My non-academic to-do list

When I lived abroad during my Master’s degree, I used to keep a list of all the non-academic experiences I wished to make time for during my stay. Sights I wanted to visit, cafés and restaurants I was craving to try, names of streets and parks deserving a stroll, weekly markets in different parts of town, art exhibitions that were calling out to me at various points of the year… I would jot them all down on an ever-growing and ever-shrinking to-do list that I kept quite separate from my “academic to-do list”, usually folded into a small square and tucked into the front pocket of my purse, or the first page of the small journal I’d carry around with me everywhere. 

I lived in three different cities during my unconventional Master’s degree – Milano (Italy), Groningen (the Netherlands) and Berlin (Germany). Within the first 2.5 weeks in every new city, the list would already begin to take shape, and I would make a point to pay attention to this list and to add checkmarks to it consistently, even in the busiest, most stressful times of my Master’s. It was equally important for me to excel in my degree than it was for me to get to know my new home and to make the most of all it had to offer. (That said, I remember the furious rush with which I’d scurry to check off the remaining items on the list during my last ten days in the city. So much for a fine balance between academic and non-academic life!)

Well, I am not abroad anymore. I returned to my hometown two years ago to begin my PhD here. But my international experiences live within me and, most of the time, I feel like I’m new here too. I don’t always see Montreal as “my hometown” – although I do feel at home here – but as a place I still have to get to know, looking from the outside in, diligently discovering its character, until I know it from the inside out.

Needless to say, I have a Montreal to-do list, sometimes a mere collection of mental notes, sometimes actually written out and tucked into my bag.

Here’s my list for the next few months (although I’ll be here a while):

1. Rediscover the Museum of Fine Arts

The museum has been completely reinvented and even the Old and Modern Masters collection has changed. The paintings are now displayed in such a way that they relate to the space around them, and to each other, in the way that they have been grouped together. New walls out of rich wood have been built within the gallery, allowing for more space than before. The walls have even been painted in colors that are reminiscent of each period and artistic style. New labels with descriptive texts clearly explain the works, and audio-guides play music for visitors. I have always been fascinated by how different exhibitions and collections are put together and how the space, lighting, colors, descriptions and grouping of paintings affect the visitor’s experience. I’m very curious to go back and rediscover this collection, in its reinvented space. The grand opening of the museum was on October 14th. There are many free exhibitions and festivities worth checking out:

Photo credit: Marc Cramer

2. Visit the new concert hall at the Museum of Fine Arts

As part of the reinvention of the museum, a new concert hall (Bourgie Hall) has been unveiled. The concert hall is on the site of an 1894 heritage church, which was restored and converted into the richly ornamented musical space, with unique Tiffany stained-glass windows. There are 444 seats (133 original church pews with cushions) and the acoustics are supposed to be excellent, as the existing space was improved by a number of experts in the field. I’ll definitely be looking out for concerts here and look forward to losing track of time as I sit and listen. There is also a “Musical 5-à-7 series” on Thursday evenings: a cocktail and some mingling followed by an uninterrupted one-hour concert of either chamber-music, jazz or world music (

Photo credit: The Gazette

3. Create a masterpiece at the Ceramic Café

Keeping within the art and museum theme, next on my wishlist is to sit and paint for an afternoon. Note that I am not extremely talented with a paintbrush and my perception of which colors mesh together harmoniously can be a subject of debate. The Ceramic Café lets you buy any piece and supplies you with the paint and inspirational ideas you need (as well as coffee and food, if you have room left on your table). It could be a very therapeutic experience.

4. Make the Jean-Talon market part of my weekly routine

I am in love with cheese. I also can never get enough of the colors and smells of fresh markets. Every time I go to Jean-Talon, I wonder why I don’t make it a weekly habit. Not only is the produce fresh and abundant, but there is always something new to sample, to savor and to want to take home with you. My recent discoveries are the spicy olive stand in the covered area of the market, as well as Capitol, a shop on the corner of Casgrain that boasts dizzying amounts of cheese and fresh meat, as well as tons of imported delicacies from Italy — from sauces to cookies — many of the foods I used to buy there and have missed. It’s good to know I don’t have to go far to find them!

Photo credit: Kristina Kasparian

5. Go into churches I pass on the street, without taking them for granted

I love how churches have the power to draw me in, to lure me off a busy street and into a dark, peaceful space. I love to light a candle here and there, to quiet down my thoughts, and to feel small in the face of great architecture and aging, fading frescoes. I don’t do it nearly as often in Montreal as I do in Europe, and I’d like to discover some of the gems we have in our own town.

6. Be moved to tears or feel truly exhilarated on an evening at the opera

Last year, I went with my husband to Place-des-Arts to see Tosca, his favorite opera of all time, and we were absolutely blown away. There’s nothing quite like an amazing opera experience — one that grips your mind and makes it difficult for you to think of anything but the show, even during intermission, and long after you come home. We bought tickets for Il trovatore in January, and I already cannot wait.

7. Wish I could dance like that on an evening at the ballet

When you are accustomed to operas and go to see a ballet, you can’t help but expect the dancers to come to the middle of the stage, lift their chin up and sing. But all you hear is the orchestra and the pitter-patter of their quick feet and the rest is a feast for the eyes. We are fortunate to have a great ballet company here: Les Grands Ballets ( I hope to go to at least one ballet performance this coming season.

8. Play with the sky at the Quartier des Spectacles

As I mentioned in my previous blog post “Dancing Beams of Light”, I’d love to go straight to the source of the light-beams being projected onto the sky. It must be fun to actively contribute to the brightest sky ever seen above Montreal.

Photo Credit: Kristina Kasparian

9. Take my camera for a walk in the Botanical Gardens during the Lantern Festival

The Chinese Garden is glowing again and lighting up the faces of visitors of all ages with its annual “Magie des Lanternes” festival, on until October 31st. I went to see the lanterns last year and had a wonderful evening. Even with the tower of the Olympic Stadium in view to firmly remind you that you are in Montreal,  you feel magically transported into another world. The Chinese Garden is open every day until 9pm for this event, but they also have some special activities. Every Tuesday at certain times, music accompanies the lanterns, and every day there is a guided tour of the lanterns, allowing you to better discover the garden and the history surrounding the first emperor of China (

Photo Credit: Mrsfixit on

10. See the city from another angle

One of my husband’s favorite walks in the city, and one that we still haven’t gone on together, is from the westernmost point of the Old Port all the way to the Atwater market, along the Lachine Canal. You see the city from a whole other angle, he always tells me. This is something I’ll save for a brightly sunny autumn day.

11. Discover atmospheric bistros with interesting, delectable dishes

Recently, I’ve stumbled upon a couple of small bistros, not by reading any food blogs but by aimlessly wandering around the Plateau. Two of them really caught my eye and I’d love to try them in the near future. Monsieur B looked like a dimly-lit, lively bistro with great food and wonderfully presented dishes and — a pleasant surprise — it is Bring your own wine Those dining at Biarritz also looked like they were having a wonderful evening and enjoying some mouth-watering tapas-style dishes ( I’d love to discover some of these smaller, unique restaurants, so feel free to share any of your own recommendations!

12. Feel my stomach expand after devouring a poutine

On the subject of mouth-watering food… Poutine is one of my (many?) guilty pleasures. I usually go to the renowned La Banquise and I am sad to report that I haven’t yet tried Patati Patata. But before I do, there’s another place I just found out about that’s calling out to me. It’s (most-appropriately) called Poutineville ( You can even order a three-poutine taste-testing plate, which really appeals to me because I often get tired of the taste of my poutine when I’ve still got a third of it to go. The topping choices look very interesting and the fries-to-cheese-to-gravy ratio also looks well thought-out. A must try, especially on dismal, dreary November days when I’ll surely need a pick-me-up (only, poutine tends to weigh me down!)

13. Be amazed by the fall colors on the beautiful waterfront between Lachine and Dorval

I grew up in the West Island and my mom often used to take me to the waterfront in Dorval, either for a drive, a picnic, or just to sit on the docks and watch the shimmering water. I still find that area beautiful and love to go there every now and then. The colors must be amazing there at this time of year, especially in the late afternoon light.

Photo Credit: Antonella Baratta

14. Breathe in some fresh air and have my ears buzz with quiet

When the weather starts to feel brisk and the colored leaves are at their peak, I’d love to spend a weekend up north, in a chalet, and just let nature and fresh air overwhelm me. I don’t mind taking some readings up with me, but it would be a nice change of setting and change of pace. Not to mention a crackling fireplace to warm up in front of, when you come indoors with a reddened nose, stinging ears and cold cheeks.

15. No longer be able to say “I haven’t been to the Pointe-à-Callière museum”

A lot of my European friends often come to visit me in Montreal, either for fun or because a conference is taking place here. I’ve always wished I could tell them much more about Montreal’s history and the interesting stories behind our landmarks. I feel especially bad when many of them visit museums I haven’t been to yet myself, for example, the Pointe-à-Callière museum. Among other exhibitions, they have a multimedia show with a 270º screen that tells the story of our city. The museum also has a big expansion project underway ( So much history under one roof! How could I not pay a visit to this place?

So, if I can cross these items off my list — as well as whichever new ones get added on — I’ll feel content that I made time for these experiences and grew a little closer to my city. I hope that you also have a non-academic to-do list and that your Montreal experiences — however simple or extravagant — bring you joy as well.

2 thoughts on “My non-academic to-do list

  1. Thank you for a great list of excellent attractions in Montreal. A work-life balance is essential to enjoyment and success in Grad school. I’m very excited to visit Montreal. I’m moving from Western Canada and this will be my first time in the city – I guess that just means more new experiences and adventures 🙂


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