Bubble Dwellers

By: Slava Borisov | In: Montreal | Posted

I have a friend whom I meet every weekend for brunch – every weekend, that is, that I am in Montreal. We tend to use the meal, the quick-paced walk before it, and (typically) the slightly slower walk afterward as an opportunity to catch up and exchange thoughts on a variety of subjects. Such was our situation one Saturday a few weeks ago.

We met in the McGill Ghetto area and headed north. As we walked, I kicked off the conversation by sharing my bewilderment at the insularity reigning in some expat circles. By way of illustration, I referenced a podcast called the “Moscow Expats Comedy Podcast,” which I had been binging on for about a week. One episode in particular was still fresh in my memory. The topic of the program (the MEC podcast is actually a live radio program on Capital FM in Moscow) was movies. The host, funny man Steve Foreman [], invited listeners of the live show to text in the names of the movies that they had seen again and again. This selfsame conversation starter, leavened with jokes and DJ patter, was offered to two female co-hosts in the studio, one expat and one repat. This seems to be Mr. Foreman’s usual format: he throws a semi-random question out there and asks for listener responses by text message, while also doing his best to get a memorable quote or two from his co-host and/or the guests in the studio. On the movie question, the studio ladies responded enthusiastically and a few minutes of lively babbling on the participants’ preferred Hollywood flicks (chick flicks in particular: “Dirty Dancing,” “Pretty Woman,” and “Titanic” were all mentioned) filled the Moscow airwaves.

Then the texts started arriving; most were from people with Russian-sounding names. The senders’ likely ancestry notwithstanding, the messages but expanded on the list of Hollywood imports. I don’t think a single Russian film was menioned. In fact, this was the nub of my pre-brunch complaint. How was it possible, inveighed I to my friend, that these people lived in Moscow, but in a sense (the cultural sense) they weren’t living there at all? Who could spend even a single year in Russia without watching, say, “Ирония судьбы” (“The Irony of Fate”) or “Иван Васильевич меняет профессию” (“Ivan Vasilievich Changes His Profession”) or at least a half dozen other films that all Russians – with the possible exception of the legally blind – have seen many times over? What kind of bubble have they built for themselves over there?

My friend was hardly surprised by any of this. This is his usual MO, by the way: no matter the subject of my outrage du jour (and outrage is usually my prerogative), he is the one doing the shoulder-shrugging. He pointed out that way back, in the “bad old 90s,” tens of thousands of expats lived in Moscow (most of them there to assist in the pillaging of the country then underway), many speaking little to no Russian, so the expat “bubble” I was protesting had, in fact, existed for decades in Moscow and, for that matter, in other world cities too.

That may be, I partially agreed. But for one thing, the Moscow expat herd had already been culled once or twice (I brought up an interview I had come across several months ago in which a Moscow realtor lamented the loss of many of her former expat clients: foreigners were departing the city in droves following the 2014-2015 round of Western sanctions; this was by no means the first wave of departures since the “bad old 90s”). Second of all, I continued, the size of an expat community doesn’t quite explain or excuse the bubble it surrounds itself with or its thickness and insularity. My friend responded to that. I responded back. Thus we walked, engaged in a sort of mental ping-pong of arguments and counter-arguments about – let’s face it – a fairly trivial subject, up St. Lawrence Boulevard, and toward our tentative destination: Bagel, Etc.

Bagel Etc. is a kitschily decorated faux-diner which serves hearty Jewish and Eastern European meals. Its longtime manager, Howard – a vaguely Scorsesian character who seems to hail from another era (though he's only around fifty himself) – has a remarkable memory for customer faces and one goes to Bagel Etc. as much for the opportunity to be greeted by Howard (and say “Hi” to him, of course) as for the things on the menu – perhaps even more for the former reason. The diner is quite popular with the city’s “creative class.” Possibly related to this popularity is the fact that Leonard Cohen used to be a regular (his former home faces the park across the street). Bagel Etc. is one of my and my friend's three or four favorite brunch spots in Montreal, though certainly not on account of the creatives or the Cohen connection.

Arriving at the door, we saw that the place was already packed. A fifteen-strong line of hungry hipsters snaked out of the restaurant, with those in the tail of the line actually standing outside – hands in their pockets, subtly shifting from one foot to the other. The temperature was seasonally fresh. We held a quick confab and decided to try Beauty’s, a few blocks to the north. It had been years since either of us had been there. Beauty’s, another Jewish diner, is a tourist trap, of course, but doing touristy things is by no means beneath us.

That said, waiting in line to do touristy things may very well be. The people lined up for Beauty’s were a decade or two older than the ones waiting at Bagel Etc., which was fine with us, but there were also so many more of them! Damn the First World and its demographic problems! We decided to skip.

There aren’t too many other options in the immediate area (Saint Lawrence / Mont Royal), so we retraced our steps to the corner and hesitantly sized up an eatery we had just passed on our way from Bagel Etc. to Beauty’s. Allô! Mon Coco is a chain, but eating at chain restaurants is definitely not beneath us. Besides, given the size of the establishment (big), its 6-to-8-person lineup looked quite manageable. We joined the line.

As expected, we were able to cross the first threshold of the standard (in our northern climes) two-door vestibule within minutes: a larger group in front of us had just moved inside the restaurant proper. For a few minutes after that, my friend and I even had the space between the two doors to ourselves. Then more customers arrived: two women speaking porteño Spanish and after them, two young (well, under-30) South-East-Asian-looking women. I think the Asians were speaking French. By spreading out, everyone made a good-fath effort to make the vestibule look already-full and impregnable. It worked: the line continued its growth outside. We were glad we were here and not there.

The hostess stuck her head in and asked for the names and party sizes. We said two. The Argentine women said two. The Asian women said three. I made a mental note to prepare to “reasonably accommodate” another guest in our cosy little chamber. The hostess wrote down the names and corresponding numbers and said that it wouldn’t be long.

Everyone stood in silence for a little while. It felt like being in an elevator with several strangers split into pairs: technically, of course, there was nothing stopping anyone from carrying on their conversations, but my elevator riding experience suggests a tendency of most people to pause or, at the very least, lower their voices; often, first pause and then start wispering. That’s how it went down in our little nook. After a long pause, the women present resumed the respective conversations brought in from the outside, at a much lower volume. My friend and I just kept staring silently into space: we had temporarily run out of ping-pong balls to lob at each other (for those not keeping track, that’s my metaphor for arguments).

The exterior door opened and the anticipated third person joined the Asian duo. Somewhat unexpectedly (for me), it was a man: in his late fifties or perhaps early sixties, not Asian (white), well-dressed, sporting a nice watch and a coiffure of fabulously grey hair. Sugar daddy? Maybe (who cares!). He spoke with a mild Québecois accent. I noticed that the Argentines put their conversation on hold: for some reason, they seemed to be listening in.

Our party’s name was called. We were given a small table, not too far from the door. A couple of minutes later, the Argentines got theirs – but somewhere much deeper inside the dining area. The mismatched trio at the door had to wait a few more minutes. By the time they were finally sitting down, in a sort of L-shaped booth directly in front of the entrance, we had already had our coffees served and the supplies of ping-pong balls replenished (note: metaphor). I was facing the door; thus, the backs of the trio.

The booth they were assigned was the perfect size for three, but the man and his damsel companions didn’t seem to like it. Perhaps they could feel a bit of cold draft from the door. Or maybe they wanted more privacy. The ageing macho made a vaguely finger-snappy gesture. The hostess swooped in, listened, and to my mild suprise (seeing as the lineup at the door kept on growing), agreed to relocate the troika to a big, six-person booth away from the entrance – clearly a sub-optimal move, assuming that the idea was to maximize the number of seated rush-hour customers. Oh, she’s just being nice, I thought. In any case, what do I know about seating triage in restaurants?

All of this was playing out without my giving the trio any particular attention, simply due to my facing the door and having found the group to be slightly amusing – for reasons yet unclear to me. The oddities kept on accumu­lating, however, especially where the man was concerned: nice clothes, nice hairdo, two female companions, their younger age, a promptly accom­modating hostess. It’s nice to get some respect in your silver-hair years, I thought – even if said respect takes the form of priority seating at diner restaurants when you’re out with younger chicks. Still, something here was off.

My friend, his back turned to the door, did not witness any of the reseating commotion. But the group must have been on his mind too, because after a few sips of coffee – which allowed him to recover his speech faculty – he did not hesitate to bring them up.

–“The guy back there in the fishtank…” he began quietly.

–“You can speak normally,” I told him. “–They have just been reseated.”

–“Oh! I didn’t even know they were near us,” he answered at normal volume (but having first glanced to his left and right). He then proceeded to explain to me something that in retrospect should have been obvious from the start.

The man was some sort of local celebrity. My friend didn’t remember his name, only that the guy had had a show and been a frequent guest on Quebec TV, and also that he was in some way connected with Denys Arcand – whom even I had heard about. It sounded like he was kind of a big deal, actually, considering the size of the province – a big fish in a small pond. The magna­nimous booth accom­modation sudden­ly made much more sense now. So did the hair and the watch. The younger women, too. I commented on this to my friend; he shrugged his shoulders.

There was a pause in our conversation. Sipping my coffee (slightly burned), I mulled the whole thing over. My friend fell taciturn again. He was perhaps too kind (or too apathetic) to rub it in my face, but the ironic arc of this afternoon’s debate did not escape my attention. I thought about how hypocritical my earlier rant about Moscow expats must have sounded. Living in a bubble, eh? Here I was, with more than a decade spent in Montreal (even allowing for all of my absences – admittedly many and often protracted) and I still had no clue about what people here watched, listened to, read, or whom they venerated and gossiped about: I had never had any particular interest in learning any of that. My own peculiar cultural universe included the US, anglophone Canada, France, Russia, and even some of the so-called PIIGS countries. But Quebec? Not so much. Okay, I may have seen a couple of movies (both of them Danys Arcand’s) but that’s about it. I was physically here, but culturally, I was living in my own bubble. I might as well be living in Moscow.