Written by Walter Hill
In Montreal, I am an alien. I am a transplant student, a long-term vacationer. On some days, hiding my foreignness is easy. Most everyone in Montreal speaks some degree of English; McDonalds and H&M abound. There is a thin whisper of America in the capitalism, television, and urban sprawl of Montreal. But the longer I spend here, learning and experiencing Montreal and its unique brand of French, the more I feel myself tugged out to sea in a place that’s deceptively close to my own pond.
As a student studying abroad in Montreal, there is a feeling of constant, underlying smallness. I feel no ownership here. I’m more quick to apologize or keep my voice low. So far, my French is stumbling at best and non-existent at worst. The streets are unfamiliar and no one notices my footsteps. The city and its inhabitants move with a quickness. It’s a speed that isn’t so much unusually fast as it is dissonant and off-key to my American senses. I’ve locked eyes with countless strangers and each moment has felt oddly similar in that there is no moment. In my mind, I am spotted, marked as a non-native, shrunk down to the accompanying size, and then passed over. These people have their own local lives to live. I imagine this must be what Copernicus felt like when he deduced that our solar system orbited the sun instead of Earth. I feel my perspective shifting slightly each day.
I began to understand just how far from home I was as I sat in the stands of a Montreal Canadiens hockey game last week. The pre-game spectacle was standard major league fare complete with a booming announcer and blinding flashes of light. The players were announced, and the opposing team was welcomed with jeers. And then we all stood for the national anthem. I was surprised that the first was a rendition of the “Star-Spangled Banner.” The guest singer performed the song among the respectful silence of the crowd. “O Canada” followed. My three American friends and I stood in silence as the entire stadium beautifully sang out the Canadian national anthem alongside the singer. I listened in awe as the crowd wove between French and English lyrics and never missed a note.
I was an outsider, granted the privilege to witness the unifying hymn of a country sung by thousands who knew the land and its history far better than I ever could hope to. It was a concrete realization that the world and its people do in fact exist in their own context and not just on TV headlines.
My window to the world cracked open wider that night. I learned that there is power in this nagging smallness. My tiny, anchorless time in Quebec is a telescope into things undiscovered about myself and my place. It is a chance to see things I would have never known, capture moments worth capturing. Being here and not being from here, in and of itself, is a free perk of this experience that’s written in the fine print.
I’m never quite comfortable in my insecure foreigner blanket, but it is a feeling I would like to hold onto. I can feel this place stretching me and my understanding on every street corner and in each subway car. I know my time here will end sooner than it feels, and I’m already plotting far off chances to be a foreigner again. After all, Mexico is only a border away.
Montreal is changing the way my mind reckons with my place in the world and giving my own small world a newfound size. I’m only a month into my stay amongst our northern neighbors, and I plan to draw my horizon a bit longer still before I pack it up for the trip back south.