Sunday, October 30, 2005

No, I don't want to coucher avec toi

University students flock to Quebec to benefit from the lowest rates in most of North America for quality post-secondary education. Quebec accommodates the seasonal migrants---from the US and adjacent Canadian provinces---with out-of-province and international student fees that are still lower than what awaited them at home. Backpacks, laptops, foreign license plates and economic benefits accompany the students, as do socio-cultural challenges.

The official language in all of Quebec is French, though that's easy to overlook in multicultural Montreal---especially during autumn, as a flood of new anglophone recruits flounder in their new surroundings.

Guilty myself, of not perfecting my French skills during university, I flush when I hear groups of English-speakers complain about people refusing to address them in their mother-tongue. I feel remorse for their ignorance and think of the language police.

Intercultural understanding, tolerance when understanding is not possible, and a willingness to learn is essential to happy living in Quebec, as anywhere.

I watch young students stumble over themselves and declare in defiance---knowing that upon graduation they'll be moving somewhere a little more uni-lingual---"I don't speak French!"

But, last night, at the grocery store...

Two young women in the bulk foods aisle, arms full of chips and snack foods, inquired about local brands of cola. In English, they addressed a man who was stocking shelves. He responded in French with a smile, his speech clearly affected by a severe hearing impairment, "I am deaf. Please move your mouth slowly so I can read your lips."

Annoyed, and not listening, the young woman retorted, "I don't speak French."

No less familiar with her kind, than she was with reacting defensively to anything said in French, he read her lips and responded politely in English instead.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Getting in my own way

"Don't you think she's one of the prettiest girls you've ever seen?" he prompted the bouncer, squeezing me to his side. I smiled like the child he treated me as, and inhaled for my sanity. This bouncer, well-versed in lust and drugs, avoided collusion. He recognized the undertone and was respectful enough to remain silent. I threw him a glance of appreciation.

The monologue preceding the declaration set a tone worth considering. The man, clearly on amphetamines had insisted on supplying my friend with cigarettes and both of us with drinks. He was a near stranger; familiar with other acquaintances. Her budget led her to accept, and I considered mine irrelevant after a stressful day at the office. I'd arrived at the bar in a suit and heels, readied for a cold beer by hours of mental struggle in my new workplace. He insisted on purchasing my beer as he'd done for my casually-dressed friend, but not wanting to feel obligated to him, I made my way to the bar and thanked him anyway. Diluted metaphysics meandered into the conversation, and I meandered out of it, occasionally drawn back in by conversational cycles and shifts in seating.

I stayed on at the bar as others came and went, feeling my stress beginning to return through a flush in my cheeks, a slight fever and heavy head. My companion cozied in with a new acquaintance, and I harnessed the opportunity to exit. I needed to adorn my feet with flat shoes, and my legs with softer fabric. I needed fresh air and hot tea; relief from social pressures. I gathered my things, said good-bye to a chosen few, and headed for the exit.

Thinking I was in the clear, I stepped form the smoky establishment, and found myself in the arms of the synthetically enthusiastic drug user.

"You aren't leaving already are you?" he asked, looking sincerely bothered.

"Yes, I have a bit of a cold and it's time to go home," I shrugged. "But, it was nice meeting you," I ventured, not wanting to cause this man any undue stress in his compromised state.

"Well, before you go..." he started, and then directed his attention the bouncer. "This girl has the prettiest," drawing out the word 'prettiest' as long as his breath could hold, and finished abruptly with, "friend."

The cringe I'd maintained since he first squeezed me to his size escaped my lips in a huff.

Stumbling through the fog of his high, he realized what he'd done. Directing his next comment to the bouncer once again and hoping for collaboration, he added, "Don't you think she's one of the prettiest girls you've ever seen?"

And, thinking I couldn't be more offended by his tactlessness, he grandly finished with, "She doesn't know it, but she's pretty, too."

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Costumed cover up

I felt a little shafted when my new acquaintance "Sarah" didn't take time to chat me up at the raging party we crashed last weekend. Still, I took the context into account: loud music, costumes, and a motley crew of old and new hipsters employing a mixed treat bag of substances. I supposed it was just too chaotic.

The day I'd initially met Sarah, I found her delightfully abrasive. Laughing within the first few minutes and not stopping until she left, I plugged her in on my get-to-know roster.

Happy to see her at this pre-Halloween bash, which occupied all three levels of a triplex, I introduced to her to everyone I knew. I wanted her to have a good time. She'd shown up as "pregnant Britney Spears" and I - bloodied by a flock of birds -was Tippi Hedren from Hitchcock's The Birds. She looked so unlike herself, in terrible hoochie clothes, that I really hadn't recognized her at first, not until I saw our mutual friend arrive with her.

The last time we'd chatted, we expressed appreciation for people who stay in character while costumed for Halloween. She claimed to never falter.

This night, while dressed as Ms. Spears, she faked a flaky accent and adopted the pseudonym: Alison. Not understanding why, dressed as Ms. Spears, she'd call herself Alison, I rationalized the concept with her. I agreed that choosing a slightly trashy name to be a more believable character would confuse people more - and, that is the fun of Halloween.

Dedicated to her new persona, Sarah insisted her name was "Alison" each time I introduced her. Her outfit was convincing, too. A friend of mine, laughing at her bubble gum pink New York Yankees hat, asked her where she got it.

"In New York," she snarled, almost convincingly.

All night, I chuckled as she stayed in character, arguing with people about her name and insisting the clothes were her own, that she always dressed like that. Even her roommate got involved, as Britney's trashy-naive little sister. "Why do you keep calling her Sarah?" she joked. This dedication to humour, I thought, is why I think Sarah is so genuinely hilarious. Her roommate didn't look like someone I would normally befriend, but nor did my own costumed troupe of girls at this all-out, over-the-top party. I chatted with them here and there during the course of the chaotic mash.

The night went on and on. Taking the hint from the rising sun, we eventually left. Some with jackets, some without. Some staggering, some laughing, some better than others.

Overall, it was a delightfully debaucherous evening. Regardless of costume, we all resurrected our roles as irresponsible university students, though the official titles were retired 5-10 years ago.

But, one mystery remains. The next afternoon I reluctantly dragged my swollen brain from my pillow to the phone. During a laughter-filled recap of the evening, my friend asked me who the girl was that I'd been talking to all night. I said I was surprised she hadn't recognized Sarah. Then, I had my first moment of clarity since I cracked my first cold one: Sarah wasn't at the party.