Finding a Common Language

It was just after 9 PM that the streets of Montreal began to flood. First in small trickles of noisy marchers, then in gushes of whistle-blowers, flag-wavers, and horn honkers. In less than a half hour, the police closed off St. Catherine’s Street between St. Alexander and Crescent Street. The air smelled like pot and the asphalt was littered with broken glass.

I had not watched game seven; I could care less about hockey. I’m not even from Montreal. I’ve been in this city for three days now, and everywhere I go, I feel guilty for not speaking French. As a frequent traveler, I pride myself on being able to assimilate into a culture: I never walk around with large maps or fanny packs and I avoid taking typical, posed pictures. I know I’ve succeeded at my project when someone stops me and asks for directions, a clear indication I’ve blended into the background  like a chameleon. Montreal is different though: despite the visual cues you can orchestrate to signal belonging, if you don’t speak French, you don’t truly belong. Montreal natives greet you in French, and when you reply in English they quickly switch their tongue to match yours. But in the process, another, more subtle transaction takes place in which you reveal your status as a tourist. Unlike Manhattan or Toronto, where one can easily be taken for a native, language in Montreal is a currency, a dialectal market of belonging not afforded to outsiders. But on the night that Montreal Habs eliminated the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Stanley Cup playoffs, I belonged. The streets called to me in a language outside of words, beckoning me from the apartment window and pulling me into the crowd.

Cars idled in the surrounding streets, their horns honking in celebration, bodies spilling from their windows. A girl in the backseat of a Volkswagen Golf reached through the open window to high-five the driver of a white ’92 sedan. A skinny and shirtless teenager prized a homemade Stanley Cup over his head, evoking cheers and screams. Everyone was walking: where to? it didn’t matter. Just  that we were moving, flowing, seeping through the veins of streets and circulating the city’s jersey-red blood.

Tonight, no one knew I was a foreigner. We all gathered in a shared spirit, to celebrate the city, to celebrate being young— being alive.Everyone shook hands, hugged, and high-fived; some languages are universal.

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One thought on “Finding a Common Language

  1. This reminds me of Vancouver after the big win against the USA. Walking to wherever, haha–just taking in the raw human energy.

    I love your point about language being currency in Montreal. I speak French (poorly) and I truly admire those that can skip between the two languages flawlessly. Like double-dutch.

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