Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Lessons learned in Montreal

This is a post I wish I didn't have to write, but... well, there it is. It's a follow up from a previous post, Bonjour from la Belle Ville and in the style of Lessons Learned in London (Ontario). I'm sad to report that my experiment in Montreal living was not a success. With tail between legs I moved to Toronto, the comfortable and familiar. Of course, any transition comes with its own hassles, that's just a given. Yes, I went there for the isolation of a new city to work and write my dissertation. Under-employment was my achilles heel. It didn't help that I lived in the McGill student ghetto where rent is astronomical relative to properties only two or three kilometers to the East. This leads me to the body of this post "lessons learned in Montreal."

1. Montrealers are far more prickly about language than they let on
It should come as no surprise to anyone who remembers the last Quebec referendum (the one that nearly tore the country asunder) that Quebec, as a distinct society, was not just about "money and the ethnic vote" to quote Jacques Parizeau. No, language was the central issue. I heard many stories from my Quebec ex-pat friends in Ontario that it was entirely possible to get a job here with limited French. I was foolish enough to believe it. In actuality, everywhere in the city, even in the predominantly English neighborhoods I was asked about my French. Foolishly, I told them the truth. I didn't learn "Je me debrouille bien" until it was too late. What little of the Acadian French I learned growing up in Halifax with my grandparents was sufficiently functional to get me by from day to day. I also started to make a concerted effort to become more familiar with the local patois, "Montrealais." Anyone who tells you that this dialect is actual French is delusional. In its spoken form it is almost entirely unrecognizable. This leads me to the point at hand: bilingualism in Montreal is a fraud perpetuated by estranged expats. When one applies for a job and is asked about their language skills, the prospective employer does not care about real French; s/he wants fluency in broken English and the mess that is Montrealais. Native anglos whose French is passable and functional don't count. One must be fluent in French and their English skills are not really important. A trip to the nearest Starbucks will confirm my assertion. My question, then, is "Where do all the unilingual anglos work?" No one seems to know.

I didn't realize the gravitas of this issue until late in November when the Montreal CBC Radio 1 morning show "Daybreak" interviews two unilingual anglos who, for whatever reason, have not learned any French in the nearly ten years since relocating to the city. Their excuses were appallingly poor. The backlash from those interviews was overwhelming. It got coverage in the local papers and a variety of blogs. One of the interviewees, inarticulate and arrogant, professed that he didn't learn French in his ten years there because he had "better things to do with his time." That's rich. Of course, working in a primarily English workplace (McGill University) enables that kind of linguistic sloth. It underscored my own problems of chronic unemployment there. If I couldn't get a job and I actually tried to learn the language, how did he manage to find a job?;

2. Antipathy between Anglos and Francophones effects the rent prices
This is not necessarily a bad thing. On the contrary, the further one goes East, the cheaper the rent for similarly sized apartments in primarily Anglo 'hoods. My studio apartment of 225 sq. ft. was $650/month while full, large, one bedroom units in the East were priced as low as $500/month and they weren't total roach motels as some of my anglo friends assured me. Their own bias kept them from enjoying the best parts of the East end: the gentrification, great sense of organic community, and wonderful shops. Oh yeah, and people in those neighborhoods are as pleasant as pie (tourtiere?) as long as you attempt to speak French. I never had a problem with my French skills there.
Alternately, the further West one ventures into the Anglo hoods, the more expensive the rent is. I attribute this to the large demand for student apartments and disproportionate demand for Anglo housing and landlords who won't shun non-francophones;

3. Pastries are everywhere but cheese is still expensive
It seems like there's a patisserie on every block with the promise of sugary and glutinous delights nestled therein. The prices are sufficiently low that one can live on bread alone. Cheese, which I always associated with the French, is surprisingly expensive though brie is always on sale somewhere if you look hard enough;

4. The novelty of grocery store wine never wears off
One of the most pleasantly jarring realizations of living in Montreal was the accessibility of cheap wine/beer/spirits in the corner stores (depanneur) or grocery stores. This means not having to find a liquor store open at late hours (Ontario, I'm looking at you!). I got used to this long ago while living in Maine, but the appeal will never wear off. My only complaint is that stores are not allowed to sell alcohol after 11pm. I heard it's a nod to the bars in the province who would stand to lose a lot of money otherwise. It is surprising that there aren't more alcoholics running around the city... at least outside of the student ghetto;

5. The public transit (STM) rocks!
My first experience with the Metro system in February, 2011 was an eye-opener--an electronic fare system that works quickly and conveniently, subways that run often, and beautiful metro stations that are almost cathedrals of modernist brutalism. It makes one wonder why Toronto hasn't been able to implement a similar system before now (there's still nothing in place in Toronto). The electronic Opus fare card also works on surface routes. Sure, the metro trains stop running early, they have no air conditioning, they run on bumpy rubber tires, and they are often overcrowded at rush hour, but it's still really neat. The locals think it's a terrible system, but clearly they have not tried too many mass transit options in the rest of North America;

6. Montreal is an amazing travel hub
I'm sure this is repeating what I had in another post, but it's here again. Maybe 'amazing' isn't the word, but it's certainly convenient. Who cares about Rome? All roads lead to Montreal. The Greyhound buses leave for the US (you can get to Boston or New York in a matter of hours. Even Lesbian-friendly Vermont is only a chin-whisker's length from the city). VIA Rail--Canada's answer to the beleaguered Amtrak--goes to the Maritimes, all the way down to Windsor, ON, our nation's capital (yawn), and there's even a line that goes to soggy ol' Vancouver. I'm not sure about plane travel because I prefer to avoid flying if I can. Airport security freaks me out;

7. There's great funding for the arts but crappy highways
Quebec has nurtured a great culture for the arts and it really shine in Montreal. Surely the presence of all the large corporations and very large arts organizations like the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal and the Ballet Company help. My first exposure to this was roughly a week after I moved there; the new concert hall had its inaugural concert with the OSM playing Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. It has never really been a favorite of mine, but whatever. The concert inside was mostly the hoypoloy of the Montréal cultural cognescenti, but outside the public was able to watch and listen to the whole thing on large screens. The ballet company provided interpretive dance or something, I wasn't really paying attention to them. I was more amazed that so many people of all age groups would be there to partake in such a momentous occasion. THe same spectacle followed three nights later with a publicly broadcast performance of Madamma Butterfly. It was performed live inside and outside. Again, an amazing cross-section of the public, young and old, skateboarders and blue-hairs. The most powerful thing was that everyone was riveted by the drama and taken in by Puccini's tear-jerking score.

The great investment in culture, of course, comes at the expense of other things like fixing the roads and highways. The bridges and overpasses suffer the indignity of crumbling concrete with large slabs of concrete falling on the roads below. It would be a running joke were it not so serious. The debate as to how this problem will be resolved will go on for sometime, but I won't be there to see it. At least now the Olympic stadium is in fine company for the crumbly decline;

8. Unlike other cities, people here smile and say 'thank you'
One of the biggest culture shocks I had the first time I left Toronto to go back to Halifax was that people there smile and say hello with little to no provocation. Often, they do it just to be nice. That doesn't happen in Toronto unless: a) the person is crazy and targeted you as his next victim, or; b) they want something. SUrely, I thought, a city as large as Montréal would nurture the same chilly environment as Toronto. One morning while walking around a quiet neighborhood with my coffee, I was greeted with a smile and "bonjour" by a woman walking her dog. The dog also smiled. I was surprised but not totally nonplussed. The same scene repeated itself many times in three months so I know it wasn't a case of mass hysteria.

Of course, what better way to accompany a smile than with a genuine "merci". Hold open a door? Merci; Pick up a dropped item? Merci. It, like so many cases of syphillis, is infectious. When practiced en masse, the smile and mercy has become a real part of the culture kind of like the ubiquitous anglo Canadian "sawry" [sic] or "Eh?" That is one of the things I will most the most.

"Why, Anthony, have you written such a silly post?"

Well, I'm so glad you've asked that snarky question. It is impossible to not go through an experience in a new city, especially a city so different as Montréal (Canada's bizzaro world) and not actively learn something. In my previous post about lessons learned in London I spoke of what I'd learned in my four years there. Though I was in Montréal for only three months it was enough to teach me a lifetime of lessons and it's something for which I will need several years to process. I hope that it won't be the only time I'll be able to call the city my home. Maybe I'll be there again to live in the future, maybe it will only be to visit. I want to emphases for myself (it's not like anyone else actually reads this tripe) that my decision to move to Montréal was based on a series of decisions that seemed logical and right at the time. Sometimes we run into the "best laid plans of mice and men" syndrome. I certainly do not harbor any bitterness or anger that I couldn't make a life for myself there. I made some good friends in a short time, got some of my dissertation written, and drank a lot of depanneur wine. If anything it has only made me thirst to live more of the Montreal lifestyle. I never intended to make that move a permanent thing in my life, but not it is an eminently practical option. It seems silly to miss something that you're still experiencing, but I'm certainly laying the groundwork for it.

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