The expat's angst

I spent time with a group of American newcomers to Montréal recently; all were women, most in their early thirties. The coffee klatch turned out to be a session of unmitigated complaint.

That's a common expat sentiment anywhere: things are worse than at home. The bureaucracy is designed to obstruct! The brownies at the café are too expensive! No one wants to hire us here, the roads are a mess, and does it ever warm up?

As I write, I'm anticipating the agreement of those who dislike Québec. You're entitled to your opinion, but that is not my point.

My point is that expats bitch; missing home, they compare everything, usually unfavourably. A French friend here got so sick of his copains carping that he avoids them. "And how long have you been here?" he likes to ask. "Oh, eighteen years" is a typical reply. 

When I lived in Toronto, I hung with a raucous batch of Brits who whinged incessantly. A Mancunian friend always suggested they "take 'The $800 Cure'", which was a plane ticket home for two weeks' stay.

Even sophisticated world citizen (and native Montréaler) Adam Gopnik has written of his nightmarish attempts to get a home phone line and chequing account in Paris.

These women had accompanied partners here for work or education. They were legitimately frustrated because most of them could not work yet, partially due to the lengthy immigration process (federal government) but primarily because Québec's language law (provincial government) necessitates proficiency in French for many jobs. Joblessness and attendant money woes exacerbated their dissatisfaction. They had valid issues with various institutions' service levels.

And, they also complained that here, you have to pay the post office to hold your mail when you are on vacation. I have to cross the border to get to a Target; yes, one is opening here next fall–of course it's taken forever because they have to redo all the packaging to include French. 

Everything is so expensive!, one woman moaned. (I later used a terrific  tool, Expatistan's Cost of Living Index, to compare cost of living between Montréal and her former city; according to that site, her former city is 29% more expensive.)

The chorus of complaint was delivered 60 decibels louder than a sober Canadian would use in either official language; anyone within a twelve-foot radius of our communal table could hear every word.  

When you're not a citizen, you're a guest of the host country, and these guests were fractious. I squirmed with discomfort; was I imagining several patron's stares? And wondered, Just how American am I, still?

I wanted to ask if there was anything they liked; but every time I thought of it, a fresh gripe generated more loud assent. Bitterness has a way of multiplying, like monster dough in the back of a fridge. It's easy to edge toward xenophobia.

I fled after an hour, sympathetic to the frustrations but at the same time, distressed by their public airing. It's not that I agree with Québec's majority party's politics or am blind to the city's flaws but, just like with a partner, if you look exclusively at those, sooner or later you'll fall out of love, and I do love living here.

They too had come for love, but not of place. They missed their home towns, friends, family and that great drycleaner. How many, I wondered, will stay?

Walking home, I thought of my own expat days. I came to Canada in 1971, before they were born. I recalled my initial dislocation and gradual acculturation: switching to the metric system, understanding how a parliamentary government works, learning how to invite people over (state a specific date and time.) I didn't have to master a new language in order to work in my field.

If these younger compatriots can resolve some discontents, they will benefit from the richness of living here, whether for a year or life. (Canada and the US permit dual citizenship, a unique privilege and one for which I continue to be grateful– though perhaps it makes assimilating to the new country harder.)

If it is only a partner that brought them here, and the craziness, contradictions and constraints prove too much to bear, the outlook for their futures will be like our spring weather: cloudy, with a high probability of rain.


Pearls: Sea of (Cortez) love

I met my first Sea of Cortez pearl in a tiny boutique, now long gone; the jeweler Beni Sung displayed every kind of pearl, each held high on top of a long pin, like a Victorian hat pin, with a little cup on top. Amid nacreous beauties, it stood out, glowing and shimmering like Charlize Theron in a hammered-satin evening dress: seriously beautiful.

Photo: Perlas del Mar
In a bay near Sonora, Mexico, the producer "Perlas del Mar de Cortez" farms  two species of oyster which yield a small harvest, about 4,000 pearls per year.

These pearls display a unique dispersal of aragonite crystals, the component of nacre, which results in opalescent, shimmery pearls; the very best have a breathy, shifting  rainbow play of colour.

And you would go for that, even if it means one pearl instead of a strand. One extraordinary gem made by nature, in the sea.

They exist in white, but also black, grey, purple, lavender and blue. Perfect rounds are rare, but you can find baroques, and semi-baroques (ovals, drops and buttons) which look more interesting anyway.  

They are never treated and have very good nacre thickness, so they will last lifetimes if treated well. Cortez pearls are usually not found in sizes above 10mm but have so much presence that an 8mm commands a head-swivel.

The Mexican beds were almost hunted to extinction for both the pearls and shells; in 1939 a permanent fishing ban was imposed and careful culturing  returned production to the beds in Sonora, but it took till the mid-'90s to revive the pearls to a level where they can be sold.

Enough pearl nerdiness; let's see some!
Here is a photo from the 
eBay seller Carolyn Ehret of Ehret Design Gallery is a reputable source for pearls. Here's one example from a recent listing, a big (10.6mm x 13mm) Sea of Cortez rainbow baroque pearl with a smaller  Sea of Cortez keshi, set as a pendant. Set with 20k accent bead and head pin. BIN price was $350. The pearl will flash teal, green, purple, pink, all natural.

Sarah Canizzarro at Kojima Company is an avid pearl-hunter, and sometimes offers these gems, usually as a ring or loose pearl. She recently listed one shimmery 10mm pair of earrings, with amethyst drops echoing the lavender shimmer of the pearls; price, $1,100.

Cortez pearls of the mabé variety (a half or blister pearl with a filled back) are a way to flash that fabulousity without hitting three figures.

California jeweler Susan Ronan offers a spectacular pair, in gold and silver, for $625. (Mabés  are made from many pearl varieties; the blister of nacre is formed along the inside shell rather inside the body of the mollusc. I'll give them their own day in the Passage soon.)  

Necklaces? Owned by people who don't want their names published. But if you would like a pendant, contact Kojima Company, because Sarah can graciously hunt the perfect pearl for you, and has excellent contacts for such rarities.

New York: Nostalgia and now

For the remainder of this week, the Passage will briefly close; I'm on holiday in New York.

From the first draft of chewy, spicy air, the first bars of salsa blasting from a cab, I'm back, full of adrenalin, curiosity, wonder. I spent part of a summer in the broke-but-blissful '60s sharing a 5th-floor walkup with a waif in fashion school and in the '80s, regularly visited a girlfriend who had a huge apartment in a hotel, with free room service. (The digs were a perk of her job.)

When I plan a trip, my inner 25 year-old starts dictating what to do, as if I'm about to enter the Tardis and catch the Dolls' last set. But returning to the city that witnessed my glory days isn't going to bring them back; eventually, I rejig the itinerary to suit my 64-year-old stamina. 

My only disappointment is that the US Navy's annual Fleet Week, when the city sparkles with sailors in whites, has been cancelled this year due to the government's budget cuts. (I swear I didn't know about the timing when we booked, but it is an especially ah, scenic week to be there. I once delayed my return home three times just to enjoy the view!)
Photo: New York Daily News 2006

My favourite NYC memory actually happened en route, in July, 1986. On my birthday, I flew in to see Hotel Girlfriend for a long weekend, a gift from Le Duc, my husband of several months.

When the flight attendant asked if I'd like something to drink, I said, "It's my birthday, I'd like a glass of champagne!" 

She said, "I'll see what I can do" and returned with a bottle of Pol Roger, which she parked at my (economy class) seat. 

"I'll never drink all this!", I protested in an insincere, demure tone. The young man beside me, busy canoodling with his girlfriend, shot me a look, as if to say Whoa, 16A, you party animal! There may have been something else in his eyes, an air of puzzled inquiry, but I was heedless in the moment.

"I hope you'll have some, too", I said, and requested two more glasses. 

Just then, the captain's Voice of God came over the PA. "Good evening, nice night in New York, 81 degrees and clear; local time is 7:50. One thing before we begin our approach, folks. I have a request for Michelle in 16B from Joel in 16C", he intoned, "Will you marry me?"

Photo by Andrew C. Mace
She shouted "Yes!", my seatmate kissed her, the plane erupted in applause, I poured more bubbly. We flew low on the descent, banking over Central Park, the city glittering in the July dusk like an open jewel box.

An hour later, I sat on Hotel Girlfriend's terrace with another glass of champagne in my hand and said, "See this? This is the last birth control pill I'm ever taking." But that's another story.

And as I leave, with a light bag and lighter heart, I'm humming the best city-nostalgia song ever, from the days when he, too, was young:

Spring dresses by Montréal's marvelous Miljkovitch

A new dress: coincides with a romantic getaway, the return of clement days, and some slow, continual wardrobe retooling. Much more has been divested than replaced, as I discover what fits with my new size and city.

I've been admiring girls in little skirts all week, but need more fabric there. And elsewhere. 

Whenever I wear one of Véronique Miljkovitch's pieces I'm asked who made it. The line is offered in natural fibers (cotton, silk and cotton with some stretch) or high-end poly-jersey in interesting colours; there are occasional prints.  

The dresses are as easy to wear as the current generation of Diane von Furstenberg wraps (someone will always make that versatile style), but more unusual and modern. 

The draping skims what you want skimmed; there's volume but not bulk. It's hard to describe what she does: it's as if Madame Grès and Rick Owens had a baby. They are surprisingly effective on voluptuous women and make slender proportions look graceful rather than stalky. (Sizing is XS to XL.) The average price for a dress is around $250-$300.

The style below, "Anouk" is one of the best-sellers; my GF Christine has  a version with longer sleeves, and it's stunning.

I tried on a number of the season's designs and loved many; I finally chose "Juliette" below. (The neckline on mine is definitely lower; that big necklace covers up the detail. The dress ties in front, adapting easily to an eased or more cinched waist.)

Big crush on this dress, too, a navy that is strict and sirenish at the same time:

And a shift that's playful, not just a rectangle:

For more of the Spring/Summer 2013 line, and for stores, see Vèronique Miljkovitch.  One reader had a gracious response when she called the workshop to order. The online shopping site Shopgirls carry a few pieces, including the alluring "Anouk".

I've showed you the dress even before Le Duc, but it's for him that I chose it. Stepping out with your beloved in a new dress is one of life's great pleasures. Actually, going out with anybody in a new dress is fun, but you know what I mean.

Christine's pants: Teaching a style lesson

When visiting Christine, my teacher friend, last late winter, she said, "I decided I wanted velvet pants", and proceeded to show me two pair she had just bought.

The first were a lush, unusual peacock green by Cambio; the velvet glowed with alluring depth and luminosity. She bought them at a high-end boutique, where the myopic beauty misread the price tag, got to the cash, and found that, with tax, she was paying $320.

I, her prudent friend, flapped my hands in dismay: "You didn't!" But she knew they were special. She accessorizes them with everything from gold metallic jazz oxfords to these 4-inch fuchsia suede heels. 

Used to me, Christine stayed serene. She pulled out the second pair, a deep sapphire in a similar cut, from Talbot's. She got them at 70% off last marked price for less than $20 all in.

She bought them because her girlfriend Jocelyn (also a teacher) thought that the peacock pants were considerably more cocktail lounge than teachers' lounge. (Mme. Christine teaches French, what else?) 

Closing my eyes, I found both felt soft and supple. But the $300 Cambios had a zipper detail at the ankle, and there is that rich Italian colour. They deliver an emotional zing, a charisma, though the Talbot's were pleasing too. The price differential (a factor of 15) presents a value consideration: prudence or pizazz?

This is how she and I presently shop, mixing the splurge with the bargain. But we'd like to improve our habits so that we accumulate less.

Christine describes Jocelyn as one of those astute women who buy "three perfect pieces each season", to achieve a small but striking wardrobe. She doesn't pop into Winners (our TJ Maxx) like Christine and I might, hoping to find a treasure squished in somewhere; she finds such efforts dispiriting. Jocelyn, who recently returned from working for some years in Europe, exemplifies the "chic simple" principle of a small, nothing-extra wardrobe.

Would you have bought both? If only one, which?
Are you a "chic simple" advocate, more of a magpie–or some other mix?

Mother's Day memories

Sorting though a box of cards, I found a note written in the wobbly hands of two 11-year old boys:

(Boy #1):
For this WONDERFUL MOTHER'S Day we will give you hugs and kisses for ever!!!
(Boy #2):
Tu est comme une fleur, une abeille qui fait du miel, un chat qui est est si gentil.
(You are like a flower, a bee who makes honey, a cat who's so nice.)

The next note in the pile was from 8 years later and says:
I went to bed @ 3 am. Let me sleep in till noon or wake me up if you're going out for lunch.
PS. Happy Mother's Day!

Sic transit gloria matrem. (And please correct my Latin, the accusative case is lost in the mists of fifty years.)

Over the years, I've received gifts ranging from the earnest Gummy Lump to pearl earrings, and not one is favoured over the other. In fact, the whole commercial aspect of Mothers' Day is irrelevant to me; I simply reflect every year on this experience, which was almost lost, as I did not have children till I was all but 39. 

The occasion puts a pin in the map of memory and invites me to pause in gratitude for the gift of being a mother.

A few years ago, my friend Susan sewed satin pjs with animal-print trim for her 90+ year old mother, Kay. She's lucky to have her. And so, I think of my mother, too, with whom I (and nearly everyone else) had an intense and complex relationship.  

Here she is, holding one of my sons; she is 80; Jules is nearly 1. Mom lived on for nearly 20 more years, obdurate, sharp, even charming when she felt like it for every one of them. She was a force of nature, and I miss her.

Spring comes to the market: Montréal people

Sunny and warm! Let's go to the market for bedding plants and a bit of people watching, à la Montréal. They've flung off their wrapping, there was not a foulard to be found amid Sunday's swirl of shoppers.

A casual couple with pansies; red dress and red purse, wide-brimmed straw hat:

She works at one of the plant vendors; I admired her hat and she let me shoot it, but didn't want her face in the shot ("no makeup today"). But then, we do get to see her cinnabar bracelet! She wore its mate on the other wrist.

Ah, les jeunes filles in their uniform, shorts and tanks. I like how they're showing their long legs, without insisting that they must be tan first.

 This one's for Déjà Pseu. Girl with oyster and leopard:

A simple skirt, white with a brushstroke graphic at one side, made charming by that sole detail and the unexpected complement of a purple tee:

A sweet spring bag carried at the top of her pack, filled once they decided how many lobsters to buy:

A trompe l'oeil décolléte composed of three layers, black body ilghtened lightened by the skirt's delicate tracery. Don't save the dress for dancing!

Le Duc said, "How does she walk in those?" Not the shoe I'd wear to tote tomato plants!

But even a woman in sensible shoes gets footsore! She found a bench to take a break.

Thrift shop: "I look incredible"

La (Found)erie's foxy mannequins
I live in a thrift-rich neighbourhood in a vintage-packed city. All levels are offered, from rock-bottom by-the pounds to consignment Chanel.

In the windows of La (Found)erie, well-dressed as any hip boutique, I see the ruffled blouses, bomber jackets and power suits of former eras, displayed with verve. 

I admire the thrifted ensemble more than the strenuously-styled designer outfit: twentysomething women in adjustée housedresses, heels and anklets; my French class colleague in a sweeping purple velvet coat with deep cuffs, and young bucks in flying scarves and Sansabelt trousers. 

Both sons wear thrift assiduously picked by Etienne's sweetie, Tash.

A Taylor Swift look from La (Found)erie
But in Montréal, it seems very few women get rid of good, current-looking clothes

Thinking that finding these was a price-point matter, I checked the upscale consignment in a posh neighbourhood and was surprised how dated the jackets and dresses looked. You could not have given me anything.

Nowadays I don't so much shop vintage as drop by for the memories.

When you have more wrinkles than a '60s crinoline, the retro look holds less charm than it once did. In the '50s dresses I once trolled for, I'd now look as if I'd never bought anything, just kept my old clothes for a half-century, a hipper Miss Havisham.

Accessories can still deliver great value; belts are often single-digit bargains.

When a cat lolls in the window's sunspot, and Passion Pit are playing, I stop in, letting the nostalgia flow, carried back by spectator pumps. A girl who can twirl an '80s dirndl with aplomb (cat's-eye liner helps) gets admiring looks.

Spring specators
I especially enjoy "enhanced secondhand": the used-plus-indie format, found in boutiques like Arterie, who offer curated vintage clothes and objects mixed with fresh merch by young local designers, and new European shoes. While certainly not as cheap as the Sally Ann, the quality is uniformly higher.

Lamp and necklace, Arterie

Macklemore and Ryan Lewis's "Thrift Shop" is my current Favourite Nutty Song

In a St. Laurent friperie, when someone started humming "I'm gonna pop some tags", three other browsers picked up the chorus.

I wear your granddad's clothes
I look incredible
I'm in this big ass coat
From that thrift shop down the road...