2013/08/25

Je me souviendrai - My first day in Montreal -



Just realized that it’s been already 10 years since I first visited Canada.

Oh Canada.

I wrote about how tough their winter days were like, but the day I landed there was equally hard… or “the longest day of my life” so far…

I ended up working there, but the original intention to go there was to study French for a couple of months. I was 23, just finished my univ and it could be any other francophone countries (like France?) But with recommendation from the person who knows me from childhood, and because there were some musicians that I liked at that time, I chose Montreal, Québec.

Québec is known to be the francophone province in Canada, but in the city of Montreal, at least in downtown/office place, people speak English as well. I thought it was interesting and convenient since I’d never even lived in English speaking country, thinking I could practice both languages at the same time.

Before leaving, I tried to gather as much information as I could. Reading guidebooks, talking to people who’s been there, joining a seminar of Canadian embassy, calling airlines…etc, it was my very first solo trip, so I couldn’t be too prepared or careful… I chose one school from “recommended language school in Montreal” which offers airport pickup and dorm room.

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As you can imagine, I had really nervous flight. For most of the time, I kept pulling out airport maps, connection flight ticket, guidebook or school confirmation paper, and then putting them back. The idea of going to Canada alone used to be exciting like “new country! new life!” but when I actually jumped onto the plane, I felt so anxious and couldn’t believe what I’d done…

So after that uneasy flight (Tokyo-Vancouver-Montreal, 18 hours in total), I finally arrived in Montreal. The city which often described as “Paris of the North”. The city where Rufus Wainwright and Godspeed You! were from. I was moved for a second, but the tiredness beat that quickly… it was around 10pm and I just wanted to lie down… As I was approaching to the arrival gate, I practiced some words in French to tell to school staff; “Bonjour. Merci d'être venu me chercher. (Thank you for picking me up)” I imagined that someone holding a card with my name on it or something…

The arrival gate was not that big place and there weren’t many people. I carefully looked around to spot my name or school name, but no one seemed to have it. So I waited there, assuming the school staff forgot to bring the name card… “I’m the only Asian here, so he/she can guess it’s me from the confirmation paper…”

Half an hour passed. No one came and talked to me. Most of them were gone home and there was just a few people at the arrival gate. I started to ask those people if they were looking for me. Everyone looked puzzled and said no. I felt like I was a little kid waiting for my mom to pick me up at the kindergarten… I even tried to imagine that the person who was supposed to pick me up got sick and tried to check alternatives, so was delayed. (When I look back, I was quite optimistic! :) I waited for another half an hour, and then decided to call the school to check.

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But of course, what kind of school opens after 10pm? There were some numbers but all of them directly went to voicemail… I was in panic mode; The school told me that airport pick-up staff would take me to the dorm, now that he/she doesn’t show up, I don’t know where to go!! I don’t know this city, I don’t know anyone here, all I have is a school address!! Since the airport was about to close, the only option I could think of at that time was, to get a taxi and go to this school address…

You see, when you go to different country, the first local person you speak to is likely to be a taxi driver. And, let’s be honest, taxi drivers tend to have ‘real’ local accent. No one talks like a Audio textbook actors. And for people who studied language for years and finally got the moment to try it with local people, this first contact may destroy their confidence in language skills. To me, it totally did. I couldn’t understand what they were saying… so I just handed the school address.

About 15 minutes later, the taxi driver said something and suddenly stopped the car. He called other taxi drivers from the window and started to talk. (I was just horrified…) And then he told me in English “This address is no in Montreal” while pointing at the street block number. …the school address doesn’t exist?? He and I got off the car and made sure if we didn’t miss anything… but couldn’t find that specific number. (However, there was a school very close to that non-existent address, and I banged and screamed to that building’s door to open. The taxi driver stopped me, I guess it’s his turn to be horrified.) I don’t remember what conversation I had with him after that, but he said he would find a place for me to stay and dropped me off at the dorm-looking house… saying good luck and charging me $80 (FYI: Airport-downtown taxi is usually around $40). Thank you driver.

I can’t recall whether it was a some kind of youth hostel or something else. The place he brought me was flooded with drunk people; entrance and lobby was full of smoke from funny smell cigarettes, and many of them were holding condoms. And the hyper energetic receptionist told me that I should share a room with 5 other fun people. As I felt it was too much after the long flight and hassles, I declined and asked her to call a taxi… while I’m waiting among these cheerful people, I decided to stay at the hotel which is close to that non-existent address… that way it would be easier in the morning, and I really needed to lie down at somewhere peaceful…

So, another taxi came. And another communication with papers and another extortionate charge occurred. But finally I arrived somewhere I can sleep… it was past 1am.

First thing I did after I’d checked in at the hotel was to call the school and left the message to their voicemail. Their voicemail said something more informative than “please leave a message” but I couldn’t understand, so I called like a hundred times. No joke. I was completely exhausted but couldn’t sleep because of massive amount of anxiety. “It should’ve started smoothly… I may need to find a place until I find the school… or maybe I should change my flight and go back...” I called my mom, unpack my baggage and neatly put it back, and spent the whole night holding Yellow Page and crying on the bed.

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After 9am, the school finally answered my call and asked me to come to the school office because “it’s just around the corner”. And they said the address was just a typo. Well, at least the school exists… (At one point, I doubt if it was a setup.) It was a part of the college building and there was no sign of school name in the front, so I went as they instructed.

The school staff took me to the president’s room and I showed him my confirmation paper without saying anything. (Obviously I had millions of things to say but didn’t know where to start...) The administration guy standing at the corner of the room suddenly started to talk to the president to prove it wasn’t his fault. He went “this girl doesn’t understand the language, so she probably thought she registered it in a right way while it actually wasn’t. I couldn’t find any confirmation on my list.” He thought I don’t understand what he said, but my French listening skill seemed to be dramatically improved during the last night’s voicemail lesson – so I pulled another confirmation paper, which was an email correspondence with that administration guy and passed it to them.

After some ugly internal accusations, the admin guy left the room and the president explained to me that my application form for school and dorm were not processed correctly. He said he will find a place for me to stay, pulling up a list of houses, and started to make a call from the top. After an hour or so, he found a house where I can stay from that afternoon. A house which listed at the very bottom of that list. I remember he was begging. I wasn’t expected to live with local family, but he said this “homestay” should be just a temporary thing until he finds a dorm room. (But of course, he never did..)

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The house was situated in very francophone area. (note: In this city, you’ll gradually learn where to switch language by people’s reactions. People in some areas feel very protective about their own language and heritage.) And the room I was taken to was in basement with no curtains and no lock. Well, there was a lock but it was a lock from the outside and not from the inside… I felt strange, but didn’t care much at that time, I hadn’t slept for 2 days and I just needed to sleep… (but later this caused some problems but that’s for another time) It was around 1pm, and right after I closed the room door, I fell asleep….

     … and I think it was around 8 or 9pm, someone tried to wake me up. When I opened my eyes, there was a teenage boy standing next to the bed with very surprised look. I think he asked me like “Are you a friend of my brother?” I said something like “No, this is my bed” and went back to sleeping.

Then, I just slept slept slept till the next morning. And when I got up, I found that teenage boy was sleeping on the couch. Later on, I discovered that the room I stayed in was his room until I arrived. It happened all too sudden and he wasn’t informed from his family at all. So for him, he went to school from his room as usual and came back home as usual, and found unknown Asian girl sleeping in his bed claiming “this is my bed”. Hm, that must have been confusing enough. He never spoke to me since then...

The first photo I took in Montreal. A view from the hotel.
 I thought this will be the first and last photo…

And that was my first day in Canada. It was way too long and stressful start, and when I look back on it, I wonder why I decided to stay in that city for 3 more years :D (But I quit that school after 2 months!) Also, I’m surprised how poorly I handled that situation… if it’s happening now, I would just call a taxi, check in airport nearby hotel, and call up a school next morning (plus, calling an institute which published “recommended school list” very politely). But probably I can say this because now I know a bit of their culture and custom…

Starting that day, so many things had happened. One of the things I realized through those good and bad days was, even though I went to Canada to experience foreign culture and languages, I actually was the someone foreign in that country. (duh, you might say…) So physically I leaped miles and miles away and going “outside”, what I needed to do there was to look inside, reflect on myself. I know some can enjoy and handle it right, but to me it wasn’t always easy to be honest. But I’m glad that I did.

Anyway, everyone has their first time, and this was my “first time”. After 10 years, I’m happy that I can laugh about this and share it with you.


Thank you for reading till the end. :) 




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