Oberlin Blogs

The Road Not Taken

September 27, 2009

John West ’10

I just got back from Montreal. I was playing in the Montreal International Recorder Competition, because, yes, I play the recorder, and, if I do say so myself, I don't suck at it.

If you were wondering, it went well. I played the semi-finals, and moved up to the finals, where I came in fourth out of four. Here's me with the other finalists and winners:

I also won the prize for "Originality in the Semi-final Programme," which was pretty sweet. The prize for the Originality prize was a modern bass recorder.

Awesome, right?

The competition was sponsored--at least in part--by McGill University (the main Anglophone university in Montreal). As I spent the majority of the time in a practice room, I didn't get to do a lot of sightseeing. But I think I learned a few things.

I learned, for example, that the neighborhood around the campus is called the McGill Ghetto, because it's a little pocket of Anglophone college students who, according to my sources, don't often get out to broader Montreal. I also learned that if you travel anywhere West of "the Ghetto," you had better speak French, because shopkeepers and taxi drivers will roll their eyes at you if you don't.

I learned that those same taxi drivers, upon discovering that you're an American, have a tendency to shout "OBAMA!" I learned that, as one Montrealer told me--in French, of course--it's cool to be an American again.

I learned that punk didn't die; it just moved to Montreal and got really, really French. Seriously, I have never seen so many people my age skateboarding non-ironically.

But, most of all, I learned that I am really glad to have gone to Oberlin.


I almost went to McGill. Oberlin and McGill were neck-and-neck until the end. Here's the (probably apocryphal) story I like to tell: the day I had to send the letter saying which college I'd like to attend, I still hadn't made my decision, so I walked down to the mailbox with two sealed letters--one to Oberlin and one to McGill. I made the decision on the corner, right before I stuck the Oberlin letter in the box.

I doubt that this story is actually true. But it captures the way I ended up at Oberlin: almost by accident or chance.

The strange thing about this is that Oberlin and McGill have very little in common. McGill is huge (app. 40,000), public, in a big city, and in Canada. Oberlin is small (or by comparison), private, in a cornfield, and in the U.S. Really, the only thing they have in common is that they both have killer Historical Performance Departments.

But, after being at Oberlin for the last 800 4 years, I can say, both with gratitude and a sigh of relief, I made the right choice. Not that there's anything wrong with McGill! It's a great school, and Montreal is an amazing city. But their practice rooms are only open until 10:30! And each harpsichord room requires a different key! Crazy!

In all seriousness, though, it's more a matter of the way Oberlin's size and, err, let's say unique student body creates a community--one far different than I found in McGill. Indeed the great "disadvantage" of Oberlin--that it's in Oberlin--ends up being its great strength. In Montreal you already have vibrant communities; in Oberlin, you're forced to create, and creating community has been one of the most rewarding things I've done in my time here.


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