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Taking a Bite of the Big Apple
Part of the training for the baby ballerinas in the Junior Montréal ballet was a summer trip to New York where we studied with some of the greatest ballet masters in the world. These included George Balanchine, Robert Joffrey and others. Miss Eleanor Moore Ashton had many contacts. We stayed in the Wellington Hotel and we walked to the various dance studios.
For me, the ballet classes and the character dancing classes were tiring and not very successful. What was successful and what probably changed my life were visits on weekends with my mother's relatives who lived in Manhattan and who I met shortly after we had arrived in Canada. My "Uncle Dolo" and "Aunt Chocha Jancha" were Jewish and lived in a long apartment in an old building that no longer exists. They were so kind to me. My aunt had a long white braid that went to the floor behind her and that she wrapped around her head like a glowing halo. My uncle seemed like the soul of wisdom. The apartment itself was magical to me, it had a closet full of books and a room at one end where my aunt made her own clothes, using a traditional dressmakers model. Uncle Dolo was very religious and practiced all the high holidays. By the time I was spending summers in New York, their three children had started highly successful careers and were not at home.
Somehow, I was allowed to wander around New York during the day, ride the subway back to my hotel and discover a world that embedded itself in my consciousness. The apartment was close to Harlem, close to the water, and very close to Central Park. I walked through Central Park to the Metropolitan Museum where I sat in front of the El Greco, described in detail by Guy de Maupassant in one of the books I found in my aunts closet. I was entranced by the light. I went on to contemplate the Dutch masters and wondered why Leonardo da Vinci lined everything with blue. At the time, I was still a teenager.
Almost a quarter of a century later, I went back to New York on business and sat in front of the same paintings and felt as if I had come home. I asked a New York taxi driver to take me back to the apartment building but it now was rubble. But the nearby river still ran between concrete banks and the city around it still sang all night long.
On the bus on the way home I saw only headlines studied in silence: “Kennedy Assassinated” or “Kennedy Est Assassiné”.
At McGill, exams were held only once a year in June. During the year we attended classes and handed in papers, usually one per subject per each of the two terms. The black-robed professors did not always bother to take attendance. It was up to us to do the work, to pass or to fail. They all had office hours and all of my teachers were more than willing the meet with students for one-on-one help. At McGill, back then, if you failed more than one course you were out. Period. No retake or redo. It was an ideal system for me. I had plenty of time to try new experiences and plenty of time to hide in the library to study
I joined the McGill Daily during my second year. My dream of becoming a journalist solidified around the hard-working highly idealistic students who put out an 8-page newspaper four days a week in the old-fashioned way for which the copy had to be set in lead, proofed upside-down and back to front and run off the press during the small hours of each morning. Our leader and managing editor was a young man who was tough, brilliant, from British Columbia and who became my first husband when we were both much too young. The marriage lasted less than year because after I graduated I became blinded by the Sixties Syndrome and started my trek south to the U.S. He went on to become very successful and was much better off without me.
During the early part of that decade, events in Montreal swirled like a whirlpool. McGill University was smack in the heart of the city where there were dangerous marches by the FLQ and friendly student marches when the McGill football team lost or won (mostly lost) a game. Everybody marched and protested until the snow began to fall. On campus, I sat in on intense debates by the members of the International Student Association who came from many countries including Israel, Africa, India and Pakistan. The things I was learning went far beyond the textbooks and lectures. During one summer my best friend and one of the most intelligent women I ever met, went to Israel to join a Kibbutz. Later, she came back and went to the southern U.S. with two other friends of mine to join the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
Meanwhile, in the coffeehouses and bars on the seedy side of town, Hungarian revolutionaries mentored French Canadian revolutionaries and discussed how to build bombs to assert the independence of Québec. In 1963, while we were upstairs in the McGill Student Union building, a bomb exploded behind a federal building nearby and killed a man. After the explosion blew in a window we all ran outside but fortunately were stopped before we went up the alley and saw the body.
Despite all this, the nightlife in Montréal continued unabated and no minimum drinking age was enforced. Many of the clubs were underground where Flamenco and Apache dancers entertained and we drank copious quantities of wine. One of my friends who loved the Apache dance, during which the man literally drags his partner around the floor, came from Cuba. She and her family later dropped out of sight because they were part of the Batista regime overthrown by Castro.
Between 1960 and 1964, I invariably missed the last train home to Two Mountains. I slept at the student union between shifts on the McGill Daily or at friends’ houses. My mother had started college herself then and we passed each other at the train station; I, bleary-eyed and tattered, coming home after daybreak, and my mother, bright-eyed and in a pleated skirt, heading to Macdonald College where she was earning her credentials as a teacher.
Historical note: FLQ
The FLQ was a separatist and Marxist-Leninist paramilitary group in Quebec.Founded in the early 1960s, it militantly supported the Quebec sovereignty movement. It was active between 1963 and 1970, and was regarded as a terrorist organization for its violent methods of action. It was responsible for over 160 violent incidents which killed eight people and injured many more, including the bombing of the Montreal Stock Exchange in 1969. These attacks culminated in 1970 with what is known as the October Crisis, in which British Trade Commissioner James Cross was kidnapped and Quebec Labor Minister Pierre Laporte was murdered by strangulation.
FLQ members practiced propaganda of the deed and issued declarations that called for a socialist insurrection against oppressors identified with "Anglo-Saxon" imperialism, the overthrow of the Quebec government, the independence of Quebec from Canada and the establishment of a French-speaking Quebecer "workers' society". The organization was also influenced by other movements, such as leftist groups in countries such as Algeria,Vietnam and Cuba. The Soviet Union denounced the FLQ's kidnapping of Cross and the murder of Laporte, and refused to recognize it as a national liberation movement and instead designated it as a "terrorist separatist organization".
Members and sympathizers of the group were called "Felquistes" (French pronunciation: [fɛlˈkist]), a word coined from the French pronunciation of the letters FLQ. Some of the members were organized and trained by Georges Schoeters, aBelgian revolutionary. FLQ members Normand Roy and Michel Lambert received guerrilla training from the Palestine Liberation Organization in Jordan. The FLQ was a loose association operating as a clandestine cell system. Various cells emerged over time: the Viger Cell founded by Robert Comeau, history professor at the Université du Québec à Montréal; the Dieppe Cell; the Louis Riel Cell; the Nelson Cell; the Saint-Denis Cell; the Liberation Cell; and the Chénier Cell. The last two of these cells were involved in what became known as the October Crisis. From 1963 to 1970, the FLQ committed over 160 violent actions, including bombings, bank hold-ups, kidnappings, at least three killings by FLQ bombs and two killings by gunfire. In 1966 Revolutionary Strategy and the Role of the Avant-Garde was prepared by the FLQ, outlining their long-term strategy of successive waves of robberies, violence, bombings, and kidnappings, culminating in revolution. The history of the FLQ is sometimes described as a series of "waves". For more details on this topic, see Timeline of the Front de libération du Québec.
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My college years, between 1960 and 1964, were highlighted by historical events. These included the activities of the Front de Libération du Québec (FLQ; English: Quebec Liberation Front) in Canada, the civil rights movement in the United States and the wars in Israel.
The event that had the strongest impact on me was the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States on Friday, November 22, 1963 at 12:30 p.m. Central Standard Time.
At the time I was working as an intern for the Montreal Star as a copy girl and the day unfolded in streams of tape from the teletype. I saw tears run down the weathered face of a reporter who had covered the worst of World War II.