Mon pays

Courtesy of my friends at CBC radio today, I was reminded (if I ever knew in the first place) that our national anthem is a French song that didn’t have English words until 1907 and the version we learned in the 1960s is quite different than the version millennials sing today and furthermore, didn’t even become our official national anthem until 1980. But that is not really our topic today. All of the talk about the history of O Canada and the related subject of the importance of music in the political and national fabric of Quebec reminded me of my French immersion course in the 1970s.

With all of the logic the Federal government could muster, the location chosen to transform us to French fluency was the Scarborough outpost of the University of Toronto. I had only been to Toronto once or twice before but even I knew that Scarborough was not actually Toronto. This location was probably chosen so that bright lights and night life would not distract us from our ‘devoirs’.

Despite our decidedly non-French environs, the program did manage to immerse us in la langue Francais pretty much 24/7. It was kind of a cross between a weird summer camp and a minimum security prison. We had all meals together in a dining hall and they took attendance, even at dinner. We also had assigned tables which made it kind of obvious if someone was AWOL. Each table took turns being the wait staff – taking orders from the menu (of course we had a menu and we even had wine at dinner – this was as full a French immersion as you could get) and bussing the tables. Each night one table was also responsible for the evening entertainment (also not optional). You have not lived until you have experienced the French translation of the ‘Ivory Soap’ skit or a rousing version of “Ne jettez pas votre jonque dans mon arriere-cour”.

Since this was an urban location, our daytime activities did not involve swimming, boating or outdoor survival skills. Instead, we had a roster of classes to attend. However, rather than drilling us on grammar and vocabulary from text books, our language acquisition took place while learning yoga (les salutations au soleil) and macramé. I also took ballet, which was my designated bird course as it did not require learning any new French words.

Another regular activity was the classic camp singalong. But no Kumbaya or rowing boats ashore here. We were issued a booklet of Quebec songs, whose topics ranged from wives trying to keep the home fires burning in the dark and cold of winter to people banished from their homeland for crimes of loyalty. In other words, spanning the gamut from depressing to really depressing.

Prior to my immersion experience, I knew where to find my aunt’s pen and how to converse with people who were on strike (one of the stranger scenarios that were included in our French textbook in Grade 5). Anyone who experienced this curriculum also has the secret handshake of referring to the second level in a parking garage as ‘the little dog’. But I digress. The songs of Quebec taught me a whole new level of vocabulary about the hardship of being a European pioneer in ‘the land God gave to Cain’, the equal parts of reverence for and hatred of winter, and of course about lumberjacks. Gens du pays, c’est votre tour
De vous laisser parler d’amour.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *