Before leaving Ireland, I thought I was cool. I wore black trench coats and berets, often without irony. I watched bizarre movies with subtitles, usually while sipping a wine I knew nothing about.
I worked as a news reporter for a national paper in Dublin, but would spend my days off in cafes or in museums, engaging in that hipster passion of “people-watching”.
Admittedly, I wasn’t that cool. However, in an Irish context, I would have been described as “cultured”. I guess that’s a polite way of saying “pretentious”.
Considering my over-inflated sense of my own sophistication, it was only right that I left Dublin for a North American Mecca of hipsterdom. Ok, so it’s not Portland, Oregon. But for a clueless European, Montreal comes pretty close.
With three suitcases, a crumpled folder of visa documents and fantasies about being friends with the members of Arcade Fire, I left Ireland in search of a new, artistic, Franco-Canadian lifestyle.
After waiting anxiously in a queue at Montreal’s immigration – during which time a young American woman was sent home because of an error in her CV – I tentatively approached the desk. Within seconds of me opening my mouth, the agent’s stern demeanour softened. Minutes later, her enthusiasm was unabashed.
I was quizzed about the weather, Ireland’s heavy rain in particular. I was asked if I liked traditional bars, and if I was any way musically-inclined.
Perhaps this was benign stereotyping on the part of the agent, but I was just glad I got my visa. Better still, I wasn’t asked to perform Riverdance.
Therefore, my first lesson on Canadian soil was a simple one: Never undervalue an Irish passport. It may be boring to hail from an innocuous island nation, but it has its perks when abroad.
Several other life lessons followed in my first week. Mostly, they were to do with boring things like money transfers, public transport and the perils of using Canadian ATMs with an Irish debit card. But my initial questions about Canadian life were slightly shallower than wanting to know if splashing out on an STM card was worth it.
The most common queries I had during that time were: “Should I say ‘tabernak’ and ‘osti’ in casual conversation?” or “How is everyone here so good-looking, but so nice at the same time?”
Three days after my arrival, I had my first Canadian room viewing. It was a subterranean apartment in the heart of the Plateau, complete with a friendly cat and a fridge overflowing with vegan produce from Segal’s. The kitchen and living area was painted in jarring shades of orange, yellow and bright green. None of the chairs or sofas matched. It was perfect.
I would be living with three other guys around my age – all Canadian, all unbelievably nice, all achingly cool. I was intimidated. Suddenly I didn’t feel so hip anymore.
So, when my prospective housemates invited me to an art exhibition launch, I felt my stomach drop. I wanted to go, but I didn’t want to damage my chances of getting the room. What if they discovered how lame I truly was?
In hindsight, going to the Glass Door Gallery on Saint Laurent was one of the best things I did since I’ve arrived. I met the closest friends I have at the launch. I don’t mean to dismiss Dublin, but I’m not sure if I’d make as many buddies at a similar event there.
The clique mentality I had noticed in other places wasn’t at this event, and convinced me that Montreal is different.
Here, it seems like everyone in this city has a story to tell, a niche interest that sets them apart. They each have something that makes them unique, but not in a way that seems forced or overly self-aware.
Talents like playing an instrument, writing poetry or photography aren’t treated as half-hearted personality embellishments, used only to impress people. These talents aren’t buzzwords or humblebrags to make you seem more interesting. They are sincere, honest parts of the people who live here.
I have since met a few people who insist that Montreal is painfully pompous. But those few people seem in no hurry to leave, so I can’t imagine life here is too difficult to bear.
All this happened just over two months ago, and it’s taken me quite a while to process everything. Montreal isn’t the perfect city – the ever-present construction works and ‘trottoir barré’ signs are testament to that. But the promise of sunny days in the park have softened these sudden realizations. I’ve recently found full-time work, which should awaken me from this lazy millennial stupor I’ve been in since arriving.
I’d like to think this column may help to articulate my changing feelings about Montreal, while documenting my experiences here – from the brilliant to the downright bizarre. If readers would like to leave suggestions of super-cool or sketchy locales to visit, I’d be thrilled. Until then, I live in hope of getting an interview with Regine Chassagne.