Not Quite French
When I was in the States, everybody told me that I should go to Canada and visit Montreal, as it might just be the prettiest city in Canada and US combined. Then I would ask them: ‘Why? How come?’ Then they would answer with great relish: ‘It’s very French!’ Then I would ask rhetorically (inside my mind): ‘Seriously? I lived in Europe for 6 years and was in France countless times because it was just less than two hours away by train from the Netherlands. Don’t you think if I want to visit something French, I would not need to come all this way to this side of the pond to see Frenchish buildings?’
Now I was in Montreal. The buildings looked French but the street was so much wider than in France. To be honest it was not quite French. I arrived late in the evening and my couchsurfing host had gone for a concert with a friend. She hid the keys of the apartment somewhere so I could find them. ‘Feel at home!’ She wrote in the message.
The apartment was big, I would even say huge compared with those in Paris. Obviously the owner had a great taste for art. The feeling of the wall decorations and the kitchen arrangement looked essentially French.
Valerie was my host, a middle-aged former French teacher who used to teach in North Carolina University in the States but eventually settled in Montreal. When she got home, I already had a thorough shower and started ruthlessly using the wifi. You know, after a few days without wifi, you kind of get hungry, get lusty, like a drug addict.
She had two daughters, but none of them was home at that moment. The older one, a rational and organized girl in her early twenties already moved out with her boyfriend while the younger one was at that very moment hitchhiking through Europe.
Valerie: I am a mother after all. I am scared. I am worried, knowing that my baby girl is hitchhiking somewhere in a foreign country. She just texted me that she arrived somewhere in Croatia and she did not have a place to sleep yet. She said she would just try to sleep on the beach. I am not an overly conservative person, but still as a mother it’s a torment to hear that.
Me: Croatia? I hitchhiked there. Can’t say for others, but for me and even with my blond Polish female friend, it was pretty difficult to hitchhike. However, it is really safe. I’ve never heard of any accident happening to my hitchhiker friends in Croatia, so do not worry. I have this friend named Iris, a blond Dutch girl who also tried to sleep on the beach in Croatia and an old fisherman invited her home. She will be totally fine especially if she stays away from the touristic areas. Seriously, I am sure somebody would help her.
Valerie: Yes, I hope somebody would help her like I am now helping you.
Me: Although Croatia can be difficult to hitchhike, the most difficult place to hitchhike in Europe must be Spain.
Valerie: Spain? Really? She told me it was so easy to hitchhike there! Actually it was so easy and people were so generous that after hitchhiking out of Spain to France she returned to Spain, just to hitchhike through it again.
I was appalled. For most hitchhikers I knew of, myself included, female and male, Spain remained as the MOST difficult part of Europe to hitchhike. I saw the photo of her younger daughter, a pretty blond girl she was. However, I also had several pretty blond female friends who went hitchhiking in Spain. Usually, when I asked them: ‘so, how was hitchhiking in Spain?’ They would suddenly become silent, with eyes almost bursting of hot tears. At that moment, instead of mouths, eyes had became the faculty for speaking. The normal procedure would be me hugging them, patting their backs saying ‘it”s OK! I know it’s hard honey!’
I was baffled by how the same country could be different for different hitchhikers. I had compared with Iris about countries we thought easy to hitchhike in EU, for me Austria and Slovenia were easy while for her Austria and Slovenia were difficult. For me Croatia and Germany were difficult while for her the opposite. OK, we looked totally different. She was a blond Dutch girl and I am a rather tall Asian guy.
Valerie showed me the room where I would be sleeping, the room of her younger daughter.
Valerie: You know, she met such great people along the way. When she was in Hungary, a truck driver wrote him a note. He told her to show this note to every driver before stepping into the car and so she did.
Me: What’s written on the note?
Valerie: It’s written in Hungarian: I have to take a photo of the number plate of your car and send it to my mom. If you are OK with that, I will step into your vehicle, otherwise no.
Me: Yes, there are indeed many kind people. Although it might not be totally necessary, if some driver has problem with that, then he surely is a bit suspicious.
When I woke up in the morning, the sunshine shone on the whole neighborhood. I could see the épicerie (small grocery store), boulangerie (backery) and the pâtisserie (pastry shop). The road was so much quieter than in Toronto. Along the streets there were big trees with thick leaves, through which the sun was sieved onto the ground. For someone who had never been to France, one would feel it was indeed quite French, not because it was really similar to France in the essence, but because it was definitely non-English/American. For someone from the European continent, Montreal was just the Americanized version of France.
We went to the farmers’ market and had some cakes, went to a beagle shop and bought a bag of hot beagles after queuing for 20 minutes. The passion for quality food was surely something essentially French.
Compared to Toronto, Montreal did not boast many skyscrapers. It was less urban and there was more the sense of boroughs and neighborhoods. Every borough was like a community, like a village. You saw the orthodox Jews with their kids in Cartier, you see the Chinese restaurants on Saint Laurent Boulevard and the Little Italia in Rosemont–La Petite-Patrie. The Little Italia which was featured in almost every major US/Canadian city was something France surely did not have. For France, Italy was too nearby to be exotic.
My stay was too short to allow me to say anything more profound about Montreal. I was planning to leave the next day for US. Although a friend invited me to visit him in Quebec City, I had to turn it down. I was a bit pressed for time. That was a wrong wrong and wrong decision. I should have stayed in Canada for longer, longer and much longer. It was getting harder to find such hospitable, lovely and rather open-minded people in our shrinking world.
The next morning, it was a rather gloomy day and I left Montreal for US.
No, I did not have the chance or time to see the forests in the north of Canada or Alaska, about which I had heard of so many legends. Nope, no bears for me in Canada.
to be continued