Monday, June 27, 2005

La fête nationale

Quebec gets an extra holiday in the summer. It's St. Jean Baptiste day or La fête nationale. This year it took place last Friday (June 24th). The rest of Canada also takes Canada Day (July 1st) off. I think they get that as a holiday here as well.

It originated in France as a pagan holiday celebrating the summer solstice. When King Clovis started making christianity official, he turned the holiday in to a celebration of St. John the Baptist (the dude who baptised Jesus and I think later got betrayed by Salomé and had his head cut off). The original french settlers brought the holiday with them to Nouvelle France and maintained it as a patriotic celebration. I think it's not such a big holiday in France anymore, but here, especially with the revolution, it has been installed as one of the biggest holidays of the year.

And it's big! Quebec City and Montreal have huge spectacles (that's concert in french). Montreal actually had two, a free one in Parc Maissoneuve and a pay one on Île st. Hélène. Hundreds of thousands of people attend these shows, wrapped in Quebec flags, fleurs-de-lys painted on their face. I'm sure most of the smaller cities in Quebec have their own spectacles and parades as well. People really party. I imagine there are a lot of people born 9 months after June 24th! At the shows, everybody knows all the lyrics, singing them together with the people on the stage.

Anyways, it's a very nationalistic holiday. I know to a lot of westerners, that must sound weird. It still sounds weird to me. I also heard a few bilinguals scoff at it being called la fête nationale. I'm sure there are many who feel threatened by Quebec nationalism who are not comfortable with the tone of this holiday. Most people, though, from what I read in the english hebdos, are quite happy to have an extra holiday and consider it a great opportunity to party.

I heard an interview with a politician who was encouraging people to come to the spectacle in Montreal. He took great pains to make it clear that this holiday was open to all Quebecers, especially immigrants. The host was asking him some tough questions about this issue, but I still got the sense that the politician was protesting too much. The problem with Quebec nationalism (any nationalism, really) is that it reveals the fuzzy line between cultural pride and exclusion. It's a complex and rich argument, with points on both sides. But Quebec nationalism connects itself back to the original white, french settlers. And that makes a lot of people uncomfortable. Many anglophones have families that have been in Quebec for generations. There are also many immigrant groups, especially here in Montreal, who have been here for 2 or 3 generations (Italians and Portuguese specifically) who don't feel included in the fête nationale.

Furthermore, Quebec is bolstering its population with immigration. The government is working hard at educating the new immigrants, in the french language and the Quebecois culture. But you just don't get a sense that someone who moved here from Mexico is going to feel the same connection to Quebecois pop hits from the '70s as someone who grew up with them. Perhaps Quebec's strategy is a bit like the U.S. Unlike the "vertical mosaic" of the rest of Canada, Quebec is trying to fully assimilate its immigrants. Judging by the low-level racism that I see and hear constantly in Montreal, I don't think they are succeeding (more on this issue later).

I don't have many conclusions, beyond that there is a real tension inherent in the fête nationale, but I think the overall postive and festive nature of the culture here will keep the tension at an intellectual level rather than turning the holiday into something divisive.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

How french has taught me to love the phone.

[Thanks for the great feedback on my last post everyone. Really interesting and enriching comments. I'd love to find a good discussion group for new anglos to Montreal, that way we could carry on these discussions more dynamically.]

I have discovered a wonderful new bonus to learning and practicing French. Now two of the things that I used to hate the most, tech support and telemarketing, have become good things in my life. Let me explain how.

I'm a bit of a nerd and know enough about electronics and computers to be the kind of customer that I'm sure most tech support workers hate. I also have an attitude and a political opinion born out of a childhood in Berkeley and a father who is basically a technological anarchist. So when I'm phoning my ISP or the hydro company, I'm already in a fight before I even get them on the phone. Of course, they always do something to justify my anger.

In Quebec, when you call these services, the default tends to be in French. Speaking another language on the phone is much more difficult (no visual cues, can't watch the lips move, sound quality is bad) and you really have to prepare yourself mentally. The difficulty is especially pronounced if you are going to be using specific vocabulary, such as billing or computer terms. Generally, here, the people on the other end of the line are bilingual, but I always feel like such a jerk barging past their polite "bonjours" and "comment est-ce que je peux vous aider?" into my complaint (seeming all the more obnoxious in english). For a while, I would start out in French, exchange pleasantries and then ask if it was okay if we spoke in English as I had trouble with the technical terms. This tended to help me feel less guilty and improve the overall tone of the conversation.

Whether it's the language or the culture, French-Canadians are very polite. They take the time to state all the social pleasantries that we used to use in English but have mainly discarded. They say "bonjour" or "bon soir" when they see you and "bonne journée" and "bonne soirée" (have a nice day or evening) when you leave. They say "enchanté" or "c'est à moi le plaisir" (the pleasure is mine) when they first meet you. If you thank someone in a business transaction, they may well respond "C'est moi qui te remercie." (it is me who thanks you). I find it an interplay of language that makes for a warmer and more meaningful social existence. Anglos who want to get on in Quebec would benefit greatly by recognizing this. Even if you don't speak french, just taking the time to make a polite exchange tends to make the other person feel more inclined to be helpful, even if you continue in English.

I saw just how rude the anglophone can seem when I was out on my front porch sorting my recycling. A woman was knocking at the door next to mine. My upstairs neighbour, a woman from Saskatchewan, opened the door. The woman knocking told her in french that she was from the landlord and was here to collect some tax papers that had been dropped off in the mail. My neighbour said "We don't want any" and basically slammed the door in her face. It was jarring. The woman rang again and my neighbour came down. The woman started to explain who she was. I tried to tell my neighbour in english that she was from the landlord, but I could see from her face that she was quite stressed with her inability to understand. Finally, in a shrill tone, she yelled upstairs to her boyfriend that "Some lady is talking french." The boyfriend came down and they figured it out. I know my roommate was not trying to be rude. She was just anxious about not being able to speak the language and had her western canadian fear of talking to strangers defensiveness up. Obviously, the woman from the landlord could not see this at all and she looked very put out. When she turned to me, she went right into her need for these papers. I didn't respond to that and instead introduced myself and asked who she was. Then I remembered that I had talked to her on the phone and then we discussed the weather and the building and her husband the plumber who'd helped fix our kitchen sink. Her whole demeanour changed. She became relaxed, comfortable. I eventually got her her papers (and an appointment for her husband to come by and help me install the washer). Not only was the whole exchange so much more pleasant, but it really highlighted what's important in life: talking with people, not the stupid papers!

So I've been trying this strategy on the phone. Eventually, it got to the point where I just felt comfortable enough to stay in french. Sometimes, I'll ask them to be patient with me, but more and more we've been doing these transactions almost entirely in french. And the beauty of it is that, because of the gentle politeness at the beginning of the conversation and my sense of accomplishment at dealing with this onerous task in another language, I often end up not getting angry at all. Moreover, sometimes I find the person on the other end of the phone to be charming and engaging, to the point where I'm actually enjoying the conversation (despite the extortion-based policies of Hydro-Quebec and Bell, but that's another blog). Sometimes, they can't get me off the phone!

This has now extended to telemarketers. We all know them and we all hate them. Their demon spawn bosses should be packed in ice and shot out to Pluto. But suddenly, for the novice french-speaker, here is a free oral french lesson, on the challenging phone, no less! So when the telemarketer phones me in right in the middle of some project and asks if I have time to answer some questions, I say "avec plaisir!" Of course before they get to their questions, I head them off with some polite conversational openings. "Ça va? Oui, oui. Ça va très bien. En bonne forme, en fait, malgré l'humidité. C'est une catastrophe!..." Then I take the time to discuss each of their questions at length. It's great practice and eventually you can hear them start to get frustrated, which is deeply satisfying. Now they try to get off the phone with me! My most memorable discussion was the guy from customer service at Sympatico who called to follow up on a call I had made to see if I was happy with their response to my call (what middle manager fiend came up with that idea? "Let's see, our service sucks, so when they call to complain and we don't help them at all, we'll call them at home a week later and ask how they felt our service was!" "Great idea, JR!"). Anyways, I ended up arguing with him about the nature of their SMTP server (the poor fool knew a little bit about it, just enough for me to latch onto) and then launched into a discussion about data travelling around wires and in the ether and who should own it and what is private property anyhow. All in french. He hung up on me. I felt like I'd just got an unexpected tax refund.

And the upshot of it all is that my french on the phone is really getting quite competent. Now if only I could get my outgoing emails to be sent reliably...