Mon­treal­ers TV se­ries cel­e­brates city’s di­verse char­ac­ters

Montreal Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - BILL BROWNSTEIN bbrown­stein@post­ twit­ bill­brown­stein

OK, so this city has is­sues. The pol­i­tics are Byzan­tine. The in­fras­truc­ture is crum­bling, and the re­sult­ing road con­struc­tion and traf­fic gridlock are ab­so­lutely mad­den­ing — as are our driv­ers. The head of­fices are long gone. So are the Ex­pos. An an­nual Stan­ley Cup pa­rade is an­cient his­tory, and worse still, our archri­val Maple Leafs are a lot closer to hav­ing one than our Habs.

Could it get any worse? Prob­a­bly. Par­tic­u­larly if some fu­ture mayor de­cides to bank­rupt us by cel­e­brat­ing our 400th birthday.

But what this city does have is an abun­dance of char­ac­ters who make Mon­treal one of the quirki­est cities on the planet and that makes Mon­treal­ers for­get the afore­men­tioned woes — even if just briefly.

Although some in other parts of this province might wish for Mon­treal to be more cul­tur­ally mono­lithic, it’s the di­ver­sity of our char­ac­ters that helps bring light and life to the city.

On that note, Leah Balass de­cided the time was ripe to pay homage to some of our more un­for­get­table cit­i­zens as well as to cel­e­brate the city’s di­ver­sity. Four years in the mak­ing, she has co-cre­ated, co-pro­duced, di­rected and hosted the eight­part se­ries Mon­treal­ers, which airs weekly on Tues­days at 7:30 p.m. on MAtv.

Balass sits down with res­i­dents who may rep­re­sent a dozen dif­fer­ent eth­nic­i­ties and pro­fes­sions but yet blend al­most seam­lessly into the city melt­ing pot. Char­ac­ters like Tamey Lau, owner of Mile End’s Dragon Flow­ers shop, or me­chan­i­cal parts sculp­tor Jean-Paul La­belle, or down­town restau­ra­teur Nil­u­far Al-Shour­baji, or the un­stop­pable force of na­ture that is 96-year-old Hymie Sck­ol­nick, the still-work­ing founder/owner of Beau­tys Lun­cheonette.

Balass caught up with one of my per­sonal faves, Frank Pa­pa­geor­giou, pro­pri­etor of the 37-year-old Vic­to­ria Fish Mar­ket, where the smoked salmon is sec­ond to none. No time off for Frank: “My va­ca­tion? That comes from 7:30 at night till 5 in the morn­ing … when I sleep.” The rest of the time, there are just too many bones to be snipped and salmon to be sliced.

The lat­est in­stal­ment fea­tures another city orig­i­nal, Maged Taraboulsy, owner of the Lap­i­dar­ius an­tiques shop. Ac­cord­ing to the boss, the busi­ness plan used to be sim­ple: “I buy from the grand­mother, then I sell to the grand­chil­dren.”

Not as much any­more. Taraboulsy’s fam­ily has been in the trade since 1890. Like his fore­fa­thers, he was born and raised in Alexan­dria, Egypt, and learned his craft at the univer­sity he calls the “souk of Alexan­dria” be­fore mov­ing to Mon­treal.

On the same episode is another na­tive of Egypt, Vi­vianne Sil­ver, who had to leave her home in Cairo in a hurry and was to end up in Mon­treal. A so­cial worker and life­long diarist, Sil­ver, in a mov­ing ac­count, re­veals she is about to make another ma­jor move.

“It was af­ter trav­el­ling that I was able to see just how Mon­treal and its peo­ple were so unique,” says Balass, 28. “Some­how we all share a com­mon cul­ture, which I like to think of as the ‘Mon­treal cul­ture.’ Yet at the same time, peo­ple man­age to main­tain their own cul­tural iden­tity while still fit­ting into the city (psy­che).

“In other cities, like Toronto, you don’t feel that as much. There is more of a dom­i­nant Cana­dian cul­ture that seems to over­ride the other cul­tures.”

Balass sought to bring to­gether as many peo­ple from this city’s var­i­ous com­mu­ni­ties.

“But it all hap­pened very nat­u­rally on its own. Cu­rios­ity just brought me to the var­i­ous sub­jects, with­out think­ing about hav­ing a quota on dif­fer­ent rep­re­sen­ta­tives,” Balass says.

“What they all have in com­mon are fas­ci­nat­ing sto­ries of what they went through and how their dif­fer­ent jour­neys brought them here. What I find so in­ter­est­ing is not just the wis­dom they bring here but how this city, for the most part, is so ac­cept­ing of dif­fer­ent cul­tures.”

Af­ter grad­u­at­ing with a de­gree in man­age­ment from McGill, Balass, a na­tive Mon­trealer, worked at the United Na­tions in New York for a spell.

“It was the cul­tural as­pects of the job I found so riv­et­ing, which led me to want to pur­sue jour­nal­ism.”

So Balass re­turned to Mon­treal to study jour­nal­ism at Con­cor­dia. Upon grad­u­a­tion there, she won a schol­ar­ship that landed her an in­tern­ship, then a job at the CBC. This gig, in turn, brought her to New­found­land and a host of in­trigu­ing char­ac­ters.

Back in Mon­treal, Balass was de­ter­mined to pur­sue her ob­ses­sion with char­ac­ters. She part­nered up with Ni­co­las Ala­coque to co-cre­ate and co-pro­duce this se­ries.

No sur­prise that Sck­ol­nick tops the list of Balass’s favourite char­ac­ters.

“It’s not just the fact that he is 96 and still shows up for work at the crack of dawn every day, but he re­mains so pos­i­tive and charm­ing. I felt like I was time­trav­el­ling through the city’s past with him,” she says.

“The key to the se­ries for me is that I felt such a con­nec­tion with al­most all the char­ac­ters. I felt their en­ergy, their pas­sion and their sto­ries, and it made me feel just so more ap­pre­cia­tive of this city and its di­ver­sity.”

Mon­treal­ers airs Tues­days at 7:30 p.m. on MAtv. Ilico and Videotron sub­scribers can catch pre­vi­ously aired episodes at


Leah Balass, left, direc­tor/host of the eight-part se­ries Mon­treal­ers, with so­cial worker and diarist Vi­vianne Sil­ver.

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