Tuesday, August 11, 2015

I'm Sorry, Quebec

George's dreams of Ironman glory have taken us to Mont Tremblant, Quebec, this year. On our first trip to Canada nine years ago, we went to Poets Cove resort on Pender Island, British Columbia. There, we enjoyed time on the water kayaking, whale watching, counting bald eagles, and being tailed by curious seals. We ate delicious food, had excellent service, road water taxis to various islands, and generally made ourselves at home.

We fell in love with Canada and felt like we could belong in Canada quite easily and happily, if only because as a nation they've embraced their dollar coin and call it the loonie. How delightful! In my lifetime, Americans never have accepted dollar coins, though I suspect it's because the dollars always have serious things on them like Sacagawea, eagles, or war-hero presidents.

Loons are ever so much more adorable.

When I told several Canadian friends that our return to their fair country would take us to Quebec, one shot back, "That's not Canada."

How right she was! I've felt quite wrong-footed since we arrived five days ago and feel the need to apologize to Quebec for my ignorance and awkwardness and general lack of cajones.

I'm sorry. I don't know the French word for cajones. Which leads to my first observation, which is painfully obvious, but oh so important:

Everyone in Quebec speaks French. This means all the signs are in French, the television shows are in French, and food labels are in French. French advertisements show up on my computer. I do not speak French, and for some weird reason, I now feel guilty about this gap in my education.

The guilt may come from my acute awareness that almost everyone we've encountered speaks not just French, but English as well, and generally very good English. Workers at McDonald's are bilingual. Bravo, Quebec's education system! The U.S. education system needs to step up. Seriously.

Out of pity, Quebec ought to print signs for us non-French speakers to wear around our necks, identifying us as easily-confused bumpkins. I know a few basic phrases in French...oui, merci, merci beaucoup, grazie, prego, de nadadonde esta el bano...wait, I think I'm getting confused.

Anyway, I want to say oui or merci, but every time I do, someone responds with a stream of French that leaves me feeling embarrassed and guilty, as if I've misrepresented myself. I now stick to English yes, thanks, thanks very much because those words signal my complete ignorance and cause the other person to respond in lovely accented English. Whew.

What makes me feel even guiltier is that the people of Quebec really don't try to make you feel bad for not speaking French. I'm the one who's awkward about it, not them. They have been nothing but pleasant and accommodating.

I'm sorry, Quebec, that I don't speak French. Merci, y'all, for being so nice about it.

My second observation about Quebec is also painfully obvious: it's on the metric system. How big, really, is the 1.5kg chicken I bought? My pharmacist sister-in-law knew the conversion factor, but I didn't. I found myself moving quite slowly through the grocery store trying to do math in my head (never an easy thing) and reading labels in a language I don't understand.

I'm sorry, Quebec, that I slow down your people in the grocery store, especially when it's a busy Friday evening and all your people want to do is grab dinner and go home.

My third painfully obvious observation: driving in Quebec is different from driving in the United States. Of course, the signs are in French and speed limit signs are in kilometers, but I notice no connection between the signs and how fast people actually drive. In the U.S. the "real" speed limit is generally about five or ten miles-per-hour over what's posted (except in California, where it's more like 15-20 over), but in Quebec, I've been passed on winding, hilly two-lane country roads while doing at least ten kilometers over the limit.  Being passed would be fine, except some people are passing on curves with double-yellow lines. Maybe a double-yellow line means something different in Quebec than in the U.S., but this is kinda scary and I don't want to be responsible for lives lost.

I'm sorry, Quebec, that I don't drive faster and your people get so frustrated with me they must risk their lives to get around me.

My final observation about Quebec is that people here are braver and stronger than we Americans. We went hiking in Parc National du Mont-Tremblant on what was supposed to be a facile climb. In U.S. national parks, easy means small children and old people wielding canes can navigate the trail without dying. Clearly, in Quebec, facile means something completely different. We were huffing and puffing up steep grades and decided that our mothers could never, ever do even a facile hike in Quebec. They have bad knees, and those down-hill grades are a bear.

Also, the descriptions of your hikes in the cool Parc National phone app scare me a little. Consider this one:

A sporty and vertiginous route and an activity that is part hike, part climb. You will safely climb along a rock face on Mont de la Vache Noire. Along the way, between points requiring some effort, you will have a chance to appreciate the singular hilly landscapes and the aerial view of the bends in Riviere du Diable at the bottom of the valley....

Difficulty: Easy
Length: 425 meters
Duration: 3 hours

Now, I know enough of the metric system to know that 425 meters is just about a quarter of a mile, which is to say not far. Any 425-meter hike that requires three hours to cover is CLEARLY NOT EASY by U.S. standards. The adjectives sporty and vertiginous do not inspire confidence in the facile label either. We Americans must be a bunch of pansies.

To be fair, the day after the Parc National hike, we braved the facile hikes at Domaine du St. Bernard and found them not only extremely easy but pleasantly fragrant and springy under foot. Perhaps this is because the park used to be run by Christian brothers as a training and recreational site, and clearly the brothers were gentle souls who appreciated contemplative, peaceful walks over sporty, vertiginous climbs.

Given two such radically different translations of facile, we suspect there is no government oversight for labeling trails in Quebec as facile or tres difficile, and such labels are as meaningless as the speed limits signs. 

I'm sorry, Quebec, that I don't have the cajones for hiking demonstrated by your young children and old people with canes. Vertiginous isn't an option for me these days.

In conclusion, I'm sorry I'm a bumbling American tourist, Quebec. You deserve better. Your people are charming and helpful, your country is beautiful, and your food delicious. So thank you for graciously hosting us.

Even if you're not really Canada.

Keep an eye out  updates on the Ironman race as it happens on Sunday. I will, as in past years for IM Moo, post links to track George and his brother-in-law Mike as they idiotically bravely tackle the 140.6-mile (that's 226.3km) course of Ironman Mont Tremblant.


  1. One year I took the kids to New England, mostly Maine, for a two-week road trip. At one point we found ourselves on the Western side of the state, and as I spoke with the owner of the B&B the following morning, I realized we were 20 miles from Quebec. The kids' eyes lit up! So we went to Quebec for lunch. Our goal was to order a Burger King Whopper avec fromage. And we did! Poor girl trying to make change from Canadian/Quebecian to US dollars. I think I ended up paying about $20 USSD for lunch, but it was sooooo worth it!

    We also chuckled that the signs for the border were "frontier". What are we, the wild, wild west?

    I'll bet you're having a blast in Quebec, even with the language barrier.

  2. I think your description was quite generous. It's been 21 years since I've been there (yikes) but if memory serves I would less generously say - the drivers are completely nuts bordering on suicidal and they complain that anglos don't speak French, until an anglo actually speaks French to them, which causes them to respond in English to show their gratitude. (I found it rather insulting.) On the bright side, the landscape and the architecture are charming and once you get past the French thing, the people are fun! And let's face it the metric system just makes more sense. - yes that's the Canadian in me!
    It sounds like you are soaking in the whole experience. Have a blast!

    1. Well, I think they are likely more accepting of Americans that don't speak French, than Canadians that don't! Plus Mont Tremblant is a tourist town, so I guess they are more used to visitors from all over the world.


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