I have spent a lifetime reading both of Canada’s official languages on milk cartons, cereal boxes and instruction manuals.
In high school I took — and passed — the mandatory Grade 8 French class.
When my children were small I absorbed hours of Sesame Street French lessons. Thanks to a very annoying and indecisive parrot, the words, “ouvre la porte” and “fermer la port” along with “ouvre la fenetre” and “fermer la fenetre” are forever burned in my brain along with their meaning — “open the door” and “close the door” or “open the window” and “close the window.”
On our recent — and my first — trip to Montreal, I thrilled to a sign outside a store that read “Porte and Fennetre” not because I like stores that sell doors and windows (although I do) but because I could read it. I had even managed a friendly “Bonjour” to the cab driver upon climbing in. I was practically fluent.
As we hurtled through the dark streets, the cab driver suddenly began to speak into his Bluetooth. For five minutes he carried on a pleasant conversation in French with what Darcy and I assumed to be the dispatch station. It wasn’t until he turned in his seat and said in a loud, exasperated tone, “No understand?” that we realized he had been talking to us all along. Apparently I wasn’t as fluent as I thought.
Given a menu, I could figure out most of the items written in French, but when it came to speaking the language, well, an ancient high school French class and a scattering of Sesame Street phrases didn’t quite cut it.
I spent a lot of time wistfully listening to the language and wishing I could speak it.
We took a bus tour and the driver started off with a quick survey that revealed we had 22 English-speaking and eight French-speaking tourists. As we drove along, he pointed out attractions in English and then repeated his spiel in French. As we went by the football stadium, he asked if anyone knew the name of their team. Several people shouted out the answer.
“Yes,” he said, “The Montreal Alouettes. Like in the song, Alouette, yes? You know this song? Alouette, gentile Alouette?”
And in one of those rare movie moments everyone on the bus began to sing as one. “Alouetta gentile Alouette, Alouette, je te plumerai, Je te plumerai la tete! Je te plumerai la tete, Et la tete!, Et la tete. O-o-o-oh Alouette gentile Alouette!”
Our voices joyfully rose and fell together as we were all transported back to elementary school and the boisterous words to this rhythmical ditty. If it weren’t for the bus driver interrupting us to point out the next attraction, we might have sang the entire thing. We all grinned at each other and I don’t think I have ever felt more in love with Canada in my life.
After we returned home to the West, I kept thinking about that magical moment on the bus and it occurred to me that I didn’t know what an Alouette was. I knew the song contained various body parts, but what was an Alouette? I looked it up and was charmed to learn that “Alouette, gentile Alouette” translated to “Skylark, lovely little skylark.” Then I read the next line and all the charm flew out the window.
“Little lark, I will pluck your feathers off, I’ll pluck the feathers off your head.”
Turns out the song is about plucking a lovely little skylark starting with the head and moving on to the beak, the neck, the wings, the back, the legs and finally it’s off with the lovely little skylark’s tail.
Folklore has it that the song was originally created to compliment the motion of paddling a large canoe during the fur trade. Singing helped these early explorers to paddle in unison and made the journey more pleasant. It also helped them paddle faster and longer, which was important when you consider the length and breadth of the waterways in our vast country.
I can’t help thinking of that poor little lark who sings no more because he has been enthusiastically plucked from stem to stern by students from one end of Canada to the other in the name of bilingualism.
And yet, especially given that magical moment on the bus, I still love the song.
Shannon McKinnon is a humour columnist from the Peace River country. You can catch up on past columns by dropping by www.shannonmckinnon.com