A story about cigarettes, French and fitting in.

February 26th, 2014

Last week I was in a downtown supermarket buying a six-pack of beer. The supermarket is about to close down and was selling its stock at a discount. Many of the items you might expect to find in a supermarket were all gone.

Including cigarettes.

There was a middle-aged man standing at the check-out who just couldn’t get his head around the fact this supermarket didn’t have any cigarettes.

‘Mais c’est un supermarché, comment se fait que vous n’avez pas des cigarettes?’

‘Parce que ce supermarché est sur ​​le point de fermer. Après février, il y aura pas un supermarché ici.’

‘Mais c’est un supermarché! Vous devriez stocker des cigarettes!’

After this went back and forth a few times like the harmonic motion of someone pressing on a spring and being surprised each time that it actually springs back, I chimed in. As the person next in line, I was getting frustrated. I wanted to buy my beer and get to my friend’s place.

‘Monsieur, il y a plusieurs dépanneurs dans ce coin oú vous pouvez acheter des cigarettes.’

I then listed the various stores within a one minute walk where he could buy his smokes. At this point, I should note that the check-out girl’s first language was clearly not French. I would guess she was either from out of province or a West Island anglophone, but she spoke French, albeit with an accent. At no point did she attempt to engage the man in any language other than French.

When I spoke, the man didn’t react to the fact that I was helping him find his precious cigarettes. Instead, he said ‘Grâce à Dieu, quelqu’un qui peut parler français correctement. Un vrai Québécois!’ (Thank God, someone who can speak French properly. A true Québécois!) He said it without a hint of sarcasm.

What? Two things here:

- I am not ‘un vrai québécois’. I’ve lived here for two years in total. Hopefully one day I can call myself a real Quebecer, but I have a feeling that this is a decision and a label that is made for me, rather than one I make for myself.

- The girl’s French was at least as good as mine, probably better.

At first I ignored the comment and said to the man (in French) that I was actually heading towards the métro station and could show him a store on the way, but he was on a roll. Maybe he needed some nicotine to calm down.

‘Je suis si heureux d’être servi en français par un vrai Québécois!’

Once again — what? At this point I had to tell him that I’m from from Ireland. Additionally, I clearly don’t sound like a local. Furthermore, I wasn’t there to serve — I wanted to buy beer. Lastly, the man had been served in French by the girl in the first place. That last bit is important.

‘Je ne suis pas québécois, je viens d’Irlande et j’habitais là-bas jusq’à j’avais 24 ans. J’ai démenager ici il y a trois ans. Voulez-vous que je vous dise où trouver des cigarettes ou pas?’

The man frowned and told me that I could learn French all I want, but because I’m from another place I’ll never be a true local — un vrai québécois.

Well done buddy, you heard me trying to help then told me I'm not good enough. Top marks.

Well done, you heard me trying to help then told me I’m not good enough. Top marks.

I ignored it, nodded at the girl, rolled my eyes, bought my beer and got out. Just as I was heading to the door, the man shouted . . .

‘Hey monsieur, hey monsieur! Connais-tu endroit oú je pourrais acheter des cigarettes?’

Well, having stomped all over my good will and told me I’ll never fit in . . . No.

We’re now hearing from on top that French, and only French, is acceptable in retail in Montreal, but when other clients patronise me and others for attempting to speak it, we’re left thinking — why should we bother? Debates about whether employees should use the bilingual expression “Bonjour/Hi” when greeting customers in Montreal are completely absurd and are a monumental waste of time, money and energy.

Instead of thinking ‘who is un vrai québécois?’ or ‘where can I buy cigarettes?’ the man (and the government) could have been thinking —

‘Why is this supermarket closing down?’



First Christmas in Montreal

December 27th, 2013

My first week in Montreal, coming up on three years ago, I had a number of goals: find a place to live, find a job, find someone to go for a pint with. Practical goals, and all important. Since then I’ve had seven homes, friends have come and gone or remained, and right now I have two jobs. That first week, however, I had another goal that was not so much practical as emotional.

Right smack bang in the middle of the city there is a mountain – Mont Royal. (Mont Royal . . . Montreal . . . get it?). Imagine if instead of Trafalgar Square, The Louvre, or The Empire State Building, there were mountains. Mont Royal is that dominant and important to its host city. Punctuating an otherwise flat topography, it commands an influence that is greater than the sum of its parts — it’s actually just a big hill and, if it was in the Rockies, it probably wouldn’t even have a name. These things are relative, however, so I quite like the fact that it’s referred to as a mountain. The mountain. I decided before I moved here that if I didn’t scale the mountain in my first week, I had failed as an immigrant.

It was Christmas this week. My mother rang me sometime during the summer. ‘Son, I love you and I love Christmas, but the last couple of years has made me tired so your Dad and I are going away for Christmas. And we plan on being pampered instead of doing the pampering.’ Good for you, I said. And with that I knew that this year I’d be spending my first Christmas abroad.

We’re a secular family and religion played no part in my and my brothers’ upbringing, but we have always very much been a Christmas family. Family get together on Christmas Eve; the exchange of presents followed by a swim in the sea in the morning; see the cousins in the afternoon; big dinner; games and drinks until the last one goes to bed. There’s no point in trying to replicate all that when you’re so far removed from the people and places that make it possible.


Merry Christmas!

The plans I made, or that were made for me, were dashed for reasons outside of my control. So I tried to imitate just one of my traditions from home, which is to swim in the sea. Lacking a body of salty water nearby and with the St-Lawrence River nicely frozen over, I determined that the only thing I could to that would match the Christmas swim would be a Christmas run up and over the mountain. The mountain. My mountain.

I didn’t plan on it being -22°C (-8°F).

It’s difficult to get across what those numbers actually mean, but if you release a drop of saliva from your lips it will most likely be frozen to your chin within three seconds. And that’s if there’s no wind.

But this is a hill/mountain on a flat plain, so there was wind. And it was -22°C.

Add to that the fact that the snow gods had deposited a thick and hefty white load on the land over the previous 24 hours, and it soon became apparent that this was going to be much more difficult than the swim. There are thousands of people who go to the swim, with much backslapping, hot whiskies and sausages once you’re done the splash and dash. Mentally and physically, this run was in a different league. I was also hungover after a splendid dinner with friends the night before.


Me hungover at about 8 a.m. right before I went for a run. I originally sent this to a friend in Ireland who had just sent me photos of the Christmas swim.

So off I went, wearing as much as I could without sacrificing the ability to move properly. (I’m not wealthy enough to buy those outdoors clothes and items that successful people can afford. You know, the ones that would allow you to play Frisbee in the Arctic North while feeling like you’re on a beach in Aruba. The ones where the selling point of the gloves is that you can boil an egg in them using one’s own heated sweat. “That’ll be $500 please. For one glove. Two gloves are on special for $950.”)

Off I went in my affordable clothing. I was running up a mountain in thick snow in minus twenty-fucking-two degrees of thin air with Aeolus the merry god of Christmas winds deciding that now would be a great time to whip up a breeze. I was alone. I was running as much and as hard as I could. I was confused, and confusion is one of the most malignant of all the emotions. If I could banish one phrase from the human lexicon, it would be “I’m confused” because, by definition, you can’t explain it.

Outside my apartment last week.

Outside my apartment last week.

Off I went to the top, where I stood and admired the city and life below me. I did that for about ten seconds before my feet got a mind of their own and my entire body instantaneously developed a homing instinct. My masochistic pseudo-tradition had to end as soon as possible.

Off I went. Home I went. But this isn’t home. It’s a home for now, but without the people, places and traditions that made me who I am, it is just a substitute. A fun, outrageous, challenging substitute, but a substitute all the same. It’s a place where I had takeaway fish and chips for Christmas dinner before meeting up with a couple of people for evening drinks. It’s different, and I’m OK with that.

Some day. Some morning. Some mountain.

Mount_Royal_Montreal_Lookout (1)

‘Get in the Hole’ and other short stories

August 20th, 2013

Sports are wonderful. I think we can all agree on that (ok, maybe not everybody). For millennia, people from all corners of the world have been engrossed in participating in, watching and consuming the various games and competitions that have come and gone, with a weird sort of social evolution resulting in a strange phenomenon – the modern sports fan. Sycophantic and carefree, naïve and romantic, the sports fan is a marketer’s dream. Most of us know we’re a bit ridiculous, often becoming aware of the absurdity of investing so much emotional energy into something so fleeting.

Most sports fans are decent people looking for a bit of entertainment, and if that transcends into feeling part of some sort of community, all the better. There’s no harm in that. But each individual sport tends to attract a subset of fans that, although a minority, tend to be more annoying than their compatriots. Below, I’ve listed some of these groups.

Golf – White American middle-aged males dressing like they’re actually playing.

There’s a reason why the only major golf tournament I can watch close to its entirety is the British Open – there is a welcome dearth of white American middle-aged males dressing like they’re about to tee off. Watching golf from the United States is cringe-worthy. Looking at the galleries, you’ll observe a sea of flatterers and sycophants, with at least one idiot prepared to shout “get in the hole!” after Every. Damn. Shot. You’ll also regularly hear them shout “great golf shot!” which helps to remind us which sport we are following. Oh sorry, I though this was a tennis match – thanks for reminding me that it’s golf.

These Bermuda shorts-wearing, baseball cap-covered folk often refer to their heroes by their first names – Tiger, Phil, Bubba, etc. – though they seem to have an inability to learn how to pronounce ‘Pádraig’, even after many years. These people are likely to be Republican voting and are often mildly racist, as can be seen when they refer to “Tiger” as being “well-spoken”.


A group of white (mostly) male American golf fans all dressed as “Sergio”

GAA – Nationalists telling me that my tepid interest makes me less Irish than them.

Gaelic Games – football and hurling – are great sports. Fast, skillful and tactical, people from Ireland ought to be proud of them. Unlike many Irish men and women, however, I was brought up in a home where soccer reigned supreme, with a dash of rugby and whatever you’re having yourself thrown in. I’d always watch the All-Ireland finals, but beyond that I had, at most, a passing interest. I tried hard to fall in love with Gaelic Games, including one summer when I went to a couple of games in Croke Park, but it didn’t quite work out. Instead, I continued to channel my sporting patriotism through our international soccer team (a case of self-harm if ever there was one).

No to Foreign Games RSF styleIt’s fantastic to observe the visual aesthetic of thousands decked out in county colours roaming around Croke Park. Football and hurling have done more than anything to promote and maintain a sense of county identity. Alas, Gaelic Games has, and continues to have, a hyper-nationalist side that is creepy. On more than one occasion I’ve had my Irishness called into question because I don’t avidly follow our national sports. One of these obnoxious people, while telling me that he was more Irish than me, showed me his tattoo, which said ‘26+6=1’ over a tricolor. It’s a pity, because Gaelic Games are damn fine sports and the majority of fans are glad to support their local club and county.

Rugby – When they ridicule American Football because the players wear pads.

This often happens when some rugby fans (a minority) watch American Football – “look at those pansies with their pads and helmets . . . they should come and play some rugby and see what real men are made of . . .” ETCETERA Et-frickin-cetera ad infinitum.

What they don’t realise is that, in spite of the fact that there is a similarly-shaped ball and posts, these are actually different sports with different rules. I could go on and on, but the upshot is that if American Football players did not wear pads and helmets, there would be deaths each week in the NFL.

Hockey* – Fight! Fight! Fight!

I’ve accepted that fighting is ingrained in hockey and is likely to stay, but on more than one occasion I’ve had hockey fans tell me that fighting is the best thing about the sport. I’ve had people show me videos on their phones of their favourite fights, some of which involve themselves. The best thing about hockey is not fighting, which tends to be premeditated between certain ‘enforcers’ and therefore not just a spontaneous outpouring of energy and emotion. The best things about hockey are its constant end-to-end plays, incredible skill, strength and teamwork, spectacular shots and saves, and sheer entertainment. Next to all that, the fighting is quite boring. And that makes those who promote it as the game’s defining and best quality similarly boring . . . and annoying.

Soccer – “I fucking hate scousers, me.” Get a grip. You’re from Killiney.

Usually found perched on a stool in a suburban pub, these people have become convinced that their support of Liverpool or Manchester United means they must hate “mancs” or “scousers”. They’ll even sing songs about how much they hate them, often mimicking the accents of “mancs” or “scousers” while doing so.

Baseball – Not actually interested at all in what’s going on.

I’ve been told that going to a baseball game is great fun. Oh you’ll love it. There’s food, there’s drinks, there’s big plays . . . oh you’ll just love it!

How about no?

I’ve been to three Major League Baseball games and each time I’ve felt completely out of place. The $12 warm-ish Coors Light I can just about deal with, and the weather is usually nice, but pretty much nobody present seems to actually care about what’s going on in the game. They’ll often turn up after the first inning and leave (leave!) before the game is finished, even though it might still be very much undecided. Then you have the high-fiving. Oh, it’s relentless. A group of people wearing shirts at least two sizes two large will turn up an hour into the game, sip on their $12 Coors Light and $8 rubber hot dog, not watch, then when they hear a big noise they’ll shout ‘Woooooo!!’ and high-five each other for about 45 seconds.

“Oh man, A-Rod smacked that one out of the ballpark real good.”

Shut it you goon. You weren’t even watching.

Basketball/Aussie Rules/American Football – Soccer has too few goals. Make the nets bigger!

Running across some fans of these three sports is a concept that is lacking in their brains – delayed gratification, the idea that if you wait for something, the value of that thing will be much greater when it arrives.

Would you rather have a single McDonald’s hamburger twice a day, or one fillet steak every Sunday? Same concept. Yes, there are fewer goals, but when they come (and they average around 2.5-3 per 90 minutes, about the same mean gap between touchdowns in American Football, including time when the clock is stopped) that makes each one of greater value to the team, and therefore to the game and by extension to the fans, than, say, a basket or field goal.

Delayed gratification . . . try it some time.


* Ice hockey, not field hockey.

The Conservative Party is a Parody of Itself

July 23rd, 2013

Conservative Party election poster, 1964.



Conservative Party van to drive through housing estates, 2013.



This van will drive around Barnet, Hounslow, Barking and Dagenham, Ealing, Brent and Redbridge, all in the Greater London area, displaying a number that immigrants can text to arrange a safe passage “home”, despite the fact that the UK may have been their home for decades.

The Conservative Party of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is a parody of itself.

The first month back

May 10th, 2013

It’s been about five and a half weeks since I landed back in Montreal as a resident once again, though it feels like about a year. Here’s a brief rundown of what I’ve been up to.

The most fun project I’ve worked on so far this year was an article I did for French Living magazine. French Living is an Australia-based publication aimed at francophiles, so obviously a piece on Montreal is something they would be interested in. How did I get this gig? The editor, the wonderful Claire Chaffey, was both a housemate and work colleague of mine in Accra, Ghana from June to August, 2009. We both interned at the National Trust and Ghanaian Times newspapers. I haven’t seen Claire since then, but I’ve kept in touch with her and her husband, Sam, for the past four years.

The first time I met Claire was on a rain-soaked June morning down by the equator. I had overslept on my first morning before our orientation around Accra, so her first impression of me was of a bleary-eyed pale kid wearing only a pair of boxers, hand outstretched for the introductory formalities, having been roused a minute before scheduled departure time. Fortunately by that afternoon I had redeemed myself somewhat and we struck up a solid friendship. We even had a joint byline on the front page of the Ghanaian Times. I was delighted when she asked me to do some work for French Living and made sure to find interviewees that would interest her and the readership. I managed to source an outgoing, ambitious couple from Perth who were glad to talk about their experience in Montreal.

The bulk of my professional work these past few weeks, however, has been with Moving2Canada, an online resource that helps immigrants move to Canada. Moving2Canada is also a registered recruitment agency and has thousands of people in its international network. I did some work on spec for the founder of this company last November, and in March he asked me to become editor of the website. It’s been a great, if at times challenging, experience, but I’m learning a lot and feel confident that I’m providing top quality work to the organisation. The initial project has been a proofreading and optimization job on the existing content, but we’re now getting to a stage where I’ll be involved in creating new content and expanding the site in new directions. It’s an exciting project that I’m delighted to be a part of.

On top of all this I’ve been bartending at McKibbin’s on Bishop St. It’s a casual place with wonderful, amazing staff and happy, unpretentious regulars. I work anywhere between 30 and 45 hours a week there, so with professional work on top it’s fair to say I’ve been a busy man.

Outside of work, I’ve been reminded of the fickle, extreme nature of Montreal weather. Between the 19th and 20th of April, for example, the temperature ranged from -1°C to 22°C. Look, here’s the evidence.

Screen Shot 2013-05-10 at 2.45.13 AM

This means that within 24 hours I experienced a range of temperatures that would be expected in Dublin across an entire year. In the past month I’ve sat sweltering in a park, while at other times wished my gloves were thicker. It’s very odd, but I like it.

But summer is coming, which means balconies, football, the mountain and long evenings spent on patios. Oh, and work – that too. I’ll end this post with a photo of the mountain I took yesterday morning while eating breakfast on my balcony.

mount royal

Time to settle

March 21st, 2013

“I showed my appreciation of my native land in the usual Irish way: by getting out of it as soon as I possibly could.” — George Bernard Shaw

On Sunday of next week I will arrive in Montreal. I’ve been here before. I’ve breezed in wide-eyed and with no particular place to go. I’ve clocked in and clocked out in just a couple of days while still working four days the same week in New York. I’ve come by air, bus, train and car, and at every time of day and night, mooring my proverbial boat for a while before casting off again. On each occasion I get all jumpy and on edge like a six-year-old going to the funfair. They see a Ferris wheel pop out of the horizon; I see endless fields of snow from the air or Mount Royal sitting gloriously behind the city, an immense playground puncturing the flat landscape. Nostalgia, that seductive old liar, is yet to deliver the humbling punch to my stomach. I still love this place.

All told, our next meeting will be the thirteenth time in twenty-six months I’ve entered Montreal from an international location – nine times from the US, four from Ireland. In that period beginning January 2011 until now, I’ve had five phone numbers and an equal number of places to call home, as well as six jobs (not including freelance gigs) in three countries on two continents. By this time next month I’ll have another phone number, another job and another home, and by July I will have yet another home again as my next one is a three-month sublet, bringing the total to seven in two-and-a-half years. Lucky number seven will probably be the first time I live alone. I’m growing up, you see. Or at least I’m trying to.

There is an old joke about the Irish boomerang that doesn’t come back, but only sings about coming back. Delving into the archives on this site, I see that in November of 2011 I wrote “Now that I have left Montreal, though probably not forever . . .” Around the same time, I wrote on my Facebook page “Montreal, you’ve been fantastico but I have to run away for a bit. Merci mille fois. I have a distinct feeling that I’ll be back before too long.” The evidence would suggest I’ve been yapping away passively about moving back for about fifteen months. Indeed, I’ve been trying and waiting to get a work permit for almost a year, and eleven days ago I received a letter granting that this precious article will be stamped into my passport next time I land. Charlie got his Golden Ticket to the Chocolate Factory; I got my visa. And not just for a year, but for two

And so after nearly running out of fingers upon which I could count my jobs, homes and phone numbers, and with a sack full of boarding passes and the ability to describe in minute detail the interior design of Albany Greyhound station – I am both leaving home and coming home. I am lucky enough to have two, but only one truly sucks me in. So thank you for having me, Montreal. It’s time to drop anchor.

A ride on the Montreal Métro

February 16th, 2013

Here we have a rather extraordinary scene aboard the Montreal Métro.

As you can see, a woman is ranting at fellow passengers, shouting and waving her fingers at them because she suffered the indignity of having to hear a language other than French (most likely English) in a public place. This is the gist of her opening gambit: “Here in our home, it’s the same thing whether it’s at your home or ours. You are in Quebec and it is in French! IT IS FRENCH! Period! No! You speak to me in French or you don’t speak to me at all.”

One could sit down and write all day about it, but I prefer to view the scene as parody, a sort of play within a play. The woman plays the part of  Quebec, the other passengers the rest of Canada and the Métro car Canada itself. Given the opportunity of leaving the car, she chooses to remain on board and continue putting forward her point of view. Meanwhile the other passengers shuffle around wondering what to do, in the end doing not much at all. They’re particularly polite throughout, in a passive way, and the Métro car continues to go around in circles.


Montreal Ireland Supporters Club

January 26th, 2013

The Montreal branch of officially sanctioned Football Association of Ireland (FAI) Supporters Clubs is in the process of being established, and we could use your support. Once established, the club will join a Canada-wide umbrella group along with clubs from other cities. Official status would allow us to:

  • Coordinate and organise where to watch matches as a group.
  • Increase bargaining power when trying to get matches shown in pubs and sports bars.
  • Have an open directory of members across the country, so that when you are away on business or holiday you can still watch matches with other fans or just meet a friendly face for a drink.
  • Receive special treatment from the FAI if and when a party from the group of clubs travels to Dublin for a match, including reserved match tickets and access to the players’ lounge, among other benefits.
  • Further develop the network of Irish Societies in the great city of Montreal.
  • Communicate with other Supporters Clubs across the globe regarding best practice.

Please contact me on hugo@hugoodoherty.com if you’re interested in becoming a member!