Sunday, May 23, 2010

First Impressions of Quebec

It’s been twenty years since I spent more than a few days in Quebec. The last time I was here I was traveling though, and so most of my interaction was with hotel staff and gas station attendants who were used to dealing with traveling Anglophones. Now I have strayed from the beaten path and started delving into the neighbourhood grocery stores, depanneurs, and other public venues where the regular Quebecers hang out.

In only five days I already find that I really should learn to type with accents above the vowels, but I’m not going to bother since a lot of my quotations are going to be phonetically spelled anyway. I can read a lot of French, and I can even put a sentence or two together in speech, but understanding the native Quebecer is a skill that is going to take some time.

I noticed in northern Quebec that they slur a lot of words together with a phlegm-flailing, almost German sounding noise. I met a fellow from northern New Brunswick who spoke much the same way. Montrealers seem to role over a lot of sounds with a sort of drawl that is reminiscent of a New Yawk accent, but I could swear that they actually swallow the last syllable of every sentence. In Ville de Quebec, however, they ratta-tat-tat each syllable like a machine gun in the meter of European Spanish but with a subtle and soft phlegm-flailing sound that reminds me of Brazilian Portuguese. Usually I’m lucky to catch two words out of ten.

I’ve been camping outside of Ville de Quebec for four days now, and I’ve listened to traveling Francophones from all over. One woman, who had been a French immersion teacher in New Brunswick, sounded just like my first French teacher. I could clearly hear each syllable and given a moment or two I understood almost everything she was saying. Maybe all French teachers learn French in the same place, because she told me that my French was beautiful and she couldn’t hear my English accent at all. Not so with other Francophones.

If you walk into a store and start speaking in English, most clerks will look at you like you are from the moon. On the other hand, if you walk in and start speak French poorly, most clerks will break into even worse English and some of them actually speak in tones of disgust. This is a helpful tip for Anglophone tourists, but I’m here to learn French so it doesn’t help me a bit. I’ve tried pressing on in French and that seems to extinguish the disgusted tones but few people will revert to French to speak to me.

The campground is filled with Francophones from all over, the music is mostly French but all bad. They have a thing for discordant French jazz and English soft rock – I don’t even want to talk about French country music. The sounds are starting to sink in though, and I’m slowly starting to recognize more words. I spend a lot of time listening to people talking to their children.

On one hand I feel I need to start carrying a French/English dictionary, but on the other I am happy just learning the words in context without developing the habit of doing real time translations in my mind. Traveaux is on orange, diamond shape signs and indicates construction ahead. Interdit is anything you aren’t supposed to do. Chemin seems to be like ‘way’ as in a path or route, although it is also like ‘road’; as opposed to street (rue). Pont is bridge. Oh, and never use a cathedral (Eglise) or a Saint(e) as a reference point unless you have a photographic memory for architecture and names. Every Eglise looks about the same to me – like a 300 year old cathedral – and every Eglise and Chemin is named after Saint(e) someone or other. Fortunately detour is a French word, and I hit a lot of them driving along Chemin Saint Louis on my way to Eglise Sainte Louise.

I’ve made a game out of trying to get in and out of a store without them figuring out that I’m an Anglophone. I sort of cough as I say ‘bonjour’ upon entering and laugh my way through a ‘tres bien’ if they seem to ask a question about the weather or how I’m doing. When a clerk approaches asking questions I mumble a ‘juste regardant’ as I turn away. At the register they will usually say “c’est tous” ou “Est-que c’est tous” and I’m primed with a quick “c’est tous” in response as I pretend to drop my keys. So far it’s worked twice out of about a dozen attempts. Twice the register didn’t display the amount and I was left hanging like an imbecile that couldn’t count money. Once the clerk was asking if I wanted my chocolate bar in the bag or with me and I blurted, “c’est tous” (that’s all). Other failed attempts ranged from being busted upon my ‘bonjour’ to an unexpected question to someone pointing out that I was driving the jeep out front with the Saskatchewan plates.

So today was my trial by fire. I bought an atlas de rue de Ville de Quebec and drove across the Pont de Quebec. It’s such a massive structure that I couldn’t help thinking of the Queensboro Bridge and I instantly broke into whistling the theme from Taxi. I followed the Saint Laurent into Vieux Quebec and oh what a wonder it was. I really need to get a camera, but I don’t think a photo looking up from my jeep at the Hotel Frontenac would begin to convey just how big or incredible it really is. In moments I felt like I was in some chase scene through a European City in an Ocean’s Eleven sequel. There are rocks that have been mortared into that area for over 400 years and you can feel the history. Cannons still point out over the garrison wall; a poignant reminder of the distinct, non-Anglophonic sentiments . There is now a road below the cliffs leading to the plains of Abraham, but you can really feel just how hard it must have been for the British to scale their way up to attack Quebec from behind.

As if it weren’t European enough, the only franchise restaurant I saw was a Mickey D’s and it was in a stone, trios etage building with a mansard roof and wrought iron railings around the patio. Even the patio furniture was wrought iron with thick glass table tops. Ray Kroc would have pewped his pantz. I wondered if I could get a glass of cheap wine with my Grande Mac if I went in. I decided to never find out.

I wasn’t looking for tourist attractions, however – I really wanted to get lost in Ville de Quebec. I’ve been hopelessly lost before in Vancouver, Toronto, and especially Montreal. This time, however, I didn’t have any place to be and I sincerely wanted to be lost. As it turns out, I found that it’s nearly impossible to get lost when you really rather wouldn’t be anyplace else. I found a park that was a memorial to the Battle of St. Foy – the French won, and so plenty of streets and businesses in the area incorporate the word ‘victoire’. If you keep going one way you are soon in Limilou. The other way you are in St. Foy. In between if you go to the river you are in Sillery. None of these are as large as Richmond, Surrey, or Burnaby though, so you don’t lose any time. Making matters easier, there are no big elevated freeways to get trapped on so you can turn around at your leisure.

The next story is where things get very phonetic. I wanted to eat in the city, but I just didn’t have the courage to try one of the many very busy little bistros. I couldn’t find any familiar franchises other than fast food, but I did find a place called ThaiZone. I know my Thai food, and it seemed franchise-ish, so I decided to go for it. For one who has eaten real Thai food, it was a bit of a disappointment. They stir-fried my noodles with the toppings and they got rather soggy. Fortunately there was self serve crushed peanuts and sliced lime. I saw a bottle that had the right colour for Nuoc Nam, but the label said something like “la rumouald”. I grabbed the bottle and said to the clerk, “Newack Nam?” Her eyes bugged out, but just then an oriental customer jumped up and said, “Oui, NeWOCK Nam,” stressing the ‘wock’ because I had mispronounced the Thai word. The clerk’s eyes bugged out more, so the oriental customer looked at her and said, “Newock Nam est la Room-old.” At this, the clerk looked at him and said, “ROWM-OWLED,” stressing his mispronunciation of the French word. They both looked at me and I just said, “Fish Sauce!” The only question left in my mind is why any self-respecting Thai fellow would have been eating in there in the first place.

I decided it was time to head back to the campground, so I just headed downhill towards the St. Laurent expecting to find Pont de Quebec. Along the way I entered the campus of Universite Laval, and from the main entrance it looked much like what I expect Place Riel in Saskatoon to look like after the new construction. I was quickly along my way and easily found signs pointing me to the pont. As I drove back across I was once again overtaken by the urge to whistle the theme from Taxi.