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08.12.2004

I Cannot Speak Your Crazy Moon Language

One warm Friday night at the start of July, I finally snapped. I had been nearly a month in Montréal, and the situation was so desperate that no idea was off limits. What had been unthinkable just a week before now looked like my only option, and so I logged in and bought tickets to see a French stand-up comedian.

Readers of this site will know that I am a staunch defender of the French. But even the greatest love has its limits, and before that Friday night I would have set those limits right at the place where "French" and "stand-up comedy" butt up against one another.

But this was a different night. Not only did I pay American cash money to see the performer Anne Roumanoff, but the seats I got weren't even in the far back, in case La Roumanoff turned out to be one of those performers who plucks victims from the audience (she did). And I bought the tickets fully aware that her website advertised her as 'follement Roumanoff' (i.e., 'wacky'), and that the show was part of the inauspiciously titled "Just For Laughs" comedy festival.

None of it mattered because La Roumanoff was from Nantes, in France, not from Québec, and her routine was my last, best hope of proving to myself that I had not completely forgotten the French language.

As if to salt the knife in my wounds, the show started up with a rapid-fire montage of other acts from the festival, displayed on a big video screen at the front of the stage. All of these acts were Canadian, and all of them sounded the same:

Comedian: pouai che m'fis dzi la baing, tsi tellaiment chabouin, et t'amousse qu'il aie fairemin bieuvé, tabernac!

Audience: ha ha ha ha

Until suddenly the screen came up, there was a woman on stage, and I could understand every word she said.

In other circumstances I might not have found La Roumanoff all that exciting. Her routine was good, but didn't break out of the usual stock topics - airline humor, blonde jokes, sex talk. Still, that night I found it to be pure comedy gold. Whether it was the dumb secretary, the teenager-on-a-cell-phone, or even the drunken-lush-in-a-bar, the jokes all came through. I even resigned myself to public humiliatiion in French when the time came to pull people from the audience (I was saved by the guy sitting next to me). The only part of the routine I couldn't understand was when she affected a Canadian accent.

So living in Québec has been humbling. I can speak fairly fluidly, and people seem to understand the things I say, but listening is a failure. At the first few words I'm either inclining my head towards the person, muttering "hein? pardon?", or I'm smiling stupidly and radiating goodwill and understanding, until they say whatever they need to say, and go on their way. The nadir, and the episode that drove me into the forty dollar arms of La Roumanoff, was an agonizing five-minute attempt to purchase a Klondike bar at the local gas station. They were two for one, the clerk kept trying to tell me, but not until I had slunk out with the rapidly melting square in my hand and seen the Klondike poster did the sad import of her words come through.

Québec French attacks the unwary speaker on all fronts - morphological, syntactic, and phonetic. The language has kept a variety of vestigial bits that mainline French lost a while ago, it sounds as different from French as a Scottish does from American English, and it uses heavy doses of local slang and English borrowings (while eschewing other English borrowings that are accepted in Continental French). It also wins special points by throwing in the occasional Imperial measurements, something I only associate with old French texts from the 18th century.

what it sayswhat I hearwhat it really means
cafécafécafé
guichet automatiqueatmatm
coupe de cheveux - $10haircut - $10haircut - $7.60
pointe de pizza et une cannette de pepsipizza point and cannet of pepsislice and can of pepsi
sous-marin de 12 poucesundersea boat of twelve thumbs12-inch sub
dépanneurauto mechaniccorner store
perdez 20 livres en 30 jourslose 20 books in 30 dayslose weight fast
j'vais simonizer mon charI will simonize my battle tank?!

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