Window box in the Old Town, Quebec City, Quebec.
We joked with the seductively-accented Canadian customs agent that we were heading to Quebec City because it was the closest we could get to Paris without leaving the continent. He was pleased and was kind enough to allow us monolingual savages into his country with the parting words, “I think you will like it.” Though it was much better when he said it. Incidentally, he also mentioned that perhaps the American Customs agents were going soft because it was likely that they would let us return to America without dismantling the car in search of contraband French culture. Or French Fries. Or something like that.
The separatist movement still has voice.
Even before we reached Quebec City, it was evident that, while all of Canada is intended to be bilingual, there are Quebecers who take bilingual to mean they speak English with the same fluency I speak French. I held a riveting conversation with a man at a rest stop in which we established that (a) I was eating breakfast (okay, it was lunch, but wasn’t about to split hairs nor could I remember the word for lunch) (b) I spoke virtually no french and (c) he spoke virtually no English. It was a brilliant cultural exchange. We also noticed the road signs were often not translated into our Mother Tongue. Luckily, the accompanying pictures could be translated into any language. My personal favorite was the sign depicting a road sign featuring a deer crashing into a road sign featuring a car. Clearly, the road signs in this part of the country are vicious.
We found our hotel, just outside the walls of the old town, with ease (because the one who is always prepared despite my ribbing had consulted several maps and written down perfect directions). We were so proud of our French that we blithely answered “Bonjour” to all the hotel staff, which worked like beautifully right up until the point where they continued to speak to us in magical, musical French. Then we hit them with our best “Were undereducated Americans and have no freaking clue what you just said” blank stares which they were kind enough to read as “en Englis, si’vous plait” until we grew graceful enough to say that for ourselves.
The old city fortifications, built to withstand British cannon fire and potential American invasion. We got in anyway.
In fact, almost all the service staff were effectively bilingual, though they consistently began in French. We noticed that, in the restaurants, they kept separate stacks of menus and, at the second words out of our mouths (because the first was “Bonjour!”) they reached for the English stack, even if I tried to offer “une table pour duex”. My accent is not as good as I think it is.
And each time we entered a restaurant and went through the language dance, I felt the like an embarrassingly naive American. Buried deep inside our country, where English is King, language is transparent. I am good at this languague, it is an effortless appendage. But outside of the grand old U. S. of A., English is just the current popular kid around which so many other languages weave. Yes, the world has begun to learn English so I can order my crepes and buy tickets to ride the funicular, but I feel as though I’m missing something.
Language is culture. It is identity and definition, it is subtlety and history. I remember being awed, and slightly afraid, when I first learned that there are ideas that can be expressed in some languages that cannot be expressed in others. Language, in fact, leaves a finger print on the brain so that, depending upon the languages you grew up with, you will hear and understand with different innuendo and connotation.
And here we are, the grand Americans, who strive to be the moral and cultural brokers of the planet and we blindly speak in one culture. We can’t size up a customer in a sentence and meet them in their language. We wait for them to learn ours, which so many people are willing to do. But we put ourselves at risk of standing in a crowd somewhere on the globe, listening to the glorious babel, and having utterly no idea what is being said. It’s a vulnerable way to exist in the world. It left me feeling small, uneducated and excited. There is so much more to learn.
Luckily, the beauty of a city translates regardless of the language.
A side street in the Old Town, Quebec City
Flower Vendors at the Marche along the harbor, Lower Town, Quebec City
Open air restaurants and cafes along the pedestrian walkway, Quebec City.