On Friday I went to Montreal to sit a five-hour French exam for my Canadian immigration application. The TEF(Test d’Évaluation de Français) is a tedious business indeed, especially when you haven’t used French in thirteen years. Once upon a time I spoke good French, thanks to painful stints as an exchange student and _jeune fille au pair_ while my friends were whooping it up _as Gaeilge_ at Irish college. A country of the chic and the golden-limbed is no place for a gawky fourteen-year-old from the armpit of Ireland, and for her part, Anne, my evil penpal, made it clear that Limerick was not worthy of her argyll cardigans and natty little scarves.
It was worth the torture to learn how the French summer _en famille_. Her family owned a farmhouse on an island off the Vendée, and twenty or thirty aunts and cousins filled it for the month of August. It’s true: French mealtimes, at least for that sacred month, are an event, not a snatched, mindless scoff. We Irish and British had no food culture to be proud of back then, but here was a country that did not run its day on fifteen cups of tea, two Kit Kats, and a plate of chips. I was still a fussy eater, and was fascinated by the attention they gave every salad, each piece of fish.
While evil Anne took windsurfing classes I tagged along with her aunts to the market every morning and tried to follow the vivid discussions on ripeness and freshness. At dinner I swallowed the _escargots_ and the jugged hare without chewing, trying to hold my face still. On one outing I shot a pheasant and almost fainted; I’ve never eaten pheasant since. I fell deeply in love with Benoît, Anne’s 22-year-old cousin on a break from his military service, and pined for him over the crêpes. He and his brother Laurent headed out to _les discothèques_ with a jeepful of gorgeous women every night. Stuck at the children’s table, I scratched my oozing bites and seethed.
French concerns, as expressed in Friday’s test, don’t seem to have changed since then. There were several questions involving labour strikes at the railway station. A long comprehension test on the sad decline of _les vacances_ in France. I sorted recipe steps into the correct order. I wrote a suitably aggrieved letter to an imaginary newspaper protesting in fractured French that English was not the only language worth knowing in the modern world. (It was that or debate “Should access to culture–books, cinema, and theatre–be free?”) There was a painful piece on _mondialisation_, or globalisation. I waited for the multiple-choice rant on American pig-dogs and the absence of weapons in Iraq, but they denied me the joy.
My oral exam was severely compromised by the discovery just beforehand that Hugo the receptionist was Ecuadorian. We had bonded by telephone the week before as I persuaded him to register me for the test a fortnight after the closing date, and he was now thrilled to learn that I knew his country fairly well. Before I could stop him he replaced every French word in my head with a stream of excited Spanish. For the thirty-minute test I had to rent an imaginary flat and persuade a friend to try a new home-concierge service, and throughout I sounded like a Madrileña with severe lead poisoning.
The reward for having every ounce of French extracted over a five-hour period was getting to spend the rest of the day in Montreal. The last time I was there was a daytrip eight years ago, before I’d learned how to travel. All I did was eat an obligatory crêpe in the tourist district and head back down to New England. But ooh, Montreal is fab! I didn’t realise until I got there how much I’d missed a big-city fix. (Oat-uh-waw, bless its paisley brocade vests, doesn’t count.) Over a Moroccan lunch at a street café I ogled the parade of babes and imagined myself back in Brooklyn.
Montreal’s bagels and smoked meats are better than New York’s, not that New York will believe me. In the old Jewish quarter the bakeries are still owned by old-timers, but the bagels are made by Cambodians–and they get it. Mordechai Richler would be proud. On Friday evening they were still dropping them out of the ovens while groups of Hasidim strolled to synagogue.
The junkshops and pawnshops are full of deals and finds. Their Central Park has a hilltop view of the city. Bikers weave between the buses and the skateboarders with the right level of anarchy. The two-dollar chocolate tarts would draw tears of joy from a parsimonious gourmet. And Montrealers make smoking look really cool.
There’s a glorious mix of languages on the street: French and English drowned out by Farsi, Spanish, and Urdu. In the stores there’s a little handshake protocol with the staff as our language modems figure out whether to offer French or English. I’m a Nowhereian, and I like to be surrounded by other outsiders. The friction of cultures rubbing together heats up a city, and that energy can’t be faked. I was still high on it when I canoed back to the Kedey Island cabin under a full moon, listening to the beavers and the wild geese.