February 18, 2012

Montreal, first impressions

Category: Montreal,Personal — Biella @ 2:49 pm


When I told people of my plans to move to Montreal, it usually prompted one of two reactions: one was some version of joyful envy, many people exclaiming breathlessly “Montreal is one of my favorite cities,” one person once even clutching my arm and told me as he looked me straight in the eye: “you are so lucky, there is no city quite like Montreal in North America.”

The second reaction came off as a thinly veiled mixture of disdain and disbelief usually peppered with many “reallys:” “oh wow, really, really you would really leave NYC?” I am pretty certain they really were thinking something along the lines of “what a fool, how dare she leave a great job, a great university, a world class city (the only city to live) for some Canadian mid-sized city, which is like tundra for a good chunk of the year?”

The decision to move weighed heavily on me, if for no other reason I had a choice to stay or to go and I honestly have not had a “choice,” a decision to make about where to go since I got accepted to graduate school (and even then the choice was more obvious than this one). So over a month into my move what is my verdict? In a word, “win.”

I don’t miss NYC at all—though I get why some people cannot leave the place—and know that despite some oddities and difficulties of living in Montreal, it fits my tastes and needs much better than NYC which dwarfed me in so many ways. I never felt I could enjoy it, I grew tired of the cramped living quarters, the noise ate at my soul, and I simply felt more overwhelmed by the fact that I could not even get a handle on the neighborhoods in my vicinity, much less all the other hoods in the area.

Instead of dogging NYC anymore, I think I will spend a little time on first impressions, as they will soon be lost to the familiarity borne with time and experience. In essence Montreal is chock full of life but rather intimate, a quirky city with lots of charm but some grit and lacking the way over designed and done feel of cities like Portland.

Here are some of quirks:

1. The Hawt Metro: I fell in love with the Metro when I first rode it a few years ago. I just love the powder blue color of the cars and the super sweet 1960s aesthetic of many stations. Even better and unlike NYC, they are just clean and quiet. The downside? The temperatures approximates a sauna during the winter and while you would think this is a good thing, when you are layered with the clothing necessary to survive outside (re: long underwear along with Canada-coat, gloves, hat, and scarf), it is hooooooot down there and you feel like you need to pass out.

2. Spend money, get free stuff: In many establishments you get free stuff (like blueberries or some like sports bar) when you spend over a certain amount of money, like 70 bucks. Quirky local tradition.

3. The culture of negotiation and the kick ass standard lease: Housing is amazing here. There is plenty of it, there are many different styles, and it is rather fun exploring all the different hoods that make up the city. Problem is too that lots of apartments have weird problems and issues and I had to steer clear of anything that could even possibly have mold. I spent weeks day in day out looking for a place, desperate to move out of my corporate apartment very nicely provided by the university but still not my ideal living situation. Finally found a place that fit all my needs in the perfect location and I took it to only find out that places are priced to negotiate and I was faced with the decision to negotiate or not. Sort of did, was not thrilled about it (thinking that I might lose the place) but it sort of worked and I scored the place. If price is up to haggling, the lease on the other hand, is standard (you can buy one at your local bodega… ). It is the law to use it and it is like a no nonsense, straightforward lease, which is very protective of renters.

4. Montreal is known for its exceptional food but you know Poutine is just plain gross: Food here is good and I can tell that I will get a handle of restaurants in a way that felt impossible in NYC. The gluten free religion seems to be spreading, thankfully. There are many little Fruiterias! to get your fruits veggies which I am still exploring and right around my house is a crazy supermarket that is so cheap, which is weird because consumer goods generally ain’t cheap in Montreal like they are in the states but this place is a gem and everyone agrees (and almost impossible to notice from the street!). Now Poutine is disgusting. Ok it did not help that the first night I went out to eat it, I was still under the clutches of Noro virus, and I think it re-activated the nausea that had been zapped by some strong medicine and the hospital, the day before, which brings me to the next point, the health care system.

5. Healthcare, I had to use it way too early: So last week I came down with the Noro virus and you usually wait it out as it runs through you quickly but I was dehydrated before I even started to vomit to for 8 hours straight, at which point severely tired and so nauseous (I was yelling to make it stop), I went to the hospital. Now I had talked to lot of people about the healthcare system in Montreal as it seems good, really great but a bit over taxed, especially compared to where I had lived in Edmonton where it was like a magic fairy tale dream. I had heard of two things: the care is excellent but the facilities are “shocking” and the wait times unless dire can be atrociously long. So facilities, yea they are kinda shocking, somewhat shabby but who cares, so long as the care is good, no? Packaging is irrelevant so long as the goods are derived. Before going I was scared of the long wait times (and also the taxi took me by mistake to Montreal General Hospital was looked too much like a HUGE version of the creepy buildings in The Shining for me, and I was supposed to go to Jewish General so left for there). The wait time: nearly none, somewhat as shocking as the facilities first looked to me. I think it was a combination of the time I arrived, with the fact that my lounge was parched and yellowish-gross (sorry, it was gross), indicating I was dehydrated, oh and I was crying bit hysterically, for despite my high threshold for pain, nausea terrorizes me. I was covered by insurance and since I did not yet have my McGill health cards (it takes three months to qualify for the local stuff), I did pay and the price was laughably cheap compared to what I would pay in NYC for the same treatment.

6. Now for my favorite, snow so nice, ice oh Christ: Well this winter has been, by all accounts, weak and warm, the spirit of winter barely making its way from the underworld to the outerworld. But even though it is has been more idle than full throttle, I still got a pretty accurate taste of what winter is like, with a few days of 20- c temps, and having to walk a number of times on a layer of frozen ice that makes it feel like a very dangerous mini-ice age in the making.


I do rather love the quiet snow falling and just love love sprinting through the snow with my dog, Roscoe, who has taken a liking for prancing in the white stuff and looks awful cute with his winter man’s ice beard. After a sizable snowfall, it is clear they city does not toy with the snow removal although the sidewalk snow plows do look somewhat like very large and dangerous but kinda cute toys. But let’s be frank, winters are hard, so hard that I think I would go mad if I had to stay through the entire thing, being born and raised in the tropics… So the fact that I am writing this from the southern hemisphere in the height of summer gives me the assurance I can handle the rest of the snow, ice, ice and snow upon my return.


  1. My #1 super tip for places where there might be ice: get YakTrax. They totally solve the insecure feeling of walking on ice (though you do have to take them off indoors, particularly on terrazzo, which will make you slip as if on ice, and any floor you might damage or snag on). My sister goes running in the dang things in Michigan.

    Comment by Gus — February 18, 2012 @ 3:17 pm

  2. Only one thing matters: Are you happy?
    Everything else is less relevant, to avoid fashionable “irrelevant”.
    Thanks to the internet it is easy and cheap to stay in touch with people all over the world. As long as you are happy, all is well.
    And easily I can think of a million places less attractive than the royal mountain.


    Comment by er — February 18, 2012 @ 3:45 pm

  3. First lesson: in Montreal, they aren’t called bodegas, they are called “depanneurs” or “dep” for short. Bienvenue chez nous.

    Comment by Enrique — February 18, 2012 @ 5:31 pm

  4. Bienvenue au Québec!

    2011-2012 is the mildest winter I can remember here in southern Quebec.

    P.S. La poutine, c’est bon le matin après une nuit bien arrosée! ;)

    Comment by moatib — February 18, 2012 @ 11:29 pm


    Since you’re in Montreal I’d go with the smoked meat anyway, but good poutine requires 3 things:
    -the Québécois (not necessarily in Quebec)
    -actual cheese curds
    -a small town (or the side of a highway)

    If you take out any of those 3 ingredients and the poutine goes downhill. I’m trapped in Toronto and I travel 600 Km back home to Ontario’s francophone belt for poutine. :)

    Comment by James Spencer — February 19, 2012 @ 3:15 pm

  6. NYC was not ideal, but tolerated, from what I sense. And Montreal seems like a place that you suggest will fulfill your dreams of a happy cityscape filled with hot subways, cool streets, cheezy poutine, happy doggies and all-you-can-eat Health Care. What’s not to like! You can do your usual globetrotting and connect with peeps on your travels and fly back to your ice wonderland.

    Comment by kevix — February 19, 2012 @ 5:36 pm

  7. You should learn French. It will make life much much easier.

    Comment by Alfredo — February 21, 2012 @ 12:26 pm

  8. Yay, welcome to my home town, we’re everybody is so darn proud to be from there. Si tu arrives à te débrouiller en français, tu découvriras tout un autre Montréal très sympa. Bonne chance! Kim

    Comment by Kim — February 23, 2012 @ 6:28 am

  9. Spell! *where.

    Comment by Kim — February 23, 2012 @ 6:33 am

  10. There is only one poutine worth eating in Montreal: La banquise! The rest is disgusting. Don’t even try it.

    Comment by Mah — March 31, 2012 @ 4:35 pm

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