Montreal is Très Real

(Article from my satire column.)

My first time studying abroad was in fact to take a break from engineering and study French in Montreal. I thought it sounded like an excellent idea, going to Canada in March to learn my French. Little did I realize how waterproof my boots weren’t after walking hours in knee-high snow or how much the French in Montreal isn’t really French. It’s “Quebecois”. If you’ve spent your whole life learning Parisian French, studying in Quebec is about the equivalent of a Londoner living in the backwoods coal towns of West Virginia. It has a rather “what the hell language was that?” effect. Living in the old section of town, Vieux Montreal, was definitely the perk of the trip. Seeing how real the mountain was also justified calling the city “Mont Real”. But I still couldn’t get over this “Quebecois” thing.

During my time in Montreal, I spent a couple hours of every day volunteering in places like women’s shelters and soup kitchens. These places provided me with the opportunity of speaking French with the locals. Sadly, most of those conversations were curt and included phrases such as, “No, you can only have three pieces of cheese” or “You have a yellow ticket, not a green one, so you can only take one bottle of water”. My friends and I made every effort to become a part of the youth around us by socializing at our hostel and at local bars, but most of the kids staying with us were Anglophones and the noise in the bars prevented us from hearing each other let alone anyone speaking French. I stuck to guzzling down my Labatt Bleus (instead of Labatt Blues) and pretending like I knew what was going on around me. I ended up socializing the most on my daily walks through the town. Most days included pushing five cars out of a snow pile before having walked a single block. I became quite skilled at getting large vehicles out of deep, snowy trenches. One day, as I dragged my soaking feet through more and more snowfall, my friend and I joined several citizens of Montreal in pushing an enormous pickup truck out of an icy ditch. Exhausted, she and I stopped to get some local food. This is the moment when I made a mistake that I will always remember – and regret – for probably eternity.

We were taught in school that several things in Quebecois are different words than in French. While the French use American words like “un hot-dog”, the Canadians choose to make up their own word that sounds like “sausage” instead. The cuisine is also faux-French. For example, the classic dish in Eastern Canada is called “poutine” and consists of French fries covered in gravy and cheese curds. I had this word committed to memory – “Poo-teen, poo-teen, poo-teen” – until one fateful day when my teacher thought it was a good idea to advise us not to pronounce the word like “poo-tan”. It had never occurred to me before to say it that way. Alas, the incorrect pronunciation was forever instilled in my brain. When my friend and I walked into the food shop that cold, cold day, I fell into the age-old trap and asked, “Avez-vous… “poo-tan”? The man laughed at me and said that, No, he doesn’t have any whores, or poutine for that matter.

Oh, Montreal, the embarrassment is real. I took my cravings elsewhere and forever remembered my experience with Montreal and the poutine…

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