Alexandre Duval is a freelance blogger who writes about various topics, including travel and hotel accommodations in Montreal, where he is currently completing his master's degree in political science at the University of Quebec in Montreal.
Traveling to a given city for the very first time always is a great experience, especially when it is located in a country you are not so familiar with: some of your cultural benchmarks suddenly reveal themselves insufficient to navigate in an environment you have so much to discover about. Documenting yourself before starting your journey definitely is the best way to quickly get accustomed to foreign ways of living and blend into the scenery like a local. Therefore, here are five things you ought to know before you travel to Montreal, Canada's second largest city.
1. ''Bonjour! Comment ca va?''
People who go on a trip to Montreal sometimes think that everybody there speaks English since they live in Canada. Well, this is not exactly the case! Montreal is the world's second largest French-speaking city in the world, just behind Paris. If it is true that Montreal has a strong English character with its considerable proportion of native English speakers and its two Anglophone universities, the majority of its inhabitants remain francophone.
It is true that Canada officially is a bilingual country. This doesn't mean, however, that everybody from coast to coast speaks both French and English: broadly put, it simply means that federal (Canadian) government authorities are required to offer services to its citizens in both languages. But apart from that, there is only one officially bilingual province in Canada, and it is New Brunswick. Quebec, with over 80% of its population having French as its mother tongue, therefore has French as its only official language: this is why, for example, pretty much all signs and billboards in Montreal are predominantly written in Moliere's language.
Of course, in most—if not all—of the downtown shops, boutiques, and restaurants, pretty much every worker is able to communicate in English with the customers: the unique character of Montreal, its status as a world-class city, and the historical importance of its English community all combine to explain why many locals indeed are bilingual. But most of the time, clerks will address customers in French in the first place and then switch to English if necessary. Moreover, in very busy downtown places, approaching customers with the uncanny formula ''Bonjour, hi'' has become a convention.
2. Can I cross the street yet?
Montreal can be incredibly enigmatic when it comes to movement, sometimes! In fact, pedestrians are not always told by a ''walk sign'' when it is time to cross the street. At the city's busiest intersections, there usually is an automated sign indicating when crossing is safe. But in many spots, one simply has to cross when the traffic light is green! Motorists know that very well, however, and are quite respectful of the priority pedestrians have over them when the light goes green.
This is not New York City, but at times it can sound like it is, with all these people honking their horn! Even though car divers in Montreal tend to be very careful with pedestrians—and to a lesser extent with cyclists—they are not exactly what one could call ''courteous'' with each other, and this can be a little challenge for a foreigner who wants to rent a car a drive through Montreal for the first time.
Traffic in Montreal is no absolute chaos though; driving downtown definitely is feasible! But it does call for a high level of attention. Taxi drivers sometimes seem to enjoy driving on more than one single lane, some drivers honk their horn as soon as the light turns green, potholes are so numerous that trying to avoid them actually is more dangerous than not trying to, etc. And one always has to bear in mind that when he or she wants to take it left or right, pedestrians have the priority when the light turns green!
4. Take a number!
Montrealers love it when everything is done on a first-come, first-served basis. In some parts of the world, one can wait for public transit without having a precise idea of who arrived first at the bus stop: everybody just clusters in an unorganized manner until the bus arrives and when it does, people elbow their ways to determine who will get on first. In Montreal such a thing is absolutely inconceivable!
In fact, Montreal bus riders naturally line up one behind the other in an orderly manner so that the person who got to the bus stop first will also inevitably be the first one to get on. Every traveler ought to know it, because queuing up is sacred in Montreal! People do it on escalators, too: those staying on the same stair until they get to the upper floor automatically stick to the right so that those who are in a hurry can go faster on the left-hand side.
5. Une poutine, s'il vous plait!
Montrealers—actually all Quebecois people—love their poutine. Made of French fries, secret gravy and squeaky cheese curds, poutine is Quebec's official junk food. People eat it in the summer because there is nothing like a poutine on a terrace, they eat it in the winter because there is nothing as comforting as poutine when it is -20 degrees outside, they it eat at night on their way home after they went out: poutine is THE meal!
Some restaurants offer modified versions of poutine, some of it with blue cheese, or with duck… even with foie gras! What a voyage gastronomique! Poutine indeed has evolved to please everyone, even the greatest epicurians! One thing is sure: you absolutely cannot go to Montreal and omit to eat poutine. But if you want your experience to be completely satisfying, just don't go anywhere they serve it (even McDonald's restaurants in Quebec have adapted their menu to offer poutine!): ask a local where the best spot to have poutine is, and he or she will know for sure!
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