French language

Toujours la langue

Since my first visit in 2010, Quebec City has become a kind of second home for me. Motivated by a desire to learn more and--especially--practice speaking French, I have returned at least once, sometimes twice a year and stayed for as long as six months at a time. Maintenant, la chassure est sur l'autre pied, the shoe is on the other foot. A Quebec friend has come west to British Columbia to visit me. We met during my first visit to la ville de Québec, when I was searching for a conversation exchange partner, and for more than four years I have been her main anglophone contact. She can understand English much of the time, and read it with the aid of a dictionary, but without regular practice chez elle, she rarely speaks it.

A Québecoise photographs the Terry Fox Memorial at B.C. Place
What's more, she is a die-hard separatist. A lifetime supporter of the Parti Québecois, whose main goal is the separation of Quebec from the rest of Canada. An independent Quebec. This has been a long-standing Canadian issue, always at least on the back burner, and one that sometimes boils over as raucous referendum campaigns in which Quebeckers are exhorted by les oui and no sides. In 1970, the separatist movement turned violent when the FLQ (Front de libération du Québec) kidnapped the British Trade Commissioner and murdered a Quebec politician, Pierre LaPorte. The Prime Minister of that époque, Pierre Trudeau, imposed martial law and made lifetime enemies of many Quebeckers, including mon ami Québecoise.

So I was interested to see how my friend's first trip to western Canada would unfold, particularly what evidence she would find of the fact that Canada is officially un pays bilingue, a bilingual country, from coast to coast. Of course it isn't really. In the province of Quebec, almost 7 and a half million people either have French as their mother tongue or can conduct a conversation in French. Outside that province, the number drops to 2.5 million, and most of those speakers live east of Alberta. At our first lunch, however, my friend discovered that the waiter could communicate in French, at least enough to carry on a short exchange about how he learned the language as a semi-pro volleyball player training at a facility in Gatineau, Quebec. She heard her mother tongue spoken at the Museum of Anthropology, the hotel where she stayed, and the Vancouver aquarium. Most of these speakers were young, and at least one had attended a French immersion school. Much as my visitor and other Quebec residents detested the late prime minister Trudeau for having imposed martial law and for other actions too complex to describe here, his government supported the establishment of French immersion schools across the country. They are now so popular in most provinces that parents must line up for hours, even days, to enroll their children.

It's good to see that mon ami feels comfortable in British Columbia, one of only two or three forays she has made outside her province. On a hike through the woods, she freely sang out "bonjour" to those we passed, and the other hikers, while perhaps surprised, answered in kind--some awkwardly, some with confidence. Nothing like seeing how the other half lives to reconsider one's views. With more and more young people in Quebec learning English for practical reasons (and because of the influence of pop culture), and more students outside Quebec demanding French immersion, the idea of creating a sovereign Quebec for the sake of preserving the French language may have lingered past its "best before" date.

Un plus parfait Paris

Parisians have not been living up to their reputation. Instead of the dismissive arrogance the world knows them for, I've found them helpful, even friendly. The man who sat down next to me at a metro station, who was resting after a long day, curious to know where I came from. After midnight, on the Marie Lillas line, a platform deserted except for me and a toothless man hunched in dirty clothes, un vrai misérable, who raised his head to tell me that the line terminated on that side, that I had to go à l'autre coté. The charming jeune filles we encountered as we ducked around a corner to escape the crowds at Sacre Coeur: "Do you mind?" they asked us. "We are making a project for our English class at school," and proceeded to ask about our impressions of Paris, our favourite French food. The helpful man in a neighbourhood hardwood store in the 10me arrondissement, who not only figured out that what I wanted was a reveil, not a reveilleur, but supplied a battery as well as instructions for using the tiny alarm clock.

Mon français is far from perfect, but I asked for and received directions and enjoyed short conversations with people and no one responded to me in English, as I had been told to expect, "because they don't have the patience." Well, they did. Even when I said, plié on the street of tissue, or fabric, when I should have said plissé.

My host in Paris has a studio literally furnished with books. Towers of Gallimard editions with their distinctive cream jackets, and other editions, support a small table, a desk. Outside, in the courtyard, pink roses bloom and birds sing. Just down the street, along the banks of Canal Saint-Martin, people enjoyed the sun, and later a warm evening, bateaus and small flotillas of mallards slipped by, people hurried away from the neighbourhood's renown boulangerie with baguettes or some hefty artisan bread, their escargot (a pastry) or croissants.

Of course, at this time of year, not only are the chestnut trees are in blossom, tulips, iris and every other variety of flower seems to be blooming. Booksellers man their stalls along the Seine no matter the skies, and  the cheap plastic ponchos of tourists waiting their turn for Notre Dame flutter in the blowy, showery, sometimes brilliantly sunny, altogether unpredictable spring weather.
 Of the two especially wonderful restaurants we tried, the more interesting concentrated on combining tastes, a curve of chili powder and a mound of apricot conserve framing a rectangle of brie, for example. A reflection, perhaps, of the mixing of peoples in this storied city. Waiting in line at the Pompidou Centre, I heard Punjabi, Spanish, English, German. Languages I could not identify. A rich palette of human voices and human skin colours.

Inside the Pompidou, a woman methodically photographed virtually every tableau she passed, the image and then the description, the artist's name. Chance placed us in the same galleries all afternoon. Click, and there she was, a mid-aged blonde, wearing black, aiming her big camera. Click.

Alicia Penalba: "A form becomes abstract because it creates a new myth that does not come from the spirit of man."

If language reflects character..

If language reflects national character, do all les règles du langue françaises indiquent que le français are control freaks? Is it the same in other languages? Sometimes I feel as if I am rolling merrily along when I am stopped by a sign. Interdit!  Yes, perhaps you thought you should go the usual way, mon chou, mais,  in this case, there is an exception. It is not quite as easy as you thought to get where you want to go. Ay! Mais, ca va, lentement.

Hier, chez Le Palais Montcalm, a haunting piece of music, a surprise to me. Concerto for marimba, vibraphone et cordes by Jaques  Hétu. Great soloist too, Anne-Julie Caron with the superb Violons du Roy. Complex, beautiful. Outside to the sound de  people skating on the patinoire devant Le Palais. Lights sparkling on the wonderful buildings around Place d'Youville.

les notes novembre

20 novembre, the coldest night so far this autumn. - 8. Beautifully sunny today. A walk across les Plaines à l'escalier, le long de la rue Champlain et à Petit Champlain with its Christmas trees in front of old stone buildings, white lights on those, red, silver, gold objects gleaming in les vitirines. No snow, though. The only snow came a week or so ago, only flurries, which blanketed car tops and yards, but melted by the afternoon. Fall has been luxurious. Most trees bare now, but gold and brown leaves still skitter across the pavement in the strong winds off the St. Lawrence. One day the wind so strong I thought it was forcing the bells of St. Dominic to peal and peal, but maybe those were echoes swirling through le voisinage.

Days later, the 23, more snow, hours of flurries add up to a good inch on the ground, enough to also outline the branches of the trees. I saw my first huge snow clearing machine of the season, les gens avec des peles pour déneigement.

En route my walk the brilliant day three days earlier, I stopped at Chez Paillard and felt an inner "yes!" when I ordered a jèsuite et cafe au lait en français and no one replied to me in English. An improvement from last year. La langue, la langue. Such interesting interfaces. The tongue c'est la langue, aussi, the language est la langue. Risky in French is risqué, which means something quite different. Yes, generally dangerous, but mothers in Vancouver don't advise their children to be careful (prudent) crossing the street because it is risqué.

At the Musée the other night with Mireille to listen to the passionate Bernard Émond. Among other things he talked about the dynamism of language and said he accepted the fact that his films are not well received in France because people there abhor the Québecois accent. Mayor LeBeaume had been quoted in Le Soleil about the creeping anglicization of French as spoken in the mother country. Émond suggested that parents faced with the anglicization of Montréal confront the problem by giving their children French books to read, by finding ways to avoid the homogenization that is the result of American TV culture, primarily. Some official person is investigating the proliferation of signs with names like Second Cup, Urban Outfitters, and on and on; another example of the proliferation of American pop culture, the so-called malling of the world.

Émond said that he accepts that Québec is a petit cultur, and I like that notion, of seeing Québec as distinct, unique, if petit. And not so petit considering that the population of Ireland, for example, is less at 4.5 million, and look at the wonderful noise that has been made from there. Quebec creeps toward 8 million, almost as twice as many people, with a strong sense of itself and the need for survival, for self-protection.

Vagueness often surrounds spontaneous conversations. My aim is to admit when I cannot understand instead of nodding or replying inappropriately. Très drole quelquefois! I make so many errors, and some days I get tired of trying, but overall I love the challenge of communicating in a language other than ma langue maternelle. I am doing this for fun, but pity the people who try to find refuge in a new country/culture and must live in vagueness perhaps for years until they master English or French. How isolated they must feel.

Souvenirs: The monk striding down a slope sur les Plaines, his burgundy robes against the green, a burgundy hat pulled over the face I recognize from le Centre Boudiste. The bright cheeked man in the bonbonniere, the apples à Provisoners, hats, skates, Ile d'Orélans, its stands of birch, apples and leeks in wooden boxes by the side of the road.

The temporary garages, white plastic stretched over metal poles, entryways to the big churches guarded in that manner too. The red berries on the trees à les plaines, the metal poles inserted to show where obstacles will meet the blades of snow clearing equipment. Big bags of leaves raked; 20 from Mireille's. Anais and her sewing machine furious, as if it is saying grrr. The pride in Q authors, Mireille eloquent, even in English, on the subject of Gaston Miron, and showing me the grave, decorated with les souliers, of Felix Le Clerc, on Ile d'Orléans.