I enjoyed being in Montreal, surrounded by people speaking French. It was good to be in another country.
I could understand a few words and the gist of a sentence, but only after a 10-second time delay where I tried to spell words in my head. I can stumble through a French newspaper article, or follow a poem along with its translation into Spanish or English, but the same words spoken aloud – they often don’t compute!
My own voice sounded harsh and unlovely in my ears, flat and strident, after a day or so listening to French and Spanish. It was embarrassing evidence that I am an uncouth U.S. American. I might as well have been saying “Gee! Gosh! I guess so! W’all, I’ll be!” and slapping my knee while twiddling a strand of hay between my teeth, right off the set of “Hee Haw”. We have a lot of reasons right now to be embarrassed to be USians. Suddenly I could not escape being identified with a category I find distasteful… any personal or subcultural identities I have were subsumed into national identity, and into stereotype.
On the street and on the Metro I played guessing games – who was going to speak French? Was it possible to tell by how people dressed? I think there were correlations, but I didn’t have enough experience to guess right.
Strangers generally spoke to me in French, and I learned to say “bon jour” and “bon soir” but then there’d have to be a switch to English or shrugging. I wondered if people were reading me as French-speaking, or if it is standard in the Downtown and Village Gai areas to start off with French either because of the population there or for political reasons. Here, if someone speaks Spanish to me, it is either because they don’t speak English or because they have “read” my race incorrectly.
In the Metro I overheard a tour guide – in English – explaining to a group that the west side of one of the islands, the English-speaking side, just seceded from Montreal and is now its own city.