Skip to main content
first person

First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.

Open this photo in gallery:

Illustration by Chelsea O'Byrne

When I moved to Montreal in the summer of 2017 I thought I would only stay for six months. I’d recently graduated from university and was in the kind of limbo I’d thought all young people endured before real life began. Will I be able to get out of my lease before the year is up? I’d asked my landlord upon meeting her for the first time. She’d looked at me with kind eyes and told me to give Montreal a chance.

I often think about that day and how I must have seemed to her. I was a bright-eyed and anxious 22-year-old who knew nothing about living alone. I’m sure she could see the years I had ahead of me; years full of self-discovery, challenges and delight. Little did we know then, but the apartment she rented to me on that day would serve as the backdrop for the next six years of my life.

I moved in a week later with four pieces of furniture to my name. I’d never had so much space to myself and felt giddy with excitement at the thought of decorating each room. When my first paycheque arrived, I realized low-end Ikea was the best I could do.

I slowly accumulated objects that felt like me: a Monet print from a local thrift store, a wooden bowl carved by my father, a tangerine-coloured Dutch Oven that I used to cook nearly every meal. The dark wood of the floors and door frames reminded me of the late Victorian home I’d grown up in. In the fall I travelled to Paris and fell in love with the work of Le Corbusier. I searched high and low for three prints that I hung proudly over my couch in my living room. With each passing month, the apartment felt less like a rented space and more like an extension of the woman I was becoming.

Montreal’s long winters became my favourite season in my apartment. The west-facing living room windows bathed the apartment in light from noon till evening. The radiators emitted a familiar clanging sound as they warmed up. The bright red window panes mixed with the sunlight and cast the room in a hazy, sunset-like glow. Sitting alone on my pullout couch that winter was one of the first times I felt at home in the city. Double sets of windows kept the heat in and the sound out, creating a kind of calm and quiet I wasn’t used to. Living alone in such a space offered me a sense of closeness with myself. The sunny quiet around me felt like the safety and comfort of a friendship. I’d thought that hibernating would feel like a prison, but I soon discovered the pleasures of my own company. I taught myself how to cook on my tiny 1970s stove and, save for a few burnt dishes, my skills improved tremendously. I read more than I ever had, overstuffing a bookshelf my father made for me on my 24th birthday. I happily passed the time.

Summer had a different energy. Screens replaced the glass storm windows and the panes that had been shut tight all winter let in all kinds of sounds and smells. The jangle of dog collars and passing cars signalled the start of summer – a time when Montreal comes to life. With it came the heat of July. Without any air conditioning, I tried to adapt until I couldn’t bear another sleepless night. I caved and bought an air conditioner.

With time, my life in Montreal began to fall into place. I opened up my space to visitors and friends. It seemed as though my couch was always occupied, my tiny apartment bursting at the seams with suitcases. The space that had felt so quiet all winter was suddenly full of conversation.

The more my life opened up in Montreal, the faster time seemed to fly by. That was until March, 2020, when time seemed to stop altogether. As the world was brought to a standstill, I once again fell in love with my surroundings. My partner moved into the apartment with me and the space I was so familiar with began to take on a new shape. As I learned to share my life with another person, the apartment adapted, too. Two road bikes leaned on the wall in the living room. Saturday mornings began with the sound of a coffee grinder. And weeknight evenings were livelier than ever before.

When that relationship ended, I felt a familiar sense of uncertainty. Would Montreal ever feel like home again? That winter I threw myself into applying for graduate school, too busy to dwell on any feelings of loneliness. By the time I’d submitted my final application, I’d made an important revelation. I’d been alone in my apartment before, and with a little persistence, I could find happiness in it once again.

As I prepare to move out of my beloved space into a new city, I feel nostalgic. When my landlord called me to say a new tenant had signed the lease, I unexpectedly burst into tears. It’s hard to relinquish a space that holds so many memories. Yet as I move toward my next chapter, I’m less concerned with what I’m leaving behind than what I’ll be taking with me. This apartment has given me the greatest gift: my friendship with myself.

Millie Yates now lives in Toronto.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe