I remember my very first day in Montreal like it was yesterday. Our plane landed around 9pm sometime in June 2001. It was me, my mom and my dad united by a strong belief in a better future. By the time we passed customs, it was already very dark outside.

I can only imagine how nerve-wracking this experience must have been for my parents... but for the 12 year old me it was a fascinating adventure. I had butterflies in my stomach. Everything was new and exiting. I couldn't wait to wake up the next day.

We hired a Russian chauffeur who was also our "tour guide" that evening. He brought us to a Couche-Tard on Décarie street first and explained how these convenience stores are open until very late. I felt like I was in a movie. Everything looked so different from what I was used to back in my country. I made my parents buy me Oreo cookies and a huge bottle of Pepsi. That was my very first meal in Montreal.

Then our chauffeur brought us to Hotel Ruby Foo's (I'm not sure whether it was called Ruby Foo's back in the days, but it was that same location). I actually felt like I was in a Hollywood movie at this point. The rooms were exactly like the stuff I'd see on TV back in Russia. I had my Oreos, Pepsi, television with English and French channels that I didn't understand... Heaven is a place on earth, my friends.

The next morning we woke up and had to meet another family that immigrated a few months before us. They were already living in a Côte-des-Neiges area apartment and were obviously a few steps ahead of us. While my parents were busy with paperwork and trying to build their life from scratch, I found out that there was a swimming pool downstairs. For $2, I was allowed to swim and play there all day. So that's what I did. I had about $20 that my grandfather gave me when I was leaving our home town, so I was basically balling. I even made friends with some kids at the pool (how though? I could only speak Russian... mystery...) and we played Marco Polo. Everyone was friendly and fun.

I remember asking my mom if she knew how to play Marco Polo and she told me: "Irina, it's not a game, it's an Italian merchant and explorer." And I told her that she was wrong and it was a game for kids to play at the pool. Like, get your facts straight, mom, haha!

At night, we went to a Chinese buffet. Every immigrant goes through a buffet stage at some point of their life. It's a brilliant concept that wasn't common in Russia 15 years ago. I couldn't believe that I was allowed to eat as much food as I wanted and not limit myself to one dish only. I remember asking my parents a few times, "Are you sure I can eat anything? Like, ANYTHING? This is amazing!" So I went straight to fries and then dessert. Ice cream, cake, cookies... it was a freaking blast. You can probably tell that healthy eating wasn't part of my lifestyle.

Another remarkable experience was my first trip to Dollarama. I had $18 left, so I went all out. I couldn't believe I could afford a-n-y-t-h-i-n-g I wanted at that store. I bought a bunch of gum, candy and toys. In other words, I pretty much blew my entire budget there. If my parents were as reckless as I was with their spending, we'd be in a lot of trouble.

I also remember the first time I tried poutine and a slushy. OMFG! That's what made me realize that Montreal was my home. I was sold. Poutine and slushy combination gave a new meaning to my definition of Canadian patriotism.

If you'd like to read a more mature article I wrote about our city, I invite you to check out "Why I Fell In Love With Montreal." Nothing but love for MTL.

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