MONTREAL -- Fortunately for you the reader, I don’t think I can talk this newspaper into doing a two-page layout of my vacation snapshots, so I’m going to have to tell you about it instead. My wife Liz and I went to Quebec, where we took in a comedy festival and otherwise toured about this French-speaking province of our northern neighbors. I learned a little about what those zany Canucks think is funny about Americans and a lot about how bilingualism is supposed to work.
Objections to bilingualism in the United States – including those appearing in this space – are generally based on how little “bi” there is about it. Bilingual instruction in schools, drivers’ license tests in Spanish and ATM’s which require you first to tell it what language you prefer are designed to ease the way for people who don’t speak English at all.
Hartford, Los Angeles, New York, Miami and most other big cities have neighborhoods where residents can cruise blissfully through life without ever being able to pronounce “We the People.” And English-speaking Americans get pretty steamed up at the local Kmart when the salesclerk doesn’t understand them when they ask if something comes in a different size or color.
Up here in Quebec, the official language is definitely French. People greet you with “Bonjour” and road signs, well, I can’t figure out what they say, so navigating the interstate can be a little tricky. But when it comes to person-to-person contact, everyone speaks English as well as French. Everyone: Store clerks, waiters, cab drivers, McDonald’s cashiers.
Some folks point to the Separatists of Quebec as an example of biculturism being inherently divisive. But only a minority of the Québécois (albeit a significant one) want out from the rest of Canada. The way it is now, they maintain their language, their culture and still enjoy the synergy of the Canadian republic. They can do this because they can speak English as well as French. The rest of Canada is glad to have ‘em.
It is pleasing, and even envy-generating, to listen to the locals up here alternate between languages as easily as flipping a light switch.
These Québécois speak two languages because it is necessary for economic and societal reasons: because they belong to an English-speaking republic and because their livelihoods often depend on accommodating tourists from the rest of Canada and the United States. They get along with another through the commonality of the spoken word. It is an example of which we should take note.
Speaking of the Ugly American, nothing generated more yuks up here at the Just for Laughs ( or Juste pour Rire – I caught a bit of the bilingual bug myself) festival than jokes about us.
The comics like to portray Americans as a bunch of self-centered, gun-toting, bible-thumping, self-indulged, oversexed (Just saying “Bill Clinton” makes the locals laugh), crime-victimized, brash egotists who couldn’t name ten other countries if you spotted them the first two letters of each.
Considering they are probably right about this, they are pretty good-natured about it.
Crime in the States – and our acceptance of it as a fact of life – gives these comics a lot of material. One of the more popular stand-ups was an American expatriate who now lives in Vancouver. Among his observations:
“My American friends are stunned when I tell them that murders are national news in Canada. Even when there’s just one victim. In L.A. it doesn’t even make the local papers unless it’s at least a deuce.”
“We had a drive-by shooting a while back. Canadians still refer to it as THE drive-by.”
“I knew I had become a real Canadian one night when I needed some cash at 1 a.m. I drove to the ATM, left the motor running, the car door open and counted the money while walking back to the car. If it was New York, I’d be lying in a pool of blood watching my car drive away.”
Ba-da-bing. Well, maybe you had to be there.
You might want to go. It’s a pretty nice spot for a vacation – at least in the summer. The locals have been really nice to us and the exchange rate for American money is at an all-time high. They call their dollar the “loonie” (and they make fun of us?). And where else but in Montreal can you go to a baseball game and get a baguette? I don’t know what a baguette is, actually, but they sell them at the ballpark.
Quebec is a great destination – if you’re one of those exceptional Americans who can find it on a map.
July 31, 1998