I was at lunch with a fellow exchange student the other day, trying to manage some exhausted sense of celebration now that my semester at the Université de Montréal has come to an end. My friend who hails from Finland had always dreamt of coming to Montréal on exchange. For me, coming to Montréal was more a matter of fate. I had always planned to go to France, until I learned that having plans is tragically optimistic, rather unhelpful, and also boring. Over all-you-can-eat sushi (a beautiful ubiquity in this city) we reflected on the semester that was, and how strange it was to be sitting there, chopsticks in hand saying ‘I can’t believe it’s finally/already over’. The weather outside was as warm and sunny as that of a Sydney winter. When I arrived here it was twenty-five degrees below zero.
What my fellow foreigner also said was this. ‘Is it just me, or do you keep seeing people who look like people back home?’ I practically slammed my hand on the table as I said ‘Oh god yes.‘ And it’s true. One of the strangest things about being at a foreign university, in a foreign city in general, is that I keep seeing people who are instant reminders of people back home. Though they carry some reasonable differences, the similarity jumps out at you. From the very first, it has happened constantly.
It brings interesting questions to mind. What happens when you meet ‘the double’? I’m not talking dead ringers or doppelgängers, but striking similarities both in appearance and manner, with important differences too. It’s the differences that give the experience a parallel-universe feel, enough to colour the scene with a sense of the uncanny. I’ve met or seen a couple of people in Montreal who remind me strongly of myself. And I haven’t necessarily liked them. The figure of the double is a fairly important figure in literature, I’m told. Important enough for Sylvia Plath to have written her senior thesis on the appearance of the double in two of Dostoevsky’s novels. In fact, I had to write about the double this semester in a comparative literature course. It was called called Introduction à l’interculturel.
What should my dislike of the double tell me, here on the opposite end of the world? I’m not sure I want to go into it, I wouldn’t know how. But at a foreign uni, seeing the doubles of others all over the place might mean a few things. On finishing my last exam, I went with my philosophy buddy/exchange student in solidarity from Mexico to have a beer and share a large poutine at the Irish pub down the road and debrief. We talked about the local students in our two philosophy classes–one on contemporary French philosophy and one on Nietzsche–and watching the class from an outsider’s perspective. When you’re not so involved, you’re in a better position to see the different parts that people play. You see who’s serious. You can tell who thinks they’re deep (a high percentage in any given philosophy class). You can tell who’s there because they don’t know where else to be, and who’s got something to prove. These are the things I suspect I don’t see so well at USyd, because I too have my part to play there. I wonder, without optimism, what I look like to any given exchange student when I turn up to tutorials late yet always seem to have something to say.
It’s been interesting, to say the least. But I’m not going to subscribe to the exchange-student-future-leaders-of-tomorrow stereotype and tell you that these have been the very best months of my life. I came for a challenge and I got one. Being an exchange student involves a lot of firsts, discoveries, new people. It’s fascinating and fun at its best. There is also a lot of uncertainty. It can feel like being back in first year, but worse because you’re not speaking your first language. Assignments take a long time to do. One experiences being the class dunce, the shame of a C- (and for all I know, worse could have happened during finals). But one time I was even surprised with an A+. And that’s how it is, plenty of highs and plenty of lows. I was sorry to leave UdeM, and will be even sorrier to leave Montreal. And I will write more on Montreal very soon. For at least a week though, when I get back, I will be happy once more to be stomping the hallowed halls of USyd like I own the place. On drinking a proper cup of coffee, I will hear the angels singing.