I Don’t Parle,Ya’ll!

19 08 2010

As long as we’re on the subject of foreign language, I’m reminded of something that happened to me several years ago on a trip to Sherbrooke, Quebec. In fact it was the event that taught me not to try an impress the locals with my limited knowledge of the language.

I had done work in Ontario but this was my first trip to Quebec. I knew they spoke French but thought, surely, they speak English as well. I mean, Ontario and Quebec are in the same country, how could the languages be different? Well, North Carolina and Massachusetts are also in the same country, but a North Carolina boy trying to understand and be understood in Boston can be just as challenging as a walk through the park in Buenos Aries. Once, while on a business trip to Boston, a business associate from the area told me he would give anything “for a clock bah.”

“What the heck is a clock bah?” I asked.

“You know a candy bah”.

It took a while for me to realize he was referring to a Clark Bar. Still, I did not anticipate any problems communicating on my trip to Quebec. Wrong!

Give Me a Sign…Please!

My problems began only a mile from the Montreal airport when, in my Hertz rental car, I entered a traffic circle or roundabout. I suddenly came to the realization that French was not only the primary language in Quebec-it was the only language in Quebec, and my high school Spanish was of little help. I was unable to read road signs. I continued around the traffic circle several times trying to figure out which way to go until, finally, I allowed my sense of direction to take over and took a guess, which turned out to be right.

I got to Sherbrooke and arrived at my hotel just as it began to snow. I was relieved to learn the desk clerk, a very thin young man with a Beatles haircut, spoke English.

After I got settled it was time to go out to dinner. Because of the weather, my inclination was to just eat there at the hotel, but I usually try to avoid hotel restaurants. To confirm my opinion, the desk clerk would not recommend the hotel restaurant, but he did make some suggestions and wrote out some directions for me on a piece of note pad paper. I really wasn’t interested in going far, especially since the snow was increasing; but, trying to follow his directions, I wound up driving along a service road behind a shopping mall.

Without a clue as to where I was, peering through the snow-filled darkness, I whipped into a driveway into the mall parking lot to get my bearings. There was a sign by the driveway but, of course, I couldn’t read it.

It’s Dudley Do-Right!

I stopped shortly after entering the parking lot so I could review my directions. As I sat there under the interior light of the car, trying to make sense of my directions, it was only a matter of seconds before there were blue lights flashing behind me. Suddenly, there was a tap-tap-tap on my window. It was a police officer- not just a police officer but a Royal Canadian Mounted Police. He began to speak to me, in French, and I had to interrupt him to tell him I couldn’t understand him. He then asked me, in English, if I had seen the sign. “Yes, officer, I saw a sign but I have no idea what it said”. Once I opened my mouth, no further explanation was needed. He informed me the entrance I had used was for buses only. It was a lot like that Andy Griffith episode in which Brisco Darling was dipping water with his hat from the horse trough on Main Street in Mayberry, to fill the overheating radiator in the truck, and Andy had to tell him it was against the law. Mr. Darling looked around, and seeing no horses, he told Andy if he saw one he’d be sure to give him the right of way. It was Sunday night in Sherbrooke, Quebec and the mall was closed. I’m not even sure the buses were running. If I see one coming, officer, I’ll be sure to give him the right of way. I don’t always resist the urge to say what I’m thinking but that was one time I was glad I did. First, he wouldn’t have known who Brisco Darling was. Second, he had the sense of humor of a grizzly bear in labor.

So I explained I was in town for the first time and was just trying to find a restaurant. He checked the vehicle registration and decided I was no threat to Canadian society and let me go.

I finally found the restaurant and looking at the menu, was, again, completely lost. The waitress either spoke no English or chose not to speak English-not sure which. I chose to give her the benefit of the doubt and assumed she spoke only French. But I just pointed out a few things and ate what she brought me. For all I knew it could have been lamb fries in chitterling gravy.

Now, run the clock forward about 6 weeks. I was returning to Quebec, but, I decided I was going to be better prepared this time. I was connecting to a flight at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport. I went to a book store where I found a book entitled, French in 10 Minutes a Day. It looked simple enough so I bought it with the intention of learning enough French to, at least, order my breakfast.

Ouoi! Me Speak French?

I looked in the book and found the French words for breakfast-type food that appealed to me. The rest of the trip I practiced those words. In my hotel room that night, I practiced ordering breakfast over and over until I felt comfortable with this newfound knowledge. The next morning I got up and couldn’t wait to get to the restaurant so I could order breakfast like the locals. Oui, Oui, je parle français- at least enough to order bacon and eggs.

I went to the restaurant and took a seat. Soon, the waitress came over and said something which, of course I did not understand, but felt safe in assuming she was asking me for my order. So with the pride of a freshman who just won a belching contest, I ordered my breakfast-in French. Then the waitress said something else. At that point I was lost and was forced to reveal my status as an out-of-towner. I said, “I’m sorry, maam but I have no idea what you just said”. With a pleased but surprised look on her face, and without missing a beat, she said, “You must be from the South”. It wasn’t exactly country ham and redeye gravy but le breakfast was good!




2 responses

19 08 2010
Jackie Garner

Do you know how hard it is to make a clown laugh.. Well… you missed your calling Bill.you should do stand up …great story…..loved the line ” A sense of humor of a grizzly bear in Labor”

20 08 2010
Bill Taylor

Jackie, Jackie, Jackie…you are quickly becoming my favorite fan!

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