During the early eighties, I was living in Burlington, Ontario, working for a company based in Vancouver who sold, among other things, sawmill equipment. My territory for Industrial Parts included the western part of Toronto down through Hamilton and the Niagara Peninsula, which I covered for about three weeks of the month.
My territory for the Sawmill Equipment was a little wider. I went from North Bay, up Hwy 11 through Kirkland Lake, Iroquois Falls, Timmins, Kapuskasing and Hearst, as far as Longlac. It also included the Ottawa Valley.
The northern run included a lot of windshield time as it was 794 miles from Burlington to Longlac. I might make two calls in a day as distances were so great. The Ottawa Valley was a lot easier and a lot more fun. One trip I was headed south from North Bay and was planning on bunking down in Ottawa that night.
I had made my calls in Pembroke, Arnprior and Renfrew and was looking forward to seeing the big city lights of Ottawa’s Carling Avenue. I called the boss in our Mississauga (a suburb of Toronto) office and when he found out where I was and what time it was, he told me to call on a plywood mill in nearby Mount Laurier.
Despite having spent many a mile sitting beside a map, I had never heard of a town called Mount Laurier. Keep in mind this is 1981, long before GPS and Google Navigator in your Android phone. The name of the company was something like Cournoyer Plywood, but a French name in the Ottawa Valley is as common as peanuts in Trail Mix.
The boss was born and raised in Toronto and never had a single class in French, bless his heart. I found the town on the map – finally – after getting eye strain searching on the wrong side of the Ottawa River. What he meant was Mont Laurier, in Quebec. Now that single letter – “u” – makes a huge difference in the nuance. If I had known it was “Mont” and not “Mount”, I would have known to start my search on the French side of the river and not been looking futilely for a crossroads somewhere on the road to Calabogie.
Years later and selling for a different company, I was walking through a shopping mall near Niagara Falls Ontario, with a Sales Manager who had recently moved from Ottawa. Among the many people we passed were two women who looked different from the rest of the shoppers.
Once they were out of earshot I mentioned to him, “They looked French.” He laughed and said, “I though exactly the same thing but I didn’t figure you’d understand.” That, is nuance.
Anyway, back in Arnprior, mid-afternoon in 1981, I found a bridge, crossed over into Quebec and headed for Mont Laurier and Cournoyer Plywood. I got to town and checked the phone book but couldn’t find Cournoyer Plywood listed. Getting back in the car, I thought I might find a Post Office to ask at when I passed a police station – La Sûreté du Québec.
I stopped in there and asked the lady officer directions to Cournoyer Plywood. She understood very well but was unable to reply. She motioned for me to come around the counter into a back room where there was a town map in the wall. She pointed to us at the police station, “ici, maintenant” (us, here, now), and drew her finger along the road I had to take to get to the mill, “là, Placage Cournoyer” (there, the plywood mill).
Thanking her, I left. I suppose I must have been thinking what a dummy I was for looking in the phone book under “Cournoyer” instead of “Placage”, that the significance of a police officer unable to speak English didn’t sink in. I found the mill but was told by reception that I was too late to see the Purchasing Agent, I would have to come back in the morning. Well, so much for the bright lights of Carling Avenue.
Returning to the main drag, I chose a motel to bunk down at for the night. I parked and went inside, asked the desk clerk if they had a room, she nodded and pushed a Registration Card across the counter to me. As I filled it out, I was rabbiting on about how I had wanted to go to Ottawa but the boss had me make a side trip and this was the first time I had ever been to Mont Laurier.
I signed my name, pushed the card back across the counter and looked up at her. Her expression was completely blank. She hadn’t understood one word that I had said.
Jesus, Mary and Joseph. The closest I had been to French in the past twelve years was the restroom sign that read Men/Hommes at the airport. Now, “what we have here is failure to communicate”.
“Combien?” (How much) I asked, putting my French recollection into panic mode. She turned the Registration Card over and wrote the room rate. I paid in cash as I had done an exemplary job of messing up my credit and wouldn’t get another credit card for a few more years.
Okay, I’ve got a roof over my head. That’s most important. Next: cold beer. I still had a few left over from a dozen that I had bought earlier in the week.
“Des glace?” (Some ice) I asked. She pointed to an ice machine with ice buckets stacked on top. I filled a bucket and found taped on the wall, my next most important need. A small sign posted the hours of the kitchen, 08:00 – 12:00. I thought it unusual that the kitchen didn’t open until eight, but so be it.
Settled in and quaffed, at eight o’clock I showed up at the dining room, a smallish room with a bunch of men playing cards. No waitress, no food, knives, forks or spoons in sight. They all stopped cheating to look at me and probably someone asked, in French, if he could help me. As I stood there looking admirably stunned and confused, one gentleman stood up, walked towards me and asked in English if he could help me.
I asked if the kitchen was open. Oh no, he replied, they’re only open for breakfast. But the sign said, I thought to myself, eight o’… Jesus, Mary and Joseph (encore). The sign read in 24-hour clock numbers, oh-eight hundred hours (8:00am) to twelve hundred hours (noon). The guys were super nice, offering to rustle up a sandwich for me. I thanked them but declined.
I retreated to my room to regroup. Upon reflection of the afternoon’s events, it finally dawned on me. The lady police officer doesn’t speak English, the desk clerk doesn’t speak English, they use a 24-hour clock to tell time and only one of the card players spoke English. I don’t think anyone in this town speaks English.
If I had known Hull “joual” back then, I would have thought to myself, “Moy, j’suis foqué.”
It was now late evening, I was hungry and didn’t feel like fast food. I cruised the main drag of the town looking for an upscale restaurant. My logic was, if I go to a mom-and-pop place or a smallish bistro, the menus and the wait staff would be totally French, for sure. Well, my logic was practical but the folks and the menus of Mont Laurier let me down.
I sat in a fancy restaurant, virtually deserted, as a waiter, desperate for someone to talk to, rambled on in French. He handed me a padded, leather-bound menu that, after a quick glance, the only entree that I could understand was ‘coq-au-vin’. I asked him if he spoke English, he said ‘no’. Racking my brain for words and tenses that hadn’t been used in over a decade, I asked him (in French) to speak very slowly as my French was very, very short. (“court” was all I could think of).
Pouring over the menu line by line, I had to think back to standing at the meat cooler in Miracle Food Mart, scanning the bilingual labels on the packages. “Boeuf” was beef, but there were so many beef dishes, the menu so detailed and communication at odds that I was afraid I would end up with a well-done Prairie Oyster. (Thinking about it, I guess ordering a Prairie Oyster medium-rare – which I didn’t know how to say anyway – would not be a good idea.)
“Poulet” meant “chicken” and that was a possibility. Of course, there was always the coq-au-vin to fall back on, however I recognized “agneau” – lamb – figured there was only a limited number of dishes that could be made and I would enjoy them all. And though I prefer all meat medium-rare, lamb was okay cooked medium, a word that I would sneak in as I ordered.
I think if French – or any second language – was taught in a different manner, I might have had less difficulty. In school, the theory of a language is taught: nouns and declension, pronouns, adjectives, verbs and conjugation. However phrases in a given situation are not. There are only so many phrases, questions, that will be asked in any given situation. However, in a language where you are not familiar, when you are confronted with a common phrase, the most simple question confuses you.
Two examples. The next morning I did not want to venture back into the motel kitchen to embarrass myself anew, so I stopped at a small, busy coffee shop. Sitting and ordering breakfast was unthinkable; I just wanted a coffee, then I would make my call at Placage Cournoyer and skedaddle to Ottawa to eat lunch in a language with which I was familiar.
I stood between the cash register and the door so there would be no doubt that I want my coffee “to go”. The lady looked at me from behind the counter and asked, “Oui?”
“Crème et sucre?”
Now that was an obvious question but one I had not prepared for. I stood there trying to process the sounds into words, comprehend those words and then formulate a reply. At issue was, I don’t take sugar, how did I convey that? In the meantime, the waitress did not have time for a dumbass anglo to reach back to find his basic French skills from grade six. It could be lunchtime by then.
“Cream and sugar?” she asked, switching to English. I could have married her I was so happy. To this day I recall her being attractive, though bit older than I. Still, I should have.
“Just cream, please.”
During those same years I was in downtown Montreal making sales calls. I was exploring in the big underground mall beneath La Reine (The Queen Elizabeth Hotel) and I walked into a restaurant at lunchtime.
“Seul?” (alone) asked the man who was going to seat me. Well, I was in the same situation as the coffee shop. I wasn’t prepared for a situational question. Once again, I have to process the sound into a word then formulate an answer. Once again, the person did not have time for the dumbass anglo to reply, so he switched…
“A table for one?” But he wasn’t as cute a the Mont Laurier waitress.
I have a very similar situation but Spanish was involved when I worked in Puerto Rico for a couple of months. What I learned was to try to always give enough information so that another question need not be asked.
In a coffee shop I now say, “Un café, s’il vous plaît, avec crème, à emporter.” (A coffee, please, with cream, to go.) That should cover all the bases. The only thing she might come back with would be to confirm the sugar. However, being prepared, all I have to listen for is the word ‘sugar’ and I can confirm, “Non, pas de sucre, merci.” (No, no sugar, thank you.)
Well, I finished my lamb dinner that night, drank my coffee the next morning and made my call at Placage Cournoyer. The Purchasing Agent there explained that very few of the folks in town speak English; they are never exposed to it. He said that a few at the mill spoke English as they received and made calls to customers and vendors across Canada. The receptionist spoke English as dumbass anglo peddlars like me came to call. Few others, including La Sûreté du Québec had a need.
I did indeed make it to Ottawa to eat in the safe world of English, then returned home to the Toronto area where, it’s entirely possible that the next French word I heard spoken was in a subtitled movie. I watched one of those last night. It was in French but took place in Venice. I marveled as one of the main characters slipped so easily between French and Italian, even speaking a little English at one point.
There’s an old joke that says: A man who speaks three languages is ‘trilingual’. A man who speaks two languages is ‘bilingual’. A man who speaks one language is english.
Gotta go. Je pense entendre “Rosetta Stone” m’appeler . (I think I hear the French course calling me.)