Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Cheyenne In Francophonia

If you can read the notice below ("don't forget, bring us proof and we'll equal anyone else's price" the classic North American sales guarantee), you qualify to live in Québec the Canadian province where McDonalds employees must greet you with a cheerful bonjour. Luckily for Cheyenne she doesn't have to worry about this nonsense as I can speak for her, but if she could speak she'd have to learn French too. It's a whole new adventure.

We left Burlington around ten thirty with the GPS showing Montréal 73 miles up Interstate 89 with the minor matter of convincing a severe Canadian immigration agent we were worthy of entry. Customs on this border only checks entry, when you leave the US going north or Canada coming south the country of departure has no checkpoint. Odd but true.

A New Yorker's approach to Canadian customs:

The Canadian inspector's severe visage broke into a smile when she asked if I had anything to declare and I lowered the rear tinted window and Cheyenne looked up sleepily from her princess bench in the back. "She's so calm," the agent marveled with half a smile as she scanned our passports and glanced at Cheyenne's rabies certificate.

The hour long drive through the Canadian farmland south of the city was stressful for me the constant speeder. I've heard stories about Canadian speed traps and the severity of punishments and I was glued to my speedometer at first. A helpful sign translates 55mph into 90km/h just past the border and I stuck to it on the two lane highway. That didn't last long as the locals zipped by in the passing zones (as I do when Québécois tourists clog the Overseas Highway in winter) but unlike Canadians in Florida I sped up and traveled the highway in their shadow. That got us ahead and dropped us acting as a rolling roadblock.

Québec has a law requiring French signs so my sweet navigator wife who speaks Spanish was forced to ask me for help with some of the signs. I gave of my knowledge with an open heart and absolutely no condescension. None. "Take 55 Oh," was the instruction from the passenger seat. Ouest. Layne hates not knowing everything so reading road signs became a bit of a trial for her.

Happily we were not alone in this appallingly complex city of endless road construction -travaux- and we had David's address in Layne's GPS which was great until her Verizon iPhone took a dump. At the border my Android phone went dead the second we crossed the line but miraculously it came back just when her phone bought the Canadian farm when we got to Beaconsfield. Oh, and we passed a money changer near the border and said to ourselves there will be more...which there weren't on a Sunday. Suddenly Mr And Mrs Experienced Traveler were rubes abroad but luckily Cheyenne failed to notice what a thin thread we were traveling on. She snored on the back seat. It turned out stores do take US dollars and give change in Canadian, but I just feel like an asshole acting as though foreigners should take our money.

Nice lakeside neighborhood..but oh shit! Do they turn right on red? Dunno? Don't turn you might get a ticket! But I might be holding all the locals up like I was a Canadian dithering on Eaton Street! I got out of the car and startled the driver behind me by lumbering up and asking est ce qu'on peut virer a droit avec le feu rouge? Just the sort of dilemma one is not educated to handle in the classroom. En Québec oui, mais pas dans l'île, he said when he recovered and disentangled my French. Not in Montréal he mumbled, being very kind. Well that sucks. My wife spent the rest of the day barking "Not on the red!" every time I automatically started to go at an intersection. Grr. It's absurd as Canadians are infuriatingly polite when driving, even the speeders are patient so turning tight on the red should be legal. But as I kept repeating it's their city and they will be snowed under in a few months. Serves them right.

We stopped to let Cheyenne out of the car and have a drink while we tried to reach Life on two wheels, the scoot commute on our bolshie telephones. That was a Monty Python moment standing in a school parking lot staring at our phones wondering why they wouldn't work - yes! - no! -one bar! - three bars! - no bars! Grr. We're going back to AT & T in September, because Verizon doesn't have the coverage we like, and my wife still hadn't got over the zero Verizon coverage in Puerto Rico when her pals with Ma Bell were chattering away throughout their vacation last Spring and she was mute.

All's well that ends well and we were welcomed with beer and great conversation, wide ranging and adult. Cheyenne, the whore, splayed herself in the alligator position on David and Susan's cool tile floor. It was like she had read David's comment on this page over my shoulder:

My Vespa is also at your disposal, with two medium Nolan modulars.

Susan and I will gladly dog sit if you like while you roam the city.

Cheyenne is welcome to lounge pretty much anywhere in or out, and can swim in the pool if she likes.

No pressure.

All we had time for in this whirlwind tour was a late lunch and lots of conversation, thoroughly enjoyable, a delightful long drawn out afternoon, interrupted by food. We had asked to be shown authentic Montréal food and this is what David and Susan came up with:

Layne and I shared a platter with no idea what we were getting. It turned out there was enough that Cheyenne got a taste in the parking lot and she pronounced it good for Labrador consumption which is setting the bar rather low so let me confirm this stuff is superb even for American humans. Eat with your fingers which was a surprise in well-mannered Canada.

As is well known I loathe photographing people but I did my best. David told us a bit of Pete's story, a man devoted to fishing and the blues so he started out with a small eatery that became famous and fashionable when the newspaper discovered it... Now Pete offers live music even while he works the counter and still finds time to go fishing. Smart man he who knows how to enjoy a balanced life!

Ordering is made complicated only by Québec's antiquated language laws. In my opinion language will thrive and flourish if the people use it because they want to and because it means something to them. Corsicans still speak their own Italian dialect despite French cultural intimidation because Corsicans want to speak their language. The Welsh have a TV channel in their language because they demanded it and the English acceded. Italians in Alto Adige speak German because it's their culture, Basques in France and Spain do the same. In Québec French is mandated as a political requirement.

David, a bilingual Francophone argues that the language laws were needed to restore balance in a province where French speakers were kept down. He also argues, persuasively, that the language laws have pushed demands for independence onto the back burner. His wife is an Anglophone who grumbles about speaking French, a horribly complex language riddled with obscure rules and complex pronounciation. She views the requirements as archaic and in a province where only the wealthy could afford private education most children going to public schools in the hard core seventies and eighties learned only French. They had their career options badly stunted and are now demanding bi-lingual opportunities for their kids. Such are the complications bequeathed to us by history and I don't want to see this experience repeated in the US. most young Latinos in the US want to learn English the international language of business, but Miami is becoming quite the closed community and I get annoyed when servers expect me to speak Spanish.

For me, bi-lingual in Italian, a not terribly useful language, and able to get by in Spanish and French, the idea of living a life in two simultaneous languages is too much. I was so glad to get home across the border after a day of coping with people saying bonjour and reverting to English after the mandatory French greeting. For someone who doesn't speak French it must be hell. But Canada has its compensations. I'd heard about Tim Horton's forever, a genuinely Canadian fast food chain, doughnuts and sandwiches, coffee and pastries. Cheyenne was unimpressed, and really it is simply a coffee shop chain acting as a Canadian symbol.

We made complete asses of ourselves trying to figure out what to buy. We were ideal Canadians as we tried to politely usher other customers ahead of us as we tried to find our way through the menu. Merde. Luckily the clerk was as patient as a real Canadian would be, and didn't shoot us as we dithered. No tips as clerks get paid properly in the land of universal health care.

Doughnuts? Bagels? Croissants?

We took our pastries and I got a to-go cup to take home to use at work.

Susan had told us about Yagel Bagel a place where they make a particular type of Jewish bagel, a challenge my wife couldn't resist. She did the buying and I listened to the youngsters wish they lived in "the States." Yeah they know free health care is better than the madness in the US but they want to get out of Québec. They don't like being second class citizens in a French speaking world. That struck a nerve, rather similar to how Republicans egg their followers to hate immigrants. It seems like it's too easy to not value your citizens wherever you live. The bagels were good though, chewy, aerated and crisp. Different and good. Cheyenne got a taste and approved. It was an interesting Jewish food outlet in a strip mall.

The sun was starting to set and if we didn't get going we would be on the road in the dark so naturally we went shopping. Layne likes to check local foods when we travel so we cruised the aisles of a supermarket we happened across. English chocolates are a perennial favorite so we snagged Maltesers as well as a few curry sauces, French cheese and a black carrier bag of a peculiar design made if recycled plastic. Souvenirs with a useful bent.

Why Exxon is known as Esso around the world except in the US I don't know but it always has been since I can remember. It still is apparently north of the border. Gas was around $1.50 Canadian a liter which was a lot more than in the US. We drove north with a full tank.

Check this out; lawyers work in Canada just like they do here. David told me if you drive more than 25mph over the limit you can have your car impounded. That demands attention. And every time you get a moving violation the cost to renew your driver' slice she goes up. No wonder they drive like slow pokes in the US. In a Florida I do traffic school and get no points. Take that Canada! Socialist buggers!

I think we in the US can learn some stuff from our rather rule riddled neighbors to the north, though Susan was quick to point out it isn't perfect there, just as things aren't perfect here. What hurts me is that instead of thinking about stuff and asking questions we react in a knee jerk way. Canadians have a health care system that costs less and covers everyone. It's not perfect but we in the US are driving our sick neighbors bankrupt with our corrupt, insurance driven non-system.

I like the energy in the US, the idea that anything is possible, which allows for bad shit, just as much as good stuff in life. Living here requires paying attention and in a country devoted to distracted driving it seems a lot to ask people to live while planning for their futures. Yet that's what happens in the US and a lot of people fall by the wayside. It seems like we should be our brother's keepers and do a better job of looking out for each other. We keep talking about freedom but to me it feels like the word has lost its meaning when people don't have work but are loaded with debt and fear. I hope we can find our way out of this endless recession without giving in to fear or sloganeering. The cool part is that the US has a history of reinventing itself and that gives me hope.

I couldn't live my life in Canada, mind you as I am devoted to warm weather so Canada as a whole is outside my comfort zone. But they have well regulated banks, gun laws that allow hunting but not hand guns, no desire to conquer the world combined with abundant natural resources. And gas at $6:30 a gallon because health care is never free. I always feel I'm lucky not least because I chose not to have children which has, let's be honest, given me the opportunity to be irresponsible to a degree, free in a way parents can't be. But I have always enjoyed life in the US because I enjoyed the opportunities offered without falling off the narrow rail of the good life. Work, play and lots of choices among cool places to live is what the US has offered me over the decades, a way of life not available anywhere else that I know of. How my neighbors raise children. I came away from Québec rattling a lot of ideas in my head about how we live. David and Susan were perfect hosts, great conversationalist and they rattled my cage in a good way.

We crossed the border at dusk at a small crossing into northern Vermont to avoid the lines on the Interstate nearby. We chatted a while with the border guy, comparing notes on the weather, federal law enforcement and life in South Florida. A car pulled up behind us and we drove out into Vermont as darkness fell. A sign indicated 50, with no suggestion it might be kilometers or miles. No welcome to Vermont, or the US or anything. The presumption that south of the border we need make no concessions to strangers. No cheerful bonjour! like the frogs across the invisible line. I think we could do better.