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Smoked Meat Diaries #7: Je comprends pas! (partie I)

Posted by Will / May 5, 2009

20090505-loi101.jpgI don't speak French, which presents a problem when moving to a place where the official language is French. Actually, I was surprised at how easily one can get by without French in Montreal - even in the largely French-speaking neighbourhood where I reside. However, that still doesn't mean I don't feel like a complete waste of space when I struggle with my French skills. For me, there's something wholly shameful about going into a French-speaking establishment and having to make others switch to a different language to communicate with you. Of course there's a long history of impassioned politics concerning the preservation of culture and language in Quebec - one that I'm only starting to understand and appreciate. It helps having a Québécoise girlfriend with strong convictions in this respect - it has allowed me to open my mind to new perspectives that I never thought possible growing up as a prairie boy.

So I try to speak French. Oh god how I try. But I'll tell you this - I'm all kinds of sucky. Most of the time, store clerks and restaurant servers are bilingual, so they switch over to English when they figure out that I can't speak French. La Belle Fille and I invented a new game called "Spot the Anglophone." Here's how it works: We go to a food and/or beverage establishment in Montreal and we see how long it takes before our server figures out that I can't speak French. Oh what humiliating fun! The score right now is Servers: 421 vs. Will: Zippo. Usually it takes a few minutes of chatting before I'm discovered. Player of the Month honours goes to the waitress at L'Oeufrier who thwarted my efforts after approximately two seconds of interaction:
Her: "Voulez-vous quelque chose a boire?"
Me: "Oui, une café."
She promptly handed me an English-only menu. La Belle Fille scoffed, "Ha, it's 'un café.'" Friggin' masculin and feminine. Three words and I'm totally busted.

My personal record was when I made it through almost three exchanges with a waitress before she figured me out. It went like this:
Her: "Bonsoir, je vous offre quelque chose?"
Me: "Oui, qu'est-ce que vous avez comme bière en fut?"
Her: [she then listed several beers and mentioned something about a stout]
Me: "Avez-vous quel stout?"
Her: "C'est St. Amboise."
Me: [excited about the St. Amboise Stout]...oooh, je le prends ça stout une pinte (ooh, I am taking it that stout a pint).
Her: "I'll be right back, pal."

On rare occasions, the server will subtly ridicule my attempts. Once, I order "un verre de l'eau" and the waitress said, "tu veux dire, un verre d'eau?" and looked at me as though she could not tell whether I wanted a glass of water or an oyster-flavoured milkshake. In rare instances, the server or store employee does not speak any English, and that's always just a mess. Those exchanges often go something like this:
Me: Allo, je cherche quelque chose pour ma blonde.
Clerk: Bien, on a blah, blah, blah.
Me: Désolé, mon Français est très mauvais.
Clerk: C'est correct, blah, blah, blah.
That's when I resort to my standard unilingual defense mechanism: I zone out, stop listening, and I blankly stare at them with a silly-ass grin on my face.

The subtleties of naturally spoken French are so hard to pick up on. For months I thought La Belle Fille's brother was telling me about the great appetizers at a place called "Casual Spa" when in fact he was saying "Cage au Sport" (I presumed it was some sort of laid-back health resort where people wore floral shirts and Birkenstocks). The problem is that I've learned the structure of the language, piece-by-piece, which prepares me to only understand people who speak as though they are robots explaining something to an invalid. But when a native speaker says a simple phrase like "Je peux aller a l'épicerie," it turns into "Shpallayalpeesry." So by the time I've figured out that the person said that they can go to the grocery store, they've also added that they've stolen my credit cards and they're going to carve out my tongue while I'm sleeping. And I missed it because I can't understand French.

20090505-mouvement.jpgSo it would be nice to speak French to fit in a little better. I want to be able to enjoy more things in Montreal without being so self-conscious. A few weeks ago we saw a French movie at a local cinema with no subtitles and as we were walking out, my review of the film was, "The blonde woman liked the man with the glasses. She let him touch her booby." Eat your heart out Ebert. But the main reason I want to learn French is that I want to be able to communicate better with La Belle Fille's family. They all speak English quite well with the exception of her mom, La Belle Mère. Safe to say, family dinners are interesting for me as I sit there in the cross-fire of emphatic French conversation, not understanding a word. They could be talking about me for all I know. "Stupid, obnoxious Canuck! Look at him shoveling those mashed potatoes into his mouth like a slob!" Nah, they're good people and they seem to like my company. I assume they're usually just arguing about the best kind of maple syrup and such. La Belle Mère is one of the sweetest women you will ever meet and I'd love to be able to chat with her. Currently, we can only exchange a few simple phrases - she speaking English, myself speaking French - that make us sound like a couple of intellectually challenged baboons:
LBM: How are you?
Me: Ça va. Comment allez-vous?
LBM: Good. What do you do today?
Me: Je suis allé au bureau aujourd'hui.
LBM: Ooooh! Goooood! You are nice boy.
Me: J'aime le fromage.
LBM: It is Wednesday.

Then at some point she starts talking to me for real in French and I give her my patented vacant stare, a nervous giggle, and a head nod. There's something very endearing about these exchanges and sometimes I wonder whether this is part of my charm. Maybe she sees me as a sweet, wide-eyed little man who likes cheese and her innocent impression of me would be shattered if I became fluent in French. Or maybe I've come up with a piss-poor rationalization for not getting off my ass and learning this language. Yep, that's it. Next week I'll discuss all of the shenanigans and tomfoolery that went along with trying to improve my French. À la prochaine!

Relevant song:
"Ton Plat Favori" by Malajube:
Je suis ton plat favori/ Le sang sur ton bistouri/ Je suis ton plat favori/ Le sang sur ton bistouri/ Et non, non tu comprends pas!

Thanks to Flickr user powersmitchell for the photos.



Margot / June 10, 2009 at 12:40 pm
Comments on this post in an earlier incarnation:

Mon cher ami, le français est une langue qu'on apprend difficilement "sur le tas" (on the spot?). Des cours s'imposent pour éliminer complètement les erreurs de déterminants (un, une, un verre de l'eau, etc.) et posséder un vocabulaire décent. Quand même, ça me fait toujours plaisir de voir un anglophone se donner du mal pour baragouiner un peu de français!
Keep on trying bud!
Ps. Malajube, personne les comprends, pas même les francophones. Ça nous empêche pas de les aimer!
Posted by: Harold at May 5, 2009 11:25 AM

Nouns genders in french were actually conceived by a cabal of mean-spirited sphinxes.
Posted by: Nathan at May 5, 2009 12:44 PM

Conversations like that last one you describe are the reason I love this city. That two people will speak in their second languages to each other in some kind of bizarre accommodation-off... it's funny and sweet and bizarre all at once. Great article.
Posted by: Mike at May 6, 2009 10:53 PM

At least you're trying/showing sings of interest. That's the spirit.
Peace à Montréal.
Posted by: Patate Molle at May 7, 2009 9:59 AM

Hilarious piece. When I was starting to navigate Quebec French, I remember a clerk at the IGA asking me if I wanted to donate to the Children's Lung Foundation or something. I understood - with a beat's delay - but you just don't expect to hear about lungs at the grocery till.
The great thing is the small victories: understanding a passing stranger's amusing comment - and saying something sane back. I guess it's the return for making a dozen 'une café's!
Posted by: Em at May 9, 2009 2:07 AM

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