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28 September 2007

Parlez-Vous Français?

Alors, ici je suis à Montréal. It only took an epic seven-hour bus journey across New Hampshire and Vermont. I read about 300 pages of Gravity's Rainbow and the fall foliage was gorgeous. I was hoping that our pit stop would be at small garage in the middle of nowhere - somewhere I could take some nice photos. Instead, it was at a random small town called White River Junction, on the border between New Hampshire and Vermont. The town seems to serve as an ugly transport hub for northern New England and I hopped off the bus long enough to stretch my legs and grab some coffee before getting back on board.

We got a new driver in Burlington and this was the first hint I detected of the impending language problem I was to face. The driver was giving extensive instructions about passing through the border into Canada and I couldn't understand a word he was saying. I realised later that he was giving the announcements in English and in French but I could barely work out when he was speaking English and when he was speaking French, let alone what the hell he was saying. Nonetheless, immigration was relatively painless although the border guard was somewhat suspicious that I was packing so light. Oh, sorry - I mean, d
ésolée.
Monsieur Exquisite was waiting at the bus station and we walked back to his gorgeous flat in the drizzle which, after 30-degree sunshine in Boston, came as a bit of a shock to the system. He then informed me that his roommate was a psycho who went nuts when he made a noise after nine p.m. or invited a friend around and he was, therefore, moving out on Sunday to a new flat around the corner. Somewhat scared by this, I only stayed long enough to dump my bags before scampering out to explore the city.

The part where Monsieur Exquisite lives (I don't know its name; my knowledge of local geography is non-existent and I didn't even realise the city was on an island until I found us crossing a bridge on the bus) is the trendy, edgy area. There are lots of exquisite restaurants, trendy bars, coffee shops and independent bookshops. The gaping holes in the pavements and falling down buildings make it feel like an odd combination of Sarajevo, Paris and the Meatpacking District in New York. We went to an
übercool (and very camp) restau for burgers (or, hambourgeois as they say au Canada; I thought the name was a witty joke but that is apparently what they call burgers) and then to a chocolat-chauderie for "vintage" hot chocolate, which was, actually, delicious.

Monsieur Exquisite had a lecture at 8.30 so we were up and out of the house by eight this morning and I was left to fend for myself. I handled the language issues fine in the coffee shop where I went for breakfast but then when I wandered through a few shops, I realised that I didn't have the slightest idea what anyone was saying. They might as well have been speaking Greek or Mandarin or Finnish for all I understood. I like to think of myself as being reasonably fluent at French, certainly with regards to comprehension, but I can't work out what the hell anyone was saying.

For example, I went into Lululemon, one of my favourite North American sports/lifestyle shops and after we had got past the bonjour stage, assorted assistants would come up to me and start chatting, presumably about the "layerability" and the "sweat-wicking qualities" and the "seam-free feel" of the clothing at hand. For all I know, however, they were telling me that I was an ugly bitch who should get the fuck out of their shop.

It's partly the accent, which has a lot more nasal vowels, as well as many more raised vowels than in French French (I'm sure the woman at the chocolat chauderie nasalised deux), but also the vocabulary, which has a lot of a) lexically conservative words, such as beuvages for "drinks", and b) Americanisms. The French of Canada is actually a lot like the French spoken in France in the sixteenth century. It is definitely lost on me.

Monsieur Exquisite is going to give me a tour of the McGill campus later (oddly, it is juxtaposed between the mont of Montr
éal and the skyscrapers of the central business district. Tomorrow, we're heading up to the national park at Mont Tremblant and then on Sunday, I get to be Monsieur Exquisite's cheerleader as the MBA rugby team for whom he plays (despite studying for an LLM not an MBA) has a match against another Canadian university.

As Joni Mitchell sang in A Case of You, oh Canada. Unlike Joni, however, I have no idea where I am and certainly couldn't draw a map of Canada...


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