Culture & Conversation

The anxiety of geography


“I knew I should have taken that left turn at Albuquerque.”

– Bugs Bunny

My friend and colleague Mireille Silcoff has written a couple of very intriguing columns about the prospect of a PQ win, the so-called Charter of Values, and the inevitable referendum. She laments another exodus from Montreal. Her columns made me think about my own reasons for staying here (I’m a refugee from Alberta) and all the times I’ve felt anxious about my decision to take a stand and remain in Montreal.

I was left thinking further about the should-I-stay-or-should-I-go theme when Shane Smith, cofounder of Vice, took to Bill Maher’s show to slag Canada and say that he could never have achieved the success he and the Vice types have if they’d remained in Canada. (Memo to Smith: most of your wealth is speculative; wait till your bubble bursts and you come crawling back to Canada to use our socialized healthcare system.)

Of all the anxious moments I have suffered through, perhaps the most unusual, unpleasant and recurring revolves around geography. It was especially strong in my younger days. And the question that would come was a very basic one: was I in the best spot in order to become the success I wanted to become?

The question used to arise in my 20s and early 30s, but it wasn’t just in my head. Then living in Montreal, I was struggling to balance the dual pressures of completing a graduate degree with building my career as a journalist. I’d managed to peddle a few stories to American magazines and newspapers and this, somehow, had put me in another league. The question would come up too frequently to be some sort of random mistake. I would bump into people on the street or at a party and they would ask: “When are you moving to Toronto?”

The overwhelming sentiment was that if you really were someone of any importance whatsoever, you really should be in Canada’s biggest city, and its media capital. The flip side of this, of course, was some sort of cruel and often unconscious self-deprecating joke on wherever you happened to be when asked the question. I mean, now that you’re finally getting somewhere in your life, aren’t you really too good to be here?

Canadians are especially good about anguishing over where we are–and where we’re not–so much so that we’re the unofficial state of geographical existentialism. It was the noted philosopher Northrop Frye who once suggested the essential Canadian question is “Where is here?” It can’t be coincidence that the film that is often cited as the most quintessentially Canadian, Goin’ Down the Road (1970), is about two losers who take to the road in a desperate effort to escape their loserdom and become winners in Toronto. All of their plans fail, miserably.

But I’ve certainly known Americans who wring their hands about where they live. Toronto is the Canadian equivalent of New York or Los Angeles, the spot where people go if they long for greater power and recognition, or if they are overcome with their own sense of ambition, the feeling that their talent is just waiting to be recognized and exploited. Geographical anxiety knows no vocational bounds, but certain career paths seem more prone to it than others.

Doctors usually don’t have to worry too much about where they are. As my Jewish in-laws are fond of pointing out, “There will always be sick people.” My parents, both doctors, left London, England in the late 1960s to pursue work at the university hospital in Edmonton, Canada, a prairie city where I would ultimately spend my childhood. They were offered decent work and promised funding for their respective areas of research. In my adolescence, however, I remember wondering about their choice. I would pore over photo albums of their courtship and their early years of marriage: there were the images of this gorgeous couple–my father, a med student and acclaimed author who looked like Peter O’Toole, my mother, a stunning heiress determined to study medicine. They looked so dashing in swinging London, one of the most exciting cities in the world. It being my adolescence, I was brimming with disdain for Edmonton, a place I considered a provincial, dreary, crashing bore. “How could you have brought us here?” was a question I asked more than a few times.

On the other end of the spectrum are show-business types, especially actors. As Frank Sinatra famously sung of New York, “If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.” I don’t know how many times I’ve heard actors or performers ponder the limits of their accomplishments, attaching a negative impact to where they are, or are not. The flip side of that, of course, is that ending up in a place like New York or Los Angeles means being stuck alongside thousands and thousands of people with precisely the same dreams of hitting the Big Time. As Dionne Warwick also famously sang in “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?”–a song that seems a bookend to the Sinatra one–“In a week maybe two they’ll make you a star / Weeks turn into months how quick they pass / And all the stars / That never were / Are parking cars and pumping gas.”

After a time, people stopped asking me the Toronto question. As I moved into my mid and late thirties, the question became, “What the hell are you still doing here?” Then people just stopped asking, which I read as a sign that should probably start worrying, or simply recall Oscar Wilde’s famous words, “Youth is wasted on the young.”

Despite the nagging questions about a move to Toronto or New York or London, I stayed in Montreal, in large part because I always had pleasing work here, whether writing or teaching at Concordia. And the Internet made it that much easier to work from wherever I wanted, making geography less of an issue.

Now I take a strange sense of solace in the fact that the journalism world has been rocked so hard by the Internet that maintaining my livelihood will be that much more difficult, no matter where I am. Moving wouldn’t have made much difference, as it turns out. The very same year that Newsweek ceased publishing a print edition, the Montreal Mirror, the alternative weekly I’d contributed to for close to 20 years, also shut its doors. Both publications’ business models were broken for the same reasons–a shift to online readership with too few advertisers following.

Ultimately, where I ended up seems besides the point. I didn’t have to move to New York to have my career imperilled.

As it turns out, the media apocalypse and accompanying existential crisis know no city limits.


IMAGE: Transport Québec, Marc Serre.

  • 8 Responses to “The anxiety of geography”

    1. Gina Roitman

      For years, one of my mentors who had fled to Toronto in the 70s, would harangue me about “..leaving that puddle called Montreal, to swim in the sea called Toronto.” I couldn’t see myself there having identified myself as a Montrealer long before I assumed the mantle of Canadian and Quebecoise. Being here brought me unexpected advantages when I had a PR agency. I have never regretted my choice – one I had to make time and again thanks to the PQ.

      • Mireille Silcoff

        Silcoff! But it did used to be Silcott, in my bad old self-hating days.

    2. Marianne Ackerman

      Great piece of existential thinking Matthew! I agree totally – geography has become far less significant with this current communication revolution. It’s not where you are but rather the circles you swim in. There’s a great long piece in the current New Yorker by Nick Paumgarten, who wanders around Berlin trying to find … Berlin. In a cultural sense, there is no such thing as place. Culture is a world or a series of worlds created by people, often in opposition to geography. There’s lots of money, fame and gratification on the planet. It is and always has been a question of thinking through a plan to get it …

    3. Jennifer Fletcher

      I clicked a link to find the poolside views of the rich Muslim McGill student that it directed me to, but I have searched in vain. Can’t find these views anywhere in this article.
      Very disappointed !

    4. lagatta à montréal

      The element in the room is the omnipresence of motor vehicles and signage designed for their exclusive benefit, as shown in the photo. Forget whether it was Radio-Canada or CBC discussing potholes and designating “motorists” (or was it “automobilistes”) as the experts on where they are, when they are far more dangerous for cyclists, and in some cases (at crossings) for pedestrians.

      I have clients in Toronto, Paris, Amsterdam and Vancouver as well as Montréal. I can “work in Toronto” without having to live there. Montréal is far more vibrant and friendly to cultural workers. Pity about our foul winters… But I’d need a visa to emigrate anywhere with a gentler climate. At least I live close to a métro station.

    5. Danielle Cara

      I find it curious and interesting that my own search for geographical anxiety led me to this website. A sort of accidental fate that I am grateful for. Thanks for your insight. I thoroughly enjoyed the read.


    Leave a Reply

    Basic HTML is allowed. Your email address will not be published.

    Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS