I was not the greatest French scholar, but I loved to speak it, even coming third in a regional high school French speech contest. I wrote my speech on Vancouver's Expo 86, which I had been a part of for a week with a teen theatre group, putting on a play with an anti-nuclear message two or three times a day at the British Columbia Pavillion.
During my second year of college I had the opportunity to participate with my class in an exchange with another college in Sept Iles, Quebec. By the time I was in college I had been on an airplane only once and had never been east of Kenora, Ontario, so the prospect of an exchange was exciting. Each college would host the other for two weeks, and Sept Iles came to us first. We hosted them in Kootenay style, took them sledding, on sightseeing bus tours, etc., and introduced them to our friends at the college. I designed a t-shirt for our exchange with a circle logo of snowy trees, mountains and two gold stars above them to represent our two colleges. Some of our guests spoke English very well, many telling us they improved their skills by watching English daytime dramas, but others, like my guest, spoke very broken English and would translate directly from French. We would laugh together when she said things like, "I have to go at the bathroom for to makes the peepee."
And then it was our turn to go to them. We flew out of Castlegar sometime in March and landed six hours later in Quebec City, where we met our exchange partners with whom we stayed in a motel for two nights. We got reaquainted with each other, exploring the beautiful old city and eating in a restaurant with an interior sign which translated as, "Get ready to unbuckle your belt". Someone told me that the sign used to say, "If you can eat it all, it's free," but they started having to give away too many meals and wisely changed their tactic. Coming from a health-foodie background, I was not enamoured with the heavy, fat-laden Quebecois cuisine so I mainly ordered 'le club sandwiche, s'il vous plait', which came heaped on a platter surrounded by pomme frites (french fries). I rarely ate a third of it, and I'm no bird.
Quebec city is very much like any old European city, I would imagine. The buildings in Place Cartier are over four hundred years old, made of stone, and are beautifully heavy with history. Although the sidewalks were slushy and the ice on the St. Lawrence river just beginning to break up, we had good weather which contined when we travelled by bus along the frost-heaved road to Sept Iles. Although a bit carsick I was still able to take in the scenery along the north shore of the St. Lawrence River, which was dotted with characteristic Quebecois stone farmhouses with steep pitched rooves for the snow.
I do not remember much about Sept Iles itself. Translated, it means Seven Islands. I remember taking a helicopter trip over the islands but the day was cloudy and wet and the scenery snowy and monochromatic that time of year. I remember going to various houses and socializing in a combination of broken French and broken English, and I remember that my host family lived southwest from Sept Iles along the Gulf of St. Lawrence, in a small town called Port Cartier, so we did a lot of driving. Unlike in the larger cities and the Anglophone neighbourhoods in Montreal, the people of the towns up the St. Lawrence were completely French speaking. My host family spoke to me only in French and I struggled to understand their patois. We went to a large Catholic church for Mass on Sunday and I was happy to see they had all the French lyrics up on the wall via an overhead projector, so at least I could sing along. I think everyone knows that it is one thing to have conversations in academic French with teachers and fellow students, and quite another to speak the language with dyed-in-the-wool locals in a small region of France or Quebec. My host family was wonderfully kind and generous to me. My host student, Nadine was a gentle soul with an equally gentle mother, a twinkly-eyed father, and a shy younger brother. When we all gathered at the breakfast table I watched in barely guarded astonishment as Nadine and her brother devoured sugary cereals and buried their toast in caramel spread. "Would you have any peanut butter?" I asked.
The sweetness continued when we spent a glorious sunny day at one family's elegant summer cabin on the Gulf of St. Lawrence. There we partook in the famous Cabin au Sucre, or Sugar Shack, which is the traditional celebration of the sugaring off of the maple trees. We pulled hot maple taffy and put it down in the snow to cool. We ate ham glazed in maple syrup (delicious), and Les Oureilles de Christ (ears of Christ) - eggs fried in lard and smothered in, yes, more maple syrup (not my favourite dish-and not only due to its off-putting name). I put my hand in the icy Atlantic gulf water there and I remember we bought fresh prawns from a fish shop on the wharf. The prawns were boiled whole with their roe attached, and my new friends showed me how to pull off their shells and eat them by the bagfull while we walked along the wharf.
At that time in Quebec a language bill was a major bone of contention and the idea of separation from Canada always hung in the air; I know there was a small degree of tension between our groups because of it. As the two weeks wore on, the topic would come up more often from our French hosts and we would struggle to understand. Fortunately, our French teacher was a wonderful, understanding woman, and she did her best to help us figure out what the issue was all about. To remain a distinct society within Canada, our French-Canadian friends wanted to do everything in their power to keep their language the dominant one in their province, and I had no problem with that. Quebec did feel like a bit of a different world to me, but I was open to its differences and only wished my French were better so I could take more in of its culture. On our final evening together in Quebec our adult leaders held a debriefing session with us. We were each to give our impressions of our experiences in our own language, which would be translated for the benefit of the whole group. Some of us took the chance to air our political concerns regarding the language bill, while some of us made tearful Academy Award-type acceptance speeches. Instead of being a time when we should have focussed on the good that had come of the exchange, it quickly descended into dangerous territory. I was one of the last to speak. I don't remember much of what I said, but I think I expressed my frustration at what I thought was the wrong approach for our last evening together as a group. I remember voicing my concern that instead of taking away all the fun times we had learning how much we were alike, and the progress we had made in bilingualism, we were in danger of parting from the experience with a bad taste in our mouths, and how unfortunate that would be.
The next morning we all went to the airport and said our goodbyes. The tension had lifted somewhat and the good will had mainly returned. One of the French-Canadian students came up to me and in an expressive manner, made a long speech to me. I did not know her very well, but she had hosted a party at her parents' opulent home. She was very pretty with sleek dark hair and a genuine thoroughbred elegance about her. As she spoke to me in rapid French, I worked very hard to try and get a grasp on what she was telling me. She kept stopping to ask if I understood, and I would say yes, (but only every third word). When she was finished her speech she gave me a firm hug and kissed me on both cheeks. I understood enough to know she appreciated how hard I tried to speak French at all times when in Sept Iles, that she appreciated what I had said the evening before in the debriefing session, and that she was expressing warm feelings toward me. Although I was dying to know all she was telling me, I just didn't have the heart to tell her I could barely understand a third of what she was saying. I think I felt shame in that.
When I got married a few years later, my husband's French was so much more limited than mine that he used to tell people I was practically bilingual. I wish I were. It is a beautiful language, and I could get by in a restaurant or reading signs, but of course, that is not enough. I am saddened by how little French my children are taught in school and that the initiative to gain bilingualism in Canada is mainly up to the individual. Many federal jobs require proficiency in both languages (to my mind the reason for the funding of French Immersion programs by the government), the cereal box on the kitchen table has ingredients listed in both languages (and often in Spanish as well), and the bank machine asks if you prefer your service in French or English, but that is about as far as it goes out here in the west. Even if my French were perfect, I wouldn't have much of a chance to use it.
In Switzerland, much of the population can speak French, Italian and German, but then Switzerland is a much smaller country than vast and expansive Canada. The distance from here to Quebec could encompass much of Western Europe, I believe. Canada is also a multicultural country and in British Columbia it may seem more useful to learn Cantonese rather than French. It is also true that many immigrants have a hard enough time learning one of the languages of their adopted countries, let alone two, and First Nations people are relearning their own languages.