Tongue Tied

by Rachel Gertz

Montreal Expo '67
~Love stuck to a fence in front of Montreal Expo ‘67

Day 216

You can not sum up Montreal. 

It is above ground and underground. It is French and it is English. It is poutine and it is King crab. We. Loved. It.

We were raised in Alberta. Blue collar with a touch of white. Cowboy hats worn in July for Stampede. Anglophones. Alberta taught us all of the following things about Montreal (well about French speaking Quebec in general). That’s what generalizations are, I suppose. 

We were told….

  • Everyone in Quebec despises Canadian English speaking people
  • Everyone in Quebec is a separatist (aka wants to govern their own country called Quebec)
  • No one speaks English, nor even tries
  • Quebec people are rude and dismissive
  • French Canadians are assholes

Wow. A very well-rounded opinion, n’est pas? Here’s the thing, not only are these generalizations pathetic, they are so inaccurate, they actually crumble. We spent a heavenly four days in Montreal. Hopping on a well-tailored transit system, devouring fantastic grub (yes, there is always room for more poutine), and walking slack-jawed down the streets of Old Montreal, in utter awe of the cultural diversity milling about us.

Now, we are very anglophone. We admit it. Although Canada has two official languages (French and English), general education in Alberta would have you think otherwise. In Alberta, you are only required to partake in French lessons from grades 2-6 where you learn verb conjugation and basic nouns. If you develop a hankering for more French, you’re free to take it as an option in junior high and high school (or you go to French Immersion). That’s the thing, it’s an option. An option we never took. So our knowledge of French language and culture is limited to “Bonjour” and “toilette”.  Now plant us in the heart of a Francophone city like Montreal…

I actually took Spanish in high school, and the plague of Spanish words that hit my tongue made me incapable of thinking in French. Now, unlike Quebec City, there is a larger population of Anglophones in Montreal, so if you’re going to scrape by in English, you can retain your dignity. But it’s still impossibly hard if you want to blend in. 

Trav and I wanted so badly to be spies here. To go unnoticed, blend in like locals, and let the French melt on our tongues like delicious curds of cheese. Fat chance. This is how it went in truth: 

Every store or restaurant we strolled into garbled our French. We had to attempt it. We had to try to adopt the nuances and silent linguistics code. But we were incapable of getting past, ‘Bonjour’. Spies everywhere would have been embarrassed. The sheer overwhelming spectacle of being struck mute made us feel so incredibly tiny. And to make it worse, we were usually found out within ten seconds flat.

Example: Travis and I attempt to order poutine in a French fast food restaurant. I know the cashier speaks a bit of English. He answered politely to the last customer. But I’m going to one-up that customer and try out my Français. Except I can’t think of how to say, “I don’t want the combo.” The words will not come. I can’t even think how to excuse my poor french or to apologize. The cashier looks at us quizzically. I stand there red-faced, choking on my own tongue. 

Luckily a woman steps in to help. Except she looks at me and asks if I need help —in French. I stare at her eyes wide. Now we’re really effed. Then she remembers and code switches to English, helping us to finish our order.

Anyway, I’d venture to say it was harder to speak French here than it ever is to mutter Spanish phrases like “another beer, please” or “sorry, I’m married” in Mexico (true story). It was an eery and humbling experience. One we’ll continue to try out over and over again until we’re not so terrible at it. 

But we owed Montreal this favour. The history and culture, and especially the language of French Canada needs to be honoured and upheld at all costs. It is what shapes our unique Canadian identity, and gave us poutine!

  • For the record, we didn’t meet any separatists
  • Each person who greeted us was friendly & even understanding as we spoke our childish French
  • Finally, everyone we met was bilingual and yet began every conversation in French.  That’s more than we could say about some of our rough-collared western counterparts.

Montreal is a place we could live (after a few language lessons).  I should mention: I’m onto Travis. Normally a good spy, he has a bad habit of waiting for me to speak first in Quebec, which always forces me to stand red-faced and mute at the cashier counter. Sneaky man.

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