Tuesday, November 23, 2004

The Systematic Tyranny of the French

I'm finding french to be very difficult. The deeper and deeper that I get into it, the more complex it's becoming and the more vaster the amount of information I need is growing. It's frustrating and at time discouraging.

I have learned enough french that I can say that I know probably all of the grammatical elements and rules. And I know them fairly well. I definitely need a lot more drilling and memorization, but I am getting good grades on all my tests, and can do all the questions and exercises without referring to my notes.

However, what I'm starting to realize is that french is an extremely empirical language. What I mean by that is that it really isn't governed by any overall theoretical system that you can apply to a given situation. You just have to know what a french person would say in that situation and how they would say it. Yes, they have the subject verb object relationship of all romance languages and they generally tend to stick to that, but all the other grammatical elements are so filled with exceptions that it's really a stretch to say that there are rules at all in French. Not to say that it's a flexible language. Au contraire, mon ami! There is always a right way and wrong way to say something in french and they will always let you know when you've said it the wrong way.

Here is an example of what I'm talking about: adjectives. This part of speech, as most of us should know, exists to qualify or describe a noun. In english, the adjective always goes before the noun. Done. That's the rule. In french, the adjective can go before and after the noun. However, when you choose to put it before or after a noun is extremely complicated. Colors, for instance, always go after the noun. That's one hard and fast rule that I have actually yet to see broken. But I'm certainly not counting on it. (Seriously, french is so nuts that I wouldn't be surprised if someone said, every color except chartreuse goes after the noun). Supposedly, adjectives of more than 2 syllables also go after the noun. But incroyable and excellent can go before or after. There are also adjectives that have different meanings depending on where they are placed. Pauvre (poor) for instance. Un pauvre homme is a man for whom one feels pity. Un homme pauvre is a man who has little money. This usage is actually quite cool, allowing nuances and interesting double entendres. (The Bloc Quebecois tag for this year's election was "La Propre Partie du Québec" which means literally "Québec's own party" but propre, when it comes after the noun also means clean, so it had a suggestion that they weren't corrupt, which is patently false, but it was a nice piece of language anyways.).

That is just a small piece of french grammar and as you can see, it requires a lot of memorization and just practice. There are so many things like that. Adjectives also have to agree in gender and quantity with the noun they are qualifying. That's tough enough, but on top of it there are tons of exceptions. So you say "les fleures vertes" (the green flowers. Green is vert, but you have to add an "e" because flowers are feminine and an "s" because it's plural in this case). But if you say "les fleurs vert et blanc" (the white and green flowers), you don't make the adjectives agree because you don't do that with composed colors. Why? Only the french know and they're not telling. Sorry to bog you down in these details, but I'm trying to give you sense of what I go through every single class. Each day there is some new exception that totally throws you. We spent an hour today discussing when you say "jour" (day) and "journée" (day). The same goes for "soir" (evening) and "soirée" (evening).

So why am I complaining? I know, it's a language. It wasn't designed from the ground up, but is a rich reflection of the societies and history of a certain region and has developed over centuries and is still changing today. I can appreciate that and I'm certainly no fan of esperanto. But what bugs me is that the french textbooks and teachers are always acting like there is some system and set of rules guiding everything. So when you start out with French you're lulled into this idea that when you encounter some grammar that you don't understand, you'll be able to figure it out by following the rules. But there are no rules! Obviously, you have to learn the basics, but after that, I think you've just got to let go of any theoretical crutches and just memorize, listen, read and talk to people as much as you can. If you start looking for the french for justification for usage, you get into these crazy discussions that make your head swim. The teacher pulls out this huge book that explains just why tout (all) is an adjective only in the singular and an indefinite pronoun in the plural and why sometimes you pronounce the "s" in tous and other times you don't. It's maddening.

And there are much more systematic languages that manage to maintain a rich literature and spoken culture. In spanish for instance, you always pronounce everything the same way! It's brilliant and easy and hasn't stifled them at all. I appreciate that french is a complex language, but stop trying to tell me that it makes some kind of sense. It's rich and nuanced, but it is not well-structured and is riddled with kluges and exceptions.

Now here's the rub. This is from the same people that brought us the metric system! That's right. It was established under Napoleon's regime and when he conquered Europe, he got it in place there. I don't know how the french managed to force the rest of the world to follow suit since then. If anyone knows of a good book on the history of the metric system, I'd love to know about it. Anyways, why did they work so hard to dismantle a perfectly good system of measuring to be replaced by a soulless, impractical, yet highly efficient and systemized one but not do anything to their language? Bizarre.

Friday, November 19, 2004

Le Salon du Livre

I had a very inspiring morning. Today was a field day, a trip to Le Salon du Livre. It's a big expo of publishing houses being held in the Place Bonaventure downtown. This event has been happening for many years. It's only $6 to get in, but we got in free as a school.

I didn't really know what to expect. The event was getting a lot of press. There was an article about it in both the free dailies, as well as all four hebdos (hebomadaire means weekly in french; there are two english and two french free weeklies here). I also heard that they were going to be broadcasting all the daytime CBC shows from there.

I'm pleased to report that, judging by this event, the book business is really booming in Québec. The exhibit hall was huge and the booths were professional and nice looking. There were a lot of people at the event. I used to put on events and expos like this and you can tell when one is suffering. There was lots of energy and everybody working the booths seemed really positive. There were many smaller publishing houses that didn't have so many people coming to them, but they had an air of patient confidence rather than desperate loneliness that you see when a company in a booth is hurting for business. I read later that the budget for the event was 1.6 million dollars. 10% of that came from the government; the rest is booth and entrance fees ($6 for adults).

Except for one stall, it was entirely french. There were some big French houses (as well as Larousse and Robert, the two big french dictionary makers) and a Belgium company, but the rest were Québecois. Bande-Dessinées (comics) were well-represented as well as food and drink (the theme of this year's expo is L'Art du Vivre). But Children's books were far and away the biggest draw. There were tons of schools there and lots of authors signing books and speaking.

I watched a Radio-Canada (that's the french CBC) panel discussion led by the animatrice (that means hostess) Marie-France Bazzo. There were some pretty famous Québecois authors there, including Michel Tremblay. His plays and books are the first to incorporate the rich lower-middle class culture and slang (le joual) of Québec in the early '60s. His "Les Vues Animées" about his childhood relationship with movies is the first book I read in French and it was great. I came to the discussion as he was saying he's reading a lot of fantasy these days because he loves the way they have an internal consistency that allows you to believe the amazing things in that world. That was pretty interesting to hear! Sort of surprised me, because his reputation is as someone who really represented the reality of Québec in literature. It was a very animated and intelligent discussion and there was standing room only.

One of my stronger literary interests is crime. I know that it is a genre appreciated in France and in Québec and I had a suspicion that there are quite a few decent Québecois mystery and detective authors. My suspicions were confirmed when I ran into the Alire (that means "to read") booth. They have been serializing a book by Jean-Jaques Pelletier in Le Journal (one of two broadsheets in Montréal) called L'Argent du Monde. First of all, that is extremely cool to me that they are serializing a book at all in the newspaper. I love the idea of serials; the expectation of continued narration, the sense that the story exists outside of you and will thus never end. I recognized the cover design of that book and was drawn immediately to their booth.

I ended up having a half-hour conversation with one of the publishing house's employees. His name was Vincent and was extremely friendly and clearly passionate about the books they were selling. Alire is one of the larger publishers of science-fiction, fantasy, crime and espionage books in Québec and almost all of their authors are French-Canadian. The english-speaking writers who are translated are all Canadian. I was impressed with that. But even more impressed that they put out quarterly journals of short stories by new and established authors in the genres of sci-fi & fantasy (Solaris) and crime (Alibis) and they sell!

There are a few stragglers in the english market of these genre journals, but they are barely hanging on. Back in the heydays of the '50s and '60s, those monthly magazines was where writers "gagneaient leur croute" (made their bread and butter, literally, earned their crust) and new writers got a start. I found it very inspiring that this opportunity still existed in Québec. This is a lot of what Vincent and I talked about. He explained to me that because most of the english publishers focused all their marketing efforts in english Canada and the U.S., Québec was in a bit of a commercial vacuum. On top of that, the people here really like to read books that take place in their milieu. Jean-Jacques Pelletier, for instance, is hugely popular. Vincent said, "Il est un locomotif. Ses romans sont commes let petits pains chauds." [he's a locomotive. His books are like hot little loaves of bread, meaning, as he explained to me when I asked him, that people couldn't wait to eat them.] His books are about corporate espionage and international intrigue, but they are all based in Québec. There are tons of characters and there's action in all the global hotspots, but the foundation is back here in Québec!

I ended up buying Le Rouge Idéal, a mystery by Jacques Côté that Vincent recommended. It's about a cop in Québec City in 1979 hunting down a killer. "un tueur fou est en liberté dans la ville et tout porte à croire qu'il est engagé dans une terrible spirale de violence!" [a mad killer is loose in the city and [all are ready? see how tough french is!] to believe that he is engaged in a terrible spiral of violence!] Sounds pretty good to me, but pretty standard. I trusted Vincent's judgement after hearing some of the books he read and he claimed it was really well-received. I'll let you know when I finish it.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

La Francisation

I've been taking french since I got here. The reason I gave this post the generic title above is because I'm not sure about the name of the program or the part of the government that sponsors it. It's held in schools all over the city and appears to be under the banner of the Commision Scolaire de Montréal, but that is the body that governs all the public schools here. Each building seems to have it's own schedule for signing up and availability, but they all have a consistent curriculum and advancement structure.

You can call one phone number and they will tell you all the locations near you where the programs are offered. But they don't actually know when registration is or what hours each school is offering. You have to go to each one (or phone them; an intimidating task if you're french is iffy) and find out.

In order to sign up, you must bring proof of your Canadian citizenship. A passport will not suffice. You need to bring your birth certificate, or if you are an immigrant, whatever document provides that proof. Because I was born in the states, I had to bring this card that I got as a child that is proof of Canadian citizen born abroad (god bless Canada). They went and took out this huge binder filled with photocopies of all the appropriate pieces of ID. After some sweating on my part, they found mine and I was accepted. These kind of people are extremely rigid. Even if I was Dr. Norman Bethune, without the correct piece of paper, they wouldn't have let me register.

There are 6 levels in the program and 2 written levels after that. Each level lasts 12 weeks, 20 hours per week. When I started, you had to complete level 6 in order to receive your certificate of francisation. At some point, since the summer, it was lowered to level 5. Why, I don't know. This information was unceremoniously relayed to us in the middle of level 6. The certification is nominal anyways. It's nice to be able to show it on a CV, but people will be able to tell your level of language pretty quickly by speaking with you and completing level 6 is definitely not fluency. The program costs $40 per semester, plus $5-7 per level for paper costs. In some cases, if you are unemployed, you can apply to Emploi-Québec for $125 a week in living money. Since it's so inexpensive, and since most of the people in the program really want and need to learn french, they tend to take the courses for as long as they can, whether they have received their certification or not.

The classes are held in the mornings (8:30 to 12:50) and the evenings (6:00 to 10:00). I'm told the evening classes are tough because it's for people who are working full time and they tend to be pretty exhausted. I've had 4 different teachers. Three were pure laine ("pure wool" means 100% Québecoise) and one was from Haiti originally. All were rigorous and effective teachers. The classes are dynamic and varied, so that you have many activities throughout the day. You have a grammar lesson for an hour, then you read, then you get together in groups and work on a presentation, then you do grammar exercises. I am a very antsy person and can't stand meetings and sitting in the same place for a long period of time (unless I have the internet in front of me). I was rarely bored in any of my classes.

All the teachers come from that french mold of being very severe and believing deeply, with all their heart, in the importance of speaking french properly. They will make distinctions between what is spoken, written and what is truly part of the Joual. They love their language and culture of Québec, but they think that grammatically correct french is really what everyone should learn, speak and write. They take it seriously. It's kind of funny to see the severe look they have when someone brings up a usage they heard on the street. For instance, Québecers drop the "ne" in the negative here all the time. "Je n'ai pas" becomes "J'ai pas," "je ne suis pas" becomes "shuis pas," etc. A student brought that up when I was in level 5 and the teacher acknowledged it and said it was okay for those who "trainent dans la rue" (learn in the street) but if we wanted to learn to speak like that we should go out there right now.

The students are almost entirely immigrants to Canada. In the school I was at before I finished level 6, there was one young woman from Toronto who was Canadian and an anglophone and came to Montréal because they had way more styles of belly-dancing education here than in Toronto. Other than her, the only other non-new Canadian was a guy from Edmonton. He was of Pakistani descent and studying to be an Imam. I'm guessing that there were about 200 students in that particular school. The rest were from all over the world. The majority are latinos, especially Mexicans. There are also quite a few people from Southeast Asia, mainly Vietnam. The other countries represented by more than a single individual are Romania, Turkey, Morocco and China. There was one guy from the Netherlands.

Everybody is really positive. Sitting in a classroom full of all new immigrants, many of whom have families, professions, whole lives behind them, is a good feeling. They are very positive and motivated to learn the language. There are some younger people who don't make it to class consistently, but most people are pretty focused. You really get the feeling (and hear this from them) that they are grateful that they are in Canada and appreciate the opportunity they are given. Their relationship with Canada and Montréal is obviously complex, but that's for another post. The biggest complaint is generally the winter and that's coming from people who lived in South America, so it's very understandable.

Everyone is very civilized and friendly and you make friends quickly. After you get to know people, you begin to hear about their stories and many of them are incredible. There was an older guy in my class from Salvador. Quite genial and kind of suave. He always dressed nicely, had a thick head of grey hair slicked back and wore gold rimmed glasses. He also had the deep, lined tan and thick hands of someone who has worked hard outside his whole life. I can't remember what started it, but he told the class about how he ran a small farm store in Salvador, selling seeds and equipment to the farmers in the region. He gave a lot of stuff on credit and his store became a sort of gathering point for the community. He was encouraged to run for some elected position in his region and before he even decided, soldiers came to his door one night and barged into his house and said they wanted to "interview" him about his candidacy. He didn't go into much detail, but that kind of thing continued and he and his family eventually had to flee. That particular teacher didn't like the discussion to get too political so she moved us right along. But I was thinking, damn this is the same guy who made a presentation to the class in halting french about healthy eating the other day and joked with me about how he went into a coffee shop and the servers were nude. That dude has lived a life! I know that I tend to wax patriotic too often, but it did make me feel proud to be a Canadian.

Another interesting thing that happens is that a lot of the other students have children. Well these kids are obviously learning french way faster than we are and the poor parents have to go home and get scolded by their children about their accents, poor grammar, etc. "At least I can still help them with their math," one father told me. They are producing a new wave of bilingual and maybe trilingual Canadians who in some small way will help weave the color of this country.

How's my french? I passed level 6 with 85% and am now in the written level 1A. I can now read, though slowly and with gaps. This is huge for me as it opens up a world of books, comics and periodicals that I've always been curious about. I can speak fairly well, though I need a lot more practice. My listening comprehension varies widely. I can understand most of news and talk shows on TV but can barely understand the other students in my kung fu class when they are just joshing around. I can write competently, but am a chasm away from the understanding that allows one to write the fluid, rich and nuanced french that I'm starting to love.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Remembrance Day

I have really had trouble finding a poppy pin today! I find this very discouraging. I live in the Plateau, which is considered a very french district. My school is out in Villeray which is pretty french as well (farther east and north) but also houses a lot of new immigrants. Today, I saw one person wearing a poppy.

I understand that the relationship between Quebec and the two wars is complicated. Canadian students learn about the two Conscription Crises of 1917 and 1944 where there were riots in Montréal and Quebec City. The situation was more extreme during WWI and in both cases, much of western Canada was also against conscription. But today many anglos feel that the french didn't do their fair share to contribute to the war effort. This isn't true as many french-Canadians fought and died in both wars. On the other hand, French-Canadians felt a great deal of resentment about the conscription laws, feeling that they were being forced to fight for an english cause while being treated as second-class citizens at home.

That is history and much of it is still with us today. But to continue to mix the sacrifices of Canadian soldiers with lingering resentments (and the current political situation) strikes me as dishonorable. As I have stressed here many times, the french have a lot to be resentful about and it's important not to forget the pressure of their situation. But when I see the ignorance (and even willful ignorance in some cases) about the role that soldiers have played in the formation of this nation, I lose sympathy with their cause. How can the same government that mandates "Je me souviens" on every license plate not promote Remembrance Day? How come there isn't anybody giving out poppies at the Métro here? Why isn't Canada's role in the two great wars explained to immigrants learning french at the government-sponsored programs here?

I have two strong memories about Remembrance Day. My high school was very British and almost four entire classes went overseas in World War I, most of whom were killed. We have an even longer list of students who died in World War II. For Remembrance Day, we would all march to the chapel to the moving sound of bagpipes. There, every name was read aloud. We also had readings and later, in class, discussions about the war. The notion that these men were almost our age was emphasized.

In 7th grade, in my elementary school, a box was passed around the class and kids put change that their parents had given them. Mr. Bergland explained it like this, "There are a lot of retired soldiers, they don't have a lot of money and some of what you donate can help them so they have some change in their pocket when they may need it." He jingles his change in his pocket as he told it. It was so humble but made so much sense to me at the time. Somehow, it imparted a real respect and made me rethink the way I saw the old guys who used to hang out at the Legion.

So I guess Remembrance day is an emotional and sentimental day for me due to my own cultural upbringing. Seeing the people here not treat it with respect does anger me. I guess I'm starting to see a certain selfishness in French-Canadians, an excess of resentment that is allowed to excuse other faults. I think it is not becoming, especially from a society who has suffered already from the ignorance of others.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004


A friend of mine is in the Master's degree program at Concordia in Print. She's working on street art, graffitti, things like that. One of her projects is to put posters all over town and see how what happens to them. She's interested in how the physical and human elements of the city interact with public art like that.

The poster she has been putting up this last week is a reaction to Bush's victory in the U.S. election. It says "EAT ME" in large red letters on top of an angry (and quite striking) graphic. She's a talented artist, though I question her conceptual approach at times. Anyways, she was putting up some of these posters just off of St. Laurent and a middle-aged man approached her. He spoke to her harshly in french. She could understand him enough to know that he was having a problem with the english words on her sign.

She's from Vancouver and has only lived in Montreal since the beginning of the semester a couple months ago and then for about a year before that. She had never heard of Bill 101 (the infamous Québec law that mandated that all signs had to be in French and that any english had to be in a significantly smaller size; there are language police who go around with rulers enforcing this law). She took Level 1 of the same government french program that I'm currently taking (as a matter of fact, she's the one who told me about the program) and has just started level 2. Her french is not great, but she's really making an effort, going to class 4 hours a night after a full day at school.

She argued with this guy that her poster had nothing to do with language. That it was a political protest against the Bush government. They ended up having a long conversation (that I think she really didn't want to have). He lightened up a bit when she told him she was taking french. He did, though, complain about all these students coming to Montréal, enjoying the culture and the life without having any idea of the traditions, history and struggle behind it.

Though cranky (and possibly perverted—she's fairly attractive) men complaining about language issues is annoying, I understand his position and kind of agree with him. There are some cranky Québecois around, especially older men, and their resentment, though perhaps well-founded, is not very helpful. But there are a lot of young anglos here who come to go to school. And they realy are amazingly ignorant. It's a truism that college students are ignorant (and think of themselves as well-informed), so you can give them some leeway. But it's the lack of will that I think really infuriates a lot of francophones. They speak only english, stay west of St. Laurent and drink Molson or worse Heinekin.

The issue of language is very high on most francophones minds here, I believe. I have another friend who took her French-Canadian boyfriend to her Y downtown. He was quite angry that in the changing room, it was all english. You can't be putting a political poster up without addressing it. It'd be like making some statement about gay marriage in a native reserve. It's offensive to the people here because it's ignoring a political fight that they have been waging for centuries, while taking a political position.

On the other hand, if you are unaware of the depth of history and feeling that the Québecois have, then it seems like they are just really sensitive and picky. But that's always that way the one with power feels. It's very similar to the feelings most Canadians have about the states. We're hyper-sensitive to their every move and when we complain, they are surprised and indignant. If you're going to come to Québec, you really should treat the language issue with weight and respect.

This posting is not necessarily directed at anglos from Montréal, because they have their own brand of resentment and can make a case for having been badly treated themselves. It's more for the happy-go-lucky Canadians from the west who have no idea what their getting into out here!

Friday, November 05, 2004

de la Bière

The beer situation in Québec is awesome. It's plentiful, cheap and good. And people drink a lot of it.

First of all, there are a bunch of regional brewers who make quality beer that is sold at domestic prices. Belle Gueule, Griffon, Tremblay, Boréale to name the more popular ones. Each make a rousse (a darker ale), a blonde (a lager) and now a blanche (some wheat type beer, I guess; good for summer). There is also of course Unibroue, but they are more expensive so usually bought as a special treat. These local brews can be found in any bar for the same price as a Molson or Labatt's and they are much better quality and richer in taste. It's so nice to be able to go to a normal bar, buy a pitcher of locally produced beer that tastes really good and spend only $13.

I generally get the Boréale Rousse. It has a cool polar bear on its label. Boréale means northern hemisphere (as in aurora borealis) and I guess it is supposed to suggest icey-cold freshness or something like that. I also order Boréale because I have trouble saying Belle Gueule. That "Gueule" is a tough one to pronounce properly, with all these things happening at the back of your throat. A Geuele is a snout on an animal, but also means a guy's face. A belle gueule means a good guy or a good-looking guy. It seems to vary. Also, une gueule de bois (a snout of wood) is a hangover. See how cool drinking beer in french is!

What really makes the beer-drinking so kickass here, though, is the government policy on it. It's legal to sell them in corner stores! They have government liquor stores here (SAQ's-Société de l'Alcool de Québec, I think) but they tend to concentrate on wine and spirits. You can buy beer in corner stores and supermarkets. Let me repeat that. You can buy beer in corner stores and supermarkets. I know for you Americans out there, that's not a big deal. But that kind of freedom is something people in the west can't even really imagine (I have no idea how it works in the Maritimes). No rip-off beer-and-wine stores here. Because it's open to competition, the prices are excellent. I'm talking two-fours of good beer for $25-$30 and they often have specials where they go for as low as $21 sometimes. They had a special on Bolduc stubbies (yes, stubbies) for $22 all summer and man a lot of those empties piled up on our back porch.

[A little aside. Corner stores here are called deps. That's short for dépanneur. Dépanner is to repair something and in official french a dépanneur is a repair shop. I don't know how they came to be corner stores, but the word also connotes helping someone out and maybe because they were open later and perhaps gave credit, they got that name. Just a guess. I'll look into it.]

I think that the deps must be surviving on their beer sales. They look pretty rundown, but they are everywhere, unlike in Vancouver where they are slowly becoming exctinct. They devote a lot of space and energy to their beer sales. Most of them have a stack of cases of the ones on sale near the cashier. The first time I went to the dep in my neighbourhood, they had the new Boréale blondes on sale in a big tower. I went to get one, thinking that they'd have to sit in my fridge for a couple of hours before I could drink them. I tried to take one from the stack and the owner told me to get some cold ones from the fridge.

I looked a little confused. I'd already been along the fridge aisle and there were only single beers there, amongst the usual assortment of juices and sodas. "No, no," he said. "You have to go inside the freezer," and then he led me to the last door which didn't have shelves behind it. Instead, you walked into the back, behind the drink shelves, which was basically a big walk-in freezer! And it was cold and stuffed with cases and cases of beer! I mean this was like the bat cave or something. My knees got all trembly. You could just hang out there. I did that laughy/cryey thing for a while and then just hung out there for a while, soaking up the spirituality of the place.

Now, I see that most deps have walk-in freezers. It's just taken for granted here. And guess what, B.C.? Drinking and driving isn't any worse here. People are not killing each other or turning into drunken beer-whores (well, maybe a little) or whatever other irrational fears you temperance fascists in the west believe will happen if you let people have free access to alchohol. And the breweries do a good business.

Unfortunately, the distribution of hard alchohol is just as bad here as everywhere else in Canada. They have those nasty little regulators on every bottle of booze in every bar I've been in so far. And when they don't, they measure it out with a shot glass. The martinis are foul, watery things, like drinking the juice from the little white olive jar. I'm waiting for the ghost of Mordecai Richler to point me to a bar where I can get a decent drink. George Bush or no, Americans do know how to make and drink spirits. It's ironic considering we were the ones who once sold it to them in their time of greatest need. But that rant is for another day and another political movement (for now, please complain about those bottle regulators every chance you can). For the time being, I'll drink the beer here and be very grateful for it.