Entering French Canada really can be quite a confusing experience for anyone who lists their first language as English, especially those crossing directly over the border from the United States who must think they've stepped into a totally different world. Crossing the border on my first trip to Canada a few years ago was a hellish experience, although on that occasion this began at customs before I had even encountered the language barrier. The border guards all treated us as though we were trying to break into Russia with a suitcase of nuclear weapons, and also to take a great deal of pleasure from asking our guide all sorts of stupid questions clearly designed to annoy him as much as possible. I was particularly amused to see that somebody had recently decided to make the journey into Canada without bothering to stop, as the barrier across the border gate was lying in the road in several pieces where it had clearly been rammed by a vehicle on its way through as though the driver was trying out for a part in a Hollywood movie. At the time, our guide Paul had told us that one of his colleagues had made the same journey a few weeks previously with another tour group, and the border guard had told her simply: "No laughing!" - these people clearly have no concept of the way the British mind works, do they? I mean, seriously - if somebody in authority tried to bark "No laughing" at me while putting on a straight face and trying to look as tough as possible, the only possible thing I could do would be to burst into fits of hysterical laughter. And then, of course, I would be unable to avoid my mind filling with images of some German guard from Allo' Allo' screeching "I said No Laughing! Why are you Laughing?" and I wouldn't be able to pull myself together for a week.
It becomes more and more obvious, the further you travel into Quebec, that you are no longer in an English speaking zone. Now, I know this will come as quite a surprise to many of you - after all, Quebec is a province of Canada and Canada is part of North America and they speak English, right? Well, yes and no. Everybody else speaks English. Quebec has to be different. In fact, they don't stop at just being different - the government of Quebec really does take a ridiculous amount of pleasure in enforcing anything to do with the French language, even to the extent of arresting people and chucking them in jail for refusing to put up signs in French or for putting them up only in English. As we drove further and further into Quebec, it got to the stage where none of us understood a single road sign that we went past - many of them were odd shapes I'd never seen before, and since they were written entirely in French with no translation underneath, they may have been warning of axe murderers ahead for all we knew. The locals in Quebec, who like to call themselves the Quebecoise, actually get quite upset with anyone who doesn't speak French fluently, and many people refuse to learn the English language point blank, which is something I would have a lot of respect for if it weren't for the fact that they live in the middle of an otherwise English speaking nation. By all means, speak French - but why decide that you don't wish to be able to communicate with people a few miles down the road just because they are in the next Canadian province? At the last count, over eighty percent of people in Quebec listed their mother tongue as French - only seven percent said it was English. That only leaves thirteen percent who consider themselves fluent in both, or perhaps they just didn't understand the question. On several occasions, Quebec has actually attempted to become an independent country, which surely would cause more trouble than it was worth what with having to issue passports, create frontiers, form an army and police force and everything else that goes with the territory - but unsurprisingly, the rest of Canada doesn't seem to particularly like the idea. Funny, that.
We stopped for lunch at a shopping mall in the small town of Drummondsville, where we were shuffled into McDonalds whether we liked it or not, and I tried very hard to order Chicken McNuggets - or Poulet McCroquets, as it turns out they want to call them in Quebec. I actually remember reading somewhere once that McDonalds, at one time, weren't allowed to call themselves McDonalds here because of the law that company names must be in French - but that may well just be an urban legend. While it is true that company names in Quebec have to be French by law (in fact, Quebec law states that every Quebec citizen has the right to have business done with them in French and can stubbornly cross their arms and refuse to accept money from people who dare to speak English at them), I find it hard to believe that the name McDonalds wouldn't be allowed, mainly on the basis that it is simply the name of the brothers who created the company.
Anyway, McDonalds was where I got my first taste of exactly how hard life was going to be in French Canada. I waited patiently in line, smiled politely at the young lady behind the counter when I got to the front, and asked for a portion of Chicken McNuggets and fries. She looked at me blankly, blinked a couple of times as though deciding whether to scream or not, and then turned around and yelled something in French very loudly into the kitchen which produced a large thug-like manager within three seconds. Immediately, this new arrival lulled me into a false sense of security by smiling and saying in broken English "yes, what do you wanting" in his best Carry-On Abroad voice. I asked, still just as politely, for some Chicken McNuggets, at which he stared at me blankly, blinked a few times and then produced a piece of card on which everything was written in English along with French translations so that I could point at what I wanted. This was my introduction to French Canada.
I really don't want to get into stereotypes, especially as there has been something of a long running love/hate relationship between the British and the French - mostly hate - and both nations are in a habit of hurling abuse at each other on a regular basis. I don't want to get into stereotypes, but I'm going to anyway. We had a lot of trouble getting to the hotel in Quebec city tonight because somebody had decided to dig up the entire road and not bother to tell anyone first. Coaches, lorries, cars and motorbikes were all backed up down the main road through town, honking at each other furiously and not getting anywhere, while workers stood around leaning on their shovels and looking at us as though to say "Yes, what do you want?"
I wonder if they have the same problem we do in Europe with French lorry drivers blockading all the roads in and out of town because they aren't happy with their wages, or their pension, or their socks, or whatever it is their not happy with today?
When we finally got to the hotel after what seemed like several centuries, our guide went straight to reception to complain about the road works going on outside and how we hadn't been warned about it. The receptionist did a good job of looking slightly interested for all of about thirty seconds, during which time he stood there listening intently and picking his nose. Then the phone rang, and he just turned around and walked into the back room to answer it without so much as excusing himself. Rude doesn't even come close. I won't name the hotel. Oh, okay then - the Holiday Inn. Sod them.
About Simon and Burfords Travels:
Simon Burford is a UK based travel writer. He will be re-publishing his travel blogs, chapters from his books and other miscellaneous rantings on these pages over the coming weeks and months, and the entry on this page may not necessarily reflect todays date.