All my wisdom on being an exchange at McGill

Time has flown by and it’s now the last three weeks of winter semester at McGill, what a whirl.  It doesn’t feel long since I was just a young whippersnapper naively beginning classes in September, navigating the halls, downtown and surprisingly pricey grocery shops. I imagine the next herd of study-abroaders have probably found out where they’ll be going, so I’ll try to give handy tips and dispense my wisdom. Settle in.

Unless you’re coming to McGill or considering applying, this probably isn’t as relevant, it’s not a travel diary entry as such, but as always, it’s got my personality (which is developing rapidly whilst on study abroad just as they like to tell you)

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Niagara Falls

The McGill campus is ideally located right next to downtown with really good transport close to the gates – bus and metro, in case you decide to live further afield. However, as opposed to Fallowfield and Manchester, the trend here is to live as close as possible to campus. It might seem keen but when its -20C (this is real) and you’re getting brain freeze whilst waiting to cross the road, you will understand why. There’s an area to the side of campus called the ‘McGill Ghetto’, actual name The Milton Park Community (cute),  pretty much the fallowfield equivalent, which has quite affordable apartments or rooms in them to rent. I’d probably recommend starting your search in that area, if you want the more authentic McGill experience, or Plateau and Mile end if you want a bit further out.

I have an apartment right across the road from the main gates, which is ideal for the days of heavy snow, early lectures, and napping during the day. I found a group to live with through a facebook page made for UK students going on exchange to McGill/Montreal, then the McGill website has a section advertising apartments off-campus. This all worked out well for us, though if I was doing it again, I’d look for somewhere in the ghetto. Also, something to be aware of is that leases are often for 12 months, meaning you’ll have to sublet for the summer or be subletting someone else’s apartment. It is possible to get ones that end in April/May, like ours, which cuts this hassle and cost. If you then later decide to stay in Montreal for the summer, you’ll have absolutely no problem in subletting an apartment, facebook groups are currently flooded with adverts.

If you’re looking at private student halls/apartments, I highly recommend La Marq on City Councillors, my friend is there and it looks the best out of the ones available. Evo is alright, but quite like a hotel and expensive, somewhat isolating as you have to force yourself out your room into communal areas to socialise, rather than wandering into the kitchen in the morning and having a chat with a flatmate. I also hear the kitchen facilities there are a bit scarce. During fall semester, you’d often see adverts of people trying to sublet their Evo room as they’d found somewhere else, make of that what you will.

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This is the Saint Lawrence rive frozen over – try as you like, but this ship isn’t going anywhere anytime soon

Winter:

Bold and underlined because in Montreal its not to be messed with. I now consider  -4  to 2C ‘a nice day, maybe I don’t need 1000 layers’. During the depths of winter, it’s not unusual to experience -20C during the day, regularly. You need a really good thick coat, it doesn’t need to be a Canada Goose or the latest in anti-hypothermia technology, coats from the UK would do. Ski jackets aren’t enough alone, unless you wear many layers under. Winter coats can be pricey here, they are an investment, but you can also find some cheap. Also the Presbyterian college on University St does free second hand coats to international students experiencing their first winter, though I went 15 minutes after they opened on the first day and it had been cleared out.

Also, you need winter boots. I managed fine with walking boots I already had, or you can get snow boots, again pricey. Sports Expert on Sainte Catherine is a good start. Whatever foot wear you furnish your feet with, you need them to go higher than just ankle, ideal would be mid calf. Twice we’ve had overnight snow fall of one and a half feet deep or more. Once it starts to melt, it stays on the paths and roads as thick ice which makes you cry a lil bit inside after a long day and you’re in a rush. It’s amusing watching everyone subtly analyse the path sidewalk situation before proceeding.   There’s  always snowy grit mush flick up on your calves whenever wherever you walk, which is completely unavoidable. It’s all the rage for the winter 16/17 fashion season. Higher boots protects your legs from this. I would also advise having a couple of pairs of thermal leggings with you, as when it gets to -20C your legs will actually freeze and you will question how hardy and outdoorsy you ever thought yourself to be. I now consider myself an urban Bear Grylls.

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Snow on snow on snow meant lower field was waist deep

Sports/clubs/societies

I don’t think you can play most sports at university level unless you are a recognised God/ varsity scholarship student. To everyone’s surprise, even mine, I am not one. A few have tryouts but you probably need to monitor the McGill athletics website as they happen really early on in the semester. Intramurals are good, where you create your own team and register in whatever league you’re daring enough for. If you can’t form your own, there’s a free agent meeting each semester where other singles mingle and form a team. If you can’t attend or this meeting does not bear fruit for you, fill out a form online. I’ve done both and both work. I played intramural co-rec basketball in fall semester and then beginner’s open basketball in winter. I lost all games I played, but I grew as a person and learnt a lot, so who’s the real winner? Also if you want a gym membership, join the McGill gym, as its $35 a semester and well equipped. Swimming is free. There’s an ice rink you can use for $1 a time if you have your own skates. Skates are affordable here because that’s how Canadians travel around (fact). There are also free rinks around, at the top of Mont Royal and even on lower field on campus – if you have the guts to potentially fall to the amusement of everyone in the main library.

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Look at me getting all involved in school spirit

French/ Quebecois culture

Whenever someone serves you in a shop etc, they say ‘Bonjour/hello’, and you have to respond in the language you want to talk in. I found this out after a full semester thinking it was a politeness to say both. McGill functions in English and many places will deal in English with you. You can pick up a bit of a sense of animosity towards Anglophones, due to the francophone/Anglophone tensions back in history. Anglophones can feel a sense of being a minority in society, but looking like you’re actually trying with French goes a long way. If you are actually pretty good at French, that’s great, but good luck with understanding the Quebecois accent, even fluent france-french speakers find it difficult, particularly when they deliberately accentuate it upon realizing the distinction. ‘Oui’ is pronounced as ‘waaaaaaaay’, and in English, they use ‘you know’ multiple times a sentence, which, you know, can be offputting. It might sound obvious, but Quebec Canada is very different to the rest of Canada.

Don’t jaywalk as you can get a $50 fine, or don’t get caught. Quebec is somewhat notorious for its bureaucracy, in a ‘that’s Quebec for you’ sort of way, but it doesn’t interrupt your every day life. It’s more in the way they dig up both sides of the main road one after another for months, re-lay it, then dig it all up again a fortnight later. Apparently there’s a logic. Or, in my experience, the roadworks accidentally cut off the water in my apartment for over 24 hours and it was impossible to contact anyone who knew what was going on.

Also I want to note that I feel very safe in Montreal. I’ve walked home alone at night, or taken an evening walk in plateau or Old Port, not encountering even potentially unsafe situations. This is all in the immediate neighbourhoods around McGill and downtown, I think NDG or Park Extension have been talked of as being less safe, but I’ve never gone there. I’ve not heard of anyone encountering trouble whilst walking around Montreal. Just don’t be stupid. Whilst I want to emphasise this, I also want to point out that Montreal is not a crime free paradise. I have heard of break-ins, but I guess you’d just take common-sense actions.  You do hear stories of Montreal’s past, and perhaps even present depending on who you talk to, connections to the Mafia. It adds a bit of pizzazz to the situation

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Utilizing the highly regarded scientific tool of snapchat to demonstrate the nippy temperatures

Studying/courses/classes/what you’re actually here for

As soon as  you have your place confirmed and class registration opens, register for classes. Spaces go quickly within a week of this for both semesters. There’s add/drop periods at the start of each semester but there’s limited movement in places. At Manchester, there’s the attitude that you don’t want to necessarily be seen to put lots of effort in but still want to get decent grades. At McGill its pretty much opposite. The library is a social place where people want to be seen. It’s competitive how much work you’ve done, how little sleep you’ve got, and how much you’ve challenged your mental and emotional health. It’s easy to get swept along but it’s also easy to stand your ground. You know how much work you need to do to learn things, maintain a good sleeping pattern and chill about it. The attitude here is wrong and can get toxic in finals season, but I found I just needed to keep going as I would at Manchester.

Also, everyone is addicted to getting as much extracurricular experience as possible on their CV. This means there’s many opportunities to accumulate a few things – I did MonWHO this past weekend, which was Montreal’s World Health Organisation simulation, as its directly related to what I want to do and not available in Manchester as far as I’m aware. It also means it seems like some students join/start societies and accumulate roles just to be able to say they did it, rather than for the actual activity. McGill has a unique way of making you feel both well prepared for starting your career  and you’re going to take the world by storm, and/or completely inadequate. It’s motivating. There’s also many talks, events circulated on facebook, that are well worth keeping tabs on, such as a Edward Snowden via videolink.

Just to point out, this 2,000 word blog post is the longest thing I’ve written this year.

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There’s a trade off between freezing cold temperatures of -20 in the middle of the day but no snow, or feet of snow to fall over in but warmer temperatures

Food:

Fresh food is expensive. I really recommend going to Marche Lobo for all your fruit and veg, and then your other stuff from Provigo, both on Ave du Parc. Provigo’s grocery prices will make you cry, especially with the prices per weight trickery they unleash. Jean Coutu is good for toiletries. Dollarama is equivalent of poundland etc, but isn’t all $1. Dollarama will always be there for you, Dollarama won’t hurt you. Buying ready to eat food at cafes around campus/downtown is variable, pick wisely. The cafe in the library won’t do a cheap meal, but it will serve a selection of macarons and fine cream cakes – what every student wants. Vua on Maisonneuve/McGill College is an amazing sandwich shop, serving 10” rolls for less than $5, regardless of filling. I don’t understand their business plan for staying open in downtown, but I’m all for it.

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‘Spring’ break in Toronto, as the sign clearly states

I realise this is a rather long post, I wanted to share info I’ve learnt and perhaps would’ve wanted to know when starting. If you’ve made it this far and are going to McGill, congratulations, I’m jealous, I never want it to end and wish I could do it all again. Also, I know I said it in my last post, but I’ve found it to be important: don’t compare your experience to friends from Manchester elsewhere, nor other exchanges here. I definitely feel I’ve Grown As A Person, gained a lot of independence and developed academically (Manchester will be proud, as are my parents, so that’s all tip top). To top it off, I’ve got a 5 months off using my brain until starting back at Manchester, which I don’t think I’ve had since I was 4, but circumstances have changed.

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