Zut Alors! How A Can Of Shaving Cream Made Me Homesick

In culture, History on April 25, 2010 at 12:41 am

It hits you without warning. I’m sitting on the edge of the tub about to shave my legs when I realize the new can of shaving cream is eerily familiar.

The label — although I bought it here in downstate New York — is in French and English.

{{fr|Photo des Plaines d'Abraham de la Ville d...

The Plains of Abraham. Image via Wikipedia

Quel big deal, vous dites? Non, c’est super!

One thing I really miss about Canada, where I was born and raised, is seeing French on everything you buy even if your first language is English. A bored little kid, even in Edmonton or Iqaluit, ends up reading it on the back of the cereal box, learning by default.  You just end up knowing weird words like “rabais” (discount) or, if you’ve ever lived in Quebec, “depanneur” (which literally means someone who helps you out; “etre en panne” is when your car breaks down) which is — natch — a corner or convenience store.

The U.S. has such a thing about bilingualism. Some people froth at the mouth with indignation when a voicemail prompt says to hit another number if you want to continue in Spanish.

The French got their collective butts whipped on the Plains of Abraham on Sept. 13, 1759 when Wolfe defeated Montcalm; Montreal succumbed soon after that and Canada became English-dominated. The Quebec license plates, forever middle finger raised in reply to les maudits anglais, say “Je Me Souviens” — “I Remember.”

But Canada remains officially bilingual, which really pisses people off in places like British Columbia (its name might be a clue), as opposed to Manitoba or New Brunswick which still have some significant pockets of French-speakers. English speaking Canadians know they’re Anglophones, Anglos, and those who speak neither English or French allophones.

I miss seeing two languages everywhere, a reminder that life — certainly in a culturally as well as fiscally intertwined global economy — can never be seen through the lens of one tongue and one point of view.

  1. Bien remarqué.

    OK, that’s about it for my French until you say something about pampelmousses.

  2. J’adore pamplemousses. Et toi?

  3. il y a des choses que l’on ne peut pas traduire. to me, the beauty is in untranslatable phrases and nuances of meaning. you need to be bilingual to appreciate a language’s elegance.

  4. Je suis tout a fait d’accord. I love being able to say and think things in French (and Spanish) that do not exist in English. I like “leche vitrine” (window licking) for the more banal window-shopping; it so much better conveys frustrated desire.

  5. “chat échaudé craint l’eau froide” never sounded right as “the scalded cat fears cold water”. i usually get dumbfounded looks.

    • C’est froid de canard!

      I’ve not yet had the privilege of being Canadian, but funny you should write this on the very day that my handy packet of Puffs mouchoirs (pour les nez à consoler) transported me suddenly to France. I find that anglo-franco bilingualism flourishes especially on products from la salle de bain and pet supplies. Why is that?

  6. J’au aucune idee! You can be a semi-Canadian. But you’d have to be a little, hm, comment on-dit — socialist?

    • Pas de probleme! I live in Chicago, the socialist dictatorship where the current socialist administration was manufactured. Next time he’s home, I’ll speak to Barack about issuing a presidential order on bilingualism. The French angle will take the anti-immigration/English-only crowd by surprise. Then, when our health care reform bill is recorded in the Congressional Record in both English and French, we can all be semi-Canadian.

  7. It’s been a long time since I lived in Canada and there’s very little left from those days, but every once in a while I pull out in item from the back of the cabinet or under the sink that has French on one side and English on the other. I remember one of the first times I went into a grocery store in Quebec, I walked down the aisles trying to guess what things were and then turning the packages around. My then-husband followed behind me getting angrier and angrier. He seemed to worry that I’d be mistaken for some sort of Anglophone agitator.

    The first word I learned in Quebec (after “depanneur” of course) was quincaillerie.

  8. But only if we let you! There will be a quiz. 🙂

    1) pogey? 2) loonie? 3) PMO?

  9. jaxyn, now the real question — can you pronounce it?! It’s one of my favorite French words. (For all you Anglos, it’s “hardware.”)

    • Yes, and with a wonderful Canadian accent.

      When I meet French people, they ask me if I’m Canadian. When I say,”No,” the give me the strangest look.

  10. It may be because *only* Canadians (if you have a strong Quebecois accent, which is very distinctive) tend to speak that way. I get mistaken for a Provencale or someone from from the provinces.

    • Well, first and foremost I’m an Anglophone and people can tell that French isn’t my first language. However, my ex-husband has taught accent reduction classes and he used to work on my accent with me, more than I would have liked in fact. He tried to get me to speak with what he called a “standard” Quebecois accent, the way the news anchors on Radio Canada speak. There’s quite a variety of regional accents. I’ve never asked, but I assume the French believe that I’m an Anglophone from Montreal or someplace with a large Francophone population. Oddly, most Anglophones from Montreal that I’ve known have a less marked Quebecois accent than I do. I was an American trying to blend into a Francophone environment, so I was, believe it or not, trying to acquire a French Canadian accent. I guess it was the typical immigrant’s desire to fit in.

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