Growing up in Los Angeles, I found it difficult to envision life in Montreal. It’s similar to how my fellow Canadians who haven’t been to Southern California imagine Hollywood as a strictly glamorous haunt, with California girls gallivanting in their bikinis while Abercrombie models surf to class. This is not to say that I ever believed the prevalent Great White North clichés: the snow-shrouded expanse where Canadians guzzle beer, worship hockey, and tout “a-boot” and “eh” all day long. I suppose my father, a native Montrealer himself, dispelled me of such nonsense by exposing me to the real stuff, such as Leonard Cohen, Gordon Lightfoot, Coffee Crisp and of course, Schwartz’s brisket. I’m illegally forced to sneak this hunk of meat in my suitcase every time I fly home, along with stashes of 222s – or else I am literally not welcomed back in the house.
Still, I couldn’t help but let my own expectations run wild. Clad in stylish white winter boots, a matching coyote-ruffed Snow Goose parka and a darling pink tutu, I saw myself skating down a bustling downtown street with my hair billowing in a light winter breeze. Perhaps, on my way to meet a pal for coffee, a bus would scurry by and splash me with muddy slush (sound HBO familiar?) while cute boys pelted me with snowballs. In this dream, not only did I have a Québécois boyfriend, but our romantic escapades contributed to my immediate fluency in French.
Upon arriving in Montreal, though, I learned that I would have to overcome any number of obstacles before becoming Miss Montreal. One of the first and most formidable, for me, was the need to grapple with a foreign public transportation system, an otherwise mundane task that has triggered the same bouts of anxiety that my mom suffered after arriving from Israel, when she found it necessary to make her way along six-lane freeways and four-level interchanges.
Back in sunny California, there is a definite divide between those who drive and those who must bus, bike, or (shudder) walk. Where I lived, the only other reason people walked was to lose weight or indulge the dog. Public transportation, which usually involves a route with one bus an hour that runs late and takes too long to get anywhere worth going, is strictly for the unwashed. Better-heeled Angelenos, in contrast, will pile into the family Lexus for a jaunt to the corner supermarket, organize intricate carpools in platoon-sized Hummers to schlep their kids to endless after-school enrichment activities, or simply hire expensive babysitters to chauffer their precious progeny to acting workshops and auditions.
In Montreal, my Ottawa-bred cousin, who also attends McGill, invited me to check out her apartment in the Plateau. She couldn’t help but notice my reluctance to board a public bus. “Who does this prima donna cabbing from the Ghetto think she is?” must have been coursing through her mind. She was stunned to learn that I simply felt unsafe jumping on the Number 80 down Avenue Du Parc.
After my second semester at McGill, I felt more attuned to my new surroundings. Riding the metro now invokes pleasant memories of riding roller coasters in Southern California’s Six Flags Magic Mountain. In fact, it’s probably a whole lot safer: the Magic Mountain parking lot, in recent years, has been the staging ground for various gang shootings and stabbings. Moreover, I decided that I’ve had it with the manager at Press Café giving me lip for not ordering my latte en Francais. I understand you need to speak French to work with the public in this city, but why do I need it to get a latte? Isn’t “café latte” French enough? Anyway, French kissing certainly doesn’t seem to be improving my linguistic prospects, so I’m signed up for Beginner’s French on campus. It seems that, for me, becoming Miss Montreal continually means that I must plunge myself into new and alien situations… ready or not.