Wherever the Road Leads

Leaving Ottawa

Regarding speaking French after a long time, this was recently posted on Facebook:

“Comme le vélo, on n’oublie jamais…”

Oui, mais pour moi, le vélo serait un “Penny Farthing”.

(Like riding a bicycle, one doesn’t forget.

Yes, but for me that bicycle would be a Penny Farthing.)

I left Ottawa and my grade ten French class in 1967. I had started learning French in the fifth grade. By the time I got out of Fisher Heights Public School, it was being taught in the third grade.

Not only did my father work for the Federal Government, he worked for the Federal Government in Hull – back when there was a Hull. I knew very well that to get a job, I needed a good working knowledge of French. Then, in the summer of 1967, our family moved to Toronto.

It was an eye-opening experience. Having grown up in Ottawa’s cocoon-like environment where the world seemed to revolve around the importance of the government’s every utterance and was everyone’s livelihood, Toronto was a revelation; there was news outside of government.

Cable television was in its infancy but Toronto was well-ahead of the cable industry already. Although somewhat unsightly to the horizon, every house had an antenna atop a 100′ television tower to bring in ABC, CBS and NBC stations from Buffalo or Rochester New York.

I had gone through a metamorphosis! All of a sudden, I was aware of the world, not just Carp and the Ottawa Valley. News was about world events and business happenings. Ottawa was seen not as where the country was helped through regulations but where regulations hindered business; Ottawa wasn’t the solution, it was the problem. That is, when people spoke about Ottawa at all.

Since 1967, I do not remember hearing once on the news, “Mr. Speaker, would the Honorable Member from Lac-des-Deux-Montagnes please explain…” or, “ Mister Speaker, I would be glad to tell the Honorable Member from Kicking Horse Pass…”, phrases that had been a part of everyday life in Ottawa.

And French???? What French? French was spoken in France. Italian was the second language in Toronto. French was offered at the high school that I attended in Don Mills – ironically named “Georges Vanier Secondary School” – but I was way ahead of the course as they – unfathomably to me at the time – had not started French course until grade nine; there was no French taught in Primary School. I continued taking French through grade thirteen but I doubt that I was as far advanced as those who learned in Ottawa.

Pour explication:

1) In 1967, Hull was still a city and a separate entity from any “regional area”.

2) There had yet to be a female Speaker of the House – scarcely a female MP – so the phrase, “Madame Speaker” would not have been uttered.

3) Yes, there was a soon-to-be-abolished “Grade Thirteen” still.

Over the years, French was legislated onto cereal boxes. Some LCBO (Liquor Control Board of Ontario) stores became “Vins et Spiriteux”, a change that I thought was a Public Health issue as now, all the French-speaking population of Ontario who heretofore had been unable to figure out what was sold in a store marked “LCBO”, would be rolling in the streets, drunk.

The province of Nova Scotia, a Latin phrase that should have been left alone, was now called New Scotland, with the bank following suit.  New Brunswick was only half-translated to “Nouveau Brunswick”. Following the Nova Scotia logic, it really should have been renamed, “Nouveau Balle de Bowling”. (Banque Nouvelle Ecosse (BNE) seems to have been deleted from history as I can’t find a old logo anywhere. And perhaps when I used the term in a branch a few years ago, the youngsters looked at me as if I had just arrived from Alabama. The language problem seems to have been solved by the term “Scotiabank”.)

As the capital of Ontario is, fortunately, the far-removed Toronto, the province refused to declare itself “bilingue”, however the Feds sneaked some French in the back door by offering to pay for the replacement of Ontario road signs from Federal dollars instead of Ontario dollars as long as they could be made bilingual.

The town of Welland, Ontario was declared officially bilingual as it had the required percentage of people who spoke French. Of course what the Bilingual Police in far-away Ottawa failed to realize was that these folks from Welland, on the north shore of Lake Erie and about fifteen miles from Buffalo New York, felt more of an affinity to the United States than they did for distant Quebec.

The Feds offered to pay for a clinic in Welland, provided that it be set up for French-language services. The local government said, “No, thank you, we don’t need that, our residents are doing perfectly well with the current services. However, we need a Cat Scan machine for the local hospital, will you buy us a Cat Scan machine instead?”

Well, as all of y’all ex-bureaucrats from Ottawa know, that’s like asking a Chinaman to speak Portuguese. The Department of Entrenching French has one bucket of money and Health Care has a different bucket of money, so Welland got neither a clinic nor a Cat Scan machine.

Not too long after that, I left Canada for the U.S., the medium-sized town of Huntsville in the great state of Alabama. The term, “bilingual” took on a whole new meaning. We were speaking the same language but it sure didn’t sound it. I was still saying “oot and aboot” and they were saying, “Yung’uns, y’all have y’all’s toys strode ever’whar, this room is rurnt.”

It didn’t take me long to get un-bilingual. Oot and aboot became aaoowwt and ahbaaoowwt, deh-cull (decal) became DEE-kaal, broadloom became carpeting, a ‘holiday’ was a government-mandated day off work, a ‘vacation’ was time earned as a company benefit where you might take the family camping, ‘used to be able to’ became ‘usetacud’, invisible mending became weaving and a supply teacher became a substitute.

I did return to Canada – Montreal – once over the past twenty years. I worked a project for four months but it was on the West Island, which barely counts as Quebec. Even a tourist can figure out Nord, Sud, Est and Ouest on road signs, Dollard-Des-Ormeaux gets reduced to DDO and whether you pronounce it Saint Hubert or Sant Uberr, you’ll find great chicken.

French might have crept back into my life two years ago. While I’m not saying that I did it, I might have had the knowledge of how to download current-release movies off the internet. I don’t recommend anyone do this and I understand that this practice is frowned upon by the Hollywood movie industry.

Had I been a participant, I might have reached the conclusion that the dreck coming out of Hollywood wasn’t worth – uh – ‘borrowing’ in the first place. I might have found a site where European movies might have been available to download.

Watching a movie with subtitles becomes a skill like winning at Jeopardy. If you follow along reading the clue with Alex, you’ll never be ahead of your competitors. You have to ignore Alex and quickly scan the clue yourself, think of the answer then ‘click’ as soon as he finishes speaking.

In a movie, you have to do the same, quickly read the subtitle, then look up at the action. Well, doing it that way gave me time not only to watch the action but to listen to the dialogue. Some of the French words and phrases started to sound familiar. Some phrases, you learn anew.

For example, I don’t think I ever knew the correct French phrase for when someone knocks on your door. When you watch the action and hear the phrase often enough, you learn how to say  “J’arrive”, instead of, “Y’all better not be Jehovah’s Witnesses”.

Being a little OCD, it would bother me if the subtitle was not in perfect sync with the spoken French as, although I could not have remembered how to phrase the sentence myself, once I knew what was about to be said, the French words spoken started to make sense.

Alors, now the cat is now getting a little exposure to French. “Oh, mon p’tit chat.. qu’est-ce que tu voudrais? Où est la nourriture dans votre assiette? Il n’ya rien? Quelle horreur!! Pobrecito!! (Well, I’ve been working in warehousing for the last ten years with Spanish people. I guess he’ll need to be trilingual as I’m not familiar with a French phrase that says, “poor little one” as well as “pobrecito”.)

Most recently, I have installed Rosetta Stone French on my computer. If I would spend less time on Facebook or setting up web sites and blogs, maybe I would get to the point where I could depend on subtitles less.

On n’oublie jamais. Vraiment. Mais après quarante-cinq ans, il y’a beaucoup de choses à se rappeler .

(One never forgets. True. But after 45 years, there is a lot to recall.)






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  1. elayne  September 21, 2012

    I am truly amazed at the extent of your memory. When you mention some things, then I can vaguely recall being familiar with parts of it but no way would I be able to blog about it.. Good Job Gordon.. It is a very enjoyable read. The date 1967 and the grade ten brought to mind the reason you probalby didn’t recall my sister as she left for California in 1964. On another note, grade 13 French was a total shock to all of us because our professeur was M. Nault and our final exam was to be oral only.. We had never had an oral exam since beginning French lessons in Grade 5. I actually had to work at that one for the double credit.. It was a good thing English and Math were also doubles and Biology was just a riot with Mr Stark. Oops sorry, I got off topic there.

    Please continue entertaining and informing us in your obviously excellent way.. I look forward to more chapters. Thank you.. Merci, Gracias, etc.

  2. Iceman Ogre  September 21, 2012

    Well sir, I don’t speak French, I don’t ever plan on speaking French and will never will plan on speaking French. But because of where I live, the only other language I learn will begin with Hola! and end in Adios!
    I’m impressed with your first website and your blog. Now, just have to keep the topics up to date and entertaining 🙂
    Please don’t let it take up too much of your time, I will miss your comments on the crankee yankee.


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