Last time we talked (well I wrote and maybe you read) I mentioned that my BH and myself recently made a visit to the island of Montreal. Thing is, up until a year or two ago, I didn’t even realize the City of Montreal was an island — that’s how clueless I am about my own beloved country.
Also, for the longest time, I didn’t know that Montreal stands for Mount Royal, although that should have been an easy one, with my extensive education in French language — which consisted of random public school classes from about Grade 7 to Grade 9.
Since then I have been quite fluent in our other official language in the sense that I can say three or four important things and understand several words in French. And of course, I’m pretty good at reading the French on the back of cereal boxes and shampoo bottles, especially with the English version in a nearby paragraph so I can cheat a little.
“Bonjour, Monsieur Thibault” (“Hello, Mr. Tee-boe”). I have had that down pat for decades now, since all the junior high French seemed to be centered around badly-acted lessons on audio tape that featured a M. Thibault who was always opening a window and shutting a door and waiting for the bus.
In all the years since, I’ve never met a Mr. Thibault so I was desperately hoping I would meet one in Montreal so I could chat with him about opening windows and closing doors and waiting for buses.
No such luck.
Still, I was pretty sure I’d be able to work in “Ouvrez le fenetre, s’il vous plait” (“Open the window please”) somewhere in the five days we were in Montreal, and maybe even “Fermez la porte” (“Close the door”).
No such luck.
My rotten kid, the daughter one, was to Montreal a couple of months ago and she reassured us that anyone she had talked to started out in French, and as soon as she answered in English, they immediately switched to English. She had not met a single diehard militant Montrealer that we Albertans hear about who are majorly offended if you don’t speak French.
And neither did we.
Montreal is a fascinating and beautiful city that was founded not long after Shakespeare tipped over. In 1642, people from France decided that this spot in the new world across the ocean would be a good place to make a city called Montreal so that they could have a famous hockey team called “The Habs” (which means “Les Canadiens” in French.)
Montreal has a truly amazing classy, urban feel that is surprisingly laid back for a big city. It could be that 400-year-old buildings are somehow seamlessly integrated with modern buildings on virtually every street downtown.
Unlike relatively young Alberta, where the motto seems to be: “Let’s rip down anything that’s over 50 years old.”
It could be that there’s this park in the middle of the city with a big hill called Mount Royal, which has a cross built on the top — a famous edifice visible from just about anywhere in the city. And get this — municipal regulations forbid any building from exceeding the height of that hill and that cross, which is 233 metre (about 70 storeys high). And in fact most downtown buildings rarely exceed 12 storeys in height. So what you get instead of a forest of skyscrapers are interesting new and old buildings, a lot of sky and a constant view of Mount Royal.
Or it could be that all the hustle and bustle of noisy, busy shopping and commerce has disappeared underground. Literally. It’s called the Underground City and it’s the largest underground complex in the world.
It could be that the cobblestone streets and the funky shops and excellent restaurants make Old Montreal one of the coolest places in Canada.
Or it could be the people, because after all, don’t the people make the place?
They were always good to us, especially when I tried out my Grade 7 French on the impressively bilingual Montrealers. By the first day I’d managed to work in “Oui,” “Merci” and even “Merci boucoup” seamlessly into several brief verbal exchanges, and by the third day I was slipping in classics like “Tres bien,” and Qu’est-ce que c’est?” every chance I got, much to the embarrassment of my BH, who had much better common sense of when to use ‘very good’ and ‘what’s that?’
By our last day there, I figured I was pretty much tres bien when it came to my newly-discovered bilingualism. And that’s how I ended up asking for ‘one red potato’ in a coffee shop that obviously didn’t offer potatoes of any colour in any way shape or form.
We were at the start of a long day’s walk so I decided I’d better take care of the old blood sugar and take along something healthy to eat for a change. I noticed that the little café on Sherbrooke Street where we were having breakfast had an assortment of bananas and red and green apples and some other delicious food items.
But I didn’t know the French words for those other linguistically complicated delicious food items, so I knew I’d better stick to basics.
“I got this,” I thought to myself as I strode up to the counter and launched into my best Albertan French accent.
“Une banane, s’il vous plait, et une rouge pomme de terre, merci beaucoup!” I said nice and loud, so that everyone could hear.
“Rouge pomme de terre?” the friendly barista said, clearly puzzled.
“Oui,” I said, quite pleased with myself. “Une rouge pomme de terre,” I repeated loudly for good measure, smiling proudly at the patrons beside me in the lineup.
“I’m sorry, we don’t have any red potatoes,” the counterman said in perfect English, cracking a small smile and digging out a red apple from a basket.
“Pomme?” he says politely, holding up the apple, and somewhere far away in the miniscule part of my brain where I keep my few French words, I realized that en francais “potato” is expressed as “apple of the earth” — “pomme de terre.”
My Better Half found this quite hilarious, and for most of the day, kept asking me why I wasn’t eating my red potato.
I blame Monsieur Thibault. He was always too busy opening windows and closing doors to tell me the difference between and apple and a potato.
But Montreal didn’t mind. That place made us proud — la fierte des Canadiens — even if the cafés don’t have red potatoes.
Harley Hay is a local freelance writer, award-winning author, filmmaker and musician. His column appears on Saturdays in the Advocate. His books can be found at Chapters, Coles and Sunworks in Red Deer.