coldest February

In from the cold there was language

Sunday evening, twilight. Feet tramped on the wooden stairs that lead up to the wooden porch where a fibre map prevented slipping. Smiles spread rosy cheeks that carried the cold inside. Kiss the right cheek first, then the left. That's how it is done in Quebec. Brrr. The warmth began with the greetings while the guests removed gloves, coats, extra sweaters, scarves, fur hats, toques, and the host found room for it all in the armoire. Boots lined up on rubber trays covered with newspaper to absorb the melting snow. The smell of chicken baking with olives and prunes drifted out from the kitchen. Light from a lamp hanging over the table twinkled on the wine glasses.
Comme toujours in Quebec, maybe everywhere in Canada, we were a mixed group, with two native Quebecois, three long term residents, one visitor and one part time resident. One born in Chicago, one in British Columbia, one in Nova Scotia, one in Michoacan, one in Ontario, one in Havana and two right here in la belle ville de Quebéc. Most were at least bilingue, a few spoke three languages fluently, and - as earlier in the day when I visited with a Lebanese friend who is now studying German, having already become fluent in French, English and Italian - more than one language was the means and the subject of the conversation. It flowed in French, for the most part, but also in English, and most charmingly in my view, sometimes a mixture in the same sentence, i.e. "Yo pienso que l'hiver est the worst season to visit Quebec." The natives and long term residents, and this enthusiastic visitor disagreed. Winter is an endangered season and here people know how to appreciate its beauty. The blue shadows on the snow, the frozen waves on le fleuve St. Laurent. A family Penthalon that took place on a minus twenty degree (celsius) Sunday.

With the exception of a doctor and the metallurgist from Mexico, we were language-focussed people: a writer, four English- or French- as a second language professors and a linguist who has spent his life studying why English functions the way that it does; why, for example, one says "it is snowing" instead of "it snows". Simple, progressive. En français, the verb works both ways. To say, "Je cherche" means I am looking for as well as I look for. Context reveals whether the looking is general or is happening right now. This group appreciates (in general) the nuances of such questions.

At one end of the table,  people discussed the translation of the phrase, "manger de la vache enragée, literally to eat mad cow, but meaning poor or fallen on hard times. Such an image-rich language. At the other end of the table the talk was of the cinema, a universal topic, and one of the speakers used the French verb "pirater," to describe how his son showed him how to download films.

In The Mighty Dead, his wonderful book about Homer, Adam Nicholson writes: "Of about three thousand languages spoken today, seventy-eight have a written literature. The rest exist in the mind and the mouth. Language - man - is essentially oral."

We ate, we talked. The coldest February since at least 1889 was almost over.