November 2016
Layla Belmahi

If Montreal was a shared appartment

On Thursday, September 22, we held our Tours de tables event. Residents of Montreal welcomed other Montrealers into their homes to talk about their city and its future.

The event was designed to concoct unusual encounters between individuals who live side by side yet never speak to one another, and was centred on two widely shared passions: Montreal and food. We paired hosts with their guests, with the hosts deciding how their own event would proceed.

To make the experience as inclusive as possible, we tweaked the formula still further by organizing some tables in advance: three tables at the Centre des Jeunes Boyce-Viau including, respectively, children, teenagers and women; two tables with refugees, in partnership with SINGA Québec (an organization connecting refugees and citizens of the host society around passions and projects); an intergenerational table, in cooperation with the Société de recherche en orientation humaine (SROH); and a table with deaf participants.

I was a hostess at the Tours de tables event. In collaboration with SINGA, I welcomed into my home Montrealers from Morocco and Syria, several of whom had arrived here as refugees. Since no one at the table had grown up in Montreal, our discussion provided a unique – and perhaps more detached – perspective on our metropolis.

We all agreed that we loved this city, although some people hadn’t necessarily come here by choice. However, there was a moment in the conversation that I continually replay in my mind. We discussed our city’s incredible multiculturalism, which represents a real-life example of how people should live together. We also talked about individualism, since we all came from cities where a sense of community tends to take precedence over individual interests. We figured that Montreal’s distinctive take on this trait can be traced to the many lifestyles it is home to, to barriers such as language, and to the lack of public spaces where relationships could be forged. Yes, we have huge parks and public squares, but do these areas really promote social interaction?

We either go there alone or with someone, but we don’t mingle with others. My dinner guests and I reckoned that, contradictory though it might seem, it may well be our individualism – the fact that we are all in our own bubble, and don’t want to pop anyone else’s – that makes Montreal’s society work so well, and with so little tension, compared to other places.

I’m still not sure if we actually live together, or if we’re simply cohabitating. If Montreal were a shared apartment, what would it look like? Would it be a place where everyone pitches in and does their share of the work so that everyone benefits? Or, would it be the kind of place where everything runs well as long as the roommates mind their own business and hardly ever come out of their rooms? Whereabouts in Montreal would you say is the living room, the only shared space in the apartment?

My impression is that Montreal is like the second apartment, with neighbourhoods representing the different rooms. Lately, I find that I’m increasingly content to be living in my ‘hood and that, in the end, the place I call home isn’t the entire city : it’s just my own little corner of it. I like chatting with the long-time store owners, encouraging newcomers, always picking-up my vegetables basket at the same place on the same day, seeing the films that interest me at the nearby movie theatre, visiting my friends that live close by… In short, I hardly ever step out of my comfort zone, because everything I need is inside my little cocoon that’s no more than a few kilometres square. This life isn’t just new to me, it’s different. I grew up in a smaller town, where each neighbourhood had a distinct function, so people had to travel through the city and interact with people from different social milieus.

Following the Tours de tables event, we believe more strongly than ever that Montrealers have a real need for places where social ties can be formed. What if we gave the living room a make-over, and made it into something that would please everyone, that would create a more inclusive society, and enable us to truly live together?