Égalité and the Way to a Woman’s Heart

There’s a lot to like about the French. Liberty, Fraternity and Equality is a wonderful motto and it sounds especially seductive when you say it in French. The language has loads of cool phrases which if spoken with just the right blend of insouciance and authority makes you sound cleverer than you really are, like “joie de vivre”, “je ne sais quoi” and “vous êtes magnifique, mon petit homme velu.”  I like their kisses, their snow, their wine and their funny little hats. They gave us Pascal and Pasteur, Curie and Camus, baguettes, bouillabaisse and beef bourguignon. And the women speak with soft, seductive lispy accents which even the most stone-hearted of men find hard to resist.

But all is not well with the French. They’re a bit like the pretty girl that you admire from afar, but when you finally summon up the courage to speak to her, you find her rude and dismissive with a penchant for whispering to her friends in front of you, laughing at your thick black-framed spectacles, your curly brown hair and the shorts that sit too high above your waist. Apparently this has happened to some boys.

Although I’m loathe to generalise (even though it’s quite fun), in our visits to France that’s exactly what we found – a pretty, culturally rich country which looks great from the outside but has a population (or at least a part of it) that is contemptuous towards its visitors. Its waiters in particular behaved as if they were glamorous untouchable beauties whilst we were scabby, pimpled misfits undeserving of their time, let alone a glass of water with ice in it.

The French populated Quebec province in Canada, so I knew Montreal was French-speaking. However, when we arrived, I was still surprised. Virtually all road and shop signs are in French only and it is clear that almost the entire population uses French as their first language. The food is unashamedly French-influenced and bookstores have paltry, if any, English sections. TV stations are in French and the architecture is French-influenced (or so I’m told). The portents were not exactly promising.

Fortunately, my fears did not materialise. It seems as if some mystical being has taken these Canadians and sucked out the more odious features of their French character, applied a bit of spit and polish to the rough edges and then added a dose of affability. They are friendly. They are helpful. They smile. They don’t treat you with disdainful contempt or ignore the fact that it is your tourist money which keeps them well-stocked in smelly cheese, roasted garlic and Gauloises. Some have argued that it is this hubris which gives the French their uniqueness, their character, their beauty –  but to me these defenders of Frenchmen are like lovers of cats and Alfa Romeos, somehow trying to convince me that it is their tendency to ignore you or break down respectively which gives them character and soul. I say sod that – I’d far rather chat to a pleasant French Canadian than be ignored by a supercilious Frenchman, just like I’d far rather have a pet that loves me and a car that works. Whilst in Canada, San-Marié suffered from a persistent feeling of disorientation as time and again French-accented people displayed charm, friendliness and courtesy.

They do exist. Note the slight upturn of the mouth.

They do exist. Note the slight upturn of the mouth.

As is typical when we’re in cities, we spent much of our time eating and drinking. My wife had done her research and we moved from the best breakfast bagel spots to regional lunch joints, being careful to visit the local food markets along the way. We whiled away afternoons in warm, charming coffee shops and had simple meals at classic dinner venues. We ate poutine (a delicious local speciality of chips, gravy and cheese curds with a choice of toppings) and sampled cretons with cornichons; we visited Schwartz’s Hebrew Delicatessen for classic smoked beef where I used my Jewish chutzpah to fence with the dry, sarcastic waiter; we basked in the comfort of a classic French bistro with live jazz and tested the local Venezuelan restaurant where my smooth Spanish phrases and seductive eyebrow raises made flirtatious waitresses weak at the knees.

In-between we sampled the confused architecture of the Old City, including the Notre-Dame Basilica where I was once again bowled over by the beauty and not-so-understated showiness of a place of worship. One evening, we tracked down the only English theatre in the city and enjoyed a slick production called, “The Butcher”. It featured a wily cast, with a flair for accents and although I have an indiscriminate love of theatre, a couple of cunning twists in the plot meant I was always going to like it. Our visit to Montreal was, all in all, a supreme urban experience.

Canada gallery (5 of 11)

The Notre-Dame Basilica in Montreal

With Quebec City also on our agenda, we decided to break up our visit to these two Francophone cities with a stay in the mountains. Mont-Tremblant is a large ski resort in Eastern Canada and although it was out of season, we hoped to amble in the mountains like Tenzing and Hillary, soak up some alpine atmosphere and revel in traditional food. Let me state it plainly – it was not a success.

Throughout our stay, there was little or no snow and this turned what is probably a picturesque ski village into a sad conglomerate of characterless buildings set amidst a barren landscape. It looked pale and lifeless, devoid of colour or charm in the dead time between autumn leaves and winter snow. Ski-lifts were closed, even for walkers, and relentless rain kept us largely indoors.

Although our apartment was immaculate, it was quite small and the people staying above us insisted on doing what sounded like a passable impersonation of Johnny Clegg and Savuka, stomping about for an hour when they returned from a night of carousing at 3:30 am. I like Johnny as much as, if not more than the next guy, but not even I can tolerate predawn gumboot dancing when my only desire is sleep.

The final blow was when we discovered that all the ice-cream shops were closed. I cannot understand such irresponsibility. I hate to stretch a point (OK, that’s not entirely true), but our stay was about as successful as a very fat man with very short arms trying to remove his belly button fluff.

Our last stop in Canada was Quebec City. We stayed in the Old Town, a charming place encircled by stone fort walls on one side and a sharp cliff-face on the other. The feeling is European, with its steep, cobbled, winding streets and striking buildings, with the French signs and accents adding to the ambience. Although clearly a tourist town now, it somehow retains a feeling of authenticity, perhaps because of its preserved architecture and historical significance. Quebec City was the scene of a number of battles in the fight for New World dominance, where the snooty Brits and stubborn Frogs tried repeatedly to beat the living daylights out of one another.

We strolled through the streets, bundled up in scarves and gloves and down jackets, appreciating the wintry elegance of the town. It must be magical when covered in snow.  Naturally, we continued our feeding extravaganza, eating the local specialities and passing time in the stone-walled coffee shops, sipping cappuccinos and eating abricotiers, trying hard to make up for the lost opportunities of Mont-Tremblant.  My wife, whose mood had blackened in the culinary wasteland of Mont Tremblant, slowly emerged from the unseemly hell of hamburgers and doughy pizzas and grew more delighted each day as we once again tasted the joys of true Quebecois cooking. And there I was thinking that it was a man and not a woman, whose heart could be manipulated through the stealth of his stomach.

Our time in Canada was short, so after what seemed like no time at all, we were gone. To Spain, land of paella, rioja and tapas, where the women are well-groomed and the waiters aren’t French.

To see our Montreal and Quebec City Gallery, click here.

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3 Responses

  1. Olga says:

    Best way to start a Monday – thanks 🙂

  2. Jean Buckham says:

    Loved hearing about Montreal and Quebec City – sorry about the ski resort. You are going to love Spain. Hope you going to Barcelona?

  3. Sir Alex says:

    Saul, you are looking great in the photo – nice and trim, some new greying facial hair & a well worn Andy Cap. Your writing also keeps getting better – Bill Bryson is feeling the pressure. Keep it up.

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