Monday, May 23, 2011

You say da, I say yes, they say ouai

Today I got into a debate with a Russian man over Quebec, the French-speaking province of Canada. I was strolling down Arbat, enjoying the sun and the fact that I don't have to make treks out to the Wasteland anymore on Monday afternoons. I popped into a Russki Souveniri shop and right away was bombarded by an over-zealous shopkeeper trying to talk me into buying the tackier of his offerings.

"Mmm, panyatna," I said in an attempt to shrug him off. "Understand." As in, ok ok I get it, now leave me alone to peruse in peace!

He got the message and left me alone for a bit, until I approached him with my intended purchases in hand (I won't reveal what I bought, in case the recipients are reading this, but I do hope Kelly and Jacqueline will enjoy their gifts!).

Now that I had to speak more than just a word in Russian, he could tell by my accent and frequent pauses that I was a foreigner. "Oh, I thought you were Russian!" he exclaimed, which is definitely flattering - I love it when people mistake me for a local! I always feel a slight thrill like, Yes! I managed to trick you!

"Ot kuda? Where are you from?" he asked.

"Canada," I answered, pronouncing it the Russian way - Kah-NAH-dah.

He then asked me if I was from the French part of the country. I suppose I answered this question a little TOO vehemently, blurting out, "oh nyet, nyet!"

And somehow he interpreted that as a reason to engage me in a good-natured debate about why I apparently don't like Quebec. It's not that I dislike la belle province; I did an immersion program there three summers ago and loved the experience, the language, and the culture (the lard-heavy diet, not so much!). It's just that I think Quebec needs to suck it up and get over the fact that the English beat the French back in 1759. Anyways, that's neither here nor there on this was just really interesting and somewhat surreal to be debating the issue of Quebec separatism with a Russian souvenir shopkeeper thousands of kilometres away from the subject in question!

On a totally unrelated note, now that its May, the hot water is getting shut off throughout the country for two week periods as workers fix the pipes. According to Katya no one knows when their hot water will be turned off, as it depends on the district you're in, but if you're lucky, you will know someone in another district who still has their hot water and will let you shower at their flat - with the agreement that you'll return the favour when its their turn! Since I went three weeks in December without ANY hot water (a bitter memory that I will never forget and probably keep complaining about every now and then!), I think I can deal with no hot water in May.

Well, its just after 7pm here and I have a class to teach at 7:30 - better get down to the school!


  1. When I left Vladivostok in Spring 2001, I got out just ahead of flooding that killed a half-dozen people and destroyed thousands of homes. Somebody thought, good Lord, what if the reservoirs had let go - we'd be done for. So, just in time for the following year's visit (and my wedding, Urrah!!!)the city let a good deal of the water in the reservoirs go, in case of a repeat. Add in a heat wave and the perennial plumbing problems, and Vladivostok had to contend with a lengthy period of water shortages. The water was turned on from early in the morning until 9:00 AM, and then was shut off until after supper; then it was on until about 9:00 PM. If that was intended as a conservation measure, it probably wasn't very effective, because most people spent the time from they got up until 9:00 AM filling everything that would hold water - plastic bottles, diaper pails...When you wanted a bath you had to sit in the tub and pour water over yourself with a basin. Good times.

    Really, the battle for control of Canada could have gone either way, and at the time the world's dominant language could have gone either way as well; both France and England were enormously influential, and both were imperial powers. The French in Quebec feel their culture is threatened with extinction, just as some in the Caucasus likely feel threatened with extinction by Russian influence. At least we don't have to worry about terrorism from Quebec, although even that was once a consideration. But anyone who has spent any length of time among the Quebecois would have to acknowledge they make considerably more of an effort to learn English that the provinces outside Quebec and New Brunswick make to learn French. Maybe they'd seem a little less militant if they saw any real effort to meet them halfway, as far as languages go - the official line is that French is an official language and you have the right to be served anywhere in either, but it certainly isn't enforced in my province. The language laws are perceived by the French - correctly, in my opinion - as mostly lip service. It's not like learning French is unreasonable, either; most people in Europe can speak two or three languages.

    I'm not crazy about the road signs that read, "Welcome to the Nation's Capital" on the highways approaching Quebec City, but I can otherwise sort of see their point. We'd certainly be a poorer country without Quebec.

  2. Wow Mark your experience in Vladivostok sounds so interesting!! I don't think a lot of Canadians could get used to water restrictions like that. So far the water here is still hot, but I know over in Zelenograd, the neighbouring suburb, the hot water's been off for about a week. Brrr!

    I agree with you that Canada would be a much poorer country culturally without Quebec, and there does seem to be a double standard in regards to English Canadians learning French (except in Ottawa, where I think it truly is bilingual). And those signs that say "Welcome to the Nation's Capital" - threw me off the first time I saw them on my way to Quebec City! I had to think for a second, "wait, did our capital change?" haha...I guess my problem with Quebec is when they try to rewrite or ignore the past, like when they protested a reenactment of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham.

  3. Ha, ha; are you kidding? I was so nuts over this girl (still am) that I would have brushed my teeth in lighter fluid if that's what it took to be there. Water restrictions - even at the hottest time of the year (or at least I hope it was; damn, it was hot and humid) - were just a kind of charming distraction that lent the whole thing an air of camping in a war zone or being the only people left in a deserted city that has lost most of its services, like Will Smith in "I Am Legend". Except he's black, of course. And rich. But it's also true that I was on vacation, and a lot of things seem kind of funny and not a big deal on vacation that look thoroughly unfunny when you have to get up at 6:30 to get ready for work.

    You're quite right that there's a contingent of nationalist whiners in Quebec to whom no slight is too small to be built into a major insult. And I hadn't heard about protests against a reenactment of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham (what a spectacle that would be!), but I certainly wouldn't support any revision of history; what happened, happened - warts and all. However, the vast majority of people I met in Quebec seemed to genuinely appreciate my willingness to speak French, and were friendly and kind.