The metro is the measure of my grad student soul

I use the metro to measure my progress as a graduate student.  I admit this is a subjective procedure.  What I mean by progress needs some clarification.

There are a number of concepts that go into defining ‘progress.’  The first is my comfort level on the metro.    In the winter my comfort on the metro is compromised by the fact that I have to bundle up against the cold in order to get to the metro, but once I am in the train itself, in that hot underground tunnel, it is hotter than any summer.  In summer, it is simply hotter than hell, many days.  Winter or summer I sweat in great streams which soak through my thin clothing or soak in under four layers of wool, cotton and gore-tex.

Therefore I love fall and spring, but especially fall.   In the fall the intake ducts pump the cool outside air underground, so it feels like they’ve got the air conditioning on down there.  Walking to the metro in the fall is sheer pleasure, and reminds me of the times I used to travel over to Montreal from Kingston before I was a PhD student at McGill.  Those times, the city overwhelmed me with wonder at how such an open-minded, sort of European city, could even exist in North America.  I could wander city blocks for hours in a state of revelation and relaxation.

In a way this vague subjective notion of progress I am promoting is in fact regression.  For instance, though I often still feel like a tourist in my own city, it is a more fleeting feeling now that I have been here for three years.  Now I am often in city mode, moving quickly and efficiently, reacting to the people and stimuli around me in cursory fashion, so that I can get where I need to be and minimize the time in between home and school or work.

In addition to work at McGill as a TA, I also work at a warehouse packing tea ever since my funding ran out.   This is one of those jobs where working with the public is out of the question, since the majority of workers in the warehouse are unilingual Anglophones.  But just the getting of a job in Montreal is something, when I first got here, seemed unreachable.  I figured I’d never get a job anywhere without French.

But now in the metro I practice my French just by listening to what is going on around me.  I take French courses at night at the YMCA (even if you’re saying YMCA in French, don’t say the letters in French, it will sound funny).  For a long time I built a wall around myself which I would only let down once I got to McGill.  This was a natural thing to do in order to protect myself from the unknown, from potential harm.  I simply did not engage with anything French when I first got to Montreal.  Or, I should say, I did for a while, but once I had been here only a few months, that protective wall came up and I mechanically went from my home in Villeray (very francophone) to McGill and back every day.

Those were long, gruelling days, and I continue to have those days and often.  But now it feels normal.  Many days the metro grinds me down just because it is so busy or hot.  But the metro feels like a part of me now, and that is a sure sign that I am more a part of this place now, that it is home.    A controversy between me and some of my hardcore BC friends is whether or not to stay in Montreal once we are done with school.

I plan to stay.  In part, I don’t want to lose the progress I have made with French, with building a meaningful relationship to this place, this beautiful cultural mecca and centre of learning that is Montreal.  Since I have made the decision to stay, my French has come a long way.  The French language is so psychological in this way.  Once you let it in, it lets you in.

And so, where once I rode the metro, but paradoxically, was not let in.  I now ride the metro as a full inhabitant of that ‘routed place.’    It still grinds me down as I ride around the orange line in the morning all the way around from Jarry through downtown and back up to Namur, but where does modern life not grind you down a little bit?  At least in this city you have a group of fairly like minded people just trying to muddle through, do their best, connect when we can, and be on our way.  We are not so individualistic, I think, than we are made out to be (for instance when people hate the city for its impersonal coldness, I think they mean downtown in the financial district, not far from McGill).

So, the point of this ramble is to say give it a chance, and think about moving to a place more than ten minutes away from McGill.  I love where I live, and given the chance, would never leave.  Consider Villeray, Petite Italie, Snowdon or even NDG (it gets a bad rap, unfairly I think).  See what the ‘real’ world is like out there in Montreal.  Take some risks.  It will be a nice distraction from the lab or the library, and may help you think in new ways than in the end could help solve problems you never thought solvable.

In short, ride the metro to see what is outside, and to measure your soul.  At least that’s what I do.

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