It was always my intention to get to Montreal at some stage in my life. For a lot of my adolescence, I had a fascination with Québécois film, so much so that it became one of my primary reasons for pursuing French in university. The accent intrigued me, as it was like nothing I had been taught in school. I wanted a unique exchange experience – one that catered to my fascination with Québécois language and culture, as well as adding nuance to my experience as a student of French. If, at some point, I really wanted to live in Paris or Nantes for a year, I could quite easily book a Ryanair flight and seize that opportunity after college. The same could not be said for Montreal, and I would say that it was this that really pushed me to choose Canada.
My journey began as soon as I got the email notifying me that I had been nominated by the School of French to study at the University of Montreal. From there, it was a mad rush to get applications submitted for the university’s exchange programme, along with study visas, accommodation – the whole shebang. That summer was plagued with anxiety about getting documents finalised and ready before my departure date in late August. Luckily, everything worked out with relatively enough time to spare. Fast forward two weeks, and suddenly I was in Canada. Canada. Thousands of miles from home. Alone. It was unlike anything I could have prepared for.
Eventually, you learn to love the winter, and you find you develop a bit of a complex when your mates back home are complaining that it’s -5 degrees celsius, when that seems like summer in comparison to the temperatures in Canada.
If I had to list the cons first, I would half-heartedly say the winter was truly a struggle. I say half-heartedly, because this was also the basis for some of my best memories. At first, layering up constantly, and trying not to do grievous bodily harm by slipping on the icy pavements was a burden enough to keep me indoors. There’s also this thing called ‘freezing rain’ which sounds exactly like what it is. Imagine rain, except it’s tiny shards of glass that collectively bury themselves into your face when you’re innocently trying to get to college. Not a super pleasant experience.
The cost of groceries was also something I don’t have particularly fond memories of. In general, Montreal is quite affordable. But if you weren’t careful, you’d find yourself eating into your monthly budget just by wanting spaghetti bolognese for dinner. Prices on things such as meat and produce were never predictable no matter where you went, and there are no equivalents of Lidl or Aldi to rely on. But they make up for it with the multitude of poutine restaurants that always seemed to be in your vicinity.
They also have these things called depanneurs, or ‘deps’ as they’re colloquially known. These are essentially convenience stores, and can save your life when it’s almost midnight and you’re out of milk. You also form a very special bond with the cashier at your local dep, particularly since they are the ones who see you at your lowest points, like when you’re up until 2am studying for a midterm for your impossibly difficult French linguistics class, with a craving for Hershey’s chocolate, since good old Dairy Milk just isn’t the same there.
I also went to Québec City for their annual Carnival Winter festival, which we took one of those yellow school buses to get to (which really made me sympathise for Canadian school children, because those things get cold.)
While most of my time there was spent wrapped up to protect against the harsh weather, Quebecker’s attitudes to a bit of snow are a lot more upbeat than back home. They make the most of the winter period, adorning the streets in soft, festive lighting, and hosting festivals for celebrating just about everything winter-themed, from snow sports, to mulled wine, to this winter delicacy known as ‘maple taffy’, where they pour a maple syrup into the snow and roll it onto a stick, in true Canadian fashion. Eventually, you learn to love the winter, and you find you develop a bit of a complex when your mates back home are complaining that it’s -5oC, when that seems like summer in comparison to the temperatures in Canada.
Another upside to Montréal was how affordable it is compared to other North American cities. Where I lived was right in the city centre, near all the major universities. Not only was this great for making friends, but it was also the equivalent of €500 a month, which included bills. We also got a TV, dishwasher, double beds, a gym and a cinema room. Even better was the public transport situation. Because I lived a bit out from my university, I ended up having to get an OPUS card, Montreal’s answer to a Leap card. Per month, a €30 top-up got you unlimited use of every public transport service city-wide, which worked out a lot cheaper than travelling in Dublin. Plus, the underground train system connected to all the major shopping malls, so you essentially got to live underground if you weren’t feeling being out in the snow too long.
Another benefit of Montreal was its proximity to other cities in Canada and the States. In September, we went to an orchard a little outside Montreal, and got to visit a pumpkin patch to get in the festive spirit. For Canadian thanksgiving, I got to go back to Ottawa with my housemate, and celebrate with her family, where I was able to try pumpkin pie for the first time. I also went to Québec City for their annual Carnival Winter festival, which we took one of those yellow school buses to get to (which really made me sympathise for Canadian school children, because those things get cold.)
While there are reams I could write about my experiences of Montreal, I don’t think I could ever convey quite how incredible it was. Not only do I now have a twinge of Quebecois influence when I speak French, and a newfound resilience to -30o temperatures, but I also have a wealth of memories that I will always look fondly on when I remember my college years, as well as a city I cannot wait to go back to.