Exchange your Story – Montreal, Canada

Author: Isanya Köhne

This week we’re travelling to the neighbouring country of last weeks’ destination. We’ve landed ourselves in a country that despite being close to the one we travelled to last week, has lots of differences. We’re back in Canada, but this time we’ll probably have to speak French as we’ve found ourselves exploring the city of Montreal. Bora, 23 years old and currently doing his master’s in accountancy and Control in Amsterdam, spent a semester abroad at McGill University. “I was really struggling between Nanyang University in Singapore and McGill in Canada. In the end I realised I would not fit in in that part of Asia simply because I enjoy nature more than a big city. That’s how McGill was placed on #1 and I ended up getting in”, Bora says.

Lots of adjusting, lots of friends

The procedure leading up to my exchange felt like I was being thrown into the deep end. There was some help from school, but I mainly had to keep track of my own application, arrange my own flights, accommodation, and basically everything else. It was a lot of work figuring everything out, but I managed in the end. I arrived way too early, without exaggerating. I arrived 2,5 weeks prior to classes and intro week, so I barely had opportunities then to meet people. There were some at my residence I occasionally spoke to, but nothing caused us to connect. It was my first time living on my own, so I was feeling unmotivated and overwhelmed being in a place I didn’t speak the language of, all by myself. Luckily, when school officially started, I got to meet enough amazing people whom I befriended and ended up doing so many fun activities such as hiking up Canadian mountains, exploring the city, going ice skating, and so on. The residence I lived at was relatively good. I had saved up some money to be able to afford a nice place when I’d go on exchange. There was a big student building with high end single rooms that had many amenities, including a library, game room, and pool. It was located downtown, which was only a ten-minute walk from school. It was at this moment I appreciated all those part time jobs I had done in advance. I found my accommodation through Google and advice from old exchange students.

The first thought I had when I arrived was ‘why did I come here? What am I doing? Can I go back home, I don’t know anyone here!’, lots of things were more French than I expected it to be in Canada. Obviously, this quickly turned around. I truly think going on exchange is valuable. You’ll learn so much. During a course I had at my home university we spoke about intercultural dialogue and different cultures in general, and back then it all sounded so abstract. However, when you go and experience life abroad, everything just falls into place. It just makes sense. I think the most valuable aspect of exchange was learning about so many different cultures through meeting new people. These people become your friends and they end up teaching you so much. I’ve gotten to visit my exchange friends in their home countries after and they’ve come to see me too. It’s amazing how these friendships will last. Whenever I visit a city now, I don’t go there as a tourist but I go as a guest to visit friends.

Know when to be direct

The biggest culture shock I experienced was that the Canadians are much more indirect compared to the Dutch. I would express my opinions when asked, which sometimes was deemed as too direct for some, causing them to be upset while that was never my intention. It also took some time for me to get used to the mandatory tipping of 15% and the exclusion of VAT in their prices. When I think back, it still doesn’t really make sense to me. I remember in the first few weeks there; my group of friends and I were yelled at by our waiter as we didn’t tip enough. It was quite the experience. Other than that, I didn’t really face any obstacles. There were lots of things to figure out but no major obstacles that prevented me from going.

When it comes to communication with the locals, I barely did. This was mainly because Montreal is a French-Canadian city, and most people speak French Canadian. I speak a little bit of French but wasn’t able to understand anything in the Quebec dialect. The people there also tended to stick together rather than mix up with the internationals. The only times I really engaged with the locals was when I was talking with an employee somewhere or I got placed in a group project with them. Funny enough I did end up making some friends from McGill but that was when they came to Amsterdam for their exchange.

My fondest memory of exchange was a day in particular where my friends and I went on top of the lookout point on the Mont Royal in Montreal. We just chilled there in the park for the entire day and talked about life while enjoying the scenery. But I’ve definitely got a few other favourite memories. These pictures show some of them; being at the park, being on a mountain in -30 degrees, dinners with friends. There’s so many good times I like to look back on.

The smell of maple syrup

My class was a mix of internationals, exchange students, and people from Quebec. Outside of class I’d hang out with the exchange students as I connected with them the most. For some reason, McGill decided to put exchange students together with the first-year students of the introduction week, so Frosh, which is what the intro week is called there, we’d spend the crazy parties and events together. It was however recognisable that we were 2-5 years older than the locals in our groups and therefore didn’t really connect with them. We stuck together and eventually all the little exchange groups would merge with one another. It was easy to connect with each other as we were all in the same boat. We had no friends, and we were looking for people to fill up those roles. My favourite part of exchange and exchange students in general, is that they’re always down for anything. Even just to crash someone’s house to chill on their couch.

I definitely had the chance to travel the country as well. I went all around the east coast of Canada, I went to Quebec City, Toronto, Ottawa, Niagara Falls, and Mt Tremblant. Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough time to visit the US. I was very close at Niagara Falls though! My favourite trip was going on to MT Tremblant, we did a hike up there in the fall and everything smelled like maple syrup. A couple months later I came back to this same mountain in -30 degrees and lots of snow, thinking that was the last thing on earth I was going to see.

Friends for a lifetime

A week in my life consisted mainly of classes throughout the week, evening chillings with friends close to campus. On Wednesdays we had something called ‘Wednesday night dinner’, which was the day we would try out a new restaurant each week. We actually managed to do this every week till we all returned home. There were lots of parties on the weekends, and we’d go on trips too. However, I also used that time to study a lot as McGill was quite an intensive university with loads of work to do for. Rent was very affordable, but food was crazily expensive and relatively bad. The Canadian dollar is valued less than the Euro so for me it was quite affordable. You do have to prepare to do some math however, as VAT prices are not included in their prices till checkout and tips are mandatory. That is really confusing in the beginning.

If you’re thinking of going on exchange, there is nothing to consider, you have to go! If your financial situation allows it, just do it! The only thing I regret doing is not going to the US, aside from that I got the full experience and I’ve continued living the exchange experience helping out at the ESN section in my home country. If you’re thinking of going to Quebec, you have to try poutine, I’m personally not a fan but it’s a must try. You also can’t skip on hiking up a mountain in the fall with the whole forest smelling like maple syrup, and then make sure to return in the winter and experience it with snow! Be prepared for the cold though, at the very end I was really longing to get out of that -20 to -30 degree weather. I’m still in contact with many people from exchange. Some people I message every day since exchange, that’s three consecutive years by now. I’ve visited almost everyone in Europe and even managed to go see my friends in Australia. Some friendships didn’t work out, but that can happen and eventually you’ve got to stop putting in effort to try and make it work.

The friends I made during my exchange made my time worth it, but I wouldn’t go back to Montreal without them. They truly made the experience complete and without them it wouldn’t feel as full as it did back then. But I’m hoping for a reunion, definitely. Doing an exchange has improved my English and writing skills, and I’ve gotten much better at talking with people from other cultures. I have a lot of conversations starters, taught to me by people from all over. I also know many obscure facts about their home countries that I like to share with others. The main take-away is that it’s not the location that’s important rather the people you meet, they’re the ones that make your exchange special. I hope everyone gets to make amazing friends and stays in touch with them after. In the future you’ll be able to learn more about your friends’ country when you get to visit them, you’ll keep exchanging your cultures.

Thank you, Bora, for exchanging your story about Montreal, Canada! Glad to see that you have learnt so much from your friends, and that you’re still in contact with them! In the end, it’s true that the people you meet along the journey make your exchange unforgettable!

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