Suzie, studying at Université de Montréal, Canada
It is currently twenty past five on New Years Eve. I am sat with a snoring three legged dog, feeling the warmth return to my limbs after a romp through the snow (three legs doesn’t slow him down!), and pondering what the next chapter in my year abroad will bring.
In many ways my experience of studying oversees has not been a typical one. My partner of four years decided to join me for my stay in Montreal, working in an English call centre to help pay for our studio flat. The place came unfurnished so we had to buy everything from scratch; combine this with our foster dog and sometimes it almost feels as though we are here to stay, rather than being temporary residents.
In truth, staying has its attractions. People are friendlier here, the weather is less grey and there seem to be numerous job opportunities in the technology and arts industries. Due to the exchange rate and far lower rents, our living standards are dramatically different to what they were in London. There is a swimming pool in our block, and we can actually afford to spend some cash on exploring the country. When I first arrived I had thought that I would be doing just that almost every weekend, though the reality is that I’ve often found myself too exhausted mentally and emotionally (sometimes even physically!) to do much more than take a lie in and get my things in order for the next week ahead.
I study at the Université de Montréal (aka UdeM), in which all my classes are in French. This fact alone makes for a challenging ride. I must admit that I questioned what the hell I was thinking after sitting down to my first lecture (political sociology) that lasted for three hours, spoken in Quebecois French that sounded completely foreign to me, and not understanding a single word. Naturally, my abilities with the language have improved over these first four months, though it can be difficult to notice progress when it is made – it’s all too easy to focus on what you do understand rather than what you don’t. That said, I can now make small talk with those I meet out and about, I understand the gist of most of my lectures, and the time it takes to wrestle through 20 pages of reading has dramatically lessened. One of my New Year’s resolutions is to join a French conversation group, as I still need more confidence with my spoken French.
It really surprised me just how nervous I can be when struggling to find my words, and it’s made me realise how much I have taken my ability to communicate in my own language for granted up until now. When you speak in a second language you risk sounding stupid or incompetent, you cannot put your personality into your words and often face the embarrassment of completely getting the wrong end of the stick. This makes finding friends hard, and it can be very tempting to hide away in my apartment rather than pushing myself to get out there and meet people. In many ways, studying in a foreign language can be a rather solitary experience, and I am slowly learning the art of being alone.
This might sound a little downhearted, but I have come to think of it as a hugely positive experience. It can be hugely liberating to be so dependent on myself, and I have enjoyed throwing myself into the unknown. From apple picking in the autumn, to walking up Mont Royal in the snow, every new scene is a pleasure to my senses. I love the scale of the country; you can see mountains and lakes from any of the higher points of Montreal, so the grandeur of nature often makes itself felt. I’ve taken hikes up a couple of these mountains, and the expansive views make you realise just how small we are in such a big world. I’ve also had fun within Montreal itself: sporting a fine Joker costume for a Halloween party, attempting to perform handstands in my Capoeira class, tasting many different cuisines in throughout the city, going to see a concert of Les Cowboys Fringants (a lively folk-rock band whose lyrics speak to Quebec’s separatists) and spending Christmas Eve watching fireworks over the ice skating rink at the old port, sipping complementary hot chocolate and huddling by bonfires for warmth. I now have the long, cold winter to look forward to, but I hope to make the most of it with skiing, skating and snow tubing.
Geek culture is much more popular here than it is in the UK, which suits me well! My partner and I have enjoyed board gaming nights at Chez Geeks in downtown, and I’ve spent many a movie night watching action films with my new friends (there is also a cinema where every film costs $1 – amazing!). I’ve even been able to study the arts that I love, taking courses in video games and cinema. I never expected my exchange to shape my academic interests, but UdeM has done just that. It has given me the confidence in the creative industries as a viable career choice, and encouraged me to follow my passions, rather than the courses which I somehow feel I ought to take. In many ways, the expected academic level is lower here than back home, yet this has allowed me to refine my ideas, and focus on presenting them clearly and concisely, rather than rambling on about some grand schemes for pages and pages…
…On that note, I realise that this post is starting to become a little too long! I have been working on my own blog to keep track of my time here, so if you’d like to read more about Montreal and Canada, please do so here. If you are considering studying here yourself and have any questions, write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Now I’m off to play Batman, cuddle the dog, and later return to the Old Port for New Years celebrations!