Twenty Cultural Insights into Life in Montreal: Little-known Eccentricities About Everyday Life
24 April, 2017
If you are planning to move to Montreal, there are a few things you might want to be aware of in advance. These are things that will quickly become apparent once you actually start living here, for better or worse. Fear not––they are not deal-breakers; so if you’ve already decided to make the leap across the pond (or the border), packed up the family, sold the house, closed your bank account…you’re OK! Don’t worry! Knowing about these cultural eccentricities in advance will just help you to adjust your expectations and be better prepared to deal with a few of the realities of living here.
Ready? Take a deep breath, and read on.
1. Video games: Montreal has the fifth-largest video-game industry in the world.
3. McGill: McGill University (Canada’s equivalent of an Ivy League college, though that term is not used here) is located in the city.
4. Point Zero: Boulevard Saint-Laurent (Saint Lawrence Boulevard), which more or less splits the island in two, is Point Zero. Literally. All East-West addresses begin at Boulevard Saint-Laurent, making for identical addresses that progressively increase in number from that point outward. When searching for an address on the island, be sure to verify whether it is on the East side or the West side!
5. Uni: Four-year undergraduate institutions are not called “college” here, as they are in the United States: They are called “university,” or more popularly “uni.”
6. Fashion: In the summertime, eclectic personal styles are flaunted in the streets and are fascinating to watch: a large number of mostly young people get around the city on skateboards or rollerblades, sporting tattoos, or piercings, or dyed rad-chic hairstyles…usually all 4 at the same time. Watching one of these hipsters skateboard their way down a street while balancing a grocery bag in one hand and a cell phone in the other is just another day in the life of a regular Montrealer.
7. Depanneurs: Convenience stores are called depanneurs, and these can be found on most street corners. Depanner literally means, in French, to get (someone or something) out of a fix.
8. Pennies: 1-cent coins (ie, pennies) have been abolished, not just in Quebec but across Canada. The Government of Canada moved to eliminate pennies from the currency in 2012. So change is now rounded up to the nearest five-cent value. You gain some, you lose some…in the end, I suppose, it’s more practical as you end up with a lot less change to carry around.
9. Neighborhood settlement patterns: Immigration patterns in Montreal have created truly unique neighborhoods. While Montreal officially has a Chinatown and a Little Italy, both of these are a shadow of what they once were. After the Quebec referendum for independence from Canada, many industries and non-francophone populations left the province for the more stable shores of Toronto, building that city and its economy into the powerhouse that it is today. Among the immigrant populations that left in significant numbers were Italians, leaving Little Italy a smaller version of what it once was. What is perhaps even more interesting, though, is all the unofficial communities that still exist today, and that only locals are aware of. Here is the list (unofficially): Park Extension/Mile End is Greek Town; a little further south of that is Little Portugal; the Plamondon metro area is Little Philippines; the Plateau is Little France; and the St-Michel metro area is Little Maghreb. In addition, the area around Beaudry metro station is officially the Gay Village; and the autonomous neighborhood of Outremont has a significantly large (perhaps the largest) Hasidic Jewish population in the city. The city’s multiculturalism and its unique immigrant settlement patterns give Montreal a cultural richness that most other cities in Canada should rightly envy.
10. Street art: Street art is everywhere. And it’s loud. And it’s gorgeous.
11. Graffiti: Graffiti is everywhere in Montreal. Some may argue that graffiti is street art, but I beg to differ. For me, graffiti constitutes a name or a phrase that is scribbled on public property to make a statement. But street art is an aesthetic production sprayed out on entire walls (mostly with pre-authorization and, requiring a lot more talent and work) that not only makes a statement but provides the public with something beautiful and thought-provoking to look at.
12. The Penguin Shuffle: When the snow melts a little bit or is pelted by freezing rain, the city sidewalks often turn into skating rinks characterized by sheets of slippery ice. This calls for a special walk, here in Canada and Quebec, that is commonly referred to as the Penguin Shuffle.
13. Winter tires: Canadians change their tires twice per year––in the spring, to put on their regular or four-season tires; and in December, to put on their winter tires. Don’t know what winter tires are? Go here for more information.
14. Metro escalators: The escalators in the metro system are pretty much out of order more often than they work, so don’t depend on them. The Montreal metro system is generally not handicap friendly, although efforts are being made in recent years to introduce elevators into the major stations where commuters change lines.
15. Moving Day: July 1st is Moving Day. This applies not just to Montreal, but to the entire province of Quebec. So take this into account if you are planning to celebrate Canada Day! (Tip: Ottawa is your best bet for a great Canada Day celebration, as there is not much celebratory spirit in Quebec; June 24, which is St. Jean-Baptiste Day or the Quebec national holiday, in contrast, is the most celebrated holiday of the year. Ottawa is not only a conveniently close alternative for Canada Day celebrations, but also the nation’s capital.) Additionally, in Quebec, leases are typically signed for 1 year, so you are pretty much stuck where you live for the duration of that year. And you most likely will want to move at the end of that year because the quality of rental apartments in the city is, generally speaking, terrible.
16. Bed bugs: On that note, Montreal (not unlike some other North American cities, to be fair) has a huge bed bug infestation problem. The city provides guidance on what to do if your apartment is infested. Here is an additional guide to help you.
17. High taxes: In Quebec, sales tax is 15%, and tips are an extra 15%. Whatever you buy, with few exceptions such as produce, be prepared to tack on an extra $1.50 for every 10 dollars you spend. And if you are dealing with the service industry where tipping is expected (restaurants, bars, taxis, etc.), you’re looking at an extra 30% on top of the asking price.
18. Bike theft: Montreal is the #1 bike-theft capital of (…the world? It could certainly be a top contender!): To leave a bicycle chained up here is doom. And to leave it unchained is lunacy. Make sure you use a U-lock when you take your bike out, and don’t let it out of your sight. Also, don’t chain it to your balcony at home (bikes have been known to disappear from fifth-floor apartment balconies in the dead of night), or do so at your own peril. Better to lock it up inside your home. If you decide to buy a second-hand bicycle, ask for the original receipt of purchase to make sure you’re not purchasing a stolen bicycle; never has there been a livelier black market for bicycles than online marketplaces like Kijiji.
19. Language politics: Language politics infuse every aspect of daily life in Montreal. Read more about it here and take note of pastagate, which pretty much sums up the whole situation. Oh, and by the way, Bill 14 did pass.
20. The Language Police: Oh, yes. Quebec has a Language Police (Police de la Langue), and watch out––they might be coming after you.