Montreal-based journalist Olivia Collette is one of the talented writers the legendary Roger Ebert recruited for his film site, RogerEbert.com, before he passed away. With that remarkable accomplishment in mind, it’s even more impressive when you find out that film isn’t even Collette’s main area of focus as a writer; it’s architecture. That said, if there’s one story of Collette’s that you should read right now, it’s What My Cousin’s Cancer Taught Me, published in the Montreal Gazette. You will need Kleenex. We caught up with Collette to find out more about her busy life in the media, her hidden talents, and why she might just need to go out and buy a glockenspiel…
Tell us a bit about yourself. What should people know?
If you Google me, the first things that usually turn up are the movie reviews and essays I’ve written for Roger Ebert. But the types of articles I mostly work on are architecture-related. Architecture and urban planning affect so many aspects of our lives, even if they generally go unnoticed. There’s a reason your eye wanders to specific areas of a street, or why you naturally hang out in a particular room in a house. Architects and urban planners make very deliberate design decisions to define those environments for you, and I love picking that stuff apart.
Recently, I also held an Indiegogo fundraiser for my cousin, who needed money to buy a lymphoma treatment that wasn’t covered by Quebec health care. The campaign was a bigger success than we’d anticipated, and we were able to treat her, but it sadly didn’t work and my cousin passed away. I’d never seen cancer up close before, and it affected me profoundly. Like most writers, I processed it through words. The result was a piece on the lessons I learned while being at my cousin’s side during those final months. I won’t lie, it serves a lot of brutal honesty. But I hope it helps people understand some equally brutal realities that cancer generously doles out.
What’s one of you best hidden talents people would be surprised to find out about you?
As long as it isn’t in the violin family, I can pick up pretty much any instrument and learn to play it very quickly. There’s an area of my apartment that’s completely devoted to music. You’ll find a piano, two guitars, a ukulele, a mandolin and a flute. I also want to get a glockenspiel, a tambourine and other easily mastered percussion instruments so I can eventually direct a small group of people to play an epic cover of Discobitch’s “C’est Beau la Bourgeoisie.”
What are three things you can’t live without?
My electric blanket, the Internet, and socks (I can’t sleep unless my feet are warm).
Finish this sentence: I love Montreal because…
…it combines European flair with North American convenience.
What’s your favourite restaurant and why?
I think a lot of restaurants become favourites because you associate certain people or memories with them.
For example, one of my favourite restaurant experiences with my husband was at Al Duello in Rome, Italy. He and I have a hard time agreeing on restaurants, but this was one place that impressed the both of us in equal measures. It’s run by a husband-and-wife team; he’s the chef, she’s the hostess/waitress. The place is a tiny hole in the wall in some alley off a narrow street. It seats maybe 20 people, and she makes you feel like you’re the most important person in the room. When it comes to ordering wine in Europe, we always let the waiter decide. When we asked her what she recommended, she proposed two options. They varied in price by a couple of Euros, but to a small business, every penny counts. She went with the one that cost less because she felt it was simply better. We would have trusted her had she gone for the other bottle, and I’m sure it would have been great. (I mean, this is Italy!) But she went with what she honestly believed was best. The food was delicious, but what stands out about that evening is how she totally charmed us.
If you’re asking about favourite restaurants in Montreal, many of them are either associated with my mother, or how effectively they medicated a broken heart during my single years. With Mom, the stand-outs are Le P’tit Plateau (French cuisine) and Tasca (Portuguese). For love stories with a sad ending, I’m partial to Aux Vivres (vegan) and Chipotle (Mexican; not the chain). In both cases, I recommend the brunch menu, since broken hearts are at their worst the morning after.
What products are always in your beauty bag?
Bright red lipstick and black eyeliner. I have reasonably good skin, and I’ve never been a fan of foundation so I tend to focus on lips and eyes. I usually go without makeup anyhow, but in a pinch, if I put on a bit of lipstick and smear a little eyeliner it’s an instant spruce-up. So if I need to look like I put a minimum of effort into it, lips and eyes, baby. Lips and eyes.