I spent time with a group of American newcomers to Montréal recently; all were women, most in their early thirties. The coffee klatch turned out to be a session of unmitigated complaint.
That's a common expat sentiment anywhere: things are worse than at home. The bureaucracy is designed to obstruct! The brownies at the café are too expensive! No one wants to hire us here, the roads are a mess, and does it ever warm up?
As I write, I'm anticipating the agreement of those who dislike Québec. You're entitled to your opinion, but that is not my point.
My point is that expats bitch; missing home, they compare everything, usually unfavourably. A French friend here got so sick of his copains carping that he avoids them. "And how long have you been here?" he likes to ask. "Oh, eighteen years" is a typical reply.
When I lived in Toronto, I hung with a raucous batch of Brits who whinged incessantly. A Mancunian friend always suggested they "take 'The $800 Cure'", which was a plane ticket home for two weeks' stay.
Even sophisticated world citizen (and native Montréaler) Adam Gopnik has written of his nightmarish attempts to get a home phone line and chequing account in Paris.
These women had accompanied partners here for work or education. They were legitimately frustrated because most of them could not work yet, partially due to the lengthy immigration process (federal government) but primarily because Québec's language law (provincial government) necessitates proficiency in French for many jobs. Joblessness and attendant money woes exacerbated their dissatisfaction. They had valid issues with various institutions' service levels.
And, they also complained that here, you have to pay the post office to hold your mail when you are on vacation. I have to cross the border to get to a Target; yes, one is opening here next fall–of course it's taken forever because they have to redo all the packaging to include French.
Everything is so expensive!, one woman moaned. (I later used a terrific tool, Expatistan's Cost of Living Index, to compare cost of living between Montréal and her former city; according to that site, her former city is 29% more expensive.)
The chorus of complaint was delivered 60 decibels louder than a sober Canadian would use in either official language; anyone within a twelve-foot radius of our communal table could hear every word.
When you're not a citizen, you're a guest of the host country, and these guests were fractious. I squirmed with discomfort; was I imagining several patron's stares? And wondered, Just how American am I, still?
I wanted to ask if there was anything they liked; but every time I thought of it, a fresh gripe generated more loud assent. Bitterness has a way of multiplying, like monster dough in the back of a fridge. It's easy to edge toward xenophobia.
I fled after an hour, sympathetic to the frustrations but at the same time, distressed by their public airing. It's not that I agree with Québec's majority party's politics or am blind to the city's flaws but, just like with a partner, if you look exclusively at those, sooner or later you'll fall out of love, and I do love living here.
They too had come for love, but not of place. They missed their home towns, friends, family and that great drycleaner. How many, I wondered, will stay?
Walking home, I thought of my own expat days. I came to Canada in 1971, before they were born. I recalled my initial dislocation and gradual acculturation: switching to the metric system, understanding how a parliamentary government works, learning how to invite people over (state a specific date and time.) I didn't have to master a new language in order to work in my field.
If these younger compatriots can resolve some discontents, they will benefit from the richness of living here, whether for a year or life. (Canada and the US permit dual citizenship, a unique privilege and one for which I continue to be grateful– though perhaps it makes assimilating to the new country harder.)
If it is only a partner that brought them here, and the craziness, contradictions and constraints prove too much to bear, the outlook for their futures will be like our spring weather: cloudy, with a high probability of rain.