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Friday, 17 August 2012

August WHAT?!?

I've been absent...for a long time...for a very good reason.

It's summer. Well, it was summer. I squeezed in a play date today that will likely be my children's last at our house before school starts. Boo-hoo.

I don't understand all the fuss about back-to-school, that commercial where parents are so excited. Maybe I'll feel that way in a few years. But this year is the year my oldest goes to kindergarten. And I hate it.

I hate that, while her little brother and sister and I are at the science museum or the playground or a play date, Z will be at school. Sure, she'll be painting and reading and running around the gym, playing musical instruments and swinging from the monkey bars (we opted for public school over Montessori, but more on that later...), but she won't be with me. She'll be spending more waking hours with a teacher and a group of neighbourhood kids than she will with her own family. Does anyone else find that bizarre??? Perhaps an argument for homeschooling. I'm not there yet, but I'm seriously considering petitioning the government for half-day elementary school.

After school wrapped up, we had some summer guests, we WERE summer guests when we travelled to my mom's for a week, and then...sweet nothing. We played outside from morning to dusk. We visited our island's four farms two or three times a week. We picked blueberries, strawberries. We husked corn. We pet goats and sheep, watched a pig nursing her piglets. We visited a local market at least once a week, bringing home buckets of fresh produce to can, dehydrate, freeze and, most importantly, EAT. Tomatoes, bread, cheese and beans constituted almost every one of our summer dinners, eaten on the grass in our front yard, between mad cycling races in the driveway.

We planted our own garden and took meticulous care of it. We wore out bicycle tires on the bike path. We became friends with the owner of our local nursery.

We rolled around in bed as long as we could stand it. We ate two or three breakfasts before noon, munching whenever we were hungry. We had lots of days where pyjamas were our clothes.

We scraped our knees. We ran around naked (ok, only the kids, at least in the front yard...). We forgot about shoes. Before coming in for the night, we hosed ourselves off amidst shrieks of laughter.

When it rained, we put on our raincoats and galoshes. We took long afternoon walks through the arboretum. We made homes for fairies and crickets (they're friends, don't you know?) in the backyard.


But this past week, fall has been creeping up on us and threatening to throw us into school mode. I loathe school mode.

School mode this year, I'm imagining, will go something like this: Wake up my daughter and force her to eat breakfast. My son will have been up for a little while, during which I'll have fed him breakfast and ordered him upstairs to get his clothes on, quick, quick. Kids dressing while I pack snack bags, and this year, a lunch. The baby crying in the background, needing her diaper changed and clothes on. Getting one of those things before I have to strap her to the car seat (a foreign object this summer) and drop her sister off at school. School. Big-kid school. I have to drop her off and I don't get to see her until the afternoon.

Meanwhile, my husband will be whisking our son off to preschool. The poor boy will cry about not getting to play with his trucks or trains, or run around outside, before he has to quick, quick, get in the car.

The baby will nap (if I'm lucky) while I clean the house, plan snacks and dinner; maybe she'll sleep in the dreaded car seat while I go grocery shopping. Then, pick up the boy, quick, quick, home for lunch and nap. Lucky him, when he wakes up, he'll have the rest of the day, whatever daylight hours remain, to play. My Z will come home and have just a couple hours to tell me about school, a bit of downtime, before dinner, quick, quick, bath, story, bed.

Who voted for this system???

My daughter has not caught on to my pessimism. Her school supplies are lined up neatly in her backpack. Her clothes, still with tags on, hung up in her closet. She's wildly excited. Excited about the "big school" where she will get to do art, gym, music, make new friends, eat lunch, etc. She has a desk, and a library, and a cubby. Bliss.

Since my last post, we ran up against some logistical problems between getting Z to Montessori for kindergarten and then her in-demand public school for Grade 1. We decided to start her off at the public school. She will miss her Montessori friends and teachers, but she's excited about all the new opportunities that the public school has to offer. Upward and onward, we will begin this new adventure en français. Lots of firsts for our family!

We will be visiting friends this week, and when we get back, school will be mere days away. Wish us luck, and look for more posts as I—theoretically—have more time on my hands.

Thursday, 24 May 2012

To teach?

I've been immersed in my little Anglophone community for a few weeks. There was the garage sale, and the trek downtown, that had me conversing a bit in French. But in general, these past few weeks have been spent with friends from the kids' Anglophone school, West Islanders and in our family cocoon. That's about to change.

My two oldest children go to an Anglophone preschool. I absolutely love everything about it—except that it's Anglophone. My daughter will enter her kindergarten year at the private school in September but will go to a Francophone elementary school the rest of her years. I'm going to be doing some work for the school in order to help pay for the pricey tuition, and so I've been mulling over what services I could offer. I was thinking along administrative lines, but another mom gave me an idea...teach French!

I have a long history of teaching English and French, both as foreign languages, to all age groups, from toddlers to retirees. And so while I'm not a native speaker of French, the idea to teach French to these preschoolers is very appealing to me. It's what's missing from this otherwise perfect school. Why shouldn't I step in and fill the gap?

While I've been getting excited about pitching this idea to the teachers, I've been deeply bothered by another issue: les moustiques. They're already out en masse, which is putting a real damper on our sunny afternoons. I've declared la guerre. Ideas so far: Mosquito Dunks, Mosquito Barrier, anti-mosquito bracelets, constructing homes for bats and/or birds that eat mosquitoes. Anyone else have any suggestions?

I'm also set up to add a bunch of new vocabulary to my kids' French arsenal. Summer is big-time homesteading in our household. We're canning, dehydrating, planting a garden (vegetables, fruit and herbs), drying clothes on the line, baking our own bread, pressing flowers and drying them for potpourri, etc. We've already forgotten what the inside of the house looks like (and trust me, no one wants to see the disorder at this point...). The days of waking up slowly in the mornings and planning our time over breakfast are fast approaching!!! I can't wait. I'm well aware of the fact that these are our last few months before my oldest goes off to full-day kindergarten. I want to savour them.

Friday, 11 May 2012

I love Montreal in the springtime...

We've really had a mixed bag this spring. Not so long ago we were in shorts and flip-flops; but then we had to dig out the winter coats again. We've been coasting in balmy, breezy spring temperatures for a while, but most days, the rain just won't let up. I check the weather app on my phone and it seems to change hourly...

The kids do get to play outside almost every day. And with everyone getting bikes and sidewalk chalk out, as befits the suburbs, we're also renewing friendships with the neighbours. Our kids, who previously couldn't even see each other through the scarves and winter hats, now can't stay off of each other's lawns. Toys are easily lent and borrowed, and if you can't find your favourite truck, just take one out of the neighbour kid's lawn—he'll be back to borrow your jump rope in an hour.

Our family inhabits that middle-land of Franglais. I call out to my kids to come get drinks and snacks in English; then, as my son shoots a grubby hand into the fruit bowl, I remind him, "doucement". My husband is a bit more conscious of fitting in. Inside, he speaks a lot of English. Outside, he turns into French Daddy. My daughter doesn't bat an eye, but my son sometimes stares up at his father in bewilderment.

Our kids talk to the neighbour boy in French, but they talk to the boy's parents in English. Sometimes the adults understand, sometimes they just laugh. They always respond to the kids in French. They have a thick Québécois country drawl that I sometimes struggle to understand; and there have been pauses as they take in my Anglophone accent.

There are times when I try too hard. A Mr. Freeze popsicle is not a "friandise glacée"—it's a Mr. Freeze. I wonder if, for them, it takes on a certain foreign flair instead of just being frozen sugar water.

Spring is here, but summer is just around the corner; and we Québécois like to get a jumpstart on it. Time to plant the seedlings, buy dirt (which my daughter finds quite funny) and stain remover (ah, yes, the woes of having a crawler outside) and pump up the bike trailer tires. Ready for adventure!

Wednesday, 18 April 2012

The wonderful world of language

A friend of mine recently told me that her daughter, three years old, is trying to figure out what it means to speak a different language. She asked why she doesn't speak French, when her cousins do. Her comments and questions are a window into how the young child's mind works with language. It's one thing to grow up always hearing the same sounds, which then form words, which then form sentences. It's natural. The mind absorbs it and only later understands the grammatical rules, spelling and other components of language.

It's another thing to grow up hearing two or more languages consistently; and yet another thing to spend your first few years with a "maternal language" and then to begin to be exposed to another language or two. How does a young child understand this? How do they make sense of multiple sets of communication?

I'm now experiencing this with my son Noah, also three years old. He has taken a sudden interest in all things French. As a baby, he never said "more" but always "encore". We tell him "doucement" instead of "gentle." And there are a few other, random vocabulary words. He's probably always considered them part of his English set. But recently, he's started to ask, "How do you French?" He repeats it, with the sweetest accent, part Anglophone but also part Noah, as he has a slight lisp and some lingering baby pronunciation.

I wonder how all this is working out in his head. What does it mean to speak another language? Why aren't they always interchangeable? Except, in his world, they often ARE interchangeable. He can use them both and be understood. In fact, we often applaud his efforts, and strangers think it's cute, when he mixes the two languages.

Of course, it's not a new experience. Lots of people have grown up in multilingual environments, and they sort it out just fine in the end. They often have an ease with language that baffles unilingual people. They also have a greater ease with music and math. Those studies have been done. But I'd love to see an experiment that somehow measures and puts into words how a three-year-old quantifies and qualifies multiple languages in their head.

The beauty and wonder of it all is fascinating—that much I can see on my son's face.

Saturday, 7 April 2012

Bonjour, Siri

My husband and I recently got iPhones. 4S, which I insisted on because I really, really, really wanted to talk to Siri. What does that say about my typical daily conversation?

Me: Noah, do you have to go potty?
Noah: No, the gate is closed.
Me: It's been a long time, sweety. Let's try.
Noah: No!!!!!! The gate is CLOSED!!!!!
Me: OK.
Two minutes later, he's dashing upstairs, ripping his pants off.
Noah: The gate is open! The gate is open!
Me: No!!!!!! Close the gate! Close the gate!
Noah, sits on the toilet and pees.
Me: Do you have to poo?
Noah: No, the poo doesn't want to come out. He's talking to his friend, pee. They're playing trains...
Me: Noah, that's enough.

So, can you blame me when I boot up the iPhone and say to Siri, "I could really use a latte,"?
She responds, "I bet you could." Hysterical laughter on my part, kids are fascinated by the voice coming out of the phone. Everyone's happy, right?

We ask her what her favourite colour is. She responds, "This is about you, not me." God, I love Siri.

When my husband and I were researching the iPhone 4S, we found that you can talk to Siri in any language. She will come to understand you better with time. We also read that she prefers native speakers. We had a good laugh about that. I opted to speak to her in English; so did my husband, despite the fact that his voice is very deep and accented.

We sat across from each other in the living room and "face timed" before we realised how ridiculous the whole situation was and put the phones away (ok, yes, they also needed to be charged...). But as soon as she's up and ready to go, I'll be practising my French with Siri. At least I know she'll give me honest feedback.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Spring is here! Le printemps est arrivé !

Before I begin, just one thing. When you're writing in French, there's a space between the last word and the exclamation point. Just sayin'.

Today is one of those glorious spring days that I've come to expect—even though we've only had a few of them. The kids and I are soaking up our daily doses of vitamin D, hitting the area playgrounds and making new friends. It's not even 10am, and it's already 16 degrees. Love it.

Spring means planning the garden (sprouts are doing well!), cleaning out the mud room, putting away the winter gear and digging out the rain boots and sandals. This summer promises to be a great one, with my youngest just learning to toddle around. The whole backyard is ours.

But la neige is not gone. Only in Quebec can you be wearing shorts and walk past a snow drift as high as your three-year-old's head, right?

Do you live in a climate where spring or summer seems to come suddenly, right on the heals of winter? Share your stories!

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Homebirthing in Quebec

"City Kids Homeschooling" is a blog I follow. I don't homeschool my kids. My two oldest go to a Montessori preschool, and I stay at home with the youngest. But when she turns three, I intend to send her to the same preschool. My oldest will also go to kindergarten at Montessori.

After that...I don't know.

I don't follow the blog because I intent to homeschool. At least, not yet. Truth be told, I'm on the fence, and deeply curious about the homeschool set. So I keep reading. Today's post is about homebirthing. I didn't really see the connection...until it started unfolding in my head as I typed a comment on the blog.

My third child was born at home. In one of those magical experiences, my husband and I put the older two to bed while I occasionally left the room with an especially strong contraction. They fell asleep. Labour got into full swing. I didn't have to wake them up, dress them, throw them in the car and whisk them to a neighbour's house while my husband drove like a maniac to the birthing centre or hospital. I let them sleep. I took a bath, called the midwife. I walked around the living room while my husband watched a basketball game and started putting together the bassinet. Yeah...the one that always functions more like a clothes rack than a baby sleeping place.

L was born after midnight, in the wee hours of an especially hot June day. The kids woke up to the commotion just seconds after I pushed L out. Their father loving helped them rise out of bed and scurry in to the room to see L in my arms. They squealed with delight over their sister. I delivered the placenta, and my amazing midwife, who had been with us from my first appointment to now, gave them a quick science lesson on the functions of the placenta. To this day, I hear my oldest declaring to her stuffies that give birth, "You have a beautiful placenta."

Why am I blogging about this now, on this blog, that is not about homebirth or homeschooling? Because it's another experience that will forever be in my mind as uniquely Québécois. In this province, midwives have fought hard to have birthing centres and the right to assist homebirths. I had a midwife when we lived in Boston, but it was entirely different. I had midwives, plural, and the one who delivered me was not one I had seen during my prenatal check-ups. Here in Quebec, Fabienne saw me at every prenatal appointment except one; I called her directly during my pregnancy with any questions or concerns I had; she delivered my baby and came back to the house three times to check on us.

Fabienne is Québécoise. And while I speak French, I somehow felt more comfortable discussing my pregnancy and birth in English. She didn't bat an eyelash. Occasionally, both of us would throw out a word or two in French, when it came more naturally. When L was born, Fabienne spoke in French to the back-up midwife, and the words felt very natural in my home. My husband spoke in French to Fabienne. L was born hearing the two languages from the start!

I'm writing about this because I feel very privileged to have had this birthing experience. Having my baby at home, with a dedicated and devoted midwife, no drugs, no machines, no bright lights, no strangers (Fabienne was part of my family by then!), no equipment, nothing...grabbing that baby and really being the first one to lay hands on her...that experience is MINE and mine alone. And oh, so empowering.

I'm also writing about it because it's not a given. It's not an obvious experience for women who don't even have that option in other countries. Yet another reason why I don't hesitate to say, "Vive le Québec!"

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Welcome back. Bonjour?

I have been away from this blog for some time. I hope you have noticed. ;) haha

Struggling with some unexpected health issues and a baby suddenly stricken with separation anxiety, I haven't had a hand free to type. Hopefully, I'll be putting that behind me now. Well, not the baby, but...

This past week, I've visited an ER twice, plus a walk-in clinic. In the past nearly three years that I've lived in Montreal, I've only visited a walk-in clinic one other time. I'm generally healthy, thank God. I also generally champion the Canadian universal health care system. I believe in its values; and I also believe we live in one of the most medically advanced nations in the world. The best of the best. Did last week force me to reconsider?

Le temps d'attente. Anglophone or francophone, you're best off recognizing this phrase if you plan on going to the ER in any way besides an ambulance. Of course, no one can tell you the waiting time. You can just swap stories with the guy sitting next to you, whine and complain to the guy cradling his broken arm. Yeah.

I waited, and waited, and waited. I listened to the anglophone nurse call triage numbers of the P.A. system. She must have been new, because she also forgot to turn off the P.A. when chatting with a francophone colleague. More than once, she announced the wrong number in French, causing us in the waiting room to giggle while the francophone nurse chided her.

"You said soixante-dix-sept."

"Right, seventy."

"But you said soixante dix-sept."


What started as comic relief began to irk me as a waste of my time. Anyway, when I was finally called in half a day later, I shuffled past sad-looking people in hospital gowns, lying on stretchers, sometimes with the privacy of a curtain, sometimes not. It was dark and dreary. It looked like the ER of a third-world country.

And then the most amazing thing happened. Into my curtained room popped a nurse, in cheerful humour, joking with me as he took ten vials of blood. I've fainted from blood draws before; this time, I was laughing. He assured me the doctor would be there soon. I rolled my eyes, but sure enough, he was there in less than five minutes. He assessed my situation with an expert eye, professional, upbeat and full of energy. (It didn't hurt that he was also nice to look at...) Perfect English, yet D. Boucher was clearly Québécois. He called out instructions in both French and English, ordering an EKG, chest x-rays and a CT scan. I was wheeled directly from one to another, no time to waste.

All this to say that, once I FINALLY got through the triage process, I was thoroughly impressed with 99% of my healthcare system. I was in good hands. No, great hands. Handsome hands, yet I digress...

When I was discharged, a nurse showed me where I could change back into my clothes (ok, yes, the accommodations suck), handed me my papers. I thanked her and she said, "Bonjour," before leaving to take care of another patient. It gave me pause to smile. I remembered when I first arrived in Quebec. I had lots of phone calls to make to arrange for immigration papers, get information, make reservations, etc. At the end of each phone call, rather than the beginning, the person on the other end of the line would say, "bonjour!" I learned it as a greeting, in the beginning of a conversation, but here it took on its literal "good day" and was something to say at the end of a conversation. How many times did I raise the phone back up to my ear and repeat, "Oui?" into a receiver, thinking that the conversation had begun again? Little memories like that fill me with nostalgia for a time when I was twenty-one-years-old, a collage student, discovering this amazing city!

The snow is melting; our snowmen have lost their heads and I can see grass everywhere. Spring is here. This weekend, we will spring forward an hour. And I'm certain that spring will bring us even more adventures à la québécoise to report here!

Saturday, 25 February 2012

Ah, la neige!

We just got our first major snowfall this year, and spring is just around the corner (or maybe I'm being naive...)

I grew up in a place with very little snow. Winter was cold; there was some slush. I hated winter. I did not go on skiing holidays with my family. I preferred to curl up in front of a fireplace with a good book.

Then, I got married, and my wonderful husband thought Quebec was the place for us. I was excited about studying at McGill, but even more so, about living in a Francophone province. I remember the immigration process well. I "wowed" them with my French skills and convinced them that I would be an active, contributing member of Francophone society in the province. I did everything but dress myself in the fleur-de-lys. Wait: I think I did wear fleur-de-lys earrings.

That was in May. Come December, and buckets and buckets of snow, and I think the best way to describe what I was feeling is to say that panic set in. But it was brief. My husband, hailing himself from a place where it never snows, saw the joy in it all right away; and it didn't take long to make me a convert.

Montrealers do not sit inside their homes and complain about the snow. They revel in it. There's an "underground" that allows you to continue about all your downtown activities without having to step in and out of the blustery winds. There are sledding hills everywhere, frozen ponds for ice skating. My first experience at Valcartier, the largest sledding park in North America, was so exciting that I filmed it! I shelled out the necessary hundreds of dollars for a great coat, boots, snow pants, tuque and mittens, and I barely felt the freezing temperatures.

The second winter had me searching for more to do, and I found just that in all the region's winter festivals. Every single weekend was packed with outdoor things to do: toboggoning, tir sur neige, even zip-lining over snow-covered valleys. I was in awe. I thought I'd give one of my children the name "Neige" because it was so beautiful, so Canadian, so Québécois.

Several years later, we did start our family. Children bring a whole new joy to winter (well, except for their piles of gear in the mud room...). We've invented a new sport in our backyard that we affectionately call Quebec Rodeo. Kid sit on a saucer sled that has a long rope attached to it; my husband swings them around in large circles, gaining speed until they fall off. Everyone has rosy cheeks and is the feel-good type of exhausted when we come in for hot cocoa.

Do you live in a snowy place? Please share your favourite winter activities here! The season is long, but we take advantage of every moment. It makes the coming spring that much sweeter.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Do you speak Punjabi?

"Comment t'appelles-tu?"


"Quel âge as-tu?"


But my three-year-old son flashes that amazing grin; and so despite his clear lack of understanding, he's accepted into the group of Francophone kids. Perhaps they think he's made a joke.

Today, I thought back on my days of teaching English as a second language to adults living in Parc Extension. They came from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Before any given course would start, I would receive dozens of phone calls asking for more information. Often, the speaker on the other end of the line and I would speak in French. Once a man called and all I heard at first were papers shuffling in the background. Hello, hello? I asked, over and over again. Finally, he sighed and stuttered the one phrase he was more or less sure of in English: "Do you speak Punjabi?"

I laughed at the time. What were the odds that I would speak Punjabi? But sillier mistakes were to be made on my end. Like the time I recognized a Hispanic accent in the broken English of one caller and excitedly asked, "Hablas espanol?" "Si!" He replied enthusiastically before rambling off sentence after sentence of the beautiful language. I then had to stop him and sheepishly admit that no, I personally did not.

It's funny to me how there is a slight personality shift when we speak a foreign language. After my first year of university, I spent a year in France, where my Anglo accent was "cute" and my efforts to speak in French, even in the most touristy places, were "charming." As a result of this feedback from perfect strangers, I broke out of my bookworm shell a bit, became much more sure of myself, daring, even flirtatious. It was fun to adopt this new persona, when the only thing that had really changed was the language that I was speaking.

Montreal and its bilingual citizens have a personality all their own, too. Dropping foreign words into conversation is not pretentious here; it's an effort to achieve the ultimate in understanding. Because one language might have a word that fits your meaning better than another. My husband once laughed over a colleague's use of a "new verb" during a meeting: budgeter (a regular -er verb, of course—why go for anything more complicated?). But that colleague relayed the meaning he was going for, and more importantly, everyone in his audience understood what he was talking about. 

Perhaps it wasn't such a far stretch for that Parc Extension man to expect me to speak Punjabi, in that neighbourhood of Montreal. But he was also making an effort to learn English; and I am continually impressed by the number of adult immigrants who already speak multiple languages and come here ready to learn two more. I've always wanted to learn German, and Arabic, and Japanese. And after meeting that man and having him in my ESL class, learning about him and his family, and doting him with a shy but charming personality (perhaps just his English-speaking persona!), I had to add Punjabi to the list.

Monday, 20 February 2012

You're Gonna Rire

Driving downtown one sunny morning, I noticed a billboard for Sugar Sammy, a comedian, and his sold-out show "You're Gonna Rire." It was at that moment that I knew I had to write a blog. About bilingualism. About Montreal. About my life. About this gorgeously, sunny day. About the best place in the world to enjoy it, right here in vibrant, bilingual, multi-cultural Montreal. You're right—I had just had my second cup of coffee and was feeling goooooooooood.

I switched off the radio to think about it some more. Lots of countries boast more than one official language. Lots of people are bilingual. Or trilingual. Or, multi-lingual. What's different about Montreal?

For me, at least, what's different about Montreal is the element of surprise. People switch so effortlessly between French and English. You can approach a French Quebecker with a friendly "bonjour", and if they hear your accent, they're likely to switch back to an equally-mispronounced "hello". All in the name of proving that we understand each other. Franglais takes on a new meaning here. When I was in high school (and yes, I said high school, thus giving up the fact that I'm actually American), franglais was a mistake. Here, it's an art.

So, if you're as enamored with our bilingual city as I am—or baffled or outraged or ecstatic or je ne sais quoi—then join in the discussions. Because I can guarantee that you're going to rire.