Mercedez S.-B. and Michel S.

I first met Eva Mercedes, better known as Meche, while we were both taking part in a co-design consultation day concerning the future inter-borough library at the limits of Montreal-North and Ahuntsic-Cartierville. This library is expected to open in 2020 on Henri-Bourassa Boulevard, west of St-Michel. A diverse group of citizens, librarians and actors of cultural and community organizations had been put together for the occasion to reflect on this new project. Meche was there at the invitation of the Café de Da.

A few weeks later, I received an email from her offering me to meet her family at their home in Ahuntsic for my project. How could I refuse such an invitation? This is how I got to know her husband Michel, their daughters Amélie and Adriana, and their dog Pelusa, who all warmly received us, my wife and I.

Meche is from the Rimac district, on the banks of the river of the same name, in the city of Lima, Peru.  For his part, Michel is from the Our Lady of Jacques-Cartier parish in the lower part of Quebec City, where the old local church, on Caron Street, now houses a social solidarity cooperative.  Meche and Michel first met in Peru, at a party held by mutual friends. Michel remembers the date: November 14th 1987. At that time, he was working in cooperation in Peru.

Later, the couple returned to Quebec, where they lived for several years. Their girls were born there. Meche did some community radio at Radio Basse Ville. There, she and her first good friend in Quebec, Myriam Gauthier, hosted a social and political news program on the countries of Latin America. Later, for one summer, she hosted a show devoted to Latin American music with her husband. I was entitled "Buscando América", a title inspired by a song of the Panamanian singer Ruben Blades.

Meche told me how surprised Myriam was when she invited her to move-in with Michel and her, even if they hardly knew one another. This natural disposition for hospitality seems common in Latin America. Many newcomers have indeed told me that they were surprised to have to wait for formal invitations to visit their friends in Quebec, while they entered without knocking in the house of their friends and neighbors in their home countries.

Among the other things she misses most here, she mentions the music and dances of Peru: huyano, festejo, marinera norteña. She notes that these are still practiced by Peruvian youths, while here folk dances are only perpetuated by a few enthusiasts.

Along with her Public Communication Studies in Peru, Meche learned some French at the French Alliance. In Quebec City, she completed a Certificate in French as a second language and one in French Literature, as well as a Masters in Communication at Université Laval. This allowed her to be a freelancer in the Hispanic sector of the CBC - Radio Canada International.

In 2001, the family moved to Peru to take up new challenges and to give their daughters a chance to know the Peruvian culture. They spent good years there, working again in international cooperation, this time with SUCO (an acronym that stands, for Solidarity, Union and Cooperation). The spouses are particularly proud of their participation in a project promoting the economic independence of small family farmers, many of them women, in the Andean highlands, the Puna. They contributed to the development of a family support program aiming to improve milk production, as well as its processing and marketing in local markets.

When the time came for the girl’s to pursue higher education, Michel first came back with the eldest, Amélie. The following year, Meche and Adriana came as well. Today, their daughters are respectively studying at UQAM and Concordia. They are not only trilingual, but grew up in two cultures.

Michel still works as Program Officer for SUCO in Montreal. He regularly goes to Haiti and Peru, where the organization supports local development projects, agrobiological production and rural entrepreneurship.

For her part, Meche worked for Oxfam-Québec after her return, until last this summer. She is now looking for a new job, while volunteering as an adoption counselor for the SPCA.

Mercedez, Amélie with Pelusa, Michel and Adriana

Kévin G. & Fanny R.

It is while discussing with Isabelle P., whom I had made an appointment with at Le Goût des Autres (The Taste of Others) for another article of this series, that I made acquaintance with Fanny and Kévin. It was the Monday after Halloween. Isabelle and I were talking about the Haunted Alley, a neighborhood Halloween collective project. Fanny, who had gone through that alley with her preschool-age kids, spontaneously joined the conversation. As young parents, she and Kévin – who arrived later after errands and deliveries for the business - had much to share with Isabelle and real affinities.

Kévin and Fanny are the owners of Le Goût des Autres. They offer online catering services and operate a take-out shop on Sauvé Street, just east of the Metro station. The shop is also a tasting bar with tables for a dozen people. You can order the daily dishes to enjoy on the premises or at home.

As they both worked in the restaurant business, an area where people are very mobile, it is naturally in a restaurant, the Bistro L’Enchanteur in Villeray, that they met. Although still young, they both have good experience in cooking and nutrition.

Kévin is a native of Bourges, France. After graduating, he perfected his restaurant training in fine establishments in France, London and Edinburgh, a city that deserves to be better known. It was in that city that he met a Quebecer with whom he came to settle here. In Montreal, he worked his way around, from the kitchen of classy restaurants to neighborhood bistros. He thus gained a good knowledge of Quebec recipes and local ingredients. His last job, while Fanny was pregnant with their first child, was at Milano, an Italian deli on St. Laurent Boulevard near the Jean-Talon Market. There he cooked prepared meals to take out.

Fanny for her part was born in St-Philippe-de-La Prairie, an area where vegetable crops are produced on a wide scale. She worked in a market in La Prairie, in a grocery store and studied nutrition in CEGEP for a while. She later turned to the restaurant trade.

They both have lived in Ahunstic for the past ten years.

It is with the help of the CDEC and program named SAJE (a French acronym for Support to young entrepreneurs) that they are started their business.

Le Goût des Autres was first operated from sublet kitchen facilities, reaching people by relying on their contacts, advertising, the Internet and word of mouth. Both of sociable and friendly nature, they appreciate having direct contact with their customers, something that could be difficult to establish in jobs that would tie them up in the kitchen. It’s while talking with a client that they learned that their current premises, which already housed a catering business, was available. They are at their current address since 2014 and have already made renovations that show the expression of their personality.

That Monday, the vegetarian chili simmering smelled delightful. When I returned the next week, at a time when they could breathe a little, I took home a portion of a fine grilled vegetable terrine. The couple offers a menu for all tastes, which also includes dishes that are suitable for vegetarians. Kevin makes sure that the menu offers both quality and variety. He mentioned that a well written infomercial was put online by the Yellow Pages. You will find a link at the end of the article if you want to know more about their offer.

While we were chatting, I mentioned that my wife has been cultivating a diversified vegetable garden for several years. Fanny then told me that she would like to transform the irregular lot of unused land between the street and the neighboring property into a collective garden for people in the neighborhood. As this space is owned by the city, this could be an interesting pilot project. Since they already buy produce for the preparation of their dishes, she is also considering the possibility of adding fresh vegetables to the current offer of their shop.

Now residents in the vicinity, they display strong will and lots of energy to develop their business while raising young children. I wish them great success: the neighborhood needs people like them!

Fanny and Kévin in front of their shop on Sauvé Street East of the Metro

Jocelyne D.

As I have regularly been to the Maison de la culture this November, I noticed that a group of ladies of various origins gathers there to knit on Saturdays. I could not help but ask to take a group portrait of them in action and to find a brave one among them who would agree to face the camera lens alone. It was Jocelyne who was designated.

It turns out that she is the organizer of this informal group that does not require registration or fees from the participants. Originally, Jocelyne had simply showed up at this leisure activity featured in the Café de Da program. To the dismay of the knitters present at the second meeting she attended, the leader of the workshop announced that she was quitting and that there was no one to replace her. As Jocelyne was the most experienced knitter in the group, she became de facto the new volunteer facilitator. For nearly a year thereafter, the ladies have been meeting every Saturday. Each time, they put a few tables together according to the number of participants, which ranges from four to twelve. Roughly twenty different women have joined the table over that period.

Jocelyne has always lived in Montreal, with the exception of a one-year stay in the country that confirmed that she was a city girl. Until recently, she had been living in Ahuntsic. Last year however, she gave up her large ground floor duplex flat to her daughter and grandchildren, who needed more space than her. She has since moved in a condo in nearby Villeray.

As we chatted, I learned that she has taught cinema for some thirty years, mainly at Cégep St-Laurent, but also at university level. She taught almost all the curriculum, from photography to production, through editing and photo processing. This explains why she was watching me go about with my camera with a critical look.

Over the years, she has volunteered in various activities, including a feminist book fair, and Silence, Elles tournes, a competitive festival showing films and videos by women. Sadly, she was president of the organization at the time it had to shut down as a result of significant cuts in its public funding.

Believing she had done her part as a teacher after all these years, she decided to retire on the day of her sixtieth anniversary, rather than at the end of the session. She told me that on that day, she showed up with a bottle of champagne and shared a toast to her health with all people around her! Over the following years, she wrote a handbook on the logistics of film shooting. A notice to interested publishers: it remains unedited to this day.

Subsequently, she has devoted a lot of time to her family and grandchildren. Now, she wants to take more time for herself. Knitting is a form of yoga for her, its practice leaving her mind free. Besides, the group’s labor serves a useful purpose. Their autumn production will be sold by the Sisters of Providence who, with the money generated by the sale of the items, will buy new wool. Their Sister’s hope is that the profit will give them extra wool so they can knit more items for the people they help.

I believe careful attention should be paid to these tranquil ladies. Could there be among them some Yarn Bombers, these graffiti-knitting activists who decorate trees and street furniture with their colorful work?

Jocelyne at the Café de DA

Isabelle P.

The day before Halloween, I noticed a homemade print pasted on a streetlight post at the corner of Fleury and St. Charles. The poster was announcing that the neighbors of the St-Charles Avenue and Péloquin Street back alley between Sauvé and Port Royal, were inviting us to visit their "Haunted Alley" the following evening.

I passed by the lane a little before dusk at the beginning of the parade of the young and old in costumes, curious to see how this initiative would take shape. Many residents were working feverishly to finalize the decorations. I approached some people to learn more and, as was often the case this summer, I was referred to the person who had spontaneously assumed the leadership of the event: Isabelle Payant.

I then took a few pictures of Isabelle and her spouse Stéphane in a butcher’s disguise, along with Marie-Noël in the role of a good witch. I found out it was Marie-Noël, a neighbor, who had taken charge of promoting the event and pasted the poster that I had read. As they had a lot of things to do, I left, but dropped in again later to see how the evening was unfolding. It was a success: because of the influx of small costumed beings, many of the parents had had to leave to refuel their candy baskets!

Isabelle and I met again the following Monday at Le Goût des Autres, a caterer’s shop with a few tables in the vicinity on Sauvé Street East to talk some more. That’s how I enriched my vocabulary with a French word unknown to me: castelier. This somewhat antiquated word describes a puppeteer. Isabelle is a castelière. In fact, this actress by training is the co-founder with Stéphane, of the Théâtre des petites Âmes (Little Souls’ Theater). She is the artistic and managing director of this puppet theater company specialized in shows for very young children.

Isabelle spent her childhood in Laval and her adolescence in Kanata, a suburb of Ottawa. She studied interpretation at CEGEP Lionel-Groulx. During a year off from her studies, she realized that while theatrical play was not an absolute necessity in her life, she wanted to practice it as long as she could do so with happiness and pleasure. This spirit animates everything she does. As she experiments in every aspect of her productions, she clearly has great curiosity and diversified interests.

After CEGEP, she performed in "Le prince serpent", a production of Parminou, a socially committed popular theater company. Dedicated to a high school public, this play was aiming to contribute to the prevention of teenage prostitution. She also collaborated on productions of the Théâtre des yeux, where she became familiar with the art of puppetry.

Like many artists, commitments being irregular, she began, in a quiet period, the process that led to the creation of a first show, PEKKA, and to the foundation of the company Le Théâtre des petites Âmes. Stéphane, who has been part of the project from the beginning as administrator and manager, had long been coordinator for the Association Québécoise des marionnettistes. The company's plays are designed for intimate settings and audiences of no more than 75 children to maintain the toddlers’ attention. Created in 2008, PEKKA is still performed today by Isabelle and her puppets.

The Théâtre des petites Âmes presented its creations in Western Canada, the US, France, Spain and the Czech Republic, in French, English and Spanish (and exceptionally in Czech!). Having an excellent reputation in the community, the company is a regular at festivals, cultural centers and cultural centers. As a result of the tours, the company managed to establish a good exchange network, which led to the creation of POMME, a joint creation with Garin Trousseboeuf Company, in coproduction with Casteliers, The Puppet Theatre World Festival of Charleville-Mézières (France) and Le Théâtre de Laval (France). The play was shown both in France and in Quebec.

A true jack-of-all-trades, Isabelle also works on the writing, directing, decors and music of her shows. For the company’s latest creation, OGO, which will tour in early 2016, three puppeteers-actors are on stage, a first for the company.

Sincerely believing in the importance of citizen involvement and culture in community life, Isabelle and Stéphane sponsored the first Little Free Library of the borough via the Théâtre des petites Âmes. Locally known as a “Croque-Livres”, the first one is located inside the Ahuntsic Arena. Another has been added since in front of 9762 St. Charles Avenue.

You will certainly hear about them in the community over the next few years, especially since the Haunted Alley will likely return next year.