Life lines: A car-taunting, French-talking primer to Montreal

There are two things newcomers immediately notice as they take their first steps into the heart of Montreal: the speaking of French and the honking of horns.

Now naturally, being a newcomer, it took me a while to differentiate between the two. But as I did, I realized that Montrealers honk their horns as often as they speak French – which is quite often.

For me, this step into Montreal was Ste. Catherine. It seems to stretch out unendingly from one side to another, offering a rainbow of cafés, malls, street-musicians, and bars. My eyes fell on a particularly bright sparkling of lights above a café about two blocks down.

But after being honked at once, nearly driven over twice, and finding that my apologies in French to various drivers usually caused them to also reply in French, I resolved to go to a much more mundane, much less sparkly, but much closer café.

Once seated I made two clear mental notes: one, keep working on speaking French; two, start working on understanding it.

I ordered a glass of white wine, since this is the one thing I can say feeling relatively certain my accent hasn’t changed it into “raw wildebeest” or something of the sort, and then I sat back and watched my new home through the café’s large windows.

And yes, despite having just arrived, home it has become. The stories you hear about Montreal’s mirth and joie de vivre are not mere stories. There are indeed restaurants that let you bring your own wine and the air is truly too crisp for its urban setting.

Not simply seeing, but feeling the culture is something that does not happen in every city. Thousands of students have arrived here as complete foreigners, and even though we’re still figuring out whether or not Mont Royal is an actual mountain, we know that we’ll leave here as friends.

About leaving, I did a lot better walking back home from the café. I noticed I was not alone in my pedestrian battle against the cars and that many soldiers were fighting by my side. So together we taunted drivers, waiting right on the line and starting to walk a fraction before the green light came on while making damn certain to let the drivers know in solid French if they came too close.

I had walked a good six blocks with my brothers in arms when I realized I was walking in the wrong direction. But c’est la vie; it did not even dent the forming love for my new home.

Where else in North America could I order white wine during midday and not get as much as a double-take from the waiter?

Life Lines will appear every Monday. You can contact Johanu at, especially if you know what comes after “Je me souviens.”