Montréal summer loving

Harry at McGill in Montréal


In just over a week I will be catching a flight from Pierre-Trudeau airport exactly three hundred and eleven days after arriving there to begin my year of exchange. To say a lot of has happened since then, true as it is, would be a little underwhelming and doesn’t seem to do justice to quite how busy Montréal and McGill are.

I previously mentioned I was set to start a summer research position in the McGill chemistry department, which was how I could afford to stay in Montréal another two months, and it has transpired to be a very rewarding experience. The department made it simple for international students with regards to obtaining placements and so if you are one to consider experience and career opportunities getting a cheeky summer internship at McGill would look pretty sweet.

Despite the work being engaging and the lab environment being social or the first week or so /I was a little confused about the situation I found myself in. Most other exchanges had left Montréal and those that were left were dropping like flies. Not even just exchanges. Full time McGill students were all on their annual homeward migration. Consequently I was in a sort of limbo where I was neither going home nor travelling. A lingering smell. It was like Montréal had a party and the house got a tiny bit damaged yet I insisted staying to help tidy up even though Montréal is tired and doesn’t really need the help.

Though this is inaccurate because that suggests Montréal is sluggish when term is out. People had said to me that Montréal was a student town though having spent half of summer here I wouldn’t agree that that was the case. However I do concede it is not a suit-sporting hyper-competitive business town. For sure.

In fact I found that with so few people staying in Montréal everyone was quite keen to step out of their comfort zone and hang out with people they hadn’t all year. I guess people taking summer courses whose friends have left don’t want to be bored either. Consequently the stifling purgatory feel soon dissipated.

Walking from my new flat I pass through Jeanne-Mance park (should you be reading this in anticipation of coming to Montréal you will soon become familiar with this park as it serves as a buffer between the Plateau and Mont Royal) and with all sincerity one afternoon coming home if by some freak accident I was slain… I could have died happy.

The sun was low enough in the sky that there was no risk of frying however it had not gotten any colder than it was at noon. Camera in hand I strolled past all the sports facilities the park adorns in turn: beach volleyball, soccer, Frisbee, tennis and baseball. With each sport a healthy crowd of athletes participated, and although some were more athletic than others, they were all soaking up the summer ambience. These games were punctuated with groups of picnicking friends, flirting couples, dog walkers, joggers, cyclists, slackliners, musicians and other photographers.

It is my conclusion that Montréal too has a juxtaposed culture similar to that of McGill, but instead of it being work hard and play hard, it is winter blues and summer loving. Everyone throws themselves so hard into summer.

One example of this is the plethora of festivals Montréal hosts for essentially the whole of summer. There are actually so many that some are so poorly advertised you only find out about them when you stumble into a main stage on the walk back from the metro. This was the case where I found half the length of Boulevard St Laurent shut off with a terrasse outside every shop, bar and restaurant. The highlight of which was a local’s bar in little Portugal that had moved a flat screen into the shop window so that people could sit and watch the Euro from the street.

I am so glad I was able to spend some time in Montréal over summer and would highly recommend that however you find your year at McGill you should seriously consider staying for summer because they city transcends into something greater than you will see it at any other time of year.

This is actually my last compulsory blog with the GGA scheme and as such my next one will likely be a photo compilation comprised from a number of friend’s photography archives. Writing this actually served as a break from planning my summer travel plans which are woefully lacking. Now this is finished I can focus on getting tourist cards and visas and reflect on the fact that my time in Montréal has finally come to an end.

Good luck to anyone reading this who is set to come out here.

End of winter semester wrap up

Harry at McGill in Montréal

Hello from the second-to-last compulsory blog entry I have to write for Manchester on the road. On the other side of the last hurdle of the year that is finals I write this with a breezy light-spirited attitude and as so all my reflections will be horrifically bias and rose-tinted since the stress of exams an work will have been purged from my mind.

Continue reading “End of winter semester wrap up”

Midterm blues

Harry at McGill in Montréal


Congratulations for anyone who read the title and made an effort to continue reading despite the likelihood this post may be a bit of a downer. It was written in response to a conclusion I recently reached and felt I should materialise in blog form.

Continue reading “Midterm blues”

Semester two commences

Harry at McGill in Montréal


Christmas came and went and it has been a week shy of a month since term restarted. No one was without a little anxiety for the impending workload however as with the end of any holiday there is also an ounce of excitement lurking within since, after all, we do all enjoy studying a little bit. Otherwise we would not be here. Continue reading “Semester two commences”

Christmas break

Harry at McGill in Montréal


To recall correctly the last blog was pretty bleak as it covered the academic side of exchange. So as a bit of an indulgence this installment will be dedicated to fun things that happened over the fabled ‘holiday period’ after finals. It was a long time coming.

Continue reading “Christmas break”

Academic expectations

Harry at McGill in Montréal


Academic expectation at McGill. This is the blog that I’ve been putting off the longest and that has been for two reasons. The first is that it would probably be the least engaging to write whilst the second was because I had to find a way to write it so as not to put future prospective exchanges at McGill off.

Though I realise in confessing that it somewhat undoes my efforts.

There are distinct differences to the academic system they have over here relative to the one the UK has and invariably these differences will be viewed as good or bad differently for every person and degree. Outlining some of these differences will hopefully shed some light on what to expect for people considering McGill.

McGill operates a continual assessment system the result of which is that the only time you won’t have a deadline is in the first week of term when you’re still learning your professor’s names. Regularly I have been absent-mindedly chatting to someone in lectures and they have mentioned an exam or assignment due the next week which I have known nothing about (there is very little hand holding).

Talking to humanities students this works quite well however since the majority of learning done in the arts is in one’s owns time via assigned ‘readings’. The persistent roll of assignments provides a faithful motivator for these readings.

In the sciences there is less of an obvious benefit although in my opinion, due to limitations in any human’s capacity to take on new information, the breadth and depth of content covered here is less than that covered in Manchester. What struck me in the first few weeks was the asymmetry between what I knew compared to my peers. Though they were infinitely better at managing their time. This is the largest distinction in university styles. The rest are just novelties that add to the academic experience:

  • Teaching assistants (TAs) wield more power than PhDs probably should. Befriend them or suffer.
  • People actually use ‘rate my professor’ sites. Definitely worth checking out prior to signing onto courses.
  • You can actually view exam transcripts and get marks back if you put forward a convincing enough case!
  • Exams aren’t really standardised or decided upon by a committee, they are simply made up by a professor. So in this sense it worth going to their lectures where they’ll probably let slip what they’re going to put on tests. Or at least the lectures during the run up to the exam.
  • You get a lot more choice concerning the types of course you pick. Hence people pick a selection of ones they find interesting (often hard ones) and ‘birdies’ (easy courses that ensure you maintain a good grade point average). Identify the birdies you’re eligible to take.
  • Exams results are usually fitted to a curve against the best result. So if you ace it and no one else does… your selfish.
  • People take pride in the study places they’ve found on campus.

No hour at McGill is an inappropriate hour to hit the library. In fact on several occasions I’ve consolidated friendships with people I’ve just met by studying with them. It is not like only people who want top marks go to the library. Everyone does. All the time. McGill’s equivalent of nightline often serves coffee gone 8pm at the library.

I like to think of the lifestyle here like breathing. Often you might need to work during the weekends, but if you manage your time well this isn’t always the case. Resultantly weekends become the time you can ‘inhale’ and do all the things you enjoy doing that leave you in a positive and restful head space.

The following week sees you ‘exhale’, where all the positivity is converted into library hours and hard work to ensure you’re getting what regularly seems like an insurmountable amount of jobs done.

Don’t worry though. It is surmountable. Having written this it has become glaringly obvious why McGill’s informal motto is ‘work hard, play hard’.

First few weeks

Harry at McGill in Montréal


Salut from Montréal!

It has been a hectic two months so there will be some task to condense everything into one page of text (with hind sight this didn’t happen). For my regular readers (ha) I’ll update you on the situation as it was presented in the previous blog post.

Found a charming flat in the trendy district of the Plateau living with three other exchanges all of whom are from France. Excellent opportunity to learn some French. The only problem that has presented itself thus far was the berating comments received when England shamefully left the rugby world cup so early…

The saturation of French language speakers is high in the Plateau (it is half-outside the student bubble of Concordia and McGill) however since term has started the French/English language encounters has balanced. If anything Francophones are harder to come by now and so I’m thankful for the company of my flatmates, though it is something to bear in mind for those wishing to practice their French whilst in Montréal…

Inevitably you make friends. Obviously. So long as you don’t get intimidated by culture and change etc. etc. Though I feel anyone reading this has already made the transition to University at least once and so really I am providing no new information.

Continuing with more interesting matters, there is a plethora of things to do in Montréal and with McGill specifically. However for anyone reading this it would probably be quite annoying to just read about all the ‘cool’ things someone has done without any real advice. Similar to Facebook where you will see everyone else’s photos and activities and wish you were there doing them instead, as such I’ll only mention things that I can attach a cheeky bit of advice to. There is also a darker side to the First Few Weeks at McGill, but that’ll be in another blog that’ll follow this one shortly…

First things first. Exchanges have the opportunity to take part in Frosh, which is the equivalent of Fresher’s week. You have a few options of activities to choose from though for most people it boils down to faculty frosh or outdoors frosh. There is also a radical frosh for the more righteous and activist members of us student types though this has far fewer places and generally doesn’t seem as raved about… Faculty frosh is a week of partying hard with a frosh group (similar to Manchester Medic PBL group. We all know one) and is more akin to fresher’s as we know it in the UK. Outdoor frosh is a long weekend of either kayaking, hiking, canoeing, cycling or rock-climbing in the great Canadian outdoors.

As a member of hike frosh 2015 I’d vouch for that over faculty. Many members of faculty wished they did outdoors. Then some outdoors wished they’d done a little more partying… Ultimately there will be plenty of time to explore both the outdoors and sample Montréal nightlife, so this decision isn’t critical. Get involved with Frosh in some way however!

Second thing. During the first week there is an open air pub (OAP) on campus that serves as a vital component of getting to know people. Serving relatively cheap beer and hosting a stage with live bands and DJs it is distinctly cool. It is situated at what you will later come to know as the y-intersection and its aim is to fill the blank that you may have when you ask a newly made acquaintance if they want to go and get a drink somewhere and they reply ‘whereabouts?’. Since, after all, you only arrived in the country a week ago.

McGill is huge on sports relative to UK universities (though apparently not so much compared to other North American universities) and as such they have a popular intermural league for almost every sport. I signed up for a ‘soccer’ and ultimate Frisbee team (the latter had to be dropped due to the ‘dark side’ of McGill) and was only lucky enough to do so because I stumbled across the free agent meeting. If you are into sports, but not that competitive, actively find out about the intermural leagues! Met some pretty laid back folk doing it and had some good times playing awful quality football.

Facebook harbours a myriad of McGill only Facebook groups that are pretty useful when it comes to sorting life out. You can become a member as soon as you have been issued you r McGill email ( To date they’ve helped me find a place to live, eat for free on campus (develop a love for Samosas if you don’t already have one), buy second hand gear for my apartment and generally waste time enjoying the comic things people have to post. Think along the lines of Spotted University of Manchester.

The second hand store game in Montréal is strong. Despite people generally being very worked out and well dressed (I felt shabby as anything as a British exchange) there are plenty of thrift shops. Fripperies in the Plateau are a little more expensive but there are a couple more bulk sale ones if you venture to take the metro (Village Valeurs to name but one).

The McGill outdoors club (MOC) is an incredible society to get involved with. Would highly recommend to anyone with even a modest interest in the outdoors. They make Manchester Hiking Society look so tame it’s a little bit startling. MOC has executives dedicated to each mode of transportation you might commonly use in the outdoors, recently appointing a horse-back exec. Just to give you some perspective on how big they actually are. They host a listserv where they will post their organised trips, but also where any MOC may post an outdoors trip they are planning as an invitation for any MOC member to come and join them. It really is a very community orientated setup.

Tam-tams is a drumming circle situated at the base of Mont Royal (lovely mountain; underwhelming cross) that takes place every Sunday. It is very chilled. It is a very anything goes environment where every participant plays to their own rhythm, but the discordance stacks up to generate something fairly aesthetic.

Additionally, if you are a massive square and enjoy going to lame cultural things like museums and art galleries you will be satisfied here. Located a mere five minute walk from the university campus there is a fine arts museum which would takes about seventy hours to complete fully. McGill also has its own Redpath museum which is a nice place to spend a few hours hungover. These are just two near/on campus, however, and there is in fact many more though my personal favourite so far has been the Contemporary Art Museum. It is hard not to be creatively/emotionally engaged whilst standing in an empty white-washed room, gazing at an empty glass box with the sound of a woman’s sobbing emanating from it.

Tune in next week (or other, longer unit of time) for Academic Expectation.

Departure (with hindsight)

Harry at McGill in Montréal


Not thinking too far ahead is a useful trait to have to prevent anxiety and worrying too much, but not great when one of the blog topics suggested by the global guidance ambassador scheme was ‘thoughts and feelings in anticipation of leaving’. In consequence the construction of this ‘pre-departure’ blog was hopelessly put off for fear of lack of content so late that it is now being written in Montréal… Though I feel the power hindsight will contextualise some things and make this more informative.

I guess I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t thought or felt anything. As occupied as I was with reams of necessary paperwork, I did occasionally reflect of the implications of what I had signed up for with the study abroad program. Though never for too long since there seemed to be more to be immediately worried about than eventually enjoyed.

Examples being:

Where am I going to live for the year? Still working it out with five more nights in hostels booked.

Exactly how much French do they speak in Montréal? Loads. They speak loads of French in Montréal.

How long before I have friends as close as I do back in Britain? I’m getting pretty chatty with the hostel staff.

I also thought and looked forward to a number of things such as the opportunity to join the outdoors McGill society, take my camera through the streets, try my hand at snowboarding and get going with my course’s research project but appreciated they would be pleasures that would come after all the initial worrisome stuff.

I feel my mentality for the weeks prior to departure and the couple of days I’ve been here could be summarised as taking each thing as it comes.

The Saturday before the flight my Mum had organised a little soirée with family and friends and I thoroughly enjoyed seeing everyone and listening to all the snippets of advice they offered. Then at the airport I was sad to have to say goodbye to my dog and parents and be left in the cold unforgiving chambers of Gatwick. Though once they’d gone I picked up my complimentary copy of the i newspaper and was happy I had an unlikely British souvenir to keep me occupied. All was OK again.

In summary, what I am trying to say, it was nice for me to live in the moment and absorb little memories that I could take away with me. Plenty of time to actually enjoy the year abroad rather than enjoy thinking about the year abroad.

An anecdote to end on. Once off the plane I proceeded to immigration services the queue for which was easily a kilometre long. I got chatting to a nice elderly couple who happened to be from Coventry and we discussed topics varying from the state of British politics and Corbyn’s bid for leadership to the recent decision of one police force to only respond to robberies at even numbered houses.

It was about fifteen or twenty minutes before they asked where I was from and when I said I was born in Bristol they looked utterly surprised. Slightly taken aback I added that I had studied in Manchester for the last two years. It turns out, that despite extensive discussion of British politics and us being stood in the non-nationals immigration queue, they had thought I was Canadian. Due to the strength of my accent. Mere minutes after entering the country I was seamlessly assimilating into the population as a Canadian.

It gave me the feeling that everything would work out for the best.