From West to East, quirks and all

I never would have imagined experiencing such different weather conditions in a single year, and even less to be discovering them in Canada during lockdown. Last summer, as the heat increased and restrictions were relaxed and Vancouverites seemed to once again appreciate the city’s beautiful summer scenery, I had to pack my bags and leave my chosen city to make my way to the other side of the continent, to Montréal. I had landed one of those job offers that you just can’t refuse and prepared to move with the great encouragement of my French-speaking friends who were all dreaming of Montréal. The largest city of the Francophonie in Canada is as alluring as ever and my close friends got to live this experience vicariously through the many photos and postcards sent from the eastern province, without suffering the stifling heat of a Montréal summer or the health risks associated with a trip during the pandemic.

Québec seems to compensate for its legendary winters with equally impressive heat during a short summer, where the smells of all the cuisines from Haiti to Canton through Lisbon and Casablanca mingle, in a hubbub where laughter offsets the rhythm of salsa and the noise of roadwork. I had gotten used to the green landscapes, the calm and the gentle breeze of Greater Vancouver, where hiking and running quickly conquer all hearts, to find myself propelled into the nerve centre of fashion and major cultural institutions in Canada, where the warm attitude of Quebecers is deemed to make people forget the length of the winters. That was without counting on COVID-19 to undermine my enthusiasm and to limit the annual festivities that punctuate the lives of Canadians in the east :no more festivals, no more concerts, no more cafes or bars where we usually meet interesting people. I was going to discover Montréal, then Québec, and Gatineau, with a mask and without a survival guide.

Even if Montréal is the cultural and artistic centre for the Francophonie, having developed surrounded by predominantly English-speaking provinces, it creates a new relationship with the language and a new vocabulary to quickly counter all the anglicisms that the rest of the Francophonie absorbs more or less readily. English words are pronounced there in their original version and the grammar is also a little closer to that of the language of Shakespeare. Taken together with a different accent and multiplied by mask-wearing and Plexiglas windows, it all makes for complex conversations, where body language and mimes are necessary to make oneself understood. An exchange at the stationery store can quickly resemble a scene from Charlie Chaplin, sometimes ending with an image search on the internet. Coming from a city where everyone adapts to the different levels of English and where it is common to have a conversation enriched with different dialects on the phone, I did not expect to have my French sentences questioned in Montréal or to observe that surprised look when I held out my British Columbia identity card, followed by a, “But you speak French very well!”. Having been cut off from francophone communities for so long, Quebecers sometimes forget that other francophone communities live and grow up in Canada, far from the fleur-de-lis flag.

Moving from Vancouver to Montréal really allowed me to appreciate the cultural fluidity present in Greater Vancouver, where we switch from one language to another, taking a step towards another culture and often meeting in the middle. The move also demonstrated the ability of Quebecers to revive a language and a culture, to remain optimistic and full of joy despite the harsh temperatures and lockdown. Living with a non-French speaker in Québec has allowed me to appreciate my multilingualism and helped me develop my skills as an improvised translator-interpreter when my partner gets stuck in front of a Montrealer asking him, “Do you speak Français?” Not to mention the surprise of my friends from Vancouver when I managed to translate a joke into Spanish or Yiddish that I had heard that morning in a Montréal bagel store.