- A Franco-American in Montréal
Several months ago, I had a date with a woman who knew before meeting me that I was Franco-American—French Canadian from the province of Québec, but born and raised in the United States. This woman was an Anglophone—a Canadian whose first language is English. On our date, in a vegetarian restaurant in downtown Montréal, and at her prompting, I told her about moving to Québec nearly three years ago to discover my heritage. About growing up in Maine with French-speaking parents and grandparents, about eating cretons, tourtière, and ragoût on holidays, going to French-Catholic schools and Franco-American festivals—and having no clue why any of this was my reality, but having no context to know differently, either.
“That’s so interesting,” the woman said. She had dark eyes and eyebrows. I like dark eyes and eyebrows.
I stirred my soup, potage de légumes, and looked at her again. Her face was steady, calming. An open field where I might find peace after a stressful few years. And so, I told her that I was trying to learn French fluently, finally, to know my parents better, to communicate with them in their first language. To ask questions of the people in my grandmother’s birthplace, a small farming village in rural Québec, and thereby piece together my family’s history, my own identity.
A moment later, my lofty confessions still vibrating the air between us, this woman told me that she disliked the French Canadians in Québec—often referred to simply as the “Québécois”—was resentful of the French-aptitude tests the Québec government made her take before she was allowed to operate the business she owned (“They purposefully make it hard for you!”), that she’d lost all interest in learning or speaking French, and that even when in a room full of French speakers, she spoke English.
When I was sixteen, I told a friend that I was self-conscious about how big my eyes were. In response, he told me that a mutual friend of ours had recently put two basketballs in front of his eyes and said, “Hey, look. I’m Jane.” [End Page 371]
The two moments I’ve just described feel similar.
I’ve had many moments like this in Montréal.
When I asked my date why, then, she liked Montréal so much, she told me, simply, that Montréal should be bilingual. This is an unnecessary thing to wish for, since English is omnipresent in Montréal, the de facto language for conspicuous multitudes throughout the city. If you want to live in a French context, you must be intentional about your choice of neighborhood. The Plateau, for example, where I live, is known to be Francophone, but even so, I must often be explicit about my wish to interact in French. As such, I sometimes feel as though Anglophones, like my date, object to a phantom French Canadian, some idea rather than reality. They object to the idea—the possibility, perhaps—that Montréal should be French, not English, and the reality that language laws (somewhat) enforce the presence of the French language here. And they do not like the idea that French Canadians, lurking in the depths of the province, might feel these conditions are justified.
Let me tell you what I imagined Canada to be like before I moved here:
When she was in high school, my mother worked as a candy striper at a hospital founded by Québécois nuns in our Franco-American hometown. The nuns recruited her to study nursing at their hospital in Montréal, the Hôtel-Dieu, the Johns Hopkins of its day. In the early- to mid-1950s, my mother lived, studied, and worked in a French that was a more sophisticated cousin of the French she’d been born into and surrounded by in Maine. Her teachers and friends at the Hôtel-Dieu called her la petite américaine.
I grew up hearing about my mother’s time “in Canada...