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From an old website, Alien in Montreal

Of course, we only actually look at the letter in detail, mulling over its consequences, the night before my interview, which is at 10am the next day.

‘Passport?’ Check.

‘Birth certificate?’ Check.

‘Driving license?’ Check.

‘Selection Certificate of Quebec?’ Check.

‘Hundred of dollars?’ Check.

‘Special photograph?’ ... What?

Ah, that special photograph. The kind that has to be taken by particular photographers in a particular way for a large sum of money - the only kind that are accepted by the immigration people? Yes, that kind.

No, we don’t have one of those. So it’s 7pm and everywhere is shut. All answering machines when we try some numbers. I spend perhaps two hours searching the web for photography shops that will be open early in the morning, and that might do immigration pictures. At the end of some very frustrating time I have a list of four, one of which opens at 8am. My interview is at 10am. Maybe I’ll make it.

Next morning, 5:30am. My wife is up at this time to go to work, so I get up and stay up too. This way I can maximise the time I’m awake and worrying about getting there on time. I pack my bag full of documents about five times and pace up and down for a while, drinking coffee. I leave early, at perhaps 7:20am.

There is a queue of immense proportions at the metro as it is 1st December, the day when everyone buys their monthly passes in the morning. I thank my lucky stars as I discover two old metro tickets in my pocket, and walk past the queue.

Half an hour later, the Photo shop is closed and I sit on a wet bench outside, waiting until they open. Ten minutes later I’m not smiling and having my picture taken. It is a digital camera, and it is printed in a minute and dried with a hairdressing blow-dryer. I pay my $12 and head back to the metro, past the lengthy queues and use my last metro ticket.

It’s now rush hour and the platforms are full of commuters. I manage to cram my way onto a metro much to the disgust of the other people (as Montrealers seem somewhat polite and will actually wait for the next metro rather than squeezing every man woman and child into every available space). Well, I’m used to London, and so I pushed my way on.

I pop out of the metro carriage at Berri, which is the busiest station on the Metro I think, and consult a map. Ah, I have to continue on the metro I just got off. I look back at the swarm of humanity, queuing patiently for the next metro and realise I’ll never get back on within the next half hour. I decide to take another tube which runs parallel and then walk at the end. I have a map, how hard can it be?

I don’t know the time because of course, I have no watch. I have to consult telephones for the time - they flash up the current time, lazily, every so often.

The other platform is crowded too, but I’m in no mood for waiting, so push my way on again, leaving confused looking people on the platform wondering why they can’t do what I just did.

It takes longer than I thought to get to the road, but I arrive eventually anyway after stopping to feed a friendly squirrel some nuts (there’s always time for that). I’m looking for number 1010, and according to Microsoft’s web map I know where it is. Except the building they point to seems to contain cafes and other such non-governmental businesses. I ask the reception desk if I’m in the right building for 1010?

The bored looking girl merely raises her eyes towards a huge xmas display on the wall which reads simply ‘1000’.

‘So do you know where 1010 is then?’ I ask.

She gestures vaguely back to the road, in both directions, ‘Somewhere around there.’ And turns away from me.

I try not be upset, as I want to retain a positive attitude today.

Back on the street I walk for a few blocks, looking in vain for numbers and when I find one it is shockingly 896. I walk back, more quickly. There are no phones, I don’t know what the time is. Anyway, would knowing the time actually help me find the building? I think it would just induce panic and not help at all.

I’m checking all the buildings on the way, and having no luck at all, with mildly rising panic. I then stumble across a small family of Indians who are clutching a bit of paper from immigration with an address on. The same address that I’m looking for.

‘Yes, I’m looking for it too!’ I tell them.

They have a better strategy than me for finding the building - they humbly hold the paper out to passing strangers, pointing at the address tearfully. A busy looking woman takes pity and look at the paper. She points across the street at a building that obviously had been hiding from us all this time.

I lead the dash, the Indians following close behind.

It’s actually all very nice once you’re inside. After the gun check, you meet lots of smiling, happy looking people who work there, and a lot of anxious, crazed looking people who don’t.

I pay my large amount of cash to a man who takes literally forever to count it out, and then take a seat.

It is a large room, with uncomfortable plastic chairs. All nationalities are here, it is the U.N. of Montreal perhaps. So everyone speaks in twenty languages and everyone has a child that screams too. In amongst this din, the counter officers whisper difficult to pronounce (for them) names which are transmitted through a device which turns them into electronic, tinny noises that no-one can understand. The officers will wait for a moment and then try another pronunciation.

A Chinese couple in front of me sit there, smiling blissfully for ten minutes whilst their names are shouted, incorrectly, from the counter window. In desperation the counter-woman tries what I imagine should thought was the least likely way of saying it, at which point the couple leisurely rise, smiling, and walk to the window.

An hour passes (I steal time from looking at the wrists of strangers) and I’m finally collected by a man and taken into the bowels of the office. No tinny speakerphone and Plexiglas for me. As we walk to the officer’s desk I wonder if this is a good or bad thing.

Well, it’s good. He’s jolly and spends all his time ca-va-ing and shaking hands with people, including me. It’s all going very well until he asks for my picture.

I hand it over.

He stares at it, pulling the kind of Galic face normally reserved for my attempts at French speaking.

‘Oh no, zis is no good.’

‘What?’ My stomach sinks.

He explains that the photographer has cut off too much of my neck and shoulders. It is useless. I get an old passport photo out of my wallet and offer it, like the Indians outside had their paper. He looks at it and sadly shakes his head.

‘What happens now then? I ask, imagining expiring visas, deportation and police cells.

‘Oh, well we will just take another, no? Come with me.’

They have photography facilities there, and it’s free. Good to know.

So I sign my form and gain the rights of the nation (except voting) and he gives me a list of things I should do today with my new paperwork. He shakes my hand and propels me, good naturedly, out of the door and onto the street.

I’m a resident. I don’t feel very different.

First stop, Quebec’s immigration service. These are the people to speak to if you want a social security number or French lessons. I can’t get a SS number yet, but do want some French lessons.

It takes perhaps 45 minutes to walk there and find the building (which is cunningly hidden by scaffolding).

The extent of this fine service is two security guards and a few telephones on some hastily erected tables in a room where the walls are made from untreated gypsum board. After explaining what I want to the security guard, he points me to a phone and tells me to pick it up, without dialling, and explain it again to someone else.

The table has a fetching lamp (of the kind perhaps found in your grandmother’s home) casting a homely orange glow into the unfinished sterility of the room. I pick up the phone it rings and then goes dead. I try again, it rings and goes dead.

Third time: ‘Allo?’

I explain my request and she listens patiently.

‘Can you ‘ang up and call again please?’

‘What?’

‘Can you ‘ang up and call again please?’ She repeats.

‘I have the wrong number?’ I ask confused. How you can you get the wrong number on a phone that you don’t dial?

‘Yes.’ She says and hangs up.

I try again.

‘Allo?’ A man this time.

‘Ah bon, vous-parlez Anglais monsier? Je ne parle pas bien Francais.’ I say.

‘What?’

‘Never mind, I’d like some French Lessons please.’

‘You are Canadian Citizen?’ He slurs.

This call goes on for quite some time. He can’t understand my English or French and I don’t really understand him very well either. We spent a long time spelling things, for example, my road:

‘De Rouen. D-e-r-o-u-e-n.’

‘Diaoin? Where is that?’

‘No, no, De Rouen. D-e-r-o-u-e-n.’

‘D-i-a-o-u-i-n?

‘No, D-e-r.....’

And so on.

So, I have French lessons in some unknown part of the city, sometime in February. Quite a result I think.

Next on the list is the Health Card. This building takes an equally long time to find -- the department being hidden inside what looks like a hotel.

I manage to painlessly acquire a ticket and take a seat. I wait perhaps an hour before my turn. The woman is nice and helpful and takes all my details and gives me a list of all the things I have to do before they’ll give me health card, which includes getting my house-mate to swear an oath in front of an ‘oath-taker’. All sounds rather dramatic to me.

So she gives me some papers and I leave, destination: Pub.

I reason that I deserve a pint.

I have an Irish pub in mind, so walk for fifteen minutes towards it when I start to have a sinking feeling. The feeling that all is not well in the world. I stop and look through my bag. My Selection Certificate of Quebec and my newly acquired Residency Papers are missing. My heart sinks for the second time today.

I indulge in some swearing and find a place to sit down and check the papers properly. The bag was closed, so how could I have lost them? I check every paper, then all my pockets. Not there. The woman in Health Canada must still have them. She didn’t give them back to me! I could see a visual image of her photocopying them and then leaving them on the scanner bed for the next user to find, and discard.

I practically run all the way back and arrive, puffing and panting in the office. The security guard lets me in and takes me to her desk. Empty, closed up, locked, void.

‘Ah, she is at late lunch. You come back.’

‘But when?’ I splutter.

‘Two?’

I walk around the block for an hour in the snow, cursing my luck, and standing in phone boxes frequently.

Well, I got them back. Eventually she returned and, smiling to me, handed them over, apologising and smiling some more.

I went to the pub, finally.