Pamela MacNaughtan

A smile is worth a thousand hugs, and when you’re attempting to learn a new language you need all the hugs you can get!

Moving to Québec City was a multi-faceted decision. I was drawn to the old world charm of the old walled city. Walking cobbled streets flanked with stone buildings, and getting lost for a couple minutes as I look for places off-the-beaten-path, and in Old Québec it’s fairly easy to do as most visitors stick to the main streets.

But this post isn’t about my love affair with the architecture and history of my new home. This post is about my goal to learn French, and about being an anglophone in a francophone city.

The French and English have a long and torrid history in Québec, dating all the way back to the 17th Century. In those days they were at war with one another, and the battle was bloody in epic proportions. In those days there was a kind of hatred for the English and vice versa. It’s something that is written about at length in history and sociology books. And in time I’d like to write a little about that history here on Savoir Faire Abroad as I become more entrenched in my new hometown and try to make a life for myself. But not now. I don’t know enough about it yet. Sure, I know of names like Champlain, Montcalm, and Wolfe, but I need to know more. I need to do some research first.

The history lesson and how it applies to modern day Québec and the current social culture will have to wait.

I’m approaching my new life in Québec City the same way I would approach a trip to Paris. They are completely different places, but in my mind, the same rules apply when it comes to speaking the language. Or in my case, trying to speak the language and butchering it mercilessly.

For me, it’s about smiling, being friendly, and making an honest effort.

I took French in elementary school but because my family moved a lot, it didn’t really stick. So when I was starting grade ten and I no longer had to take French as a prerequisite, I dropped it like a hot potato. Au revoir French classes, hello Spanish and taco Tuesdays!

As you may imagine, my French is bad. I have a hard time remembering basic words, but I can kind of read French. My pronunciation is horrific. I do okay at grocery stores, or restaurants as I can kind of get through ordering, but as soon as someone says more than two French words back to me my eyes get as big as baseballs, my heart pounds, I smile, and say “Oui!”.

Except I have no clue what I’ve just said yes to. That is when one of two things happen. I either get a dish I didn’t think I was ordering, or they figure out that I don’t speak French and they attempt to speak English.

It’s what I like to refer to as my ‘Yes’ experiment. Somebody says something in French that I don’t understand, I say yes to see what happens. This works well in stores and restaurants, but I am a little reluctant to test it out in bars. There is potential for things to go really wrong, really fast. But if I lived through the night, oh what a story!!

I’ve been in Québec City for three days, and so far each time I’ve attempted to speak French someone has felt sorry for me and switched the English. To which I laugh and explain that I’ve just moved to the city and I need to learn French. A tactic that I never intended on using, but has helped me to feel a little more at home in the city. A good example of this was my café stop yesterday.

As I don’t have wi-fi in the apartment I’m subletting I go out in search of cafés with free wi-fi in the old city. Yesterday I returned to a café I had visited a few months ago. It’s small and down a quiet street. I love the mismatched furniture, the exposed brick, and the fact that I have no cell service once I’m inside. It’s a great place to unplug and do some work while enjoying chocolat chaud (hot chocolate).

Upon entering the café I started in French, then the moment of panic happened and the owner switched to English. It was late morning and soon I was the only patron. We spoke a little as I worked. I mentioned I had moved to the city, and that I was learning French. I also told him about a project I’m working on that revolves around my life in the city. During our conversation, he mentioned a crime fiction book that had been written and how Québec City was the backdrop. In the book, the café is mentioned and the owner explained how some of the customers come to the café because they read the book in question.

I was fascinated and asked where I could get a copy of the book.

“Are you a fast reader?” the owner asked, “Yes if I really enjoy the book”, I replied. “Here, you can borrow my copy”, he said as he handed me the book.

I’ve been in the city for two days and in that time I’ve found a quiet café with free wi-fi where I can unplug and work. And the owner is so freaking nice that he leant me the only copy of a book he bought for the café as a talking point with customers. I f-ing love that.

It’s all about smiling, being friendly, sincere, and interested.

I have a long road ahead in terms of learning French, but if the last two or three days are an indication, I think this whole living in Québec City and learning French thing is going to be a fabulous experience. *knocks on wood*

Now it’s time to look into some French programs!!

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