Thursday, 7 October 2010

A Brit abroad in Montreal, Canada

This month's Tale of a Brit Abroad comes from journalist, filmmaker and broadcaster Anne Kostalas, who lives in Montreal. Anne will also be on BBC Radio 4's Woman's Hour on Friday 8 October.

The lookout at Parc Mont Royal, or 'the mountain' as locals call it. It gave the city its name.

Montreal is often described as the coolest city in North America. Just say you live here to folks out west and there will be a gasp followed by a declaration of how they've always wanted to live here. I never used to get that very much with Newcastle upon Tyne.

For me the greatest difference in my life is how safe and friendly the city feels. (That and how often I go out for breakfast) Coming from a Northern town in Britain I still flinch if I hear a raised voice in the street. This will sound like an exaggeration but people here haven't even heard of anti-social behaviour. I'm always having to explain it to them. Don't get me started on chavs, glassings, yobs...

We had them before you London. The Bixi Bike, invented in Montreal, outside the Bonsecours Market.

I'm sure this drives the Canadians crazy but I always think of it here as how I imagine 1950s Britain used to be. It feels all together more innocent. They don't see it of course. They complain like everyone else about crime and rowdiness but drop them into a Newcastle street on a Saturday night and bless, they wouldn't know what had hit them.

One of the greatest things about Montreal, and this goes for the rest of Canada, is how much of life is lived outdoors. In the summer it's the pavement cafes, open air festivals, swimming in lakes and cycling on the city's bike path network. In the winter, outdoor ice rinks, tobogganing, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing beckon.

Grab your paddle, we're going outdoors for six months

I remember a summer in Newcastle when we only had one evening when it was warm enough to sit outside. We were in sweaters.

The ability of Montrealers to have a good time outdoors never fails to impress me. My husband called me to our apartment window last winter, during a particularly heavy snowfall, to see a chap skiing past our door with huskies. God love him.

My birthday party on ice. This was going to end badly.

In the city centre I sometimes take a bus up the mountain, surely Montreal's greatest asset, to skate with a friend. Clambering on to the bus are hoards of cross-country skiers plus skis - off to explore
the trails. It's completely bizarre to me in a city centre. Shouldn't they be spending the day in a shopping centre wearing a comfy shell suit?

 After a good snow fall, we get an average of two metres, if you walk through the woods in Parc Mont Royal you become aware of a buzz. Only when you reach the clearing do you see the source of the strange noise. Hundreds of families gathered at the toboggan runs, screaming and shouting as they hurl themselves down the hill towards Beaver Lake for the umpteenth time. These people know how to make the most out of winter.  I celebrated my birthday this year with a skating party. What
am I, six?
Maple taffy. Shouldn't that be toffee?

Strangely a lot of new immigrants seem afraid of Montreal winters and hibernate. For me it is part of the pleasure of living here. You're not really a Montrealer until you have had the stuff in your nose
freeze solid and your polo neck and trouser hems become stiff as boards. Get out there or you are in for a long wait till the Spring. A really long wait.

Not surprisingly when Spring comes people go slightly bonkers. The timing coincides with the annual maple syrup harvest ('that stuff grows on trees?', to quote my friend) As Quebec produces more than three-quarters of the world's maple syrup supply you just know they are going to go off it. Locals head into the woods for Sugaring-off: no, not some weird spa treatment but music, dancing and most
importantly, eating to celebrate the end of the harvest. A real Canadian experience.

Just a few more feet and I'll make it.

This happens in late March-early April and friends like to argue about which is the most authentic sugar shack serving the best traditional meal - a meat fest  with more than just a hint of maple syrup in it. Look our for the oreilles de crisse (Christ's ears), which are actually deep fried pork rinds (shades of porky scratchings). Vegetarians stay well away.

Not another gorgeous day! The Laurentians.

Summer is heavenly. We just had a great one. I swear the sky is actually bluer here (or is that grass greener?) and many Montrealers have access to a cottage near a lake. So when it gets too hot and
humid (mid to high 30s anyone?) in the city of festivals (jazz, comedy etc.) you can head out to the woods, chop logs and enjoy lakes warm enough to swim in every day. We go to the Laurentians - just an hour away.

Canada is a country of extremes and when I'm taking my bags of summer clothes down to the basement and bringing up my winter coats I wonder how it all happened so quickly. We are able to ski every winter on the same lake we swim in during summertime. (No we don't fall through, as all the Brits ask). A temperature hovering around -20C sees to that.

Englishwoman attempts snowshoeing.

 Although I've lived here two years I still feel nervous about explaining the French thing. Most of my Brit friends are highly amused that these North Americans are pretending to live in France. Just don't say that anywhere near me, please. Lots of sensitivity about heritage, domination by English-speakers, etc. but fortunately no longer any terrorism and it's been 15 years since the last referendum calling for separation from Canada.

A June sunset in the Laurentians

I might live in a unilingual province but I'm in an anglo enclave in a French province. Try learning French in it. Very difficult. One whiff of a bad accent and everyone just speaks to you in English anyway. It can seem like a strange world. Even the homeless here have signs in French and English and imagine waiting for your friend's long answering machine message in two languages. Very tedious. Kissing on two cheeks is standard so prepare early to leave any party. However
there are lots of free French lessons for new immigrants.

The Plateau: the coolest neighbourhood in North America?

The coolest part of the city is the Plateau - an area inhabited by artists and students. Not the sort of students you used to find in my local Tesco's  screaming down their mobile phones, "Love you, mummy" but real hip dudes. Better still, they frequent hip bars, restos, clubs and galleries which we can visit too and pretend to be hip. Well, I am a Geordie after all.

Anne Kostalas is a freelance journalist, filmmaker and broadcaster who emigrated to Montreal from Newcastle, England in 2008. You can read her regular blog here Dear England, Love Canada.


  1. I absolutely LOVE this post!!! :-) I grew up in Canada and you brought back such fabulous memories. :-) How I grinned at the frozen pantlegs and noses, the maple syrup everything, and oh, those wonderful skating parties. How I miss it. :-) Thank you!

  2. Enjoyed this article. It is amazing how differnt expats act differently. Sounds like you having fun and making the most of the experience.

  3. Hey, really great blog post… I've enjoyed reading through your blog because of the great style and energy.

    I actually work for the CheapOair travel blog. If you're interested, we would love to have you on as a guest blogger. Please send me an e-mail: gchristodoulou(at)cheapoair(dot)com, and I can give you more information. Looking forward to hearing from you.


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