Checkmate

a short story written on 11-5-2014 for a writers club.

 

11-5-2014

“Checkmate” written by Divya Durgadas

“What is that awful smell?” Grandma said, crinkling up her nose “I bet it is the mongoose again peeing on the attic!” she sighed! Grandpa’s earpiece had slid down yet again and he was oblivious to Grandma’s concerns. He sat across the table from me eyeing the soup cauldron. He hated pumpkin soup; he made a god awful face!

 

I laughed and stuck my tongue out, let my head fall on my left shoulder and I cocked each eyeball in the opposite direction. A trick I had learnt from the man sitting across me. “Stop goofing around and finish your dinner!” said Grandma looking in our direction.

 

I licked my bowl clean and reached for more. Go on, grandpa gestured, getting up from the table. Grandma was running up the crooked wooden stairs to the attic with the old wick lamp and a broom.

 

I gestured him to wear his earpiece. He was now sitting on the kitchen counter reading the newspaper. It was a while since he tried this trick! He loved to make Grandma mad by rubbing his bum in Elvis Presley’s moves on the clean scrubbed kitchen counter. I stifled a giggle imagining Grandma’s response when she would catch him. He winked, as if reading my mind.

 

Suddenly we heard a crash, and before I knew all the brass utensils tucked away in the attic were rolling down the stairs. I ran up working my way through the utensil maze calling “Grandma! Grandma!” in panic. There she was on the attic floor lying stiff and passed out. I was crying by now; I shook her vigorously. She moved ever so lightly and finally opened her eyes. I helped her sit up. She was exhausted “It is the stupid cat” she finally said “She has been storing them, the rats in that corner” she pointed to a space cluttered with things from an entire generation ago, which now reeked of something retching.

“I will help you clear it up tomorrow when the sun comes” I told her, helping her to her feet. “I will get grandpa to help. It must be his earpiece again. He may not have heard us!” I ran down, before grandma replied.

 

The kitten was licking of the remains of my bowl of soup. “Shoo.. Bad kitty” I chided. Grandpa was missing. His hat was gone too. Ah! his usual night time walk, I remembered. Grandma had made her way downstairs by now “Go on. Go to sleep.” she said gesturing me to take a wicker lamp “Don’t stay up reading tonight!” she called out after me.

 

I couldn’t sleep that night. I lay there listening to the clangs of grandma putting away the brass vessels. I heard the bell from the town’s center. I even heard the distant whistle of the midnight goods train that passed our town. I had hated my boarding school when Grandpa first dropped me that wretched summer. But now I missed my bed there and my friends. It had been two days since I was home and I felt amiss. Grandma was cantankerous than usual and grandpa was well himself but not quite. It seemed they were avoiding each other.

 

I tossed and turned and finally decided to light the wicker lamp and read my new stack of Enid Blyton books. I felt cold and caught something looming in the corner. I lit the lamp shaking with fear and nearly screamed. It was grandpa setting up the chess table. “You gave me a fright! You have to tell me! Why have you been so mysterious lately? Did you fight with grandma?” “Bullocks!” he mumbled and pointed to the chessboard. “Heh! Sure! I can’t catch sleep anyway” I beamed. Grandpa usually told me stories of the kingdoms while we played chess, of ghouls, goblins and flying elephants. I looked forward to that more than the game itself.

 

The next morning when grandma woke me up I was sprawled on the chess board with a pawn stuck up my nose. We have to go someplace she said and had laid out my new clothes and socks on the bed. “Where is grandpa? He was up playing chess with me. Yesterday’s stories had the dwarfs too” I said. She stared at me for a moment “He left a while back” she muttered. It felt like the longest journey of my life, on that bumpy old fiat herald. We listened to Sound of music soundtrack on the radio. It was all the rage now. I sang along for “My favorite things”. Grandma just smiled, I wished she had sung along too like before.

 

And finally we reached. I was back at the doorstep of the ominous hospital wing, where I had watched mama and papa sleeping a sleep from which they would never wake.

 

I started trembling inside as I caught pieces of the conversation.

“Oh! Mrs…., there you are! we have been trying to reach you for two days”

“it’s the storm. We are out of power and phone lines are down”

“Why… why have to taken him off the support systems?”

“the coma..”

“I am sorry. I believe it has been 48 hours ago.”

“His body …”

I didn’t understand any of it. No one had told me he was here.

He was right there, I said. He even made a face at the soup! And what seemed like for many many hours, my Grandma hugged me and sobbed.

 

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Mom, let it go!

Many years ago in the sweltering chennai heat, I read this book called “Daddy” by Danielle Steele. Although the book offers a neutral treatment of how the life of either parent pans out, how the mother’s life took turns really baffled me at first; later it intrigued me and probably now after so many years when I am a mother myself, I completely empathize with her; infact to me she is hero of the book! It takes a lot more courage for a mother to peel oneself away from familial duties than to dive into it. And the earlier we realise that the better!

Few months back, I had decided to get back on the workout wagon with a vengeance. After many failed attempts at PIIT28 and other Do-it-yourself-at-home workouts, I had come to the conclusion that I had to leave the house and stop being a parent, if I needed that one hour to myself. And in the end I had taken an approach very much like how Sarah had in “Daddy”. I had decided that my family was going to work together to figure how they would do it without me. I chose to be an early riser, leave the house and complete my workout before they woke up. Whether the kids woke up before or after i got home; I wouldnt be the one handling their morning ablutions. I had made that unwritten pact. And had completely washed myself off that responsibility and decided i was going to let my family figure out their morning routine without me.

It was very much like what indra nooyi had said in her interview about “seamless parenting”. If you don’t let your extended family (in this case the family) do things their way to help you, you will continue to guilt trip yourself and never cope. Because let me restate that little well known secret. Men have been doing it forever!

Before you jump on me to quote all the great fathers, single dads and partners out there who do their part well; I am not talking about fathers not doing their part — I am talking about the fact that men are okay to not be their child’s primary parent. They are okay if they can’t make it in time on one out of hundred times to pick up the child and ask their partner to do it. They are okay if they can’t make it home in time after the pick up and the kids have to eat pizza and fries on a Wednesday night. They are okay to leave a sick child for half day at day care after giving him a dose of tylenol.

This and hundreds of instances like these, you wouldn’t see a dad brooding and telling his friends in a whatsapp group “I feel soo bad… dropped a sick child to day care! breaks my heart” blah blah. Whereas for every one of those instances, I bet almost every mother out there would have felt guilty at some point or the other in her life.

That guilt combined with the effervescent feeling that we are the primary parent of the child is a combination of doom. And it makes most mothers get caught in this web so intertwined we have created for ourselves, that we find it hard to break out. Yes! I already hear many of you thinking — men can’t breastfeed nor carry a child in their womb. But that’s it. Everything else they are physically and mentally capable of doing for the child. EVERYTHING. I will give you a moment for that to sink in.

Because changing a diaper is as new to the mother as to the dad. So don’t let anyone guilt trip you into thinking “I am a mom. I should be born knowing this.” or “I am the mom. I should be the one cooking fresh meals for my family.”.. Its never ending.

Our partnership lines are getting blurry. With two working parents being the new norm and steps towards gender equality and pay gaps, what better place to bring it into practice than at home? And most of us are “lucky” and “blessed” ( I feel rather unfortunate to be using those words. But we only know too well how the world is turning into ), to have partners who are supportive and make great responsible parents. But mothers, if you truly want them to take on a huge piece of your mental load, you have to let it go.

Because this is where, I tell you another well-known little-acknowledged secret “Children adapt like a song. Parents take longer”. The more changes and decisions we make as mothers, founded by this expectation of being the primary parent; decisions that phase out our personal dreams and goals little by little; it gets harder and harder to break out. And the most important change that is actually happening during this time is that you are also closing the doors for your partner who may be very much willing to take on more load, also falling into a cushiony complacency. Which if you try to rectify years later will be a battle I shudder to imagine.

I understand if you are dealing with a different scenario where the partner is not willing to even begin to take on the load; then whatever I just said makes no sense. I am purely talking about the scenario where mothers often find themselves at the shorter end of the stick, where they constantly feel they are taking on more mental load, they are trying to communicate it, they are trying to wing it all and partners who are capable to doing more, are not doing enough or dont do it by their own volition. If you find yourself in this never ending cycle. Step back and analyze, if you are doing enough to let it go.

So you have an important customer meeting on wednesdays and you want the dad to pick up the kids and handle everything for them on wednesday nights. Probably the first two times they may eat pizza and all go to bed without brushing their teeth. May be even the first 10 times. and may be by the 30th wednesday, they no longer find it odd that mom wont be around and they fall into a routine. Some wednesdays they may even make Dosas for dinner ready for you. And by the 50th wednesday, they are eating good meals, doing their homework, bath, brush their teeth, read books and are fast asleep before you get home and the dishwasher is also loaded!

I can hear many of you think “Ya right!” .Well I did too. But it will happen. Only if you dont allow your guilt to take over during the time you build that trust on your family to handle it without you. You have been “handling” it for them for so long. It will take them time! But you have to let them do it their own way, to ease yourself.

The same scenario above, lets say you spend most of wednesday worrying about how the kids will handle the evenings; Some wednesday mornings you stress out and end up cooking a dinner and freezing it. You get upset when they ordered takeout instead of what you cooked. You worry that the last parent teacher meeting they complained of behavioral issues and start to guilt trip yourself that it is probably because you are not around. You fight with your partner on that way the bath and brush routine is carried out. And finally after the 20th wednesday you decide to tell your manager (completely out of your own guilt of not doing primary parenting) that you can no longer do the wednesday meetings. It becomes a bad career move. You miss out on a promotion. But you tell yourself its a sacrifice you made for motherhood.

To me it looks like the hypothetical scenario above could have been made so much better by simply letting it go. I have been there. I have done similar things. So by now you know why I am writing this article! 🙂

So that brings me to what I said at the beginning of this post (thanks! if you stayed with me so far); that pulling oneself away from family duties and chores is harder than taking it on for many mothers. It took me over five years and two kids and after to get a full sense of it. And realize that I can’t expect my partner to switch, learn and unlearn when he is not used to doing for over 5 years ( not used to doing, only because I decided to not let it go), within a week. And unless i do things to help myself, my family is not going to magically understand my feelings and immediately help me through.

We have enough and more battles as women. Let us as a first step remember to let our near and dear ones work along with us and not for us. Only by doing that, we can shed the baggage we add on ourselves as mothers. All the expectations and judgement we pile on our shoulders and continue to make decisions which get incrementally hard to break away from. Let us help our partners help us. They are absolutely willing to and we know it. Lets begin by letting go!

 

Of memories in a bottle

My mother often tells me it is almost unbelievable that I remember so much about my childhood. Some memories even trace back to when I was just three. It is probably a memory of a memory now. But I can still recall them in flashes, of images, hazy faces and dusty backdrops and everything. It’s a strange thing these memories. Over years they stay to catch mold; but the more filters they gather the more you want to hold on to them.

Of my maternal grandmother who passed away when I was six, I have a sole living memory, of playing with the colorful saw-toothed plastic soap savers with her; almost like a dream. I recall it from time to time lest I forget the only memory I have of her. I was probably three then and I vividly remember how excited I felt with those mundane pieces of adult life. It helps me understand why my son gets more excited about my kitchenware than toys.

I also remember watching my mother weep in the arms of our tamilian neighbor aunty in Patna. A city so alien to her and away from everything she held dear and sacred. I don’t know how the news reached her. It was probably a telegram or a phone call to the only person we knew in the city who had a phone for emergencies. I can still remember the aunty patting her down with “azhade kanna” and for the life of me at six I couldn’t fully understand what was going on. We left in a hurry on a train to Calcutta and then flight to Cochin. 90s weren’t the kindest to find easy transport. North India was probably as alien as Kazakhstan to a true blue south Indian back then.

She didn’t make it in time for the final rites. We were welcomed to her home with solemnity and my younger cousins, toddlers then, running and uttering “thathi tata poita” unintelligibly. It took me years to understand the import of that moment and how my mother must have felt. How not being able to see her mother even in death, because she lived so far away that it took more than 24 hours to get home must have seared everything else she felt; a guilt she probably couldn’t escape but has mentioned so many times over years.

The other novelesque moment which tears me up, was the day we left to Patna from Trivandrum. It was pouring like any other notorious Kerala monsoon day. Our car was loaded. I stood on the back seat watching thatha, thathi and periappa wave ever so sadly from the verandah of our home and the water gushing down the rear glass as we drove away to the station. That picture has stayed with me like a painting and probably in the last few years I have come to realize how my grandparents might have felt that moment standing there and watching their youngest son also take flight and move on. Probably they also felt proud amidst all the emptiness, I may never find out!

They come back to me, these memories every time we debate on returning home and staying on. The infamous dilemma of the immigrant! Or the closet Patriot! Call it what you may. The reasons to return must overlook a lot of things and must overpower everything else to feel strongly about it. I am starting to fear that strength, is ebbing; for now I am holding on with all my might, to memories, stories, desires, wants and everything that show me the way to where I want to create that “home”; so that someday the memories don’t just stay in a little bottle of regret, while running the long run of life.

Food no more!

My mother-in-law often quips that it was from eating all the leftovers my husband left on his plate as a kid, that she amassed all her flab! Whether the latter is true or not, the former is something I completely believe! Because, when I was growing up; it was my dad who was the” left-overs-person”. So was my mama (uncle), who was the favorite of my grandma to pitch all the left over in the pans after everyone had finished their meal. And I should probably mention that he is the thinnest person I know to date! Bottom line was food was never wasted!

I was a stickler for tomato as a child. I would pick every cooked and mashed tomato bit from my dishes and painted it along the sides of my plate before divulging into my meal. I don’t remember treating any other meal that way. I would gobble it all down pretty well. But I was terrible at understanding quantities. If I overate I vomited. If I didn’t eat enough, I’d go crazy with hunger. Over years my parents instilled the importance of choosing the right portions and not wasting, especially my dad. He initially backed me up by willing to take the extra portions if I felt full. But by the time I was a teenager and a voraciously hungry one, I don’t remember ever wasting food. If anything my mother had a hard time keeping up with my hunger pangs!

I am but glad my better half and I are on the same page on this and our upbringing in this regard has been identical. It has been ages since we ordered a “thaali” in Indian restaurants, simply because, we no longer feel young enough to dive and wipe all the bowls clean and it hurts to see so much food wasted which cannot be wrapped and taken home. We almost always end up ordering dishes we can wrap and take left-overs of, if we can’t finish it in one meal. Once we were served the blandest fried rice at a Japanese restaurant. My husband simply asked for the meal to be packed. And came home and tossed it in some oil, chilies and his favorite siracha sauce and gobbled it down. We both would have hated to see that bowl of rice dumped in the trash!

Of course we have had our slips too. I have tossed away veggies I have forgotten we ever bought and they sat long enough to catch a layer of fungus in the fridge. Or a week of stomach bug as a family and the grocery for that week sits idle. But over years we have been making genuine and relentless efforts in this regard. We have been planning our meals before doing grocery. We have a buffer day when we eat out, so that we can use it for leftovers if need be! We try to keep the meals as fresh as possible by cooking every night. On a Saturday morning, if I find the vegetable rack in the fridge empty, the fruit basket is empty and probably one dish cooked last night is in the refrigerator shelf, I consider it a victorious week.

Last year around this time was when we sort of hit a road block with our beliefs. Our toddler had started day care and they served him lunch. Going by the rules, at home too, he’d toss his bowl of food upside down when he feels he has finished his meal or ask for the trash. It pained me and to a great extent even angered me to see this behavior. But, we stepped back and looked at it from his perspective and eventually hatched a plan. Over months we made him understand that he had to get the difference between the two places he was going to be in a day. We had to make our peace with him wasting his leftovers at his place of care and not wasting his food whenever he was with his parents. It wasn’t ideal, but it was the best we could achieve given his age and our circumstances.

But over time, we have started to see hope. His meal sheet comes back with a (A), which means he ate everything and sometimes asks for more servings. He indicates beforehand that he doesn’t want a certain dish and asks it to be taken off from his plate before he eats his meal. If he doesn’t finish his fruits we send from home, he asks for it to be kept in fridge and eats it on his way home in the car. And whenever he is around with us at home and outside, he tells us when he is full and gives us the rest of his meal. Hopefully over years, we can teach him portion understanding too. We are still a long way from it. And I don’t know how many unknowns and challenges loom around it.

On one end, how many times have we not noticed an entire table of half eaten pizza slices, piles of fresh fruits and a nibbled on pieces of cake lying bereft on a birthday party table, left to be cleaned up and tossed away. And on the other end, was a friend who faced enough prejudice for taking a tough decision to help her child understand the importance of finishing what was served on her child’s plate.

Every other day we read articles about how in a few years, human race will not have this abundance of food or articles that are titled “if grocery stores closed one fine day”. I am failing to understand the import when I notice the amount of wastage all around us. Probably it is a ticking bomb like the climate change. And we are not going to do anything about it until it hits us. For now, practicing ourselves and teaching a child to not waste and finish what is served on his/her plate is probably is the best we can do as a human race.

And since when did “Don’t waste your food!” or “please eat what is served” become akin to child abuse? Ugh!

Ear piercing and parenting

When I was growing up, it wasn’t uncommon in our families to dress up little baby or toddler boys in pretty clothes of a girl for a photo shoot or whim. It was partaken in complete jest, mostly an activity kids loved like a game. Of course! the pictures would be used later to embarrass the little boy in family functions, when he grows up. But it wasn’t surrounded with judgements and stereotypes. At least they hadn’t stemmed yet.

As if upholding it like a tradition, there is a picture of my husband in a violet pattu-pavadai when he was a baby, which I am sure by now, he has hidden away, where no one can find it. And so does my son, taken when he was 8 or 9 months. There is also a picture of me, probably at three years dressed in a checked shirt and pants, mushroom hair cut and hands full of bangles. The bangles are probably the only thing that say I am a girl. I look like a dressed up child in that picture. And so does my son in his with
a bow and skirt. And so does my husband in his picture. Take the gender out of the picture and see it. You will see what I am trying to say!

It seems to me, that as we grew, we as a generation bridged many gaps of economic and social statuses between men and women, but have managed to strengthen other stereotypes making them tougher to erase.We have separated them into color-codes, trucks vs dolls, books vs games; and don’t even let me get started on the “boys will be boys” and “boys don’t cry” or “don’t cry like a girl” statements.

The first year of my son’s life, we had strewn the house with toys-for-boys as gifts and purchases. There were cars and balls, trains, macho-boy-stuffed-toys of simba, mickeymouse, winnie-the-pooh. There were other neutral things like musical toys, which again were carefully color-coded in blue. If there was pink seen anywhere (like my old stuffed doll) it would be stowed deep in a pile, like it would tarnish my son’s gender in some way. Well! i am exaggerating. But you get the picture.

We were, or at least my son’s dad was preparing for a toddler, like many of our nephews we have known are car lovers (who can name the brand of every car they see by 2 years), to kick and throw ball and break everything in the house, to use the kitchen-choppu-set for anything but fake-cooking. I list it to state, our son meets none of the above expectations.

It is amazing how we forget that every child comes with a personality, that isn’t defined by standards we set as a society. The child isn’t born knowing that its color should be blue or pink. Those are but things we learn and probably unlearn as an individual as we grow. What I as a parents, am figuring, is what are the necessary things I must let him learn or figure. “Don’t wear pink” isn’t on my list. “Don’t drink and drive” and “Don’t carry a chewing gum to Singapore” are definitely on the list!

So that’s how our son reminded us of that fact. He is an animal lover. He is also a book lover. He simply doesn’t care for vehicles. At least not yet.

So still hoping for a “boy-behavior”, his dad got him a book of a truck and farm animals. My son would stop reading the book when the truck came into the picture. He would only want to read the first few pages and last few, where the animals are making their “moo, baa baa” sounds. That is what interests him and he wants to stick with it (for the time being).

It was heart warming and encouraging for me as a parent. And eventually for his dad too. We realised he loves to do what he wants to do. No tricks or force!

So someone asked me in absolute horror, watching my son, hug and kiss a little blue-eyed doll he seems to fancy now. Are you ready for this — ‘the doll wears a pink dress’ and he calls it hush-a-baby. She asked me “Aren’t you encouraging him to be gay?”. I burst out laughing. By then my son was changing the doll’s diaper and putting it to sleep. And you can well imagine how that conversation must have ended.

So today morning my little boy, who watches me brush my hair and wear my earrings in the morning, asked me yet again he wants to wear earrings too. I didn’t say “no boys don’t”, because I don’t believe that. I told him he very well can. Just that his ears are not pierced.. yet. He probably didn’t get my explanation. So I promised him (may be it was more a promise to myself) that when he was bigger to understand and communicate better and still wanted to wear earrings, I would get his ears pierced for him.

It wasn’t easy for me to say that. Not because I think boys shouldnt wear earrings. But for the challenge I will face as a parent to help my child handle the taunts and jeering that may follow. May be in a few years he might not even remember and will adopt rules of “the-normal”. But I want to always be that parent who will tell him to define his own normal if he wants to and encourage him to adopt that. I am probably a romanticist or rebel like that (depends on how you look at it).

I am not only a mother to a boy, but a mother to a child who loves dolls, animals, books, laughing and dancing. That is all there is to it!

To the sea, I belong

A good nine years ago, on a summer going to fall Sunday, I had hiked a fair 5 or 6 miles with my grad school roommate and two of her friends to a beach. It was probably the west meadow beach which had lots of pebbles and sand, I don’t recall the name exactly. What I do remember is that it felt like I was breathing for the first time since I had left my home country. It felt relieving to know that the sea wasn’t so far away. I felt rescued. I felt humbled. I felt I finally belonged.

If I am ever asked to make a choice between places to live, I am sure I would always choose a place with a faster proximity to the ocean; for the crashing waves, frothing waters, salty air and even the roaring thunder storms or monsoons. I would take that any day to a land-locked wonder!

Along the north east coast of the Atlantic Ocean, where I now live, cities may be built around ports and water bodies; but to find a shore where the waves kiss the sands, one has to drive at least a couple of hours to beach towns. It was a tough trivia to figure. Fairly so; since in the Indian subcontinent the coastal cities spill all over the seas beside them. And land-reclaimed-from-sea wasn’t uncommon either ( Bombay and the Cochin port are places I know of )

Along the Indian Ocean, beaches are a city’s landmark; an easily accessible place for her people’s congregation. You didn’t need the paraphernalia of booking a resort and expensive gear of sunscreens, towels, chairs and umbrellas to enjoy them. Get to the beach around sun down. Walk her shores with your shoes in hand, people watch, enjoy the balmy breeze after a sweltering day, buy a beach-side snack and have a long conversation watching the sunset. Tell a New-Engalnder you can do this almost every day of the year and they won’t believe you!

But the sea is the sea is the sea! If a 2 hour drive is what it takes to find that paradise in these parts, we may as well! The weekend past was one such journey to a little beach town in Maine, to collect sunshine before fall arrives and bid goodbye to the gorgeous summer that has been! We were accompanied by four other families gaggling with babies, toddlers and babies-to-arrive for a much sought adventure!

If the unexpectedly well-furnished and snug wooden cottages had us floored, the amenities of heated pool and hot tub were awesome-er. And of course to mention the easy walkway to the beach. It was probably the most relaxed vacation we have had as a group after kids. Even though much of the late night conversations were interleaved with baby monitors buzzing to gently remind us that we are now parents-first-and-everything-else-after, we had mastered the art of resuming conversations with breaks.

And in the short 48 hour window, while the kids were asleep we managed to pack a morning-chai-party, a post-beach-sandwich-party, a chaat-party, a chicken-grill-party and even an Italian-rum-cake-party to celebrate the gentle ascend of a wonderful friend and dad of two, into the mid thirties! Of course! We had our share of fun with the kids too in the pool and play. It was A’s first ever beach trip and he loved it rotten. I would call the water icy, but it felt wonderful against the sun. Just to have my feet smeared in sand and hair bursting into curls with humidity was pure bliss.

Sadly it is true that all things must come to an end. And so did our little getaway. We ended the journey at the teeming pier of the small town, feasting on their popular pizzas and treating ourselves and the kids to ice creams.

We reached home by evening to a power outage from recent thunderstorms. TheToddler wondered if the vacation was continuing when we had comfort food of curd rice by candlelight. It was a blessing in disguise, since we retired to bed early as a family reading by torch light and watching the moonlight stream thru the windows. To the distant rumbling of our neighbour’s generator, his father’s tired snores and buzz of summer insects my son drifted to sleep.

I lay awake a little while. I smelt a whiff of sea-salt, watched a wave crash on the sand and brush my feet. I heard myself laugh in glee holding appa’s hand. I saw a golden sun descent into the sea’s unbeknownst depths. When I opened my eyes, it was Monday morning. The magic was far far away and I will hold on to the dreams for now!

The “almost” city

There are two categories among the most loved cities of the world. One charms and mesmerizes you whether you stay there for few hours, days or years, like Rome or NYC. And the second kind grows on you over time; this kind of city has to be experienced and not visited, like singara chennai!

Montreal has the charms to fit in the first kind, but lacked a certain spark; The more we explored  her, I would say she was magical in parts and equally underwhelming sometimes. It was a city, I loved in pieces and probably she fits better in the second category! I may never find out, since I didn’t live long enough to know!

The Surprises

  • We expected as much English as French to be spoken and on signs; but it was all in all a Frenchman’s haven. Charmingly so. Even something gibberish like “barracks, bees and blocks in the sea” sounds beautiful in french! isn’t it?
  • The European style Piazas with fountains are fittingly beautifully done. There are many in the city, but many are eerily deserted. I realised how much the people of a city add to its charms. Whether it is teeming tourists or residents, a city needs her people!
  • The homeless and begging on the streets were aplenty. Something we never expected at all.
  • The city is known for its night life, which we didn’t explore. But going by that, I expected us to stand out like a sore thumb, equipped with baby gear. Pleasantly surprised to find more strollers all over the happening cobbled streets than anywhere else. So every place was extremely stroller friendly. And oh! breastfeeding in public wasn’t making anybody uncomfortable. USA take cues. (Brownie points to Montreal! )
  • Most eateries, cafes and shops in the not so prime streets weren’t open long hours on weekend and were closed on Monday being a holiday. It had the mild siesta culture feel to that aspect!
  • We decided to disconnect and turned off our mobile phones for the day. We did the trip old school with maps, print outs, notes and asking people for directions. We were surprised, that we managed to stick to it. It also helped that I was mostly just taking in scenes and not scrambling to take pictures and share them, as it happened!
    It would have been better if we had stuck to not giving into the urge to connect to wifi when back in hotel. But hey! next time.

The touristy stuff

Biodome, Botanical Gardens, montreal tower
Stroller friendly – Very
Parking vs public transport – Lot of walking between and within these places, although they are in the same neighborhood. Parking for the day is 12$ and the sticker holds good for parking-lots of all the three places. Best option with kids!
Cafeteria – Around these places, the food joints are less and terrible. I am glad we carried food for the little one and us!
Other tips – Gets crowded by noon. Better to start day early. You can buy tickets for all the places at the Botanical garden instead of biodome, shorter lines.

We started with biodome around 9 am and we finished all three places at a relaxed pace by late noon, also letting the toddler take his nap in the stroller while we pushed it in the botanical gardens.
Brownie points – If your child is fascinated by animals like mine, biodome is worth the visit.

The not so touristy stuff

St. Josephs Oratory
Stroller friendly – Not very, because of the many stairs to get to this huge domed church. We just took the many escalators and stairs,kept stroller in car.
Parking vs public transport – Parking after 5 pm for free. We covered this on friday evening since we had time to kill.
Brownie points – Great views and lots of open space for kids to run around in the terrace like areas.

Mount Royal hilltop
Stroller friendly -Very. Park area with trails.
It is nearly as huge as central park with parking facilities.
We parked and walked uphill to the mount top for a great view of the city after sun down.

The understated

There are many churches other than Notre-Dame that are gorgeous and in full service all over the city. And they dont charge you for an entrance. Some of the other notable ones we explored were —
St Patricks Basilica ( 2 min walk from our hotel )
Mary, Queen of the world basilica and the Dorchester square across the street.
Church  of virgin mary at the end of popular St. Paul’s street, was my favorite with chandliers and boat shaped hanging lights.
Many churches along walk on the Rue Ste Catherine

Marche Jean-Talon in little italy
Stroller friendly – Fairly. Must be willing to maneuver through crowds.
Parking – underground parking at a very decent rate of about 0.50$ for every 30 minutes.
Bownie points – Street food, musicians, fresh food market.
What-we-loved – my husband and son snacked on the rotisserie chicken and they loved the smoked lamb sausage sticks to go. You can take his word for a meat tasting good! I on the other hand, loved the olive bar which was really cheap and ate so many!

I could have spent an entire day at the jean talon market if I could. It was my best stop in this town. (Hagglers, a fusion of Italian and french tongues, fresh veggies and fruits. Musicians, slow-life cappuccino joints )

The un-stated

Many squares and open spaces to people watch along the city’s promenades.
The square opposite our hotel had a modern fountain with a fire on water trick, which was pretty awesome. We wouldn’t have even known, if we didn’t stay nearby.

The bibliotheque (library) in the latin quartier. I expected a sprawling gothic architecture. Was amused to find a modern glass building instead. We just took a short stroll. Definitely deserves more exploration.

The yeah-um-whatever

  • The Latin quartier, the village and mount royal street were all great to walk and take in the views. They r definitely areas to explore as a resident. As a tourist, there are only a handful of places you can actually afford to loll away time at, for they all come across as similar experiences after a while.
  • Ste-Catherine and other localities hyped for foray of shops and the underground city are well a little meh. We aren’t ardent shoppers; probably because of that I wasn’t truly amazed by the new brands and malls.

Coffee

Many coffee chains other than Starbucks. Van Houtte and pressed cafe were the ones i tried. I hated both. Extremely strong for my palate!

Finally found my match at a gelato store, where cappuccino was served in a bowl. it was heavenly. So was the little cup i took big swigs of at the Jean-talon market place.

The Food

  • We didn’t visit Schwartz’s which is popular for smoked meat. My husband almost tried smoked meat sandwich at places near the Notre-dame square, but after looking at a few he wasn’t convinced enough.
  • We stayed a few blocks from china town. On travels we always make one Chinese take-out to satiate the rice-craving. The china town food was actually great. The noodle shop and Beijing were the popular restaurants. The china town itself is actually a nice area to explore.
  • Pizza, quiches and Mediterranean places in Jean-talon market place.
  • Crepe places on st. Pauls. Laborious work to cut and eat the stuffed crepes.
  • Gelato places are awesome. They even have small few-bites size serving cones convenient for on the go.

Traveling tips with toddler

  •  Live within the city. All rooms come with microwave and fridge!
  • Wear your best walking shoes and explore the city on foot or bike.
  • Strollers are welcome and easy to maneuver all over the city, even on cobbled streets sidewalk. (City mini GT was a true companion)
  • Old port area along water front has fairs and performers. good place for kids to run and explore.
  • We didn’t find the need to take public transport at all. We covered everything on foot. I wish I had a fitbit to note how much we walked per day! Our calf muscles are sore, so I am sure we hiked quiet a bit!
  • Map of the city and the prime streets is a good gear to have. We visited the information center near dorchester square, that gave us more ideas to explore.
  • Fast food joints / kids friendly menus don’t pop up very often. If your child isn’t a taster and doesn’t eat adult food yet, I highly recommend carrying food. Our toddler was happy eating the food I had packed for him and he nibbled and snacked on whatever we bought along the way.

Overall, it was truly a different experience, visiting a city in whole new country in this case and just to realise that across the border things can be so very different!

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