Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Immigrating to Montreal: A Tale of Two Worlds

This is a tale of two worlds. Six months into our move to Montreal, I feel fragmented, like I need one of those time-turners that Hermione used in Book 3 to manage her busy schedule. Some days I feel like this is truly a different country, complete with its own, separate language (and I have to say, Quebecois French is certainly in a league of its own), and sometimes I feel like I'm just in a 51st State of America.

Buuuuuut...then I read the NYTimes and am quickly reminded how strange and unusual the U.S. has become and I wonder if everyone feels the same as I do right now, even if they haven't just up and moved.  I suppose everyone's world has changed.

Navigating Montreal for me feels like entering and exiting many boxes, the path between them lined in snow. Most days I wake up in my anglophone home and send my big girls off to French school and my little girl off to English school, and soon after I head off to Francisation.  We all wear boots.

Walking down the street can be a completely different experience every time, depending on who I'm walking behind.  Just as I'm straining to understand what the French speaking couple beside me is saying, another couple walk by having a lively conversation and I suddenly feel like I understand the language perfectly. Then I realize they are speaking English.  I stop in Caisse Desjardins to do some banking, and the teller and I struggle through our transaction completely in French.  I feel victorious!  Then, I walk into a cafe and order in French with a perfectly formed sentence (Un cafe regulier, s'il vous plait) and the server replies in English.  (How do they know???)  Crossing guards?  I hedge my bets and say 'Merci' in three languages.  Every job posting I've seen requires (or strongly encourages) bilingualism, and yet there are parts of this city that only speak French and parts that only speak English, and never the twain shall meet, it seems.

Arriving at my francisation class, I feel at home.  Everyone around me is an immigrant and we're all attempting to learn French together.  The big difference between me and them, though, is that they are all pretty much on their third language, and many have come from extreme circumstances and war-torn countries.  Me, I just came from the 'land of plenty', the American Dream where I always felt comfortable in my own skin and language.  Now, it depends on which box I've just entered and whether I'm speaking fluently in English or at a Kindergarten level in French.  It can be quite uncomfortable to be an immigrant, looking for the right work, looking for the right words. Luckily, I'm in a place that is welcoming.  My free French lessons are taught by one of the best teachers I've ever had, 12 hours per week, rain, shine or snow.  The big girls are quickly acquiring their new language, although I'm not sure they realize it yet.  It's not just study-abroad though.  After everything that was involved in this move, we're here for the long haul.  Six months in and it's too late to turn back, and too soon to feel truly at home here.  Is this what everyone feels like when they move countries?

I do have a new appreciation for my Mother Tongue and all the different words I can use to express myself. In French, I feel neutered.  I completely understand why my four year old's sentences are often mixed up in her attempt to express herself completely.  The difference is, a) it's cute when she says things and b) she'll forget this process as she acquires her language.  I am fully cognizant of my process of learning to speak French and it's more embarrassing than cute.  And the times I just want to be quiet, retreat and listen because my expression is so limited, are the times I have to force myself to speak, solely for the practice of forming words and not because I have anything particularly interesting or useful to say.  "Do you like the good weather we are having?"  "Bien sur!  J'aime porter mes chaussures plus que des bottes!"  (I'm sure I need to insert the subjonctif in there somewhere...)

I write all this knowing that things take time.  Knowing that in another six months, or a year, I'll have a different story to tell.  It's uncomfortable being new, being uninitiated.  It ain't easy being green!  It also engenders in me a deeper degree of empathy for immigrants, even as I experience only a fraction of the uncertainty and upheaval that an immigrant or refugee from any other country must feel.