This story is dedicated to my parents, who made an epic trek north to visit me in Québec City four years ago. On that Father’s Day weekend, I was beginning another month of immersion in French — only the second round of four, as it turned out — but the real education I received that summer was about how much that city rocks. It was so great that Seb and I went back the following summer, and very soon we’ll be there to soak it all up yet again. Happy birthday, Mom, and happy Father’s Day, Dad! Thank you for exploring this fantastic place with me. Come back anytime. And a special thank you to Réjean, Édith, and Mélanie, for welcoming me, tolerating my attempts to stay in French, and showing me around La Belle Province four years ago. À bientôt!
When I announced that I was heading to Québec for my second immersive language class back in June 2013, after I’d already spent an epic month on the French Riviera in 2011 for the same purpose, more than once I heard this response: “Wait a minute. I thought you already learned French?”
Ah, the innocence. How cute!
I learned some French, I would remind them, but there’s still a lot more to go. One class, even a four-week-long one, does not a chef make. Nor an architect. Nor a second-language speaker. In fact, when it comes to language I think everyone should refrain from ever using the word “learned” — as in past tense, done. Language is never done. I keep equating it to the fact that we study our own native language every year we’re in school, up into university even. (And many of us still don’t speak English so good!)
Not that I blame them for wondering. My expectations were totally out of whack at the beginning, too. Like expecting to learn Spanish in a week in Santiago. That’s part of the reason I’m writing about my experiences, in all of their humiliating and excruciating detail. Someone has to counterbalance those ridiculous titles at the bookstore that claim you too can learn a foreign language in hours!
I truly believe — and I’m sorry if I’m harping on this too much — that having too high of expectations can do more harm than good to first-time adult learners. We are not children anymore, we do not just “pick it up.” As a matter fact, we do the opposite: Our brains automatically tune it out. Truth.
It does get easier with time, though. And patience. If we ratchet down our expectations, it can also be a lot of fun. That’s what I’ve concluded, anyway, all these years later.
Why have I taken so long to post this story? I did write quite a lot of it back then — and thank goodness for that or I would have already forgotten many of the details — but I couldn’t bring myself to finish and click “publish.” I felt conflicted about something in particular: the school itself. I quite honestly couldn’t recommend it, but out of affinity for the people I met, I didn’t want to publicly bash them either. With the (hopefully) safe distance of four years between us, maybe I can open up now.
So — let’s travel back in time together, shall we? Imagine with me that it’s 2013 again… (I’ll refrain from making any Trump jokes here…)
I chose “la belle province” for my second experience because it was painfully obvious I needed help. I thought I’d learned a lot during my first class in France two years prior, in 2011, so was dismayed to see how much trouble I had understanding my in-laws when we visited for Christmas later that year. I remember Seb’s aunt and uncle picking us up at the airport in Montréal, where after the initial greetings and a comment about how cold it was, I believe I heard something about a coat — or was it a hammer? — and maybe the word for luggage. Beyond that, I was lost. The rest of the visit, I understood next to nothing.
Yikes!! Can it really be this hard? For me, yes. It truly was.
A lot of it was this strange new and wonderful accent (a reminder: Seb and I were not in the habit of speaking French at home, unfortunately, so most of my exposure was via Rosetta Stone and France itself), but there was also some strange new and wonderful vocabulary too. There’s a lot of confusion about how French differs between the two places, which I didn’t understand until I took a few trips, and this class. It’s an important point, but would make for far too long a story here, so I’ll save it for another time. For the moment, let me just say it was important that I take a class in-situ.
And so I went, and had a wonderful time. That’s an understatement, actually. It might have been the most fun I’ve ever had inside the space of one summer. I stayed in Québec City for a month, coincidentally during the incredible summer festivals. The city itself is already an impossibly beautiful place, and there’s always something going on. But layer on top of that the summer festivals, and it borders on surreal. From a comedy festival in the streets right outside my hotel room on night one, to marching down La Grande Allée sarcastically singing “God is an American” with new friends on Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day, to swooning at Bruno Mars and other celebrities during the incredible Festival d’Été, to admiring the acrobatics of Cirque de Soleil and the artistry of Le Moulin à Images — and all of this “en plein air” and most of it FREE — I learned that NOBODY does summer quite as well as the Québécois. I watched so many firework displays I lost track of what they were all for. And all this in addition to the jugglers and acrobats and buskers that are omnipresent on the city’s streets, festival or no festival.
To add to the air of festivities — and to take proper advantage of the events and the incredible restaurants throughout the city — my dad and stepmom came from Kansas for a visit. My mom came from Florida for a visit. My in-laws came from Lac St-Jean and took me to Seb’s sister’s place in Chelsea for a visit. We celebrated Canada Day in the beautiful capital, Ottawa. It was a whirlwind of food, music, entertainment, and lots of laughter. It was amazing. I cannot recommend summer in Québec highly enough — seriously, if you haven’t been, GO. You do not need to speak French at all to enjoy it, trust me.
That, in fact, may be the one letdown I experienced. Québec’s cities are truly international, truly multilingual. They didn’t used to be — in fact they were kind of renowned for being less than welcoming to English-only tourists not so long ago! — but these days it’s hard to get real practice in less-than-fluent French. Any stuttering or hesitation on my part and the waiter or taxi driver or grocery clerk or Starbucks barista would switch to English.
Let me give you a little example, from my very first day. Despite jetlag that made me want to hide in the hotel room and sleep for days, I forced myself to go out for dinner, wandering through the city on foot. It was a beautiful evening, and this town was made for walking. Many areas are for pedestrians only. Lovely. I found a nice terrace restaurant overlooking Old Town, and managed to secure a table for one. I was seated right next to the talkative and friendly hostess, who paused frequently to chat with patrons. When she caught my eye, I smiled, hoping she would give chatting a chance with me, too. She did, but barely.
- Hostess: Vous allez bien?
- Me: Oui, mais un peu fatigué… après un long vol d’Afrique —
- Hostess, before I had finished saying “Africa”: I understand.
- Me: Pa…Pardon?
- Hostess: I understand you. If you speak in English.
Nice. You could almost hear the engines in my brain, though barely working, grind to a screeching halt with this total smackdown. The next day at lunch at a different place, this:
- Waitress: Bonjour, comment vous allez?
- Me: Je vais bien, merci, et vous?
- Waitress: Ah! Vous êtes anglaise!
- Me: Ouais, évidemment…
I guess there was another letdown, and that was the school itself. It was in a very plain office in a very plain building, and it was all business — no meals together, no coffee machines, no sunny campus to roam. Many of us steered clear of a very disagreeable secretary, and, only slightly unrelatedly, tried to time our bathroom breaks for elsewhere. The office had a single toilet under lock and key for maybe 20 of us students, and it was shared with a group of architects down the hallway who drank far too much coffee. We had only one 10-minute break during the morning session, if I remember correctly. Needless to say, the line was long. Once I spotted a professor coming out of another bathroom. “There’s another one?!” I asked, wide-eyed. Professors only, she replied. Of which there were only four.
The school had only morning sessions, normally, but you could pay extra for private afternoon lessons. Seb and I both thought that a full return on investment could only be found by studying ALL DAY, so I signed up. This turned out to be a big mistake. One reason was that the mornings were jam-packed with information. It was good information, but it came much faster than the all-day course in France where they had built in lots of breaks and spread things out so that students weren’t overwhelmed. Another reason was that I continued to be immersed in French in the evenings, since this time I had chosen to stay with a host. So a little personal quiet time in the afternoons would have gone a long way. And the final reason was that my afternoon teacher had a very annoying habit of switching to English and telling me personal stories about herself, her relationships, her problems. One time we decided to ditch the classroom and take a field trip to go shopping. Perfect! This was language I had already started to get a handle on, what a great opportunity to use it in a new situation. Nope — from explaining the bus routes and schedules, to helping me shop for things on my wish list, she chose to do it all in English. Super.
Another time she thought we should watch DVDs of a local TV show, short little comedy vignettes about a married couple who had various arguments with each other in various settings, like while shopping, preparing dinner, visiting the in-laws. I could tell it was cheesy but it also made perfect teaching material. I mean, if I were a teacher, which I am sometimes, I would think it’s perfect. Each vignette was just a few minutes long, so I anticipated we’d watch one, stop and discuss, and watch it again. As many times as it took for me to understand.
No, instead, we watched several vignettes in a row without pausing. My teacher, reclining comfortably with her feet up, enjoyed laughing out loud for at least 15 minutes before she realized that the creature silently hunched over next to her wasn’t laughing at all. Finally, she paused the DVD and asked if I understood. Nope, I answered. Well, that’s strange, she replied. This is just how normal Québécois talk to each other everyday!
Well, if I could understand how normal Québécois talk to each other everyday, I wouldn’t need to take this class now, would I? I wanted to ask her. In fact I wanted to shout it, and tell her what a perfect opportunity she was missing, and maybe curse a little. Instead, I tried to hold back tears. I found almost every afternoon with her to be stressful, and discouraging, and I often fell into ruminating about what was wrong with me that I was having such a hard time.
Years later I met a woman at another class in France who, it turns out, had this very same teacher at this very same school in Québec around the same time as me. She had an almost identical experience, and was equally saddened and frustrated by it. Maybe more so, actually. The teacher in me gave her a big hug and told her it wasn’t her fault.
But it wasn’t all bad. The school, I mean. My morning teacher, who had a group of five of us or so, was young and energetic and did a great job. I loved her pronunciation, and thanks to her I finally made peace with vowels. (To this day I maintain that the Québécois do French vowels way better than the French do.) She never lapsed into English, she never got off subject to tell us about her relationship problems, but she did throw in some funny extras from time to time, like how every winter she has to relearn how to walk and how to drive. Apparently there are few places on earth that literally freeze more in winter than Québec City.
And then there was my hostess, or “house mother,” who incidentally was also the school director. I really liked her, and wish we had stayed in touch. (But then I probably would still be holding back this article about her school.) She had picked me to room with her from among the other students because she also used to live in Congo. We had fun swapping stories and comparing notes. She was very patient with me, and never, not once in four weeks, did she give in and switch to English. I’m quite sure she was capable and probably found chatting with me a test of her goodwill, but she managed it, and I’ll be forever grateful. On top of that, she was a single gal with many friends, and she both gave and received lots of dinner invitations, taking me with her most of the time. Her circle of friends included professor types who loved to drink wine and argue with each other, especially about French itself. Often this included debating whether a certain word was masculine or feminine, which I found incredibly funny. (That’s been one of the hardest things for me to get a handle on since English is gender-neutral… so when even the professors are debating, you know it isn’t easy.)
Overall I learned a lot, how could I not? — but mostly I remember the feeling of just barely keeping up. I intended to reorganize my notes and study at night, but rarely made it happen. I usually scribbled out my homework in the morning with a quick cup of coffee. It didn’t help that I showed up tired from the get-go. The jetlag alone is always significant, in my opinion, but this time I had traveled to Québec directly after touring Uganda with Seb and a couple friends of ours. (I know, poor me.) Uganda was amazing!! We went gorilla trekking in the mountains, chimpanzee trekking in the forest, volcano and waterfall trekking in between. We crisscrossed the entire country, mostly by road — by long, arduous, bumpy road — and had lots of early risings. My brain was full of details I wanted to write down before forgetting them, and my body was tired to the bone. It wasn’t the most ideal time to start a French immersion experience, especially one that didn’t leave a lot of room for sleeping.
So mostly what I remember during my four weeks in Québec City is not so much what we studied in class, but the culture — the amazing events and festivals nearly every night, around every corner and in practically every street. Summer is cause for celebration when you live 47 degrees north of the equator, and the Québécois definitely know how to celebrate. I’ve never seen anything like it before or since. My fantasy future life now includes an apartment in Québec City. Like I said: GO!
This story is Part 7 of the ongoing saga I call The French Tales, and took place in June-July 2013…