Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Oh, Canada...C'est pas vrai ?!

While living abroad, keeping up with what’s going on in one’s own country can result in mixed emotions. Many Americans living in Paris, for example, feel ashamed whenever President Bush opens his mouth. Some Canadians, on the other hand, are guilty of being more patriotic than they ever were when actually living in the Great White North: we’re an agreeable lot that welcomes immigrants from across the globe; we benefit from all of the positive things that America has to offer without actually having to be American; and we are keepers of peace, rather than purveyors of war.

Canadians, long overshadowed by their superpower neighbor to the south, have struggled to establish their own identity. What – aside from grizzly bears, mountains, beavers, polite folk, hockey and heaps and heaps of snow – does our nation really stand for?

It can be difficult to explain to one’s new friends across the Big Pond – especially if one never bothered thinking about this before. And it’s rare when Canada receives airtime in the French media – and when it does, there’s a strong chance that those mixed emotions will surface.

Such is the case surrounding the recent debate taking place over, ironically enough, identity. Not Canadian identity, but the status held by its Francophone province, Quebec. A prickly issue (because Canadians don’t start wars, they have time to squabble over whether or not Quebec should, or is ever going to, separate from the rest of the country), this argument has divided an already floundering Liberal party even further during its all-important leadership convention.

Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper tried to quiet things down by announcing that the Quebecois will be officially recognized as a nation. The problem with the law, written in both of Canada’s official languages – English and French – is that no one can agree on what the definition of “Quebecois” actually is.

Some argue that “Quebecois” (“Quebecker,” in English) means anyone who resides in the province of Quebec. Others emphasize that “Quebecois” has a deeper meaning, and should be reserved for Canadian Francophones only. In the true spirit of bureaucracy, no one really knows what the hell is going on.

Frenchmen often smirk at the twangy, down-home French that is spoken in Quebec, declaring that the accent is so harsh it can “tue l’amour” (or kill love) and that the Quebecois (or Quebeckers, or whatever they are) use funny phrases that either don’t exist in France, or have not been applied since the Revolution. But whether or not Quebeckers/Quebecois/Canadian Francophones speak a pretty, refined French is beside the point: the truth is, a large majority of Canada’s population doesn’t speak the country’s second official language, period.

To a Frenchman traveling across Anglophone Canada by car, this phenomenon is, he admitted to his Anglophone Canadian driving partner, quite shocking. In Paris, everything from menus to museum guides to the notices posted in boutiques are translated into English, if not several other languages, even if French is the country’s only official language. Even with France’s reputation for being weak when it comes to learning other languages, most people can get through a basic conversation in English, and in Paris, it’s not uncommon for people to speak two, three, or four languages aside from their mother tongue. Try finding someone who can stumble through a conversation in French in Vancouver or Toronto, two of Canada’s largest cities. (It’s not impossible, but it’s not that easy, either.) And, while Quebec imposes ridiculous laws requiring signs to feature the French type larger than the English, the only hint of French in the rest of Canada is on the federal street signs and buildings, and on the labels pasted to the products that are bought in the stores.

Instead of quibbling over the details of Quebec’s identity, Canadian politicians (both Anglophone and Francophone) should be sharpening their language skills so that they can actually comprehend the laws they pass. Then, as the leaders of what they proudly deem a multicultural society, they should get busy ensuring that Canadians can properly learn to master both of the languages they are supposed to be able to speak.

Maybe then, the entire nation – including Quebec – would be on the right path to finding its identity.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Romancing the Language:Sometimes, Ignorance is More Romantique

In Paris, one always has language – or, more accurately, its vocabulary, syntax and annoying exceptions – on the brain.

It all starts with one’s first wave of Francophilia: that first French class back in school, perhaps enrollment in a French immersion program or a course led by some cute Frenchman who left his homeland to do just what you, too will eventually wind up doing – crossing an ocean to apply all of the new communication skills you have under your belt, thanks to all of your studying and the subtitled Truffaut films you picked up at the library.

Of course, nothing prepares you for the level of concentration you will initially require after stepping off the plane at Charles de Gaulle and embarking on your dream. Specialized immersion programs and sexy, transplanted tutors may have provided you with the rudiments, but these can seem quite, well…rudimentary when you find yourself face-to-face with a cranky Parisian cabbie, a chatty saleswoman, or an amorous Frenchman who thrives on your linguistic limitations as he advances on you, his prey. When, you think, staring at the dictionaries, verb conjugation books and flashcards that litter your desk, will you finally be able to order a baguette without stumbling over your own words? When will you roam this city – touted as one of the most beautiful in the world – and actually be able to truly appreciate all of its Old World Charm and cultural subtleties with the breezy nonchalance that everyone else seems to?

And it comes, gradually, your ability to navigate through the sea of masculine and feminine nouns, verb tenses and even slang, and life couldn’t be grander. You find yourself not only following a conversation, but participating in it, and small talk – an activity you had grown to dread – becomes fun again. You identify peoples’ origins from their accents, and you even get their jokes. You pick up the phone, rather than typing out textos. Sure, you make mistakes – quite a few, in fact – but it doesn’t matter. People understand you, and your little errors in syntax – and your own foreign accent – are “chouette.” So, too, is your tendency (thanks to your ear, which has been trained to pick up new expressions and vocabulary in an effort to improve your mastery of this strange tongue) to pause in the middle of a heated political discussion to confirm, “Oh, so you’re supposed to use the subjunctive tense after that phrase? I must remember that!”

Then the romance starts to fade a little – and when you think about it, it’s all your fault. You realize that handsome couple sitting close to one another on a bench in the Jardin des Tuileries isn’t in the midst of a sexy lover’s talk; they’re breaking up. The funky-looking guy walking ahead of you along a moonlit Seine isn’t engaging in playful banter over his cell phone; he just told the caller that they were breaking his balls. And, the two women pointing to the arch at Strasbourg Saint-Denis aren’t examining it out of admiration; they’re saying that they think it’s pretty shitty that there are so many pigeons perched upon it, because they produce so much “merde.”

You comfort yourself by reasoning that French is so beautiful, even “les gros mots” (or swear words) can sound like music to the ears. But your ears don’t agree; every language can be ugly, if the speaker chooses to render it so. Ah, how much rosier La Vie en Rose was back in the old days!

But, as is the case with human romance, when it comes to one’s love affair with a language, you can’t go back. You must accept it for all of its quirks – even the ones you find unattractive. And, if you really feel the need to be swept off your feet again, there are other fish in the sea, and other languages to try.

After all, they say that after learning French, Spanish is a snap.