Wednesday, May 28, 2003


Having lived in Montreal for six years and holding a bilingual high school diploma after completing several long years of immersion you'd think I'd be fluent by now. Maybe we can liken it to the same phenomenon that has illiterates graduating from universities. There's always a way.

I actually knew more French before I moved from my anglophone province. At least there, I was forced to speak French with my teachers in order to pass my chemistry and math classes. Oh yes, I can talk about math in French and am royally lost when it comes to deciphering any chemistry in English (though to be fair, chemistry baffles me in any language). The university I attended in Quebec catered to the anglo population, and after six years of studying "grammaire" and "verbes" and "sexes" in high school, I was more than happy to shun my second language and concentrate on Spanish instead. I continued with the trend of half-assed studying, so I now succeed in confusing people in two languages other than English. Does that count as trilingual?

I thought moving to Vancouver would lift the burden of for my mostly unilingual self, until I saw that Cantonese was an asset. Thinking French is undoubtedly easier, I drove thousands of miles back to it. Today, however, really demonstrated what I've gotten myself into, and how much left there is to learn. I am afraid I can't just brush up on my French. I have a heckuva lot to learn. Does my Nova Scotian dialect count as a second language? "Eh, you gowanna uptah dah wahrft fer a smook is ya? Ayma comin with. I'll be rate oahva. Aya latah." Surely it counts.

My afternoon was spent planting flowers in front of my building in this mixed language neighborhood I call home. It just so happens that my friend and neighbour is actually trilingual, the kind of trilingual I would like to be. The kind that doesn't confuse people. In fact, she can carry a friendly conversation with almost anyone, and she can tell people not to "faire pee-pee" in the park regardless of their mother tongue. I am hugely impressed with this power. Next to her, I am rendered impotent, flacid when it comes to multilingual intercourse.

Now the annoying part is that I understand most of what people say in French, but I can't respond in a way that will make them want to stay and talk to me. While we planted our flowers, passers-by who live in the neighborhood would stop to comment on our admirable efforts to beautify the urban landscape. People apologized for their enormous dogs running through the newly planted flowers. Elderly women educated us on the names and needs of the flowers we'd chosen. All I did was listen and smile. My friend was able to actually speak easily with them, so I turned on my lazy-language mode and let her do all the talking. This, is precisely how I've managed living here over the past six years. You just have to know the right people.

I was getting cozy with this idea until I went grocery shopping a few hours later. A very, very overweight and very, very short exclusively French-speaking woman commented on my having chosen butter instead of margarine. She suggested that margarine was better for me and then asked me if I would mind getting her a tub of it from the top shelf because she wasn't able to reach it. I listened, smiled, passed her the margarine and expected to continue my shopping. The woman had other plans for me.

Perhaps she felt she had to justify her choice of spread. Perhaps she was crazy. She stepped closer to me and told me that I can eat butter if I want because I am obviously active, but that she prefers to watch TV so she must choose the healthier option. I smiled. Her husband is very good-looking. I know this because she told me several times, (each of which I smiled regardless of the statement's apparent irrelevancy). I don't know if I would trust her taste in men though, considering that her taste in clothes left her looking like a Polish grandmother. It was also at this point that I realized she was missing several of her teeth. Immediately afterward, I began to suspect that the teeth in question were actually floating around in her mouth, the partial plate having become dislodged. You can imagine what this did for her pronunciation.

The rest of the story became a sort of "Choose Your Own Adventure", as I could only understand half of what she was saying and had obviously missed some important details. What was disturbing for me was not only her spittle, but the fact that what I was understanding was the sort of story you ethically must report to the police.

Apparently, her husband has a new girlfriend. I smiled because she smiled. She was supposedly very pretty and the woman didn't mind that he has this girlfriend. She's seventeen and he's about fifty. I didn't smile. What was really crazy, suggested the lady, was that she got pregnant and didn't even tell him! I'm not so sure that's really the craziest part, though. She became more animated and began talking louder and with more spittle and I completely missed the next thing she said, so, feeling the need to clarify the situation I said, "pardon?" and was completely ignored. She began talking faster and faster; her tongue working full-time to keep the dislodged teeth in her mouth.

Then, she said something about an affair and a fourteen-year-old.

Now, the conversation might have been completely misunderstood by me, but when I asked for clarification she wouldn't acknowledge that I'd spoken. She simply continued to spew out this crazy story and I didn't know what to do. I was scared she was talking about what I thought she was talking about, so I did what a person is supposed to do when faced with a mammal that's frothing at the mouth. I backed away slowly.

As I increased the space between us, she over-compensated by talking louder. Step-by-backward-step I rounded the corner of the aisle, slipping out of her view. Only when she could no longer see me did she pause in her story and call out, "OK, bye-bye." She stayed there between the margarine and butter, surely awaiting her next victim. I think the "I-can't-reach-the-margarine" routine was a trap.

I rushed to the cash, afraid she'd decide to follow. While nervously pushing my goods through the checkout, I thought about how if I could only speak French fluently I would be able to cut off conversations more quickly. I mean, I can't just run away from francophones, even if they're nuts. I have to tell them I am going to first.

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