I went to Montreal without telling my mom. And since I didn’t think I would have cell service in Canada, I turned my phone onto airplane mode, so I wouldn’t have to explain a large bill when I got back from my weeklong trip.
You see, I was going to Montreal Pride. Fierté Montréal. I had spent the summer in Pittsburgh, at Carnegie Mellon University, in one of the graduate school feeder programs, and I was browsing Google Flights (a hobby that I still haven’t lost) when I saw the $100 plane ticket to Montreal. I would land right before their pride celebration.
It was my first time going to Pride. It was also my first time using Couchsurfing to find accommodation and meet local people.
The first place I stayed was with a bunch of French-speaking graduate students. Six them living in a large house, a commune of sorts, with a nice backyard patio in the middle of Montreal’s Little Italy. My flight arrived late. I would have to take the metro.
I didn’t understand a word the metro lady said. Maybe, despite my seven years of study, I was worse at French than I thought.
Montreal is, on the surface, a bilingual city. Theoretically, you should be able to visit if you can only speak English or French. But, unless you’re in one of the historically English-speaking districts, French is the preferred language. As I found out.
It rained that evening, and I was sleepy—I had a layover in LaGuardia, in a terminal that felt like an abandoned basement from the 1960s with the red carpet rejects from Hollywood and flickering lightbulbs (stay classy, New York), and I did not sleep well on the plane when we arrived. French was hard. I missed my metro stop and walked in the rain. I arrived, drenched, and fell asleep on the couch.
My hosts were incredibly kind and curious people. One of them, Mikey, give me a fire poi spinning show along with dessert that evening. Another girl, whose name I’ve since forgotten, learned I was studying computer science and was arranging a hack-a-thon in Montreal for her school’s undergraduate students to compete in.
It was hard speaking with them, and we slipped into English a couple of times. But I really wanted to use my French, so I stuck with it. And they, compassionate people they were, waited for me for as long as I needed to formulate my thoughts.
I walked a lot in Montreal. I went to Pride events and fumbled my way through French. I walked past important buildings and signs and realized I didn’t know a lot of the vocabulary, so I wrote it down on a notepad and translated it when I got to a café with wifi.
It was easier, the second day. I knew the words on the café menus. (I didn’t have the money to eat a real restaurant, so I subsisted on espresso, poutine, sandwiches, and occasionally alcohol.) I was getting better with numbers and money, something I’ve since learned I struggle with in every language. I could read the majority of what was on the signs. signs on the sites I was visiting. I kept French music and radio shows playing in my ear as I walked. I wandered into the gay village and made friends with a French-speaking group.
In other words, I plunged myself into French. I made myself meet people and speak the language.
On my fourth day, something clicked. Speaking was easier. The new Montréal accent made sense to my ear. I could understand the metro lady…sort of. I met more people that day, and the next, and the next.
And then I was taking a break from the festivities and wandered into a café—Café Sfouf, I think it was. And there was an English-speaking couple there who were trying to communicate with the French-speaking staff.
So I stepped in and translated for everybody. They bought me an espresso for my trouble.
“Your French is really good,” one of them said. “Are you from here?”
No. I’m American, I said.
They thought I was lying until I showed them my driver’s license.
…there’s a reason I tell this story.
It’s because I want you to understand a few things about what I did.
1. I thought I was bad at French. I wasn’t. My mindset—the negative self-talk—was keeping me down and out. My French was actually pretty good. Just because I struggled to understand people, or because there were vocabulary words I didn’t know—that meant nothing! I could speak. I navigated the metro with a lot of success. I could translate for other people. I was much better than my mindset was letting me think I was.
2. I took off the training wheels. Notice how, when people spoke English to me, I kept responding in French? English is a crutch. I made incredible gains when I stopped using it as such. Did I fall off the proverbial bike a couple of times? Of course! But this is normal. How many scrapes and bruises did you have when you first learned to ride a bike? Tons. It’s part of the process. And they heal anyway.
3. I kept French in my ear. When I was just walking around, exploring the city and enjoying the sun, I kept French in my ear. I got used to the sounds. I didn’t suddenly absorb it or anything silly like that, but my brain did get more accustomed to hearing it and recognizing the words I already knew. Listening comprehension is something I’ve always struggled with—even in English, as a kid—so I knew this was a skill I needed to give some extra attention to.
I’ve replicated these 3 pillars of my language-learning process with every attempt. Fix your mindset. Take the plunge. Focus on your weak skills.
Oh, and my mom? Turns out she had tried calling me while my phone was in airplane mode and was freaking out because I wasn’t responding. I got in trouble when I returned to the states and saw my text messages 😬
Want to know more about me?
I’ll keep it fun with an FAQ.
1. Where’d you grow up?
I grew up in north-central Maryland, closer to Gettysburg, PA than Baltimore, summers spent in the shade of the oak and sycamore trees, winters mittened up with hot chocolate and marshmallows around the fireplace.
We wandered the Smithsonian museums in DC, built sandcastles in the Delaware beaches, watched fireworks in the park by my aunt’s house the next town over, and celebrated Thanksgiving at my uncle’s restaurant in a gorgeous colonial house.
2. Did you study languages in college?
Yes, but also no. I majored in Computer Science, which involves learning a language of a sort! But I also minored in French, Spanish, Chinese, Mathematics, and Psychology and I did other coursework in communications and neuroscience.
I wrote my senior thesis on machine translation. Looking back, I should have majored in language acquisition studies or something 🤓
3. Is Jake your real name?
I’ve been told—and I don’t know how tongue-in-cheek this was—that Jake was not a good Catholic name, so the priest requested I be named James instead. James is the Anglicized version of Jacob, for which Jake is a nickname so…it works.
But my mom said Jake is short for James Kenneth, except she hates the name Kenneth, so that isn’t my middle name. Parents are confusing.
4. Did anything happen in your childhood that predicted what do you now?
I had an uncle whose job was, literally, to travel the world and look for investment opportunities. When my brother and I were toddlers (we’re twins), he gave us an interactive globe, with all the countries colored differently and a thick, bulky stylus pen that we could use to tap on different countries and learn about them. It was my first experience with the world.
As a kid, we took family trips to Istanbul (where said uncle lived with his partner) and Italy (my mom’s side is Italian). I was 7 years old and my uncle taught my 5 Turkish words. I thought it was the coolest thing. I still remember them.
5. Do you have any hidden talents?
This might be a little harsh, but I’ve learned that I’m not good at a lot of things. One thing I’m great at, though, is bringing a smile to other people’s faces. Sometimes your job is just to bring a little laughter in somebody else’s life, you know? I think that’s a very noble thing.
6. What’s your guilty pleasure?
Milanos. Straight up. They’re actually crack. I don’t understand why people do drugs when these are cheaper.
And yes, a pack of Milanos is a single serving. Never let anybody tell you differently.
7. What are your desert island books?
I think Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities is a masterpiece—framed as a conversation between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan, where Polo describes the cities he’s seen in his travels, each in the form of a prose poem, each illuminating something new about the nature of cities and humanity. It’s the kind of book you keep at arm’s length, hold your breath, open up to a random page, and come up for air when you’re done.
I’ve read Donna Tartt’s The Secret History more times than I can count and I’m in awe with her ability to make these deeply flawed, unlikealbe characters likable. I still get, years after reading it, a little verklempt when I close the final pages.
Beyond that, I love Haruki Murakami and Richard Adams’s Watership Down.
8. What’s on your bucket list?
I have a lot of things on my bucket list, but I’m fascinated by people who do long hikes. I have a fear friend who hiked the Camino de Santiago in the summer between college and her first job, and I’ve always wanted to create a special space in my life where I could walk with strangers on go on this pilgrimage with myself.
9. Do you have any weird or esoteric interests?
During the COVID-19 pandemic, I decided to indulge myself and start reading the old Greek myths. My mother used to read—or retell, I suppose—some of the myths to me as a child, so I grew up knowing the stories of Persephone, Narcissus, Pandora, Sisyphus, Orpheus, and so on.
But since the pandemic hit, I’ve dived in and guys, I’m obsessed. I can’t read Ancient Greek (yet!), so I’ve been reading translations of Plato and Euripides and Homer and Sappho and Apollonius and then reading the commentary on the translations and the journal articles on, say, how Medea’s speeches in Euripides actually cast her in the model of the traditionally male Greek hero and how Euripides really wrote the play as a symbolic negation of the male-dominated Argo story.
Anyway, I’ve learned that a lot of old stuff is actually more progressive and modern than modern stuff. Euripides feels too progressive and feminist for today, Aristophanes was hilarious and hornier than Shakespeare, and Plato and Homer are just straight-up gay sometimes. It’s incredible.
10. What’s your favorite place you’ve traveled to?
I’ve traveled a lot, so this answer changes depending on the day. I can’t choose a single favorite, but I can give you a few images: picnicking with strangers by a church in Södermalm on a golden October afternoon; walking the multicolored cobblestones streets of Guanajuato with a bag of fresh taquitos at my side; goofing off with friends at midnight atop a massive, seaside sand dune in Brazil; hiking around Crater Lake National Park in Oregon and staring into the deep, blue water; dancing until sunrise in a mountain village in Taiwan.
Of course, Montréal will forever hold a special place in my heart. I struggle with winter so I haven’t moved there yet. Maybe one of these days. Something tells me I should move to Lisbon first. 🙂
Do you know what I’ve noticed really enhances my travel experience?
Speaking the local language! I’ve met so many wonderful people who don’t speak English and some of the best experiences are locked behind the language barrier. Speaking a second language is the best thing I ever did for my travels.