These days, when people ask me where I’m from, I’m not sure what to tell them.
While I was born and raised in Halifax, I spent most of my career as a writer and editor in Calgary. This past fall, my husband was offered a job in Montreal; after more than one “pros & cons” list we decided to take the leap and found ourselves with a one-way ticket on a WestJet flight.
As we rode in the cab, our eyes drank in the city that was to become our new home. Our cab driver, originally from Algeria, pointed out landmarks and attractions in broken English—Old Montreal, City Hall, la Grande bibliothèque. When we finally arrived in front of the tall apartment building that, until then, we’d only seen on Google Earth, two young men sauntered by, and noticing our luggage, called out “Bienvenue à Montréal!”
Who would do that in any other city? I thought happily. It seemed promising—but this wasn’t the day I fell in love with the city.
In the slushy greyness of January, the row duplexes and triplexes with their winding staircases seemed archaic, the graffiti-covered abandoned buildings of the Latin Quarter grungy, and the sights and sounds of everything français foreign and exclusive.
People even dressed differently, fur-trimmed hoods, full fur coats, turned-up collars, and always a cigarette dangling from lip-sticked mouths. The men grew their hair longer, and the majority were brunettes—my husband with his blonde locks and blue eyes felt like a minority.
In our new routine, he would leave for work, and I would spend the days searching for jobs, writing creatively and then, keeping house. It quickly dawned on me that a life of playing “the wife” full-time was not for me, but there were only a small selection of English magazines in the city to apply to and no one was hiring full-time staffers. I started looking into volunteer positions, but without a working knowledge of French, doors abruptly closed, one by one.
I needed a solution.
One blustery afternoon I stopped into a nearby organic produce shop and got to speaking with the owner. He was a former Vancouverite who had moved to Montreal to escape the rain. When he first landed here, he told me, he also hadn’t been bilingual, but he discovered government-subsidized French lessons at a nearby school—for less than $100 for six months. They had greatly helped him, and he was sure it would do some good for me, too.
Googling revealed the school’s contact info. The next term was starting less than a month away. Class sizes hovered around 25, and depending on what level I got placed in, I was told they’d let me know if there were any openings. Without any preparation (to better reflect my true knowledge, I’d decided), I completed an oral evaluation two weeks later and was placed in Niveau 2 (of 6). Classes were intense, I was informed, with a minimum of four-and-a-half hours a day and attendance considered “compulsory.”
Who would my classmates be? I wondered. Where would they be from—other parts of Canada or new immigrants from somewhere across the globe? Would they be older than me? Younger? Would Niveau 2 be too difficult?
On the first day, our teacher, an energetic, white-haired language enthusiast, told us we’d be getting the full immersion experience right away: he would speak only in French, and he encouraged us to do the same with each other.
As I looked around, I saw that my classmates were as multicultural as the city. While many seemed to be 20-something hipsters from the outlying areas of Toronto and Vancouver, there was also a middle-aged Vietnamese woman, a new father from Nova Scotia, and a stocky Mexican dame, well-past 40. One o’clock came quickly, and I was pleased to discover that I could understand everything my teacher was saying. (If only everyone else would speak as slowly and clearly!).
It was encouraging—and while this still wasn’t the day Montreal wormed its way into my heart, it was turning point.
© Laura Pellerine 2012
Laura Pellerine is a writer and editor based out of Montreal. After growing up in Halifax, she moved out West to follow her dreams of becoming a professional writer, and wormed her way into Where Calgary Magazine, where she eventually became the Editor-in-Chief for four years. In her new home in “La Belle Province,” she’s attempting to get the best of irregular French verbs and continues to follow her passion for the written word. www.lauralovestowrite.com