I recently traveled to the province of Quebec with my daughter. French is the official language in Quebec and neither my daughter, who is fluent in Spanish, nor I speak French. I have to admit that I took three years of French in high school but outside of a few cooking terms like mise en place and sauté…I don’t remember a lick of it. This was quite intimidating as we crossed the border in our car on Interstate 89 just north of Burlington, Vermont needing to find a bathroom desperately.
Quebec is largely rural with a ton of farms, and, to our dismay, did not have any gas stations or fast food locations within the first 40 or so miles inside the border. And EVERY sign was in French. In addition, my cell coverage was not working. This might have been a bad idea. We are reading signs as we pass through the little villages near the border. “Bar Laiter” appeared on several signs. “Wow, they sure have a lot of bars here in Canada”. Finally, one of the signs that said “Bar Laiter” also had a picture of an ice cream cone. “Ohhhh. That’s a dairy bar. Let’s see if they have a bathroom”. We walked into the shop and there in the back was a sign saying “Toilettes”. Whew. When in doubt, always look for the food sign, a food sign, any food sign!
As we traveled through Montreal and Quebec City for the next few days, we learned that food would be our common denominator. Here are some key learning’s:
1. Greetings. Wherever you go, be sure to know the local greetings. Whether “bon jour” or “howdy” or “hola”…know how to greet folks in their own language. Making the effort to meet them in their own language shows respect and effort on your part. It’s ok if your “bon jour” lacks any Parisian flair and nuance (heck you don’t want them to think you really speak French anyway). It’s fine if if you sound like a New Yorker speaking Midwestern; people will make allowances if you try. There is nothing so sweet as the waiter or valet responding with a sweet , melodic “bon jour” in return. Study up on your greetings.
2. Smile. A smile forgives a thousand sins. It’s easy to get so nervous about a lack of fluency that we put our stone face of fear on. The best response is smiling. It is the international language. A smile is disarming. It’s very difficult to get upset if someone is smiling at you. Even if you don’t know how the credit card machine works or need directions to the ladies room ~ Smile.
3. Patience. Turn up your patience dial. Just 48 hours before arriving in Montreal, we had been in the center of stress inducing, manic, adrenaline provoking Manhattan. The pace in Manhattan is in stark contrast to laid back Montreal. When you eat in a restaurant, it’s expected as we later learned from our tour guide, that a meal will take hours and no one is ever going to ask you to leave or even present a check until you ask. We were on vacation for god’s sakes. Relax. Linger. Take your time. Embrace patience.
4. Local. Eat local. We found out on a food tour we took in Old Montreal, that Canada produces excellent duck and maple products. In the next three days, we had every manner of duck (canard in French) from confit, to pate, to a’la Orange. Delightful. In fact, every menu contained duck and every preparation was wonderful. Quebec is the center of the world on maple syrup and sugar production. Whether maple pie, maple crème brulee or maple ice cream…we had it all and it was perfection.
We stumbled upon a Patisserie that had a French trained chef who made the most perfect croissant my daughter and I have ever eaten. We didn’t need to know the language to understand great food. We may have killed our ability to have a Pillsbury Crescent Roll going forward but the experience of tasting that flaky perfection was worth it. Always try to eat local products.
5. Open. If you travel to places with different cultures and languages, you’re going to need to be open. If you want scrambled eggs and Maxwell house coffee for breakfast, stay home. If you are uncomfortable saying “merci” instead of “thank you”, stay on your couch. If you are afraid of being embarrassed by your pronunciation of “bonsoir”, don’t bother with a passport. My daughter and I had a blast practicing the common phrases we heard and tentatively tried them out on unsuspecting front desk and busboys. At one restaurant we were given a gigantic jar of cornichons with our pate, OK, so this is how they do this here, let’s give it a try. Service folks are there to shape your experience, be open to letting them do their job.
6. Permission. It was terrifying at first, but we got used to asking for permission to speak English. Like I said, we really didn’t know any French. So invariably, someone would bring our meals and rattle off what they were serving and we didn’t have a clue what they were saying. It took a few bungled requests but eventually, I would say “Do you speak English?” Of course they did. They ALL did. We watched one Maiter D’ go from one table and speak Spanish, another and speak French and then, ask us if we enjoyed our meal. Flawless. I am humbled by their outstanding service and their ability to effortlessly switch from one language to another (and they didn’t even need an app…which by the way we did to help translate). Ask for permission.
In every trip I have ever taken, it’s always been about the food. My memories are wrapped up in the flawless croissant and succulent Canard A ‘la Orange prepared table side. I’ll always remember it. Let the food be the mile posts in your memory and help you embrace a different language and culture.