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Expat Guide to Montreal

Montreal is located on an island gently nestled within the St. Lawrence Seaway in Eastern Canada in the Province of Quebec. The city is dominated by a large hill in the centre, grandly called 'The Mountain' by the locals, and only slightly less grandly officially 'Mont Royal'.

This beautiful parkland, with the Mansions of Westmount and Outrement cut part way up it, has a chateau at the top and a lookout from which you can see right across to the States. Looking down you can see the business center of Montreal, the McGill University campus buildings and the bridges that cross the St. Lawrence. To the north of Montreal only 45 minutes away are the Laurentian Mountains with their superb ski resorts, golf courses, lakes and cottages for summer and winter. To the East an hour away, are the Eastern Townships, again with superb skiing, golf, lakes and holiday cottages.

The US is 40 minutes away to the south with Boston and New York six hours drive away and one hour by air. There are several daily flights to London only 7 hours away, and to the rest of Europe.

Cuisine: The French influence means that the food is great; the croissants and pastries are second only to France. It appears that everyone who has ever emigrated here also loves food because there are restaurants of every nationality serving good food to suit every budget. Eating out here is so cheap compared to the UK, the portions are large, the service is great and children are welcome everywhere.

There is a lot more smoking here than in the UK so ask for a non-smoking table if that is your preference. Wine and spirits are very expensive as they are sold by a Quebec government agency, the SAQ.

The wine sold in the supermarkets is more like Ribena. Beer is more reasonably priced and can be bought in supermarkets or corner shops called depanneurs.

People: Canadians are genuinely nice people; friendly and welcoming, fond of the British and very proud of their homeland. It has been said that Canada is a bit boring, but this is really not the case in Quebec. The European influence particularly that of the French, really livens things up.

After Paris, Montreal is the second largest French-speaking city in the world. 69% of its three million people speak French as their mother tongue, 12% speak English and 19% don't speak either. The reality of the situation, however, is that in this tolerant, vibrant, and youthful city most of its inhabitants are functionally bilingual, often trilingual, and so coming here only speaking English is not a problem. Even if you speak perfect French you will be spotted as a visitor as the Quebecois accent is very different. I have lived here for seven years and people still start speaking in English to me the minute I say 'Bonjour'.

Montrealers love Brits and the shop assistants always want to chat, telling you who in their family are British, and how much they love your accent. There are also large numbers of immigrants from non-English or French cultures and there is no obvious racial tension. I suspect this is because they are not perceived scroungers or benefit seekers but just as new additions to a long line of immigrants, who are here to work hard, learn French and get on with life.

Weather: Montreal has four distinct seasons. Winter is long lasting from November until the end of March. It has usually snowed by the middle of December and carries on intermittently until March. January and February are the coldest months with temperatures averaging -10ºC but on the odd day it does fall to -40ºC with the wind chill factor. -10ºC sounds cold but it isn't really provided you have the right clothes. It is a dry cold and so it doesn't penetrate through to your bones as it does in the UK. The children love the snow, which is dry and brushes off easily, and you can always appreciate the beautifully clear blue skies.

Spring is very short lasting from April to the end of May, but everything grows extremely quickly and it is delightful to see the grass and flowers pushing through past the residual snow. Summer runs luxuriously through June to September and is hot and often humid. The temperature can reach the mid 30's in July and August and it is truly fantastic. Fall (Autumn) runs from October until mid-November and is beautiful with red, brown and gold colours abounding. It is a great time to travel to Vermont and the Laurentians or anywhere woody and rural.

Standard of Living: Everything in Montreal is roughly half the price of that in the UK, from food and clothes to restaurants and housing, and people are not embarrassed to question prices or complain about bad service. Salaries are lower than in the UK but despite this you will still have a much better standard of living in Montreal.

Healthcare: The medical system, Medicare, is very similar to the NHS with the same sorts of advantages and disadvantages. Treatment is free on demand and the doctors and nurses are generally very good but the waiting lists are often long. GP's are in short supply and you have to wait for hours in the Emergency Room (casualty).

Once you arrive on a work permit or land as an immigrant you need to obtain a Medicare card to get treatment. The private health system in Quebec is very limited. You cannot pay to see a consultant or have tests performed in a public hospital more quickly but you can go to a private clinic for certain tests, particularly if you are an adult. Many health insurance schemes will pay for this.

The cost of prescription medicines is borne by the patient or by the private insurance that you will have through your employer. Dental care is high quality but very expensive and not covered at all by Medicare for adults and even for children the provision is limited. Employee insurance schemes cover dental treatment but cover varies from scheme to scheme.

As in the UK, adults in Quebec pay for eye check ups and children and those on welfare benefits do not. Medicare does not cover the cost of glasses or contact lenses, however, most insurance schemes cover the costs in part or completely. Glasses and contact lenses are considerably cheaper in Quebec than in the UK.

Driving: If you hold a valid British Driving License you can obtain a Quebec license without taking a test. You can drive for a few months on your international license but it is best to get a Quebec license as soon as possible. You can obtain this from the SAAQ (Société de l'Assurance Automobile du Quebec).

You are legally required to carry your license with you when driving as well as the insurance and registration documents for the car. The rules regarding drink-driving, the wearing of seat belts, and use of child car seats are similar to those in the UK, i.e do not drink and drive, wear seats belts at all times and make sure your child has the correct car seat for their size and age.

It is relatively easy to adjust to driving on the right hand side of the road in Quebec, because the speed limits are lower than in the UK and they are, by and large, obeyed.

The general consensus among expats is that drivers in Quebec are not very good. It is not that they are deliberately obstructive or aggressive; they just seem unaware of other cars, not letting you into a lane or out of a side street, pulling out suddenly and rarely indicating. There is 'no fault' insurance in Quebec. That is, if you have an accident your insurance company pays for your damage and the other parties company pays for their damage regardless of who was responsible. Any injury to your person is insured by the SAAQ.

Banking: If you are just visiting banking is fine, you can use your UK cashpoint cards in the ATM's which are everywhere, not just in the banks but in cinemas, depanneurs and supermarkets. Of course, UK credit cards are accepted everywhere. The banks are open 10am until 4pm on weekdays only and have very long queues so use the ATM whenever possible.

If you are planning to move here for a few years banking is more difficult. Your credit reference in the UK is no good here at all and you basically start from scratch proving your financial worthiness to be given a credit card and overdraft facility. Getting as many store cards as possible is one way to improve your credit rating.

Written by Particia Smith at Home Thoughts a Montreal based relocation company.