The sharpest moment I remember in moving to Montreal—beyond the weight of cardboarded-up belongings, the frenzied home search in August, and the constant corralling of a toddler, partner, two dogs, and a cat and all our stuff from one temporary home to another—is the trash. Or, specifically, the trash can.
We moved into our city apartment three weeks before Claire left it. It was chaotic. Stuff was strewn about. “Where’s the ___?” was the question of the day. She packed; we unpacked. And when I pulled out our good ol’ 13-gallon trash can and set it down next to hers, I knew we had something.
It was big. No. It was ginormous next to hers. The American trash can, in all its stainless steel, contemporary-designed aerodynamic beauty, looked ridiculous. It was embarrassing. And it was a revelation. I pushed aside the stress and started to study.
In the States, green habits took concentration. Each time, I had to think before I acted, and dissolve old habits first. I needed reminders. I needed encouragement. I needed to make mistakes. I needed to research the right method. I needed to keep my resolve. I needed to explain myself to neighbors. I needed community (hello, Green Phone Booth!) to keep me on task. And even then, my old instincts sometimes reared their ugly heads.
Here in Canada, they are effortlessly ecological. It is second-nature to use less, save more. I envied the ease at which they moved through the day, the relaxing lifestyles these Canadians lead. They make more sense. Here are a few observations I made while sweet Claire packed up.
That trash can. The Canadian trash can stood next to its American neighbor and was dwarfed. By “guerrilla composting” and offering such services as $5/biweekly pick-up for food waste and free weekly recycling pick-ups, waste is cut by almost half. By not buying excessively wrapped packaged goods, only buying what you need, cooking from scratch, buying used goods, and so on—we know these things, but do we always do them?—Canadians create less waste than Americans. And their trash cans show it.
Display your food. When you put whole oats, colorful spices, dry beans, whole wheat pasta, and dried wildflowers into glass jars on your kitchen shelves, you’ll find yourself creating new, homemade, healthy dishes just so you can buy something beautiful to put in a jar. I’ve discovered, and devoured, cassava flour and several new types of beans, and we’re cooking more from scratch as a result.
One night, Claire jumped up and began soaping up the dinner dishes. I was floored. She ran the faucet into an easily accessible tub stored beneath the sink, scrubbed the dishes, and dipped them into the water, smiling and recounting stories of canoe trips all the while. This Canadian just did the dishes from a made-from-scratch meal for four using maybe six cups of water.
Enter a Montreal bathroom, and you’re likely to see a detachable shower head above the bathtub. They jump in, sprinkle a handful of water on the soap bar, soap up, and then turn on the shower head to hose off. No standing in your own personal waterfall. And when they take a bath, they share the leftover water with other family members.
There is a thermostat in each room of this apartment. ‘Nuff said.
Claire kept an entire shelf of rags in the linen closet. In Boston, I knew better than to use a disposable paper towel, but sometimes when you have to clean up dog puke or toddler puddles, you’re inclined to think a cloth rag is too beautiful for such a chore. Not so when you have dozens to choose from, I found.
They house their post offices in drugstores. No separate buildings needed. You eliminate the drive to the post office, parking in a massive concrete lot, and driving back. You simply mail your packages while picking up some bread, just as you would in an American pharmacy-in-a-grocery-store.
Digital tools like WalkScore and green American mags tote the walkability of certain areas. Most articles sound the same horn. It’s healthier, cheaper, and more environmentally friendly to walk. You might have to plan ahead and take an alternative route, but it’s for the good of the Earth. Come on, people, chose walking over cars! As a blissfully car-free Bostonian, I weaved my way through the streets with my handy T pass in hand. But here’s where Boston is quite different from most major American cities: it is European in urban design, and thereby walkable. I mean, actually walkable. You don’t need to worry about the sidewalk randomly ending, being the only pedestrian in an unsafe area, or getting to the nearest grocery store in less than an hour. The neighborhoods and the city’s urban plan are human-scaled. They don’t cater to the car as much as, say, Dallas. Or Los Angeles. Or Chicago.
So imagine my surprise when I hit Montreal: it’s more walkable than Boston. The variety in architecture and neighborhoods makes it easy to figure out where you are—and want to walk. In five minutes, I could walk out my front door and get to anything I need, really: restaurants, bookstores, five grocery stores (two organic), a farmers market, coffeehouses, the library, a green dry cleaners, bakeries, a bike-repair shop, bus stops, four parks, five playgrounds, BIXI stations, two schools, friperies (resale shops), and thousands of neighbors’ houses.
Guess what? I don’t even buy a monthly public transit pass anymore. And if I needed to get on the bus, I could just grab a BIXI bike from the city’s bike-share; there are stations every couple blocks throughout the city. Biking is very common here, to the point where folks have trouble finding an open spot to lock it up.
My perception of walking distances has even changed. Growing up in the Midwestern suburbs, we thought a short walk was five houses away; a long walk was maybe half a mile. In Boston, a short walk became half a mile or less; a long walk took a brisk 30 minutes. In Montreal, we don’t even use the terms short or long to describe our walks. They are just walks, and said with an exclamation point to boot.
The most important thing I noticed was the people. Montrealers are much more relaxed and happy than their American counterparts. They don’t have a prevalence of carry-out food and disposable coffee cups; rather, they take the time to sit and enjoy their food. They don’t honk their horns at passerby or slow-moving vehicles; rather, they bike or take pleasure in a conversation out the window while they wait. We are in such a hurry in America. We are so busy; we barely have time to ______. How many times have you talked about how busy you are this week? I haven’t heard that phrase uttered once by a French-Canadian. Why take on so much? What is the payback here? Your frenzied life—my frenzied life—is a life less enjoyed. And that’s at the heart of this ecology of ease I find in Montreal: it is easier to make ecological choices and enjoy life. It is natural. How did America get into the busy mindset? More vitally, how can we learn to slow down?
All of this got me thinking. If other countries are naturally doing right by nature, does that mean foreign travel—even by, gasp, those fossil fuel-monsters they call airplanes—is necessary to make amends with global warming? Should environmental advocates focus their campaigning on study abroad programs and Peace Corps-like activities? If we Americans study the ecology of ease through the daily lives of foreigners, this idea of the “inconvenience” of ecological choices in America becomes absurd.
Claire’s trash can now serves in its rightful place—our kitchen. And our American trash can? It’s the recycling bin.