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Daily Life in Montreal

Is everyday life in Montreal different than in Rheinbach?  Sure, after all Montreal is much bigger, and both more American and French than Rheinbach.  Let’s have a closer look.  For Franziska und Felix, much of the daily routine takes place right around the corner at the École Secondaire Jeanne-Mance.  School until half past three, and after school twice a week sport with the school teams, Franziska in soccer, Felix in basketball.  That sounds like similar school lives, but in fact, they experience two very different sides of the school system of Quebec.

Franziska, who had three years of French back home in Germany, attends the regular ninth grade and goes through the ups and downs of a public French secondary school in Montreal: front-of-class teaching, single desks, and a course system where most students don’t even know the names of their class-mates.  Questions at the teacher are to be asked after school or during lunch break, definitely not during regular class hours.  Sounds almost like a university, except when it comes to the scholastic level:  having, for example, the third person singular s as a major topic in the ninth grade of country whose official language is also English, after all, came as a surprise to her.


Felix and Katharina, who came to Montreal with less of a background in French attend a so-called “classe d’accueil”.  These welcome classes are pretty helpful institutions, and what they are about is approximately as follows:  If there ever is something considered sacred to the government of Quebec, it’s … no, not the Good Lord himself, it’s the French language.  An elaborate network of laws and by-laws, plus the Office Québecoise de la Langue Française, a kind of a language police established to enforce these regulations, look after the cultural and linguistic identity of Quebec and the primacy of the French language.  Signs, billboards, brochures, and the like, for example, have to be in French and additional languages may only be used if the French part on them is at least as eye-catching as the non French part.  By law French is required to be the language of business for all Quebec-based enterprises and the mandatory language of instruction for all new arrivals from abroad (unless you come from a different Canadian province, then an English school may be attended).  That’s where the classe d’accueil enters the game, because Quebec not only requires the newly arrived kids to attend French schools, they also help them to succeed by establishing these welcome classes.  Here, the kids spend three quarters of the teaching time studying French, with the rest being shared by math, arts and physical education.  As soon as the kids’ language skills are good enough, they change into the regular class.  Since a classe d’accueil is always a part of a regular French school, the kids may participate in the recreational activities this school offers.  That’s how Felix has joined les Dragons – which is to be pronounces French, first because it actually is French, and second because, who knows, the Office Québecoise de la Langue Française might be listening – and with the Dragons, he regularly discovers the island of Montreal whenever they have a game on the road, and twice a week he enjoys great basketball practices run by two almost professional coaches in a strong team where everyone just likes to play basketball until they drop.

Franziska plays with les Dragons, too, soccer is her game, and the games have carried her all the way to Ottawa.  Other than that, she loves bouldering.  Whenever possible, she sets off for the climbing gym to tackle the steep, often overhanging climbing wall, and she doesn’t have to use ropes since the walls are not too high and thick mats on the ground prevent injuries from falls.  In a good week, she manages to do some sport every afternoon – twice a week soccer and bouldering whenever possible.  So, beyond school everything is very fine.  And at school?  Well, let’s put it this way:  There’s still room for improvement, and life would be a bit nicer still if all her teammates from soccer, whom she so easily gets along with, didn’t go to other classes.  But anyway, at exactly half past three school is over – unless of course, you have a question for one the teachers of that day, because then would be the time to ask them – and until it is half past three and because classes at Jeanne-Mance rarely get too stressful, Franziska has plenty of time to dream of bouldering and soccer.  Which does a nice job keeping her happy.

Katharina’s school, the École Jean-Baptiste-Meilleur, is a 15-minute walk from home.  On most mornings, Katharina and Mike walk there together.  They both like this, because when the weather is fine the way to Katharina’s school is directly against the sun rising behind the Jacques-Cartier bridge, and they both like their relaxed talks on the way, about all sorts of things, like the pleasures and pains with her class-mates, about homework, teachers, and soccer, and sometimes they arrange to go skating after school on the ice rink right behind the school.  Upon their arrival at Katharina’s school, Mike rides his bike to university, and Katharina goes to her classe d’accueil to Marc, the cool teacher from Paris, whose last name she already forgot, because at the École Jean-Baptiste-Meilleur, last names are not so important.  Katharina likes Marc’s way of teaching.  It’s both instructive and entertaining, even involving group work, as Felix and Franziska enviously acknowledge, and after school, the fun continues twice a week with soccer and karate practices.

On her soccer team, which in her age group is a mixed team, Katharina is the only girl.  “But never mind” she explains to her parents “think of it this way: I am the best girl on my team.  And playing with all these boys is really good for my soccer skills.”  On the team, Katharina evolved from a goalie, which was her position when playing for Schwarz-Weiß Merzbach back home in Germany, to an outfield player.  “Being a goalie has disadvantages” she says.  “If the others are better than us they always shoot really hard, and when we are better there often isn’t much to do for the goalie.  And then, with these giant goalie gloves, you can’t even twirl your thumbs.”  An interesting point.

And then, there’s winter.  This season, it started in early December, shortly after Nancy first went to Montreal and sent Mecki and Mike out to Quebec City for a weekend.  There, they enjoyed two wonderful days without kids and a last weekend without snow, because soon afterwards, winter arrived.  And it arrived with all the pleasures of roughly 50 centimetres of snow.  The first thing to do is always to free the car being parked at the side of the road from the snow.  And you better do so fast, because the longer you wait, the harder it is to dig your way through the wall the snow plough piled up.  Then you watch out if the city places little orange signs at the roadside.  For then it’s time to move the car to make way for a truly impressive spectacle: le deneigement, the snow removal.  This is not just a pushing-the-snow-to-the-side kind of job, the snow has to be removed from the city, because with Montreal winter temperatures, it just might not melt until, who knows, maybe April.  And so, huge snow blowers convey the snow onto equally huge trucks that carry the snow out of the city.

But removing snow is only one of four winter sports practiced at the Heinzelmanns.  For sledding and ice skating, the Parc La Fontaine is an excellent place, and it’s only a 15 minute walk from home.  Even getting there can be fun, particularly if you are, like Katharina, drawn on your sled by Felix.  “Great job!  Super, Felix!” she shouts as happy as a sandboy.  Mecki and Mike don’t trust their ears.  Has Katharina just applauded Felix?  Should they mark the day with a big red cross in their calendar?

In the Parc La Fontaine, a short but steep slope makes sure sledding happens at a tearing pace.  Some hundred meters further into the park, the frozen lake is a wonderful ice rink.  Like a professional rink, the ice is regularly maintained by an ice resurfacing machine.  The best skating time is at night, when the lake is floodlit and classic music is played over the PA.  Quite a cool service of the city.  On Mont Royal, right above the city centre, skating conditions are similar, maybe even a touch nicer.  Up there is an ice rink, too, just as well maintained, and also with music, floodlight, and completely free of charge.  Besides, Mont Royal is a great place for cross country skiing.  The ski rental is right beside the ice rink and 20 kilometres of cross country ski tracks lead all the way up and down the park.

Having such a great choice of winter pleasures, it’s of course always fun to let off steam in the outdoors.  Who would have thought that with Christmas approaching, Felix of all people, who was always the first to run into the deepest of snow drifts, suddenly prefers to spend his time indoors?  More and more often he locks himself in his room, warning everyone coming close with a sharp “Don’t enter!”.  Inside his room, the Canadian Geographic special issue with the wildlife photography contest – it’s actually Mike’s, and he’s looking for it like mad all over the place – is on his desk, and Felix does, what he likes best:  He draws and draws and draws and draws and draws and draws and draws and draws ... Christmas presents for parents, grandparents, siblings, and the “street grandmas” in Halifax and Rheinbach.

Change of scene, early January.  Katharina and Mike make pancakes for dinner.  Franziska is still out in the climbing gym, and Mecki and Mike wonder whether, with all her enthusiasm for bouldering, she’ll make it home in time for dinner.  Then, they both volunteer to set the table, since that would leave the other one with the pleasure of moving the car for the deneigement.  Felix and Katharina tell each other their latest success stories from basketball and soccer, about three-point tosses and volleys.

“If it were summer now“, Felix says „I could play basketball outdoors.“

“That would be awful“, answers Katharina „because then, we wouldn’t be here any more.“


But until then, we luckily still have a little while.  Have a happy new year!

the Heinzelmanns

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