You know, the first time I went to Paris–in 2008–I did not actually enjoy myself quite as much as I’d hoped.

This was not due to excessive rudeness (which is what people always guess). Rather, I was unsure of myself as a traveler, and it was my first overseas trip.I did not speak the language, and I knew almost nothing about the culture. I did not know where to eat, where to stay, or how to ask where to eat or where to stay.

Such cultural immersion can be a very disruptive experience.

Now, I have since come to love Paris, but I have not lost the memory of what made travel though so difficult for the novice. As with New York City, Paris is thick with an expectation that you will know what you are doing when you get there–or that you will learn in a hurry. I didn’t know. I did learn. And it was well worth it.

But my post today is actually about a recent sojourn to Montreal, Quebec. I begin with Paris because I often hear somewhat disparaging remarks made between the two cities–actually the same remark. Each is accused of not being “really” French (either for failing to be IN France, or failing to REPRESENT France properly). However, I find many similarities between the two cities–beautiful similitude! The architecture is outstanding…the food is remarkable…the attitude and the culture and even the shopping very euro chic. And there is the French language, of course–though not with the same pronunciation. Montreal, with its old world charm and rich cultural heritage, is a little breath of European vacation (without the nine hour flight).

There are some striking differences, too, however–and that returns me to the immersion experience. In college, several of my friends (who majored in French) took their first cross-language trek to Canada instead of France. I begin to see why. While I will never accuse Parisians of rudeness (I think that is a mistaken notion, a misreading of efficiency and varying social cues), I can say this for Canadians: they out-nice the rest of the world.

From the moment I arrived, people seemed genuinely eager to help situate the hapless traveler. They have an uncanny ability to switch between French and English without missing a beat–and without dropping either the French or the (very) Canadian accent. They are so willing to re-translate that I had to ask for French (hard to practice when we’re all speaking English). This way to the bus tickets–this way to the hotel–shall I find a map for you?–shall I look up the bus schedule? It was a little like having Concierge service, but everywhere.

Lest you think my story remarkable, however, I will quote a friend who was also in Montreal for the conference weekend. She arrived by train, and someone from the station went through the trouble to check her departure time–and to recommend the number of a taxi service, since the buses wouldn’t be running so late. “It’s really true,” she told me on our way to lunch. “Canadians are just plain nice.” (Perhaps that is where the Minnesotans get it from. It has trickled down from the headwaters.)

And so, in addition to being a fabulous place to visit, sight-see, eat and shop–Montreal may be the best place for budding language-learners to try their wings. It is close enough physically to bring a traveling companion, and close enough culturally that this companion won’t feel nonplussed by the the menus or confused by the road signs (most things are in both English and French anyway).

I still love France. And as Bogart reminds us, we’ll always have Paris.

But in the meantime, visit the great city of nice people: Montreal.

There is, happily, plenty of brioche.

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