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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.