Reporting, Recording and Relaying - But Always Telling It As I See It

Monday, July 5, 2010

French 101 - Or...What Happens When Someone Actually Buys Your Accent

Before we left for Quebec, we were curious as to how much English would be spoken. My wife has passable French language skills while mine consisted of the three words all men know but rarely experience - ménage à trois While we fully expected Quebec’s charm, we were a bit surprised that we were able to communicate as easily as we were. Since French is the official language of the Province, we were quite certain, and in fact a little excited, to have a bit of a struggle. We didn’t, with two exceptions.

First, the only time someone truly trapped me in their French language was when a drunken guy came up to me near the Parc-de-l’Artillerie and rambled something that would have been hard to understand in English given his state. When I said “Je ne parle pas français” (one of the very few French phrases I know…basically translated as “I am a stupid American who thinks the world should speak English, so excuse me but I have no friggin’ idea what you are saying.”) he repeated it very slowly. Now, not speaking French means that regardless of how slow someone speaks it, I still do not understand! Fortunately my wife walked up and said he was saying something about a sunset by the river. For all I know, he was asking me on a date, but since my wife frowns on me heading off into the twilight with drunk Quebecers, I smiled, said “merci,” and moved on.

Secondly, and if I had to phrase this in the form of a joke, it would go like this: “An American walks into a Lebanese restaurant in Quebec.” The gentleman spoke fluent something, but it sure didn’t sound like French, and zero English. Luckily, being great fans of Middle Eastern food I knew I couldn’t go too wrong. With some finger pointing (at the menu) and much gesturing, we managed to get ourselves some gyros, kufta and hummus. We did both manage the word “Coke.”

Over the course of the week my French phrasing improved. At first, every time I said “bonjour” I was politely greeted with a “hello.” As if to say, “That’s cute, but for my own sanity let’s speak English.” However, by the end of the week, my “bonjour” and “bonsoir” was occasionally being replied to in French, to which I would then sheepishly say, “hello” or “good evening.” Hence, if the exchange was in one language would be: “hello,” “hello,” “hello.”

Other than those two instances, the rebellious Quebecers were not only extremely bi-lingual, but friendly and gracious hosts. I still didn’t get to use ménage à trios…unless that’s what the drunken guy was talking about.

(Side Bar - Unrelated to the above.

I wondered, when the American with the gaudy t-shirt tucked tightly into his belted shorts that were laboriously fitted below his gut, asked the shop keeper on Rue Saint Louis if she could recommend a restaurant that served, “you know, regular food,” if in fact she didn’t feel like shoving the "I Love Quebec" coffee mug squarely up his ass?

I would have smiled broadly if she had said, “You mean the type of food that has made you both fat and ugly you ignorant American?” Alas, she didn’t. Nonetheless, it did embarrass me. Here we were, in beautiful, historic Quebec, and some schmuck is upset because he can’t get “normal” food. Whatever that is.)

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