Culture Shock – My first week in Montreal

After a night of no sleep and a lot of packing it was time to take my flight to Montreal, my home for the next 4 months. The flight was the shortest and most visually surreal I’ve ever experienced, with the plane climbing through an almost endless white fog before rising up above the canopy right before sunset.

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Upon landing I had the easiest departure I’ve ever had in my life, no bag checks or even a request for proof that I’m a student. Thanks Canada. Once I got everything it was time to head out to my hostel. I stood there in arrivals with my backpack in tow, facing the cold, windy, snow-covered landscape that lay before me past those glass revolving doors. I quickly checked my phone for the weather. Negative 20 degrees Celsius. I’m going to die.

Negative 20 degrees Celsius. I’m going to die.

Here’s where the culture shock begins to set in. After getting on my bus with the intention of getting off at Rue Bishop (St), I miss the stop entirely because I can’t understand the driver’s accent. I end up at the bus depot and have to get the bus back. After a 10 minute wait the bus driver for the trip back comes up to me and starts yelling at me in French. I can’t understand a word, and it becomes clear that she doesn’t speak English – or doesn’t want to. I’m absolutely petrified. How can I function here? I hop on the bus and after a while I muster up the confidence to say “Excusez-moi… Rue Bishop?..” to which she turns her head slowly and mutters “Bish-op” before turning back to face the road. Thankfully that works and I make it to my stop, where a homeless man is shivering in the cold as snow falls from the night sky. He glared at me as I clumsily fumbled around and put on my large backpack and then I trudged my way uphill through ankle deep snow to the hostel, where I finally get some rest in my empty 4 bedroom dorm. I have never felt more isolated and alone in my life. I wanted to leave right away.

After my little backpacking trek through Montreal last night it became immediately clear that my attire is not cut out for this brutally cold city. Mesh running shoes are definitely not cut out for ice, wind and muddy slush – so on day 2 I spent the majority of my time buying the clothes I needed to survive. Triple down winter jacket? Check. -30°C capable waterproof winter boots? Check. Compression socks for double and triple layering? Check. And yes I did wear 3 layers of socks on multiple occasions, and sometimes even that wasn’t enough.

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This is a shot of the ice crystals that formed on my window.

My initial thoughts of Montreal as a newcomer, apart from the whole cold factor – everyone speaks French. Everything is French here. While you can get by with English, it’s always French first. It almost feels rude to speak in English. At this point it kind of hit me how alienating language barriers can be, now that I was on the other side. Language can be a very powerful thing. I just felt a need to communicate with someone verbally but I couldn’t. I ended up buying a beginners French book out of panic. My mindset was that I needed to learn, ASAP.

“Language can be a very powerful thing.”

Next was Christmas Day. With nothing else to do, I headed out to go exploring. The entire city of Montreal was a ghost town. I was walking down Saint-Catherine and there wasn’t a soul in sight. Not to mention its deathly cold – minus 20 degrees plus wind. Montreal is an incredibly beautiful city to walk around – not overly built-up, lovely snow covered streets, boulevards and a great mix of old and new architecture.

Maissoneuve.
Maissoneuve.

After going through Centre-Ville I headed south into Quartier Chinois (Chinatown), and then made my way in the direction of Old-Montreal. It wasn’t long before I literally couldn’t feel my feet and bolted into the nearest building I could find. That building happened to be the Notre-Dame Basilica. Pretty incredible place to rest and warm back up. I stayed in there for a good hour taking it all in. That’s also how long it took to get some feeling back in my feet.

The Notre-Dame Basilica.
The Notre-Dame Basilica.
Interior.
Interior.

From there I continued south in the direction of old Montreal. I never actually reached the Old Montreal, but I was in an old part of Montreal for a while. It wasn’t long until I started getting serious fears of frostbite and sprinted back to the hostel, taking refuge in the McDonald’s at the bus depot along the way. McDonald’s saved my life. Or just my feet. Whatever.

A lot of things went wrong in my first week in Montreal, starting right when we landed. As I was disembarking the plane I realised I left my declaration card in the back seat pocket, so I quickly ran on board to grab it. What I didn’t realise until about 48 hours later was that I left my journal there too. A week’s worth of my painstakingly detailed thoughts and experiences lost forever. Most of what I’ve posted so far (excluding my very first post) is rewritten and recollected. I emailed United Airlines about it right away and they said they would do everything in their power to find it for me. To this day I haven’t heard back from them. Word of advice: Never put ANYTHING of worth in the back seat pocket on a plane. It will only end badly.

Word of advice: Never put ANYTHING of worth in the back seat pocket on a plane.

Second thing that happened: I was working on my laptop in my hostel dorm, I accidentally pulled my laptop a little too close to me which in turn dragged my connected external hard drive off the bedside table and onto the floor. A 30 cm drop, and that’s all it took to lose everything. The whole thing was corrupted. My music, my movies and TV shows all gone sure, but that I can get back. What I couldn’t get back were all of the photos I had taken in New York. They were all backed up as the sole copy on that hard drive, and now all of that is gone. I had some low resolution copies of the best photos on Facebook, but this was devastating. And that’s not the worst thing that happened that week.

On the 29th of December I decided to walk down to Chinatown for some lunch. The day before was slightly above zero degrees and today was far below, so much of the snow had melted and then frozen over. I could’ve taken the tunnels of the underground city, but I decided to stay outside and get some fresh air. I was walking downhill on the side of Complexe Desjardins I suddenly didn’t have any traction under my feet and started slipping on a large patch of black ice. The way my feet and hands were propelling in an effort to stay upright looked almost comical, but it only took 3 seconds before my feet went up and I went down – right onto my left hand… which had just gotten out of a cast for a scaphoid fracture only 3 weeks prior. Yep. I knew right away. Broken again. Sometimes you don’t need a doctor to tell you. For a while I just sat there on the ice, absolutely furious and frustrated at how something like this could happen, especially while I’m overseas on exchange. I didn’t even know if I had health insurance.

And then I broke my wrist… again

The next 2 days were spent going back and forth between hospitals trying to get treated. Of all the things I wanted to do in Canada, getting acquainted with the hospital system was not one of them. The Royal Victoria was a joke, misdiagnosing it as a sprain, putting me at the very lowest priority (meaning a minimum 12 hour wait) and then having the gall to try and charge me $650 upfront. I left and tried Montreal General Hospital. They correctly diagnosed me with a scaphoid fracture and then told me it would be better to come back the following morning because I would get through quicker, so I did and got everything done including x-rays and my arm in a plaster cast in less than 3 hours. It ended up costing me over $900 upfront, but thankfully I was completely covered by my Concordia University health insurance and I just needed to claim it back.

Still, not a great way to start off New Year’s Eve.

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