This is the Chalet on Mount Royal, in Montreal, where I grew up. In the opening scenes of my novel Inside, a woman cross country skiing not far from the chalet finds a man in trouble, and her desire to save him—more than anything, from himself—changes her life forever.
I went to high school down the street from Mount Royal. The park was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, who also designed Central Park, and it showcases his trademark aesthetic, which emphasized natural features over the artificiality of, say, European-style flower gardens. Its trails and meadows are constructed in harmony with the landscape, working with the hilly topography instead of trying to flatten it out; there are both wide-open spaces and secluded nooks.
In the fall I ran cross country in the park. On weekends I’d sometimes meet friends near the illuminated cross at the top of the mountain, or survey the city’s lights and bridges from one of the lookout points. The park was somehow both naturally beautiful and totally urban. All different kinds of people used it, in all different ways. You could buy drugs there (not saying I did this!), or join a drum circle, or jog or hike or just gaze down at the city, feeling like you owned it.
In the park, as everywhere in Montreal, you’d hear many languages—English and French, of course, and often the mid-sentence commingling of the two; but also Vietnamese, Chinese, Italian, Greek. More than any other place I know Montreal is a city where linguistic dexterity is on display. The politics of language in Quebec are intensely fraught; but there is also a beautiful fluidity and worldliness to this place where words and the culture they arise from are so prized.
Two of the characters in my novel are therapists, and one thing that intrigues me about talk therapy is that it is a form of healing that takes place in large part through language, through the telling and re-fashioning of stories, and the idea that this exchange can help people strikes me as both amazing and true.
Interestingly, Olmsted thought of Mount Royal itself as a form of therapy; in his first report to the Mount Royal Park Commissioners, he wrote of the power of nature “to eliminate conditions which tend to nervous depression or irritability.”
“Charming natural scenery,” he told the commission, “acts in a more directly remedial way to enable men to better resist the harmful influences of ordinary town life, and recover what they lose from them. It is thus, in medical phrase, a prophylactic and therapeutic agent of vital value…and to the mass of people it is practically available only through such means as are provided through parks.”*
Back in high school, of course, hanging around on the mountain, I didn’t think about any of that. Like my character Grace, I was a skier, though not a good one. I was on the cross country ski team but not athletic in general and when we competed I usually faked a cramp or stomach flu halfway through the race so as not to have to finish. While the others strode purposefully along, I’d drift off the course, loving the sudden quiet of the snowy woods. I’d lean my poles against a tree and daydream, making up stories about people, the city, the mountain, the world.
*I found this in A.L. Murray, “Frederick Law Olmsted and the Design of Mount Royal Park, Montreal,” Journal of The Society of Architectural Historians 26:3 (Oct 1967), pp. 163-171.