I do not have a fear of walking backward, naked, into a glass door-knob like Johnny Carson did. I do, however, have a neurotic, almost incapacitating fear of being in a room full of people who only speak French. Not that the educational institutions in Canada didn’t try to teach me enough French to find my way to the washroom. That they failed was simply due to my not having the gene allowing the learning of multiple languages.
My FrancoPhobia, however, predates my junior high French class, because the worst thing about growing up in a bilingual country was the cereal boxes. When I was young, the front of the cereal box was for the cereal name and logo, the back was where all the fun stuff was that kids care about. Descriptions of free toys inside the box, puzzles and games, offers for things to send away for. My parents always let me pick the cereal, and my decision was solely based on the back of the cereal box rather than what cereal was inside. When Canada got serious about bilingualism, it all changed. The front was English and the back was French. Unless you were in Quebec, in which case the front was French, and the back was English. Either way, gone were the free toys, the puzzles and games, and the offers. How was a kid to decide what cereal to buy?
Canada is officially bilingual so at some point you have to get over the cereal box thing (say, at age 25 or 30). Except that in 1977 Quebec adopted Bill 101, which requires everything in Quebec to be in French and French only. Well, there are exceptions, but I had read over the years about shopkeepers that put English signs next to their French signs in their Quebec stores and were hauled off to court. They are so serious about this that there is a government office known only by its initials (OQLF – because the actual name is in French), staffed by 230 people who enforce these requirements. They even have 15 language terminologists who take English words that have come into the parlance and decide on French equivalents that must be used. Want to send an email in Quebec? That’s a $7,000 fine from the language police. You must call it a “courriel.” Want to take a selfie? Better call it an “egoportrait” or you may get a visit from the tongue troopers.
In fact, Bill 101 has had vast consequences. According to Statistics Canada, up to 244,000 English-speaking people have emigrated from Quebec to other provinces since the 1970s, primarily due to the cereal box debacle, and many businesses and jobs fled the province. Recently, Quebec has relented a bit, so you no longer have to say “sandwich au fromage fondant” – you can now order a “grilled cheese sandwich” with no fear of repercussions. Nevertheless, it added to my irrational fear of waking up in Quebec and having to understand someone who was legally obligated to speak only French.
Hence, the plan was to blitz through Quebec without going to either Montreal or Quebec City. We’d return some day as a part of a tour group where someone else can do the communicating and we could just smile. If we were lucky, we could maybe make it all the way through without even having to fuel up (“eh, how you say, “diesel?”).
We did not make it. We ended up stopping for night at a KOA not far from Quebec City. In fact, it happened to be very close to the ferry that goes to Old Quebec City, the walled city built on a cliff, still preserved after centuries. The first night, we dipped our toes in the French water, going to a highly rated restaurant in the little town of St Nicolas, the Cuisine du Marche. The server could not have been nicer, yet the language barrier was there. Between pointing, and a whole lot of smiling, we chose well, and had a wonderful meal. The next morning, I thought, “what the hell,” and we took the ferry to one of the most beautiful cities in North America.
You enter Old Quebec from the ferry by one of two ways. First, a $3CDN trip up the Funicular (French, “Funiculaire”), or second, a scramble up the cliff and over the wall followed by a visit to the emergency room. We took the Funicular and enjoyed the view.
Quebec is made for walking, and many streets are still made of cobblestone.
It remains a fortified city with walls and gates except where cliffs and other topography made those needless. By the late 19th century, there was a movement to remove the fortifications as obsolete and as an obstacle to urban development. Fortunately, Lord Dufferin correctly anticipated 20th century tourism and successfully led a movement to preserve them.
Following the sound of live music, and lured by the hope of internet access, I found myself seated in Pub Irlandais Chez Murphy’s (English translation: Murphy’s Irish Pub), where I met JoHanne and Simon. They are friends, both from the island of Ile d’Orleans, not far from Quebec City.
She’s a teacher, but dealing with the struggles of an aging, and ill, parent. Her father was at a nearby hospital undergoing a procedure, and she was taking a break before going back. We should go to Gaspe, she said. And Newfoundland. Yes, people from Newfoundland are very nice, “but people in Quebec the friendliest.” Which is true, since she initiated our conversation while sitting 3 stools over. She said goodbye and left for the hospital again, and I stayed to enjoy honest, live, Canadian pop music.
More walking around, beautiful buildings, statutes, and landscaping everywhere:
The red roofed building is actually a restaurant and jazz club so later that evening, it was time for more jazz (French translation “Le Jazz”), except that I have found that in Canada, jazz is a loose reference to, how you say, “musique lounge” or “lounge music.”
I’m really aching for some good PDX Jazz again.
All in all, spending a day in Quebec was not the torture I thought it would be, primarily due to the fact that every single person I interacted with also spoke English. But I tried to pick up some of the language, primarily from menus.
By the second day in Quebec, I was like an old pro standing at the counter of Tim Horton’s:
Me: “SVP, un Glace d’l’maple, por favor, y un cafe a un creme.”
The server smiled and said “OK, that was a nice try. Three dollars please, and have a nice day.”