For most of us patriotic Canadians required to take French until the grade nine, French class sucks. I, too, am part of the majority that feels this way. After years of completing sheets of holiday vocabulary and the infamous DR. MRS. VANDERTRAMP passé composé verbs, I forgot them a week after the final exam, and I could barely say more that “Je m’appelle Sarah.”
Yet my love of the French language and culture was still deep, and I was eager to learn. My teacher mentioned a program called “J’explore,” an intensive summer immersion program famous for kicking you out for speaking in English (I learned much later this was simply not true in Quebec). Everyone knows someone who has done one of these programs; they are very easy to apply for and you are almost guaranteed a spot somewhere. They all seem to come back fluent and with that certain “je ne sais quoi”, and I was sure this was my ticket to bilingualism. (I learned much later that this was simply impossible).
I applied when I was 16 and was accepted to a school in Quebec City, but ended up declining a month before I was set to go. After a hectic year of family drama while moving to Winnipeg, my parents thought it would be best if I spent the summer at home relaxing with my friends. I had regretted it ever since, so this past December I decided to apply again, and was accepted to the École Internationale de Français at the University of Quebec in Trois-Rivières (UQTR.)
It seems ridiculous now how scared and anxious I was the day before I was set to embark on my adventure. It was my first time flying alone and would be the longest time spent apart from my family. I spent the night before going over every worst- case scenario in my mind. There was little to no information provided for me about how to get to the university and what to expect upon arrival, except a blurb on the UQTR website outlining the distance from airports in Montreal and Quebec City,. Wait, they didn’t even tell us where to catch the bus, just that we would be required to take the bus. I didn’t even have my official letter of acceptance yet. What if I showed up only to find myself stranded in Quebec? My neurotic little head almost exploded with anxiety. To my relief, the school neglected to tell me that a shuttle would be at the airport to take students upon arrival.
Being at UQTR was a little like being back in high school, except there was more booze and everything was in French, when the “animateurs” were in earshot anyway. The animateurs were students whose summer job was to babysit us and give us a “carte-rouge” if we were heard speaking in our native tongue. A couple of my friends got them by talking to each other at a urinal, when an overly eager animateur burst out of a stall and carded them). Not soon after arriving, cliques formed, relationships blossomed, and some good old-fashioned cat fighting began. This was not helped by the 6:1 guy-to-girl ratio, which caused the guys to go crazy and my sexual frustration to peak at an all-time high.
I hated these things about high school when I was there, and I was disappointed to see that some things never change. Yet as soon as I got there, something about me changed. I’ll admit, I can be a little tightly wound, but I ended up being the-girl-who goes-to-Montreal-with-someone-she-met-yesterday. That someone was my friend Derek. After discovering a mutual love of Woody Allen and hatred of Vancouver in our journalism “atelier,” we decided it wouldn’t be an awful idea to go to Montreal together to see an Animal Collective concert with some of our friends. That trip could’ve gone terribly wrong. We each had only a backpack with our wallets, cell phone, and a change of clothes, and no idea where we were going to spend the night. We ended up sneaking into a hostel and spent the next day wandering around Montreal.
After that I started to have a little more faith in my own ability to take risks and make things work out for myself. Derek became one of my closest friends, which led to me hanging out at his apartment a lot, which led to me becoming friends with his roommates, Christian, Ben and Greg too. By the end of the program, I felt like I had lived with them for years. I definitely became one of the guys, so much so they started talking about porn in front of me. I didn’t mind as long as they gave me piggyback rides home from the bar.
Oh, the bars. In Winnipeg, I live a 20-minute drive away from every bar worth spending an evening in. In Trois-Rivières, it was a 20-minute walk. I, along with 90 per cent of my peers, took full advantage of this opportunity to experience Quebec culture at its finest. I’m not sure what the “main street” was in Trois-Rivières, but I know the street we frequented had two patio bars for every shop, and those patio bars were full whether it was 2 p.m. or 2 a.m.. This provided us with ample time to practice our French on the locals, until our horrible accents gave us away and they started practicing their English on us.
By this point in the article, you may be wondering if I even learned any French. I’ll admit, I did not speak French all the time, and my hopes of becoming fluent in an extremely complicated language in five weeks were absolutely ridiculous. When the five weeks were up, I was torn. I was homesick, but didn’t feel like I had truly gotten enough out of the experience. I spent the majority of my time on campus, and when I ventured off campus it was in pairs or packs of other people trying to learn French, which usually led to everyone speaking English, and we avoided contact with the townspeople until we had to order drinks. This was especially true the first week when we were all just trying to get to know one another.
Five days before I was scheduled to go home, I was sitting at breakfast with Christian who was telling me about a language and work program he was staying an extra three weeks to do, where you get paid to work in a French environment. He mentioned that there happened to be a couple extra spots left. I don’t know what I was thinking, but as soon I was finished eating, I went and held a spot. I had till next morning to decide. My mom thought I was crazy; I never do things like this. I always plan. I always take time to make an informed decision. But I don’t always have opportunities to do things like this, and I figured as I get older, and responsibilities and commitments get bigger, those opportunities to do something spontaneous and maybe a bit crazy, will get fewer and further in between. I decided to stay, and those last three weeks spent in Quebec were an entirely different experience . . .