I drove down to New York City with four friends last weekend to bike the 5 Boro Bike Tour. When we crossed into the United States, the border official asked us where we were all from. Without hesitation we unanimously replied “Montreal”, but our origins are a bit more disparate than that. Packed tightly into my little blue sedan were: a West-Coast Canadian, a Franco-Ontarian, an Ohioan with a mixed-up-anything-but-Midwest accent, a Spaniard, and me, an Australian.
Travelling to another country, or perhaps even another city or province, seems to change where you are from. In Montreal, I am from Australia. If I go somewhere else, I am now from Montreal, a claim that I relish and enjoy.
Driving down to a different city, in a different country, emphasized all the little things about Montreal that I stop noticing after time. Things like the changes in architecture, the peculiar habits of coffee shops and their filtered coffee, or the significant lack of Peugeot bikes. But the most obvious was that I no longer was trying to speak another language, and in that absence I realized how much of a reflex French has become in my day-to-day. In some ways, it was pleasant respite: suddenly, I didn’t have to rehearse conversations in my head before going into a store, or furtively take out my phone mid-conversation to look up related vocabulary. No more googling conjugations or wondering about if something is a “le” or a “la”.
It’s strange to live in a constant state of learning like that. It must be even tougher for many immigrants; at least I can fall back on my English – in public if necessary, and at home routinely. But still, I wonder how my changing skills in French will affect my relationship with Montreal. Working as an English teacher and studying at an anglophone university, I find it hard to truly escape the “English bubble” in Montreal. However, as I begin to enter more francophone working environments (where it sometimes takes me fifteen minutes to agonize over a two-sentence e-mail), I wonder if the increasing pressures of speaking French in a more high-stakes environment (as opposed to the dog park) will change my relationship with the language and the city. I hope I’ll be able to handle the pressures that so many other newcomers to Montreal must deal with in a much more time sensitive manner. I take a certain amount of pride in having come as far as I have with my French skills, but it did surprise me at how much of a respite it can still be, not even having to make the choice between French and English for a whole weekend.
As we approached the Canadian border on our way home, late on Monday evening, it began to rain. After a hot and sticky day, the cool rain was nice relief, washing the dust off the car and the splattered bugs off the windshield. We all got a little bit nervous as we approached. For those of us on visas, it’s a natural feeling; what if, for some reason, this is the time that we don’t get let in? But even the Canadians in the car were nervous. My French-Canadian friend repeated over and over again to herself “where do I live? Montreal. What do I do? Studying for a PhD. Where do I live? Montreal..”. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you are from, you still feel stressed when someone questions your origins.
In the end the agent only asked for the license plate number of the vehicle, and how much alcohol we were bringing in. As a final guilty pleasure, I spoke to him in English. Partly as I didn’t want to make a mistake when declaring the goods we had purchased, but partly as one last incrementally more relaxed conversation in the public sphere before heading back to my love affair with Google Translate, BonPatron and linguee.com. Perfectly under our duty free limit, we happily rolled away and breathed a sigh of relief at leaving the US behind. Home again, with the speed limits finally comprehensible, in kilometres instead of miles.