. Amélie blew into her cupped hands and looked outside the window, taking in the city and the lush greenery that stuck out from the odd street corner tree or wall mounted basket. The bus slowed and stopped at an intersection and its left side faced down a winding hill to the east. The sun was still rising over the city and Amélie forgot her coldness for a moment and swapped to the seat beside her to look at the scenery. The rays glimmered on the small buildings and the suburbs below, giving everything a gleaming coat made sharper by the cold air. On n’apprécie pas cette beauté, thought, but she was wrong of course, people appreciated Montreal everyday. She took a deep breath and took the view in again, and moved back to her seat.

At intersections and bus-stops and sometimes anywhere it pleased the bus came to a halt, but no one seemed to be in a rush, there was a sense of presence in actions of the morning’s people. At one stop, the frost still gripping the corners of its window that displayed the route’s timetable, two young men climbed on in winter coats and fingerless mittens that clutched cardboard cups steaming with the smell of coffee. They chose the seats in front of Amélie and she closed her eyes, trying to get a faint scent of the coffee that was now gathered in the air; she believed the best kind of coffee still had the aroma of grounded beans. One of the men sat down and the other stayed standing, taking off his coat. When Amélie opened her eyes the young man was looking at her and showed a look of apprehension, torn between smiling at her and not showing emotion at all. To ease the momentary pain of the young man, Amélie smiled at him, knowing that her eyes shined when she did so, and the young man was for a moment dumb-founded and then returned a nervous smile.

The bus stopped going along the hill surrounding the city and began turning upwards, slowly climbing towards the larger buildings of the modest metropolis. Amélie folded the coat beside her and took off her hat, feeling content in the warmth that had crept back into her skin. She picked up her book and began to read. The plastic cover was smooth in her hands and the paper pages were soft on each turn. The story she read was of some far away place and a character entirely different from herself, but she enjoyed it anyhow. The sweetness of the warm air was now unnoticeable and the heat of the bus was embalming. Looking down into the book and the small words Amélie’s eyes began to grow heavy with the gentle rumbling seats carrying her. She darted her eyes open from time to time, battling the drowsiness before returning back to her sleepy state. She closed the book and shook her head gently, and her hair fell in her view. She adjusted her loose strands with one smooth motion, feeling silly with how she might have looked.

By now the tall buildings that sprouted from the ground were taking up the entire window view of the bus’s frame and when Amélie tried to look to the sky, her face would begin to press against the glass leaving a warm smudge where her cheekbone might have touched. She pulled her sleeve over her hand and wiped the smudge away, giving a light giggle as she did. The bus was floating through downtown and the large buildings grew into larger ones that seemed as tall as the sky themselves. Sometimes Amélie would get off the bus a good few stops early if the weather was kind enough. She would climb off after thanking the bus driver and walk a few blocks, her eyes rarely dropping any lower than the horizon. There was a unique elegance and grace to the Montreal skyscrapers that many great cities seemed to lack, a sense of character perhaps or a grace that was afforded to cities of a more balanced lifestyle. New York was a marvel, a hub of beauty, art and energy. But there was a sterility to many of its towers, mirroring the efficiency Manhattan needed to strive and achieve and hustle. Montreal was calmer and more patient and it showed in its buildings. Some mirrored one another, but there was a sense of growth for growth’s sake in every building. The scale of these towering metallic creatures were nothing short of magic, lumbering around the people that moved in between them like molecules in organs and the best of them touching the clouds on the greyer days. And the night! How Amélie loved to be among the buildings at night, how they each lit up and dazzled under the dark sky; each beaming window a star. To be among the man made wonders, at day but especially at night, was magnificent. Amélie was tempted to press the clunky red button that splayed ‘STOP’ and gush upwards at the giants, but her skin remembered the cold all too well and she stayed in her seat, adjusting her posture so she sank that little bit more into the leather.

The bus passed other shops and cafes with the braver souls sitting outside or walking with deliberate leisure. Amélie studied each face that passed trying to get a sense of those she shared the Sunday with. Some were hard-worn and many were tired – not physically, but the mental fatigue that shows in one’s face around the eyes that comes from the stresses of life’s hardships, large and small. There were many people of an older generation and some of the youngsters who had not returned home the night before or had been rising early for whatever reason. Some were in pairs, some alone and some in larger groups. Amélie searched each face and she recognised that none of these people seemed sad. There was some that showed pained expressions from the cold but each face was quick to smile or at least looked like it was on the verge of breaking one. It was a joyful thing to see, and Amélie felt a warmth that even a fire wouldn’t bring on a day like this one.

The street of Clement was more run-down than much of downtown Montreal. The shutters that came down in front of the different stores and restaraunts were old, faded, rusty and most of them were covered in graffiti that had been tagged over numerous times, giving each shutter a sense of chaos that seemed so unlike the city itself. Amélie’s eyes grew sharper, paying attention to the significant landmarks she had come to know in relation to La Porte du Paradis. She first passed a butcher’s that belonged, presumably, to a Boris – as his name was splayed above the store front, each letter at least two feet wide. Afterwards an elegant set of traffic lights, whose pole wound upwards in almost-floral movements, and at the top hung a pair of faded blue converse. Amélie had grown accustomed to looking at these shoes and realised that she would be sad if they would be taken down, as they had been there for as long as she remembered. The bus stopped at the lights and Amélie looked closer at the shoes, trying to notice something new about them. They seemed to be in decent condition, despite the years of abuse the weather might have brought them, and she could imagine some local bohemian wearing something similar to them, a faultless look that would walk the line of non-chalance and style. On the street a handful of people took a glance at them. One young woman stood almost underneath them as she waited to cross and her gaze lingered on them for quite a while. The shoes were such a sweet mark on the city, like crow’s feet on a cheery old face, and perhaps that was why they remained dangling there for so long. The bus purred and moved on.

A few minutes down Clement Amélie stepped off the bus with her coat hugging her tightly. On the sidewalk she turned back and faced the bus driver and thanked him and gave him a cheery wave. The driver beamed back at her and tipped his hat, a gesture of a more traditional time, but the sentiment was not lost on her. Because of the warmth that she felt both in her skin and the coat that wrapped around her, the cold was refreshing and romantic and she floated along the street, passing over the tiny cracks that were beginning to show in the pavement. The trees that decorated every corner were showing the first of the year’s blossoms. Many of the white flowers had remained in hiding but some brave petals had greeted the world for one of their first outings before true spring. Amélie stopped and lifted a loose flower dangling with just the tip of her finger and gave the white beauty a smell. It was floral, sweet and though recognisable, not something she could recall. She lifted her head back to inspect the flower at a distance and realised she did not know what kind of flowers they were. Dommage! Je passe devant ces fleurs chaque Dimanche et je ne sais pas quell type sont-ells. Il faut que je le sache pour la semaine prochaine.  She let the flower down gently, ensuring it didn’t bounce or weigh too heavy on its slender branch, and continued to walk.

She turned onto Scotia, which was livelier and, in her opinion, a little prettier than Clement. But both streets had the same skinny trees with the white flowers on the tips. Scotia opened up slightly wider than Clement and carried more people that were lounging down the street, chatting outside establishments and many coasting toward Silian park, where jazz bands and drama troupes go most Sundays and play a few shows for the weekend’s close. The festivities would last most of the day, depending on the time of year, and would draw big crowds to the park’s various corners and little coves. And there was always music spilling out from the park and into its neighbouring streets. Just beyond an old movie theatre whose original yellow sign was now faded to a beige, the La Porte du Paradis’ wooden sign dangled out from the wall with the engraved symbol of a hand-drawn gate, regal and even divine, with coffee beans carved into plates that hung on the bars. Amélie smiled up at the sign and turned in.

The café was warm with calm activity. There were only a few people scattered around the café, no more groups than a couple and mostly loners who had appeared to have had the same idea as Amélie; many of them sitting alone with a book or with their thoughts expressed on their faces. The quiet chatter of the patrons was indistinguishable and the coffee machine rumbled behind the counter as it grounded up beans, drifting the rustic smell of roasted grinds through the café that blended with the fragrance of Sandalwood. Amélie stepped towards the counter and stood behind a tall man who carried with him a laptop under his arm. The Man and the barista exchanged pleasantries and they called one another by name but they didn’t seem to be familiar enough to go beyond. The music speakers scattered around the café ushered in quiet sounds of a song. Amélie listened closer, feeling a familiarity, and heard that it was The Talking Heads and she fell into a memory of her father dancing with her to one of their songs in her childhood home. She remembered the living room wooden floor to be warm under her bare feet and she looked up at her then-towering father who had no beard at that time. She remembered how happy they danced to the strange song. Deeper into the memory she began to slip, recalling the crackle of the old vinyl and the antiquated dance moves her fathered shook out, when the tall man in front of her shifted to the side and the barista asked her what he could get her. Amélie stuttered and blushed, caught between both times for a second.

‘Pardon, j’étais perdu un moment. Un machiatto ou un latte s’il vous plaît.’

‘Bien sur, sûr place ou à emporter?’

‘Sur place.’

The Barista smiled and unhooked the coffee handle, starting another cycle of coffee making, his hands autonomous in the action they were so accustomed to it. Amélie took another listen to the music but found it hard to drift back into nostalgia. Instead, a question came to her.

‘Excusez-moi, mais ces arbes dans la rue: ceux avec les fleurs blanches,’ she pointed vaguely out in the direction of the street, unsure whether or not the trees in question were directly outside of the café, ‘vous savez comment-t-elles s’appellent? Quel type de fleur?’

The barista gave a courteous thought, or at least an expression that mimicked one, and shrugged, saying ‘Je ne sais pas.’

Amélie smiled and said, ‘pas de probléme.’

The barista steamed the milk and brought the small cup into the palm of his hand and his indifferent expression grew focused and his whole body seemed to shape itself toward the coffee and until a white creamy leaf appeared on the light brown surface his focus didn’t waver.

‘Charmant,’ Amélie said and the barista showed a smile of knowing pride.

Amélie paid, thanked the barista and took her seat in the corner. She sank into the brown leather couch and the cushions were warm and accepting. She sighed and threw her coat and bag beside her. She took her coffee cup in her hand, felt the warmth that spread through the ceramic, and took a sip. The tiny of foam broke and gave way to the thick coffee crème that was touched and heated with the perfect balance of milk. She closed her eyes, felt the taste as the thickness rolled down her tongue and throat, and took another drink; this time deeper. Afterwards she sat back and brought the cup with her, hugging it to her chest with her two hands. The smell floated up into her nostrils and she sighed with small but significant joy. She stayed like this for some time, contemplating putting the cup down and reading her book, but every thought was dismissed with the want to sit and watch for one minute more.