Back when I first came to France, when I was 14, I assumed that there would be a French analogue of everything I knew in the States. I thought that there would be a French MTV, French chick flicks, French rock bands, French Coca-Cola, even. And while to some extent this is true (maybe more true now than ever before) – we do have our own rock bands, our own music television – to a greater extent, France simply imports a lot of these things from the States and kind of does its own thing with other elements of its culture. Which makes sense: it’s a completely different region with a completely different history.
I was surprised, then, to learn that there is a region of the world that – OK, doesn’t have an analogue for everything, – but has a lot more “French versions of American stuff” than my adopted country does. And that region is Quebec.
I’m pretty sure I’m going to anger some people by saying this, so let me set the record straight: I am very aware that Canada is not the northernmost, 51st state. I know that Canada has its own unique culture and history. But as North Americans, we share a lot more than Americans share with the French, and one place where I really found this palpable, oddly enough, was in signs.
I still remember when I first went to Toronto and saw the fact that everything on labels was written in two languages, much like this Heinz bottle. It’s done in a way that feels intentional, a way that shows the two ever-present languages. But in Toronto, that was often the extent of bilingualism; in Montreal, it was pervasive.
I think the thing that surprised me so much wasn’t the French words, which, of course, I see every day. It was the fact that the French words were appearing in places I was used to seeing English: a true analogue. Here in France, for example, our “exit” signs are an illuminated green, so seeing the French words on them isn’t so surprising; in Montreal, they looked just like American exit signs, but in French.
They even take this to extents that the French don’t. The “arrêt” sign up above had my in-laws in stitches, because in France, we just use stop signs that say “stop” – in English.
School buses were the ones that made The Country Boy laugh. French kids aren’t generally bused in to school like this: if they take the bus, they take the public bus. Seeing a school bus with “écoliers” written on it made me feel as though I was finally in that alternate American universe I had expected upon moving to France… and it also kind of makes the school bus look like a snack box for giants with a hankering for schoolchildren.