French camp

When we last left Sarah in French camp: part I, has finished her French immersion program in Quebec, and is moving out into the real world . . .

“This is just like home renovations with my dad, except no one is smoking and yelling at me,” said Mark as he tried to repair a wooden platform as the four of us — I, Laryssa, Christian, and Lori — watched. We had all been assigned to work at a music festival in Trois-Rivières called “Festivoix” as part of the construction team. “I feel like I should be writing an essay about this plank, not trying to fix it,” Mark continued. I often felt the same way.

Before working for Festivoix, the most carpentry I’d ever done had been in eighth grade shop class. This was more than building a shitty CD rack, though. This was building stages and bleachers where people were paying to sit. The first day, not only did I have no clue what I was doing, but after five weeks in the goddamn place, I couldn’t understand a word anyone was saying to me. I’d get this awful spaced out look on my face and have to get them to repeat instructions two or even three times. I thought, this is not one of my greatest decisions.

This thought didn’t last long. Every first day of every new job sucks, Festivoix being no exception, and things began to turn around. Starting with learning how to use the electric drill, and getting pretty good at it, so good I was told I had “le touche magic.” “Moi? Power tools? Good with? Quoi?” I thought, but evidently I was. Learning to work with my hands was just as — or even more — satisfying than my academic achievements have ever been.

I also quickly learned I was not in immersion anymore. In immersion, if I got really frustrated in a conversation, I always had the option of explaining myself in English, provided no animateurs were around spying on me. Explaining myself in English wasn’t an option with someone who didn’t speak it, but who I needed to get instructions from so I didn’t fuck up the entire structure of the stage and get fired. Plus, if I had to work with these people for the next three weeks, I couldn’t exactly stand there in silence.

Each day, conversations got a little bit easier, and instructions only had be told slower and maybe not repeated at all. Lunch break became “Time to teach the English kids some outdated Quebec slang” for our coworkers. Still, miscommunication happened frequently, with comedic results. I asked my boss to explain the significance of St. Jean Baptiste Day, or “Fête Nationale,” the equivalent of Canada Day for Quebecers. What I got out of it was something about the Irish and how they came over to Quebec during the potato famine, and really liked the Québécois beer, so some of them went back and brought more Irish people over, and one of those guys was Jean Baptiste. Then he laughed, and I laughed, trying to hide my confusion. After some Googling and Wikipedia searches, what I later learned was that the origins of the celebration come from the feast day of St. John the Baptist, which was a popular event in the “ancien regime” of France. This tradition was carried over by the first French colonists, with celebrations on June 23 and 24. In 1908, Pope Pius X designated St. John the Baptist as the patron saint of French Canadians. It has been a paid statutory holiday in Quebec since 1977 (Where the Irish fit in: the only evidence I have found thus far is the flag of the “parti patriote” that somewhat resembles Ireland’s national flag).

To celebrate there was a huge all-night party with thousands of people in Quebec City. We all had to go. It would the icing on the cake of our Quebec experience. Our boss told us we were welcome to take the day off if we worked a couple of night shifts to make up for the hours. The night shifts consisted of sitting in a tent, watching the electrical boxes for the construction site, so that no copper thieves stole them. I know that sounds pretty vague, but I’ll admit, I wasn’t exactly sure what we were doing there, I just knew we were supposed to sit in a tent overnight with a coworker, and put up with people stumbling upon our little booth on the way home from the bar. Most people just heard us speaking English and wanted to know where we were from. When I got home, I heard someone speaking French in a Zellers, but was too chicken to approach them in the same way.

Our co-workers told us we were going to get killed. They said people go crazy on “Fête Nationale,” and we’d probably get chased into the plains of Abraham. I hadn’t encountered any anti-Anglophone nastiness at this point, but I had heard some pretty bad stories, so this made me a bit nervous. Apart from endless “tabernache Ontario”s or equations of being from Ontario and being frigid, my friend Lori told me about a time when her roommate was chased around a bar after losing a drinking game. All the men there also seemed to think telling you “Tu es la plus belle femme Anglais” or “You are the prettiest English girl” would work on all of us.

C’est la vie, I wasn’t going to miss what was probably the craziest party of my life, a party that took over an entire city. All the hotels and hostels were booked up days, even weeks in advance, so not having a place to stay, we decided to rent a van. It’s not like we going to be sleeping that much anyway.

“Madness” is the first word that comes to mind. The city was absolute madness. On the bus downtown from the parking lot where we left the van for the night, the bus driver turned around and told us to open our liquor, just don’t cause any trouble for him. I walked around the rest of the night with an open box of wine. I don’t know what to compare it to. Maybe Folk Fest, with that same sense of community, but wilder. People were jumping into fountains and hanging from street lanterns, all over a provincial holiday. I can’t imagine anyone ever going that crazy over Canada Day. Usually people just go to the lake. After almost two months of living, studying, and working in Quebec, if I had learned anything about French-Canadian culture, it was that French-Canadians were truly proud to be French-Canadian. Sometimes this really annoyed me, especially all the stupid little fleur-de-lis flags hanging out of every shop window that reminded me of the last time I was in North Dakota. Yet they had this fierce pride that couldn’t be taken away from them, which was much more than I could say about being Canadian. Some of that started to rub off on me, and after the whole experience was over, I had a warm, fuzzy love for my home country.

Well into my third week, I started understanding more French than I wanted to. To save time or because they couldn’t remember our names, we were often referred to as simply “les Anglais.” I’m sure plenty of jokes were made at our expense while we were sitting in front of them. In one case, the girl who was in charge of the V.I.P. tents told one of our supervisors that Christian “Ne parle pas Français, il parle seulement Anglais!” saying Christian’s French sucks. Well, Christian was standing right there, and understood enough French to understand that.

By the time my extra three weeks were up, I missed Winnipeg but felt like I had made Trois-Rivières my home. I had settled into a pretty steady routine with a solid social circle, and in spite of coming home smelling disgusting and getting made fun of in my second language everyday, Festivoix was probably one of the best places I’ve ever worked. On top of that, I was scared to go back in case everyone had forgotten about me. After saying goodbye to my coworkers, who in all likeliness I will probably never see again, I spent my last weekend there in Montreal with my friends, where we did the best thing you can do in Montreal, drunkenly wander and just take it all in.

It didn’t all hit me until I got in the cab to the airport, and I started to cry. When I got home, no one had forgotten about me, and I concluded that staying the extra three weeks was one of the better decisions I’ve made thus far, to say the least, and ultimately, there’s only so much time in one’s life that one can make impulsive, somewhat reckless decisions and make them pay off.