West Island, Montréal, Québec
École secondaire des Sources presiding over Centennial Lake on a blustery day in March 2023—made to look slightly more formidable than it really is ;)
In March of 2023, I returned to Québec for the first time as an adult. It was about 23 years ago that I left in the middle of my eighth grade year—I was just 12 then.
I saved this trip for last on my grand Childhood Reintegration Tour because I felt it would be the most difficult. Whenever I tried to recollect memories from that time, I’d been disappointed to find that they were mostly vague and unusually negative. Alienation, bullying, the recurring emergency of having to learn yet another language, the general awkwardness of the pre-adolescent years—the suburbs of Montreal certainly asked a lot of young Mohan that he wasn’t fully equipped to give.
So despite it being over 20 years later—or maybe because it was 20 years later—I knew I had a score to settle with the suburban streets of DDO, and in 2023, I was finally ready.
My sense of destiny and anticipation was buoyed by two things in particular: first, that my experiences in Stockholm and (however briefly) Halifax from the previous two years had been so meaningful and second, that I had recently stumbled upon some old interviews of Georges St-Pierre in his native French that resonated deeply (it was the first Québec French I had heard since I left), reminding me that there was an entire culture I could still have access to if I wanted it.
So rather unexpectedly, it was actually my MMA hero GSP who provided the last push I needed to chart a course up north.
In fact, it’s so unexpected that I think it merits its own vignette.
Despite counting myself a longtime fan of the UFC since its early days and being intimately familiar with Georges St-Pierre’s body of work, I somehow never asked myself what he’s like in French.
Up until that point, I had only ever heard him speak English in the somewhat goofy-sounding francophone Québec accent (sorry, but it’s completely true), and although he has a decent level of fluency in terms of expression, I’ve always experienced him as somewhat reserved and awkward. I attributed this to his personality without ever considering that it was perhaps due to a language barrier.
I think the most I had ever heard him say in French up to that point was, “Merci tout le monde pour le support” after he won a fight at a UFC event held in Montreal (to an uproarious crowd!)
Well, an ungodly number of podcast and interview hours thereafter (all in French of course), I must admit I feel like I’ve gotten to know an entirely different person. And even more fascinating, his personality seemed to be… mine?
I know it sounds crazy to compare myself in this way to GSP (I mean, there are literally no other ways I could compare myself to him, so cut me some slack eh?), but the way that he’s constantly abstracting and philosophizing in his conversations is some classic INFJ stuff. From the way he’s conceptualized fear as a central motif in his experience of the world to delighting in the “aha” moment of figuring out that keeping your hands low in a fighting stance is better from a first-principles perspective—that’s basically what I sound like when I talk about my own craft (i.e. startups).
I started wondering: if GSP came to life so dramatically by just getting to know him in French, was there a lot else I’d been missing out on this whole time by not integrating this chapter of my childhood? Did I need to go eat some esti de poutine and yell tabarnak a few times until I could je me souviens properly? It would seem so.
And so, I picked up a copy of his book, Le sens du combat, to keep me company and started planning my trip.
A key revelation on this trip was that I have very little to do with Montreal proper. I uncovered this plot twist during an initial period of 10 days in the city.
Technically speaking, if my goal were solely to recollect old memories, I should have started in DDO first and then moved to Montreal, but my trip happened to coincide in timing with a friend from Stockholm who was in town for a conference, so I adjusted my trip so that we could overlap.
Initially, I really struggled internally with whether I should present as francophone or not. The couple of datapoints I was able to get in the months leading up to the trip suggested that I don’t have the anglophone accent that is common for monolingual English speakers using French as a second language; instead, I seemed to have something a few ticks away from native—there’s an accent, but it’s indistinct. I personally attributed this more to a loss of muscle memory (i.e. literally not being able to coordinate my face muscles perfectly anymore), and probably something I’d recover quickly if I made a few francophone friends and immersed myself in the language for a few months.
Yet outside of the internal struggle to find my true language identity, I felt more or less like a stranger in the city. From Griffintown to Sainte-Catherine to Vieux Port to Mont-Royal to Pointe-Saint-Charles, this was more or less an entirely novel experience. Had I perhaps visited some of these places as a kid? Apparently not! We made a weekly pilgrimage to Dawson College on Saturdays so that I could go to Chinese school (which itself was a challenging experience), but my parents tended to avoid the city due to the language barrier. 23 years later, I understood firsthand why they felt that way.
So what did I think of Montreal as a tourist then?
Here are some photos from a walking tour I did on the weekend:
There is something therapeutic about driving around in rural Québec. As you peel away from the city, the population density plummets and there is basically no one on the roads. I felt similarly when I was driving the last leg of Vermont after passing Burlington: the snow that saturates your field of vision is untouched and peaceful.
Somewhere in the rural outskirts of Montreal, there is the small town (nay, village?) of Saint-Isidore, which happens to be where Georges St-Pierre is from.
And in the middle of Saint-Isidore is a tribute to and life-size statue of GSP that was commissioned in 2017.
I knew what I had to do.
Being just 30 minutes outside of Montreal, Saint-Isidore isn’t so much a daytrip as it is a detour. After checking out of my Sonder at 11 am on a Saturday (great way to stay, btw!), I left Montreal city to pick up my car that was parked at a family friend’s house in DDO.
Aside from being a necessary detour (it’s basically impossible to street park in the city without a residential permit), I had the fortune of being driven by Claude, a retired grandpa with a proper work ethic who drove Uber on the weekends in the name of good conversations and staving off mental atrophy.
Truly the highlight of my morning, hearing him say “tabarnouche” in response to my story about how I ended up back in Montreal some 20 years later was nothing short of satisfying. It’s been a bit of a trend lately, but I’ve been really enjoying conversations with the elderly on my travels, such as on my trip to Nicaragua just a few weeks earlier, where I reveled in learning about the local culture and hearing stories from various abuelos and abuelas.
In any case, even after having lunch and catching up with Auntie Dong (our family friend) and putting in a proper bouldering session at Beta Bloc, I still had over two hours left before I was allowed to check in to my Airbnb.
I set the GPS to take me to GSP.
I’m not sure how much time I thought I would spend at Place GSP in my head, but whatever it was, I don’t think it was 3 minutes.
But in retrospect, yeah, how long can you look at a statue of a shirtless man in freezing temperatures? Even if it is the physical specimen that is GSP, the greatest mixed martial arts fighter of all time, rendered gloriously in bronze, standing proudly next to the town hall of the very town that birthed him, standing proudly at the center of the town that forged him.
Well, it turns out that the answer is about 3 minutes.
“Ok, no problem”, I think, “let me see what else there is to do.”
I feel inspired and spontaneous. “Why yes, I would love to see the church and the town hall, and uh… the cemetery behind the church, and uh…”
3 additional minutes later, I’m back in that weird, weird parking lot that is more like a painted extension off the side of the main road.
I return to my car to warm up.
Inside, I open every map app I have and start looking for things, anything, to do in Saint-Isidore.
But there is nothing.
Well, that’s not true. There is the ice cream shop some hundred feet in front of me. It seems open, but why the heck would I eat an ice cream on a day where it’ll become more frozen after it’s been served? And come to think of it, whose idea was it to open an ice cream shop in a place where the winter is like… 8 months long??
I look to my right. There seems to be some kind of sports bar, but it’s closed or abandoned.
I look to my left. GSP again. And I didn’t even last one MMA round with his statue. I cast my eyes down in shame.
I look behind me. There is separate signage for a pizzeria and a fries place on the side of the building that abuts the parking lot I’m in.
I’m not really that hungry, but I decide on the fries place.
When I get to the front door around the corner, I’m confused because there is only one door. And then it dawns on me: the pizzeria is the fries place, and the fries place… well my friends, the fries place is the pizzeria.
I swallow hard at this realization and turn the door knob as I accept my fate: this ain’t Griffintown.
Inside the restaurant, I am the only one. And because it is 3pm, squarely between meals, I can make no additional inferences about the potential quality of the food based on the patronage. I can only hope that it’s edible.
An instant later, a lone lady steps out from the kitchen with a slight limp in her gait and makes eye contact with me. My INFJ superpowers let me read her mind through the blank look on her face—it says some combination of “is this guy lost?” and “a stranger!” Although I think most people would have simply described her as emotionless or stoic. Indeed, to the inveterate INFJ, no one is ever emotionless or stoic.
She has piercing blue eyes and a hard expression that can only be described as “blue collar edge”—the kind of face that you can’t actually ever picture smiling. This is confirmed by her oversized black sweatshirt with the aggressive HEADRUSH logo on it. I recognize the brand as one that some fighters used to wear in the early days of the UFC. GSP himself used to sport clothing by a brand called Affliction—all in a font that wouldn’t be out of place on a biker gang jacket. Yet despite all this, she’s wearing a hairnet: she’s unmistakably the boss lady that runs this joint.
Yet despite all this, I don’t feel unwelcome. Instead, I open with my twangiest “bonjour” and explain that it’s my first time here and oh, by the way, I love the name of your restaurant (which I do—it’s genius!) I can tell that she is already warming up to me.
A medium order of poutine with bacon served in an aluminum tray on top of a gourmet plate later (oh how I wish I had taken a picture!), I sit down and discover the real reason I came to Saint-Isidore.
Over the course of the next 30 minutes, through genuine curiosity and authentic delight at hearing someone be so utterly and completely québécoise in her own right, I had such a fun conversation with this wonderful lady who grew up in the campagne (i.e. rural Québec).
Of all the highlights, I’ll pick just two:
And the poutine? Well, let’s just say I ate the fries. They were indeed golden.
On my first full day in DDO, I decided to do everything.
I’m talking get breakfast pastries at a Lebanese bakery, walk around Centennial Park, get some bouffe at IGA for later, visit Marché de l’Ouest and load up on chocolatines by Première Moisson, eat lunch at a nearby Indian restaurant, creep around my secondary school for some photos (which was kind of fine because it was the weekend), creep around my primary school and the surrounding neighborhood for slightly fewer photos (still the weekend), creep my other primary school and the surrounding neighborhood (ever the weekend), creep my old townhouse through its backyard by walking through the development’s courtyard (a weekday probably would have been better), and cap the day off with a hot yoga class at Modo West Island. And all of this in 9-degree-windchill weather.
And so, despite having originally booked two full weeks in DDO, I realized after my first full day there that I had basically seen it all and more or less done everything I set out to do (lots of creeping, basically). This tiny little enclave where all the “Arrêt” signs suddenly become “Stop” signs can more or less be driven side to side and top to bottom in about 10 minutes each way. In fact, outside of a few main arteries, there aren’t even stop lights, just stop signs. So. Many. Stop. Signs.
Left to fester unchecked in the recesses of my memory, DDO had grown to be this big and scary place where pre-adolescent Mohan faced years of awkwardness and torment. In reality, seeing it anew through my adult eyes, it’s objectively a great place for a kid to grow up. And so, it was very healing to be able to drive the dinky streets, stop at every stop sign, and walk the streets to soak in the fact that I had duped myself all these years.
I didn’t mention this above, but on my second day in Montreal city (now some two weeks ago in this timeline), I reconnected with an old classmate who set me up for success on this speedrun. We sat for hours in an Irish pub somewhere in Mile End reminiscing and rediscovering. Like all true friendships, even after so many years, I could draw that through line across our lives, all the way back to those days when she’d turn around and ask me what I got on the test. In retrospect, when I think about how well-adjusted and amazing she turned out to be, it just further reinforced that my memory about DDO had been selective at best and fraudulent at worst.
And so, on a Tuesday evening bathed in the gentle hues of a setting sun, I found myself driving those dinky little streets again, this time en route to Beta Bloc2 after work. Reflecting on the weekend’s events and noticing how reasonable the traffic always seemed to be despite it being rush hour, I teared up just a little as it dawned on me: somewhere between the stop signs on familiar street signs like Spring Garden, Hyman, Kingsley, and Brunswick—somewhere, perhaps was it on the corner of Salaberry and Davignon?—I had at last found that love for the suburban streets of DDO which had escaped me for so, so many years.
The astute reader will notice that I’ve left the question of my “francophone identity” hitherto unresolved. That’s because it didn’t resolve for me the entire time I was in Montreal, or even during my field trip to Saint-Isidore. Heck, even reading GSP’s book in French this whole time couldn’t bring me any closer to the answer.
But a couple of days into my stay on the West Island, it all started making sense.
You see, the West Island is actually a predominantly English-speaking area. Most visitors to Montreal would never guess that there exists this staunchly anglophone enclave just 20 minutes west of downtown. And that makes sense—because there’s not much for tourists to see or do on the mostly residential West Island.
While I’ve always known in the back of my mind how anglophone the West Island truly is, it never felt that way in my memories since I went to French school.3 Aside from a few key friendships and my family life (which happened in Mandarin), most of my interactions in the real world happened in French. And being a 10-to-12 year old at the time, I didn’t really do anything in real life besides go to school (although now that I think about it, I do remember going to piano lessons in English), nor was I conscious enough to even ponder this question, so it ended up being an assumption that I held erroneously all these years.
Well, it turns out that by going to French school while living in DDO, I was actually in the minority in this regard. By far, most of the people I met on the West Island during my trip preferred to speak English and most had gone to the English schools in the area.4
Indeed, while out and about in DDO, I found that I could go into any establishment and feel pretty darn confident that I could just be my English self. And surprisingly (maybe not surprisingly), that felt really good.
So whether it was a yoga class or making a new friend at Beta Bloc, English became the main dish and French became the side. And in this being a meal that I’d gladly eat everyday, I truly felt at home.
And while it’s really great to understand everything that’s being said in French and even participate in it from time to time, I know now that the way I felt around DDO was natural in a way that Montreal wasn’t. I checked with a couple of new friends I made in the area (English-speaking, of course) whether they also had this feeling and we all agreed.
And speaking of new friends, community felt so natural in DDO. I didn’t feel out of place at all. Whether it was at yoga, standing in line at Five Guys, checking out at the health grocery store, or deep in conversation about all the challenges someone had recently overcome in their life while we stared down a V5 together, I felt like I could have lived my entire adult life in DDO and not missed a beat. Indeed, I got that trademarked “intuitive feeling” that some of these friendships were, in fact, some level of inevitable.
On my last full day in town, I did what any friend might do: see if my new climbing pal was up for grabbing dinner spontaneously. Though as last minute as it was, we couldn’t make it work, and I ended up taking a raincheck for next time.
Hmm, “next time”. As I read over my text message response before sending, I wondered if it might be another 20-some years before I’d come back to DDO again. But then I thought about all the photos I attempted around town and how few of them were any good—you’ll see what little I could salvage below (and most are not even of DDO proper), but truly, the spring snow melt with road grime doesn’t make for good pictures; indeed, I got very few that I felt did DDO justice. Would the summer perhaps yield better photographs? Why yes, it surely would.
And so, I made one last edit to the text message before hitting “send”.
It said that I’d definitely be back to cash that raincheck in sometime soon.
A little later, as I was driving away from Saint-Isidore, I decided to take a few scenic detours because, well, I only spent 3 minutes at Place GSP, and lo and behold, I came across a road named Riendeau! ↩
Beta Bloc is an awesome climbing gym in Pointe-Claire. Highly recommended. I liked it even more than Allez-up! ↩
Québec requires non-Canadian citizens and children of non-English households to attend French school. For what it’s worth, I actually agree with this policy and think it’s a good one. ↩
It’s also possible there’s a selection effect at work: perhaps all my francophone classmates since moved to Montreal for the greater number of opportunities available there, so that they’d be less likely to hang around DDO over time. In fact, judging by the datapoints I got from my former classmate, I’d say that’s likely the case. ↩