All those other lives I never lived

I recently applied for a conference to be held in Montreal in May. The brochure for the conference was illustrated with “typical” Montreal images: curving metal staircases, lights on the St-Lawrence seaway, neon signs on St-Catherine. An offer of what the city is meant to give to tourists.

Biking home in the golden light this afternoon I passed hundreds of “typical” blocks of flats, engaging in my usual habit of imagining “what would my life be like if I lived somewhere else — on the Plateau, downtown, in St-Henri . . ” I imagined the tiny but important differences from my life at Jean-Talon. A different vegetable market. Fewer Mexican restaurants. Another cafe with different owners. Would they remember my allonge, collect my forgotten mittens for me?

Next month, I will live in a Victorian row house in West London. From the back window of that house, you can see the planes land at Heathrow, above the rows of chimneys, the thick trees full of birds. The London tourist brochures show images of these white-fronted terrace houses, window boxes full of flowers. The brochures include pictures taken down along the Thames where I run sometimes, past houseboats and waterfront pubs and parks. Beyond what’s in the pictures, the river has surprising beauty. The city noise falls away, leaving the sound of rowing skiffs, clinking glasses, and geese. On the far bank, bicycles careen through mud left by high tide, against the backdrop of wild parkland. Even in winter, the trees are green.

By the time I come back to Montreal it will be spring. I have never lived through a winter with no snow, without the bitter cold jab of air in the nose on a February morning. This feeling is never described in a tourist brochure. Neither is the precise quality of light reflected at 4 pm through my office window.

The fact is, we can never know what things, exactly, change our lives. I came to Montreal almost by accident, but living here has given me something I never could have imagined. Paris, too. As I prepare for a new life, in another city, I wonder — not even daring to imagine — what surprising beauty I will find.