Montreal, with its brutal winters and expansive underground infrastructure, is where I lived in the winter and spring of 2009, during the second semester of my junior year of undergrad. One of my fondest memories of the city is, oddly, riding public transportation. Even after six years away, I often dream of hearing “Prochaine station: Berri-UQAM” as the San Francisco trains approach a stop. Perhaps my affection persists due in part to Montreal being the first place I lived that had public transportation, by which I mean reliable, expansive public transportation.
What I know for certain is that I loved the Metro because I loved the underground.
I lived in the UQAM “west residences”, officially the “Résidences de l’Ouest de l’Uqam”, snuggled between Rue Sherbrooke and Rue Ste-Catherine in what felt like the heart of the city. Our classes were taught in a building half a mile north-northwest up Sherbrooke, and at the beginning of the semester, and again toward the end, the walk was pleasant. About fifteen minutes along the sidewalks of the bustling thoroughfare, past defiantly juxtaposed styles of architectures that the city is known for.
Here’s the thing, though: the first time you walk fifteen minutes through a chill of 30 below zero—with a wind that burns the skin off your cheeks and a driving snow that tears off what’s left—is the last time you walk through such conditions. Thus did the underground become our cocoon as we commuted to and from school.
I would check the weather before leaving my apartment. The forecast would say “don’t you fucking dare walk outside”. I’d take the elevator to the lobby and push open the heavy glass door, turning out onto Rue Saint Urbain. Leaving home, heading to class. I would look intently at the ground, afraid to stare the wind in the face, hands stuffed into my peacoat and shoulders hunched to my cheekbones. I would trudge the hundred feet to the next building where I would open another door. Back inside. Inside all the way to campus, a half mile away. Buildings connect to buildings; those buildings connect to a Metro line; the Metro line connects you to other Metro lines which in turn connect you to more buildings, and so on.
This commute, in the bitter depths of winter, became a joy despite its extended length. I perceived a camaraderie in these casual daily transits, a mutual appreciation of the warmth provided by the corridors and trains that moved us from place to place, shielded from the elements above.