Parlez-vous Français? An introduction to Montréal

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Last November I was happily – if very unexpectedly – presented with an opportunity to visit Montréal to attend the book fair there. As it was only the second North American location I’d visited after New York, I wasn’t sure what to expect from the largest city in Québec.

I only had a few days there, so my first impressions  couldn’t be disregarded. The snow held off (apparently the first major annual fall usually occurs during the book fair) but the weather was crisp and bright, and the cold biting. The people I met were warm and welcoming, with delightfully sarcastic senses of humour. The city itself was clean and a manageable size for doing a lot of exploring by foot. I did notice a high number of beggars, a fact one of my hosts attributed to the wide range in incomes. The smells of onion soup, cigarettes and cologne seemed to be everywhere.

Most people there are truly bilingual – slipping easily between French and English even within a single sentence, in a way that inspires awe in those of us who can only dream of such fluency in any language other than our own. But amazingly, after centuries of wrangling, it is only since the Quiet Revolution and the subsequent political changes in the 1960s and 70s that francophones received truly equal rights in the workplace in Québec and were able to work in French in all fields.

The city feels but doesn’t look as French as I had expected. When I questioned one of my hosts about this seeming lack of older French buildings, he grinned. ‘Yeah, that’s because you destroyed them all.’ The joys of being a Brit overseas! Upon further research I discovered that the period of British rule had certainly been responsible for changing the physical appearance of the place, but then so had the large number of fires in the late 1700s. As with many older cities, the architecture now visible in Montréal represents a hotchpotch of different styles – more European-looking turrets and balconies, Art Deco North American, modern and minimalist, and so on. . .

Apartment building

On the other hand, the food I ate was mostly very French (and delicious), as was the wine I drank – but this could have reflected the tastes of my francophone hosts. The exception to this was poutine – the fondly-regarded calorie fest of chips smothered in cheese curds and gravy. Despite its Québec origins, the dish seems to owe more to North American than European cuisine.

At the book fair, I was particularly interested to meet members of an association of francophone publishers from outside of Québec. There are only one million native francophones outside of Québec in Canada – as such they represent a linguistic minority in their respective provinces. I recognised in them the same passion for preserving a language against the odds as evident in those I encountered while living in Ireland who were striving to keep the Irish language alive.

Less peaceful than it looks

My GCSE-level French is not good enough for me to have had more than the vaguest sense of differences between French usage in Canada and that in France, but of one thing I was assured by many sources: the Québécois are a lot freer with their use of profanity. In particular, the usual types of swear words relating to sex and excrement are deemed milder than the widely-used blasphemous local alternatives (câlice meaning chalice and tabarnac meaning tabernacle, for example) I had a chance to observe the extent to which this transfers into English usage when I went for a peaceful early morning stroll down by the port. Queues of horse-drawn carriages lined the roadside and the driver of one of them kept breaking off his conversation (in French) with a colleague to harangue his poor horse in the strongest English (“F**k you, you f**king c**k-sucker.”)

It is a belief we are often fed by the media that protesting is somehow inherent to French culture. If this is true, then their Québécois cousins are not letting them down. In the financial district of the city, an impressive number of Occupy Montréal protestors braved the bitter cold outside their tents to chat to passers-by. One of my hosts told me that the mayor had agreed to be lenient on them, but a few short weeks later the camp was (peacefully) dismantled by the police.

The issue of Québec’s independence from Canada no longer appears to have as much popular support as it once did – two referendums (1980 and 1995) have returned ‘No’ votes, the latter by a very slim majority – though it still does of course have its passionate proponents. For the most part, Quebecers now seem to feel that it is in their best interests to remain part of Canada, while holding on to autonomy in certain areas.

Nonetheless, it does seem safe to say that Québec has its own culture, quite distinct from the rest of Canada, and, indeed, from the countries whose people have gone towards making it the unique blend it is today. It is greater than the sum of all its parts and I can’t wait to go back.

Pont Jacques Cartier Montréal / Jacques Cartie...
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