A Med Student in Montreal

Montreal, Canada – January 2009

(Disclaimer: I took these photos on a potato. They’re not entirely terrible considering they were taken a decade ago.)

Almost 11 years ago now, I went to Montreal in the French-speaking Canadian province of Quebec to do a medical school elective at the Montreal Neurological Institute (MNI). It was January, right in the middle of a Canadian winter, and the coldest winter I had ever experienced. Probably still the coldest winter I have ever experienced.

Montreal is set on an island in the Saint Lawrence River and named after Mount Royal, the triple-peaked hill at the heart of the city. It is the largest city in Canada’s French-speaking Quebec province. The French explorer Jacques Cartier first encountered the indigenous Iroquoian people here in the 1500s when he arrived at their fortified village, Hochelaga, while exploring the Gulf of Saint Lawrence in his efforts to establish New France. He named the nearby mountain Montréal. Seventy years later, a fur-trading post was established by the French on the island, from which grew the city of Montreal.

The Montréal Neurological Institute (MNI) is a hospital dedicated to neurology where I spent most of my time seeing and clerking patients, mostly in French. I am not a neurologist now, but for a while in medical school I wanted to become one.

I chose Montreal for my elective because of the MNI’s reputation, but also because it would be a good opportunity to use my high-school French (which was getting a bit rusty). Or so I thought. I soon found out that Quebec French can be quite difficult to understand even for native French speakers from France.

There was also the advantage that I would not need to sit any arduous exams to do my elective in Canada, unlike in the United States. For my placement, I was enrolled as an exchange medical student at McGill University. It’s a well-regarded school; “the Harvard of the North” is a commonly heard but perhaps disingenuous moniker for McGill. Medically speaking, McGill produced Sir William Osler of Osler’s nodes fame, a superstar physician described as one of the “greatest diagnosticians ever to wield a stethoscope” and known as “the father of modern medicine”. A quick Google of other notable alumni shows Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Star Trek’s William Shatner, and musicians Leonard Cohen and Burt Bacharach all attended McGill.

Wilder Penfield founded the MNI and has a street on the slope of Mount Royal named after him – Avenue du Docteur-Penfield. He pioneered neurosurgery and invented the Montreal procedure in which epileptic patients have their brains stimulated while awake to pinpoint which bits to chop out. His scientific contributions on neural stimulation informed a variety of phenomena including hallucinations, illusions, and déjà vu. He mapped the functions of various regions of the brain such as the cortical homunculus, and contemplated whether there was any scientific basis for the existence of the human soul.

I had three days or so to settle in before I officially started my month at the MNI. On my second day, I decided to go for a walk around the campus. McGill is conveniently located in downtown Montreal, spreading up the eastern foot of Mt Royal.

Here on this hospital sign is an example of Quebec bilingualism. French is the majority and sole official language of the province; about 80% of the population are native francophones. Being bilingual is just a fact of life in Quebec and although not everyone speaks English fluently, most people will speak some amount. In Montreal, recent statistics show about 50% speak French at home, and about 20% speak English.

Facing the threat of an overwhelming Anglophone majority outside of the province, Quebec has protective language legislation mandating signage to be in French; I was told that if there is accompanying English then it has to be half the size of the French lettering or fines apply (although this didn’t always seem to be the case). Another oddity resulting from bilingualism is strange doubled up signage like “District Central District” (for example, not a real sign), because of French and English grammar.

In the years since I did my elective in Quebec, more language laws have come into effect, no doubt a result of pressure from advocacy and lobby groups. For example:

  • Any new or replacement signage featuring a non-French trademark must include a “sufficient presence of French.” For example, a retail clothing store which has previously used signage containing only its trademark COOLKIDS, could comply with the new regulations by using signage with the following language: “Vêtements COOLKIDS” or “COOLKIDS – Pour Habiller Votre Enfant Avec Style”.
  • Added French words are required to be well lit at night.

And so on. Fines for failure to comply under the Charter of the French Language can be up to $6,000 for individuals and up to $20,000 for businesses.

These laws raise interesting questions about the role that language plays in identity. Battles over identity and language occur in communities everywhere: the struggle for self-determination by the Basque and Catalan people in Spain, the use of Mandarin Chinese over regional dialects (and minority languages) in the People’s Republic of China, the cultural appropriation accusations that play out on Twitter over the use of African American language.

In between the hospital and the uni campus, there were some students playing snow football, or at least some game involving a football in the snow.

Back home we have to travel many hours to even see snow, so it was constantly novel and remarkable to me how people here just went about their lives in this winter weather. A true winter, not the overcast drizzle we get back home in Australia.

I came across some road-workers undertaking the somewhat interesting process of clearing snow off the roads, using several vehicles specialised in different tasks. A local later told me one of the trucks microwaved the snow into a slush, while some kind of modified bobcat sucked it up and spouted it into the trailer of another truck.

Probably very mundane for a Canadian, but we have nothing like this back home.

Downhill along the Rue University towards the CBD is the McCord, a museum of Canadian things owned by McGill. Inside there are historical exhibits on popular Canadian subjects from ice hockey to Inuit art and native artifacts like this humanoid pile of rocks known as an inunnguaq. Used as a marker by Inuits, the inunnguaq is also meant to symbolise friendship, at least according to the organising committee of the Vancouver Winter Olympics when they took it as the official logo for the 2010 games.

Leaving McGill behind, I proceeded downtown along the aptly named Rue University, eventually reaching the main shopping strip, Rue Saint Catherine. Right at the intersection on this busy commercial thoroughfare sits a cathedral. What’s interesting though is the multi-level underground shopping mall beneath the cathedral called Promenades Cathédrale.

In fact, there is a whole Underground City underneath Montreal known as the RÉSO, the largest underground complex in the world. It stretches for 32 kilometres (20 miles), linking interconnected office towers, hotels, shopping centres, residential and commercial complexes, convention halls, universities and performing arts venues, completely integrating the city with the Montreal Metro.


Over half a million people use the network daily, and the well-lit and climate-controlled tunnels are particularly useful during Montreal’s long cold winters. Some of the city’s larger institutions such as McGill University, Concordia University, the Université de Montréal, and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts also have campus tunnel networks separate from the Underground City.

I came across a couple having a wedding shoot in one of the tunnels. I’m not sure what was so special about this particular tunnel, to be quite honest. Perhaps where they first met? Perhaps because it was warm?

Back above ground, the weather wasn’t all too insufferable despite the frigid air. I walked around the CBD, trying not to slip on ice. Some of the street names didn’t make a lot of sense to me, like Rue Crescent, which is a completely straight street.

I saw a few of these liquor stores, called SAQ. In Quebec only the government sells alcohol, since they control the sale of it. Presumably because they don’t want drunks wandering the streets swearing at dogs in French. Note the bilingual anti-littering sign.

I was oddly fascinated by Montreal school buses, which looked just like the American school buses I’d seen in films and TV shows, but… French. Perhaps this shouldn’t have been so surprising. In any case, it took some time for the novelty of Montreal’s mixed North American and French identity to wear off for me.

I wandered out of downtown Montreal into Le Plateau. The Plateau Mont-Royal area is known as a young, student-friendly neighbourhood with streets full of charming townhouses, and it has been dubbed Canada’s most creative district. Avenue du Mont-Royal and Rue Saint-Denis are lined with casual cafes, laid-back eateries, busy bars, and contemporary galleries and theatres. I really liked Le Plateau and came back often to check out its bistros and used bookstores.

And of course, St Viateur bagels! A good spot to stop for lunch. Apparently the best bagels in town (although not according to competitor Fairmount Bagel, a few blocks away).

St Viateur Bagel Shop lies on the border of the Jewish Quarter and the Mile End neighbourhood and was opened in the 1950s by a Holocaust survivor. Jewish food has had a large influence on Montreal culinary culture. Montreal bagels, like New York bagels, were brought to North America by Jewish immigrants from Poland and other Eastern European countries. Compared to New York ones which contain sourdough, Montreal bagels are smaller, thinner, sweeter and denser, with a larger hole, and are always baked in a wood-fired oven.

Montreal-style bagels also currently hold the title as the only type of bagel to have ventured into space, when Montrealer astronaut Gregory Chamitoff took three bags of sesame bagels with him to the ISS.

(Another must-try food for anyone visiting Montreal is a smoked meat sandwich from Schwartz’s – Chez Schwartz – on Saint Laurent Boulevard in the Jewish Quarter. Much like the pastrami sold in New York Jewish delis like Katz’s, the meat is served on rye bread with yellow mustard. You can order the 10-day cured meat by fat content: lean, medium, medium-fat or fat. The classic Schwartz’s meal includes a medium-fat sandwich, fries, half-sour pickle, coleslaw, red pepper, and a black cherry soda. Which is what I ordered on a later visit to the area. Possibly better than Katz’s!)

Even further out from Le Plateau, I came across Le Parc Olympique – Montréal’s Olympic Park. The Olympic Stadium has a unique sloping tower which you can go up but it was closed for some reason.

Montréal held the Summer Olympics in 1976. While I was there I often heard people talking about how expensive the whole thing was. I later read the games left the city billions in debt that took over 30 years to pay off.

Next to the stadium sits the Biodome, the former Olympic velodrome that was converted into an indoor nature park/zoo. The highlight of the Biodome for me was seeing North American beavers. They were so much bigger than I thought they would be. One was swimming around and a camera inside their house dam showed another beaver busy arranging sticks.

The Biodome also contained many other North American animals which I had never seen before, like lynxes and porcupines. An Amazonian rainforest area contained birds, monkeys, anacondas, caimans, and a capybara. I got attacked by some kind of ibis. There was also a polar area but no polar bears, which was disappointing.

I headed back towards Old Montreal (Vieux Montreal), marked by the relatively sudden appearance of quaint signs and lampposts.

The first major landmark I encountered here was Montreal’s Notre-Dame Basilica. Céline Dion got married here. Approximately 11 million people visit Notre-Dame Basilica each year, one million less than Notre-Dame de Paris, and it is one of the most visited monuments in North America. There were still some angels leftover from Christmas.

Outside Notre-Dame was a statue of Maisonneuve, the Frenchman who founded Montreal. One of the figures at the base was a native Iroquois, unfortunately covered in bird excrement. Perhaps representative of the overall treatment of North America’s native populations.

The day was nearing its end when I got to the Old Port of Montreal on the St Lawrence River. In the distance, the full moon shone over the Biosphere, a geodesic dome housing an environmental museum on Île Sainte-Hélène.

The lights of Old Montreal started to turn on as I made my way down Rue St Paul, the oldest street in the city. This was the centre of fur trade in Montreal’s early days. Nowadays it is the centre of nostalgia-driven tourism, with shops like Maple Delights (Délices Érable) slapping you in the face with “Canada!” (I did have a delicious maple latte there though, but it was too cold to try the maple chunk gelato.)

One end of Rue St Paul opens on Place Jacques-Cartier, a usually lively public square full of sidewalk cafes, artists and street performers in the warmer months, and horse-drawn carriages offering rides for extortionate prices.

Place Jacques-Cartier is named for the 16th century French explorer who claimed Canada for France, but its tallest feature is the Nelson Column which was raised by the new owners a couple of centuries later in homage to British Vice Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson.

Too bad for him most people were more intrigued by the glowing tree. I was one of those people. Cars were double-parking so tourists could run over and pose with it, illuminated by the LED glow.

I was getting hungry again so it was time to try another of Montreal’s famed contributions to culinary greatness: poutine.

Poutine is a local delicacy which has been exported all over the globe. The basic description sounds either delicious or disgusting depending on your tastes: hot potato chips (or fries) covered (smothered) in cheese curds and brown gravy. I for one really enjoyed it, and had it more than a few times during my time in the city.

(This was called Poutine T-Rex, which I would guess is so named because it’s covered in meat. A Montrealer took me here. I think I ate about a third of it.)

With my belly full of fried carbs covered with cheese, I was ready to brave the now blizzard-like conditions back to my rental flat.

(Note the Canadian pram, also known as a toboggan.)

Over the following weeks, I made new friends who took me to places only locals would know about. I loved my time in Montreal and look back at it with great fondness. It’s a wonderful city, full of culture and and unique in its dual European and North American flavours, like a swirl of maple syrup and espresso.

Or cheese curds on French fries.

Oh Montréal
(Oh Montreal)
T’es tellement froide

(You’re so cold)
Une ours polaire dans l’autobus

(A polar bear on the bus)
J’m’inspire du pire

(I’m inspired by the worst)
Pour m’enrichir

(To enrich myself)
Et je t’aime tellement que j’hallucine

(And I love you so much that I hallucinate)
― Malajube, Montreal -40°C

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