words & images julie fader
I was sitting in my tenth grade French class, trying and failing to maintain some semblance of interest. The excitement of starting high school had worn off and a restlessness had started to settle in. I wasn’t feeling challenged and was longing for something more stimulating when I noticed a torn poster in the back of the room, looking forgotten: Study Abroad. One year later, my host family was picking me up from the train station in Avignon.
It was a half-hour drive from Avignon to my new home in Le Pin, Languedoc Roussillon, with a population of three hundred and thirty two. I was given a skeleton key and taught how to open the double glass French doors. The house matched the surrounding environment of endless vineyards. It was a maison de campagne, with grey stone walls, a living room full of shelves lined with ‘70s rock records, and a kitchen with an old gas stove. A spiral metal staircase led to my makeshift room that had curtains for walls. When I realized that there would be no physical barriers separating me from my new family, the privacy of my bedroom in Toronto seemed idyllic. I was also told there was no Internet and that the TV had access to all of three channels. I tried to imagine what would replace the time that I usually spent surfing on the Internet and flipping through hundreds of channels on cable back home in Toronto.
The family was made of four disparate components, somehow blending seamlessly and complementing one another: André worked in atomic energy and had pitch-black eyebrows that comically contrasted with his messy white hair; Pauline, his sixteen-year-old daughter, burned incense and had Bob Marley posters in her room; Laurence had a frizzy head of dark grey hair; and Maëlle, her fifteen-year-old daughter, had a fondness for anarchy punk. On the surface, it looked like I was coming into a family much like my very own because my parents had divorced when I was two and my sister and stepsister were close to me in age. I’d soon discover that this was where the similarities ended, as differences in language and culture quickly asserted themselves.
I grew up with a Québécoise mother who spoke to me in French and put me in a French elementary school in Toronto. The school was full of other kids like me who had one francophone parent and one anglophone parent, and thus we all grew up with our identities split in two, having one foot in Québécois culture and the other in the surrounding anglophone culture of Toronto. Though the teachers were all Québécois and, consequently, native Canadians, they seemed to me like immigrants in their own country. The school was a dense morsel, a microcosm, of Québec in “enemy territory"—francophonie surrounded by an overbearing anglophone society.
Quebeckers were once torn between North American culture and French culture, but have since developed their own unique identity. They maintain that they are culturally distinct from both France as well as the rest of Canada. Yet, Québec’s inhabitants are constantly on the defense—proud of their culture, but hyper aware and daunted by the possibility of their Québécois identity being swallowed up by anglophone Canadian culture. This unease recently manifested itself in the referendum of 1995, which nearly saw the province become an independent state, with 49.5% voting for separation.
My teachers were also constantly fighting against the anglophone culture that was threatening to overthrow the Québécois half of our minds. As we grew older and our worlds became more than our parents and the school, the threat loomed larger. Our teachers would ticket us with des billets d’anglais when we were heard speaking English on school property. They brought us on field trips to Québec to discover the motherland, and brought Québécois drama groups and musicians to the school to entertain us. In the end, they tried to lure us into continuing our Québécois education at their sister high school.
And so I arrived in France with a skewed concept of francophone culture, thanks to my background. Francophonie represented something I fought against as a kid, something the adults in my life tried to force upon me. I spoke a mixed French that combined what I had learned from my Québécois mother and teachers with elements I had absorbed from my anglophone surroundings. And, I thought this was normal and that I was perfectly bilingual—it was the French all my friends spoke, after all—but it was a distorted franglais that my environment had fooled me into believing would be universally understood. However, the first day that I hung out at la place with les jeunes du village, I was proven wrong.
Le Pin had about ten jeunes between the ages of fourteen and twenty who all gathered at la place—which was nothing more than a bench under a roof—to smoke cigarettes, play cards, and talk. And the first time I met them was overwhelming.
“Comment je me suis mangé la gueule hier!”
“Ouais, un truc de ouf!”
“Devant cette meuf en plus, putain.”
I didn’t understand the verlan that they used, that French slang that inverts the syllables in words. Their accents also had a southern twang that I was utterly unfamiliar with. I was suddenly self-conscious of my Québécois hybrid French, and I longed for my mother’s familiar accent.
I spent the next several months trying to blend in as a semi-Québécois Canadian in the south of France. In the beginning, I just listened, willing myself to absorb, soak in, and retain. When I had spoken French in Canada, I could always fall back on the English word and still make myself understood. In small-town southern France, I had nothing to fall back on. I learned the hard way that préservatif is a formal word for condom, not preservative. I dropped my sacres, those Québécois profanities that had emerged in the nineteenth century because of frustration with the social control exerted by the Catholic clergy. Even though the Catholic Church’s influence has declined tremendously as a result of the Quiet Revolution in the 1960s, the use of sacres still remains widespread in Québec. My tabarnak, calisse, crisse and osti became merde, putain, connard and connasse. I introduced words like machin, kiffer, bouffer and beau gosse into my vocabulary and removed chum, blonde, aweille and pantoute.
I started smoking Camels six times a day. I even bought some tabac à rouler and some OCB rolling papers, and got Pauline and Maëlle to teach me how to roll my own cigarettes. I traded in my gray peacoat, light bootcut jeans, and colorful Nikes for a black leather jacket, dark skinny jeans, and black Converse. It was my new uniform. I wore it to le lycée, I wore it to la place, I wore it to la sphère, a discothèque encircled by vineyards. I bought a pair of Adidas track pants, which I wore while I played foot’ with my hands in my pockets. It dawned on me that French music wasn’t just my mother’s Céline Dion and Félix Leclerc CDs; Sinsémilia and Christophe Maé worked their ways into my rotation. The two kisses on the cheeks that I would have given my Québécoise aunt—la bise—became three rapid air kisses when I saw a friend for the first time in the day — left, right, left. Locals conditioned me to hate Nicolas Sarkozy and taught me how to play pétanques like a retired Frenchman on a sunny afternoon, trying to toss metal balls close to the wooden ball at the far end of the terrain. Living just outside of the Provence region, I had somehow become une fille provençale.
As much as I might have wanted to abandon my quasi-Québécois self and blend in, I was more conspicuous than ever. Seeing as most of the people in my town had never (and probably would never) meet a Canadian, I was branded la Canadienne, expected to carry the responsibility of representing my country. Les jeunes du village would sometimes ask me to put on a thick Québécois accent. So, playing along and emulating my mother’s accent—the one I missed so much—I would say, “Calisse de tabarnak, calme toé! ” Then they would howl in laughter, saying, “Oh putain, c’est trop marrant cet accent!” To my surprise, I was offended and felt a bit like a traitor. Their mockery put me in the position of defending a culture that I had tried hard to repel. Once, I even attempted to introduce my host family to a traditional Québécois desert: la tarte au sucre. I ended up serving them something hard as rock and unidentifiable as food. We had to bash the thing against the dinner table to break it up into semi-edible pieces. As la Canadienne, I felt that I was failing to be the ambassador of a culture I was never fully part of in the first place.
On the flight back home at the end of the school year, I found the flight attendants with their Québécois accents hard to understand. I had gotten accustomed to that southern French accent. Daily exposure had shifted my concept of normality and everything that had seemed so foreign upon my arrival in France had become my reality. Homeward bound, I thought about my daily journey from Le Pin to Bagnols- sur-Cèze where I went to school. I thought about how I would never watch the sunrise over those endless rows of vineyards as the bus took the familiar route from small town to small town. I realized I would not be eating a pain-frites for quite some time, and that I would likely lose those ten pounds I had gained. I would no longer miss school because the teachers were going on grève yet again. Once more, my reality was going to have to shift.
At the start of the next school year, I found myself sitting in French class at my high school in Toronto, answering questions in my newly blended accent: Québécois, anglophone, and langue d'oc. Now, instead of feeling restless, I daydreamed about sleeping in a room with curtains for walls. Would I ever be content anywhere or would I always be waiting for an upcoming adventure, for my next destination, counting down the days until I can go somewhere, anywhere, else?