Originally published in Idler 56.
I’m filing this column from Montreal in Canada. More specifically, I’m writing from a hammock slung between two trees in a public park, my feet significantly higher than my head. The sun is shining. Cicadas buzz in the leaf canopy.
At the risk of sounding like someone who struggles to find inspiration beyond the tip of his nose (though what dwells beyond said summit, I’ll admit, is of limited appeal today) I’d like to describe some of the attractive (and potentially replicable) ideas native to this island city. As a point of fact, fellow idlers, I’ve wanted to tell you about Montreal for quite a while.
It’s not that people don’t work here, but there’s a certain lackadaisical attitude towards it. Most people I know here, young and old, work cheerfully as short-order cooks, bicycle couriers or cinema projector operators. The same people also have creative practices—puppetry, screen-printing, music production—but they appear neither to dislike their day jobs nor lust for commercial success in their side projects. Montrealers do not seem to define themselves through work as we do in Britain, nor do they slavishly devote themselves to it.This makes Montreal an appealing place to live and extremely compatible with the idle life.
None of this is to suggest that you sell up and move to Montreal (though you quite possibly could) but rather to import a few ideas from this joyful little island. In the way one might improve life by adopting Scandinavian aesthetics or a Mediterranean diet, the idler could do worse than adopt a Montrealer’s lifestyle.
Small is beautiful. Modest jobs like short-order cook and the likes do not court the strong and wealthy in an attempt to bring down the big dollars. They serve one’s peers. In fact, Montreal’s is very much a peer-oriented economy and it seems to work rather well. At no point do you feel alienated and mystified by the world of business. “Growth” might not be a dirty word but it feels like a waste of time. Better to work a little to keep things ticking over in a human-sized scale and then retire to a hammock like mine, eat exquisite food on a terrasse, or practice some yoga on the mountain.
Roll with the seasons. The spring, summer and autumn are glorious but the Canadian winter is truly punishing. Contrary to Britain’s uniform grey, one has to roll with the seasons in Montreal. Spring and autumn are for production, summer is for joyful lounging, while winter is for lockdown. This all helps to maintain an appreciation for both indoor and outdoor pursuits, a connection to nature, and a neighbourly synchronicity with the rest of the community.
Keep it cheap. It requires little economic privilege to live here. Montreal is not a retreat for the wealthy or a popular holiday destination. Life here is generally quite threadbare but in a lovely, peaceful, freedom-loving way. Once the lust for money and the grasping attitude exhibited elsewhere in the west is removed from life, one’s general inclination falls toward making your own entertainment with cookery, walks in the park, and house parties.
Reject extremes. In Britain, too many people live by the “work hard, play hard” mantra out of the curious misconception that this will result in “getting more” (and indeed that “getting more” rather than, say, “enough,” is especially desirable). In Montreal, you’re more likely to work and play in a leisurely, kind-hearted fashion. Few will drink to the point of vomiting or work to the point of burnout. It’s about maintaining a background level of gentle hedonism instead of desperately scavenging for rare moments of intense and ultimately regretful decadence.
Love the body. Instead of fighting your natural, gentle manner in a punishing and unnatural gym as so many do in Britain, a Montrealer is more likely to cycle, swim, walk, practice yoga, make love, and eat well. Don’t treat your body as if you were some savage manager and it your undisciplined underling. I’ve often felt that Montrealers aren’t Cartesian mind/body dualists at all, not seeing themselves as ghosts in machines as we tend to, but completely at one with the body.
Keep it open. A liberal, permissive society is not about dangerous debauchery, nor is it about political correctness. Great things happen when you eat well, read widely, smoke gentle pot instead of vulgar tobacco, make love, and welcome all comers. Montreal’s liberal attitude probably has something to do with its historically being a port town, regularly encountering influxes of transient otherness.
Educate the pallet. The harsh winters lead to a pleasing tendency to Epicureanism. When you can’t or don’t want to leave the house for a few days, one falls back on simple pleasures. Six foot of snow may be the cultural source of this, buy not an essential prerequisite. We can do the same.
Yawn in the face of big ideas. The barefoot Montrealer would laugh at the loadsamoney Torontonian if only she noticed his existence.
Ignore the class barrier. North Americans don’t have class in the same way as Brits but Montrealers don’t even seem to have the libertarian class system of the rest of North America. This is to their credit and contributes to the greater glory of life: easy pleasures are diverse and myriad when you’re not concerned about something’s being chavvy, bourgeois or too posh.
Various local phenomena—extreme seasons, cultural diversity, cheap hydroelectric energy, the disruptive influence of the French language—contribute to this way of life, but I believe the lifestyle can be exported by individuals, especially where those individuals are idlers. You see, Montreal’s glorious attitude to life is directly connected to the near-total absence of the Protestant Work Ethic. The city was founded by Portuguese and Italian Catholics, Jewish people, and the French. Today it is populated by the same groups as well as First Nations families, Cirque du Soleil performers, Hell’s Angels, elitist hipsters, trustafarian transients, Leonard Cohen mourners, bookish Anarchists, and penniless poets. Puritanism simply doesn’t—and never did—get a look in. Travail? Je ne pense pas.