Je Parle Français (Sort of)…

In the spring of 1975, I boarded a school bus with about 29 other rural Grade 8 students from Kente Public School in Ameliasburg, Ontario, bound for L’Assomption, Quebec (a small town near Montreal).  We were going on an exchange trip for three days, unilingual anglophones being dropped into a place where French was the language of choice.

I don’t remember much of the ride there…I suspect that I must have slept through a lot of it, having spent most of the night before trying to convince my mother that maybe I shouldn’t go after all (I’d never been away from home by myself before).  Mom stuck to her guns…I think the trip probably cost them a fair amount of money (which we were usually short of).  I do remember the songs we heard on the radio, over and over: Fox on the Run, Philadelphia Freedom, and Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song.  Hearing those songs always makes me think of that trip.

We arrived at Polyvalente Paul-Arseneau (the host school) at about noon.  The school housed students from Grades 7 through 13…quite unusual to combine middle school with high school!  The next thing we noticed was that at least half of the students smoked at school (and the adults didn’t seem to mind).  After a welcome speech in the gym (most of us didn’t understand any of it), we were matched with our host students and had lunch in the school cafeteria.  A swim in the school pool was scheduled after lunch.  I whipped out my pocket French-English dictionary, and tried to tell my host, Isabelle, that I did not want to go swimming (it was cool that the school had its own indoor pool, but I wasn’t a good swimmer).  After only three years of rudimentary French classes in Ontario, I’m sure my skills were sorely lacking.  French verb tenses are notoriously complicated, and we’d only learned “present tense” so far.  It took a great deal of wild gesticulating and pigeon French to get my point across.  I sat on a bench while the other kids splashed in the pool.  After the swimming, we went on a tour of the school…it was huge compared to ours!  Then we got on the buses with our host students to go home with them.  Isabelle lived in a neighbouring community called Saint-Sulpice.

Isabelle's first letter to me...her English was better than my French!

Arriving at Isabelle’s house, she introduced me to her mom, and her two sisters still living at home.  They were nice enough, but I remember very little about them.  We ate supper in awkward silence.  After supper, Isabelle’s mom dropped us off back at her school…we got on a bus which took us to Jerry Park in Montreal for a Montreal Expos game.  The Expos were playing the Cincinnati Reds (a nice coincidence since I was born in Ohio).  The Reds won 3-2.  I decided that baseball was more fun to play than to watch…

My Expos ticket stub...notice the price: $3.63 plus $.37 tax = $4.00!

It was almost midnight by the time we got back to Isabelle’s house…I was exhausted, and went right to sleep.

We slept in Saturday morning, but had breakfast before we got back into the car to return to Isabelle’s school, where we’d board another bus and head to Old Montreal.  Our first stop was the Notre Dame Cathedral.    I was used to Methodist and United churches…I was shocked when we stepped into Notre Dame…I’d never seen so much gold and beautiful artwork outside of a museum!  I would have happily spent all afternoon there…

Then, we went to Man and His World, an amusement park that had been built as part of Expo ’67 when it was held in Montreal.  I’m not a big fan of amusement parks.  We saw a dolphin show at the aquarium, and went on a few rides.   My favourite was the log ride, which was very high…we got soaked, but it was fun!

For supper, we all went to a restaurant called Crèpe Bretonne, where I had real crèpes for the first time…mine were stuffed with apples, and had whipped cream on the top (I was so excited that I made crèpes for my family when I got home!).

After supper, we drove up to Mount Royal on the bus…it was a pretty view of the city lights at night from up there!  We got home very late again that night.

There wasn’t time to sleep in on Sunday morning…we had to be at Isabelle’s school at 8:45 to board another bus for a local marina.  We went on a boat tour on the St. Lawrence River, and then had a picnic for lunch.  After another bus ride back to the school, all the anglophone students boarded our bus and headed for home.  I was excited to see my parents and brother, and sleep in my own bed!

A few weeks later, the French students visited us…they had five days to spend in Ontario.  I don’t remember much of what we did, other than attending a dance at our school where some of the French kids got into trouble for smoking outside.  One of my classmate’s parents hosted an outdoor barbecue for the exchange students at their house…imagine inviting 60 middle school kids to your back yard!  I remember music and dancing, but not much else!

Isabelle and I wrote to each other for about a year after we met, even after her family moved to Baie Comeau.  Other than both being quiet girls, I don’t think we really had much in common, and we soon lost contact with each other.

While going through some boxes the other day, I found the little book we were given to keep a journal of our trip…the only thing written in mine was Isabelle’s name and address.  I wish now I had kept a better account.  I still have all of Isabelle’s letters though…

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22 Comments

Filed under food, friends, memories, self-discovery, travel

22 responses to “Je Parle Français (Sort of)…

  1. Great memories! It’s so interesting to me that there’s that whole part of Canada that seems so much more foreign. That must just be my narrow minded English speaking self coming out!

    • It’s a bit different for me now, since I’ve spent the last 26 years living in Canada’s only officially bilingual province, New Brunswick (Quebec is officially French-only…even highway and business signs are only allowed to be in French!). I still don’t speak French well, but I put all my kids in French Immersion in school to ensure that they’ll get good jobs. Thanks for stopping by, Joey! Wendy

  2. Enjoyed reading about your trip! Sounds like fun although busy :) I enjoyed reading Isabelle’s letter…had to squint a bit though!
    When I was in school in Japan, we had to have French names for French class. I can’t remember whether we got to pick or our teacher did. Either way…mine was Bernadette!! Your post brought it back to me…

    Hugs, H.

    • What I remember of it was fun! We did spend a lot of time riding on buses, though! Some of the French women’s names are beautiful…one of Isabelle’s good friends was Marie-Jose… Hugs, Wendy

  3. What a lovely trip down your memory lane with you! It sounds like a wonderful weekend – did you get to practise your French much? And it sounds like you coped well with being away from home by yourself for the first time.
    I studied French through school and then majored in it at university – a lovely weekend like yours would have been fabulous!
    Sunshine xx

    • Hi Sunshine: It was a good thing our hosts spoke some English, because our French was hopeless…my kids probably learned more in the first month of Grade One French Immersion than I did in seven years of Ontario public school French classes! Some of the kids learned how to swear in French though…our teachers hadn’t taught us that! Until we went on our trip, we’d never heard the greeting “Salut!” before, which is used interchangeably for “Hello” and “Goodbye”. There are also regional differences in French spoken in Canada…Quebec French is not quite the same as that spoken here in New Brunswick (here it is Acadian French called Chiac – a lot of English words mixed in!). There is a Mtis population out west (mixed French and Aboriginal) whose language is also unique, as well as a small pocket of French folks in Newfoundland who speak yet another dialect. European French is very different! Glad you enjoyed it! Wendy

  4. Very interesting, Wendy! I wonder what the French students remember of their trip to you? That would be cool to hear — our memories can be so selective.

  5. I think it’s great that you kept all those letters and ticket stubs. Have you looked up Isabelle on Facebook?

    • I keep pretty much everything with sentimental value (although I’m not going to be featured on Hoarders any time soon, despite what certain members of my family think!). I checked out Isabelle on Facebook…found one person with the right name, but can’t really tell if it’s her or not…people change in 35 years! Wendy

  6. I love the memories you carry with you and the tangible evidence, as well. It would be amazing if you ever actually came into contact with her again.

  7. I’m amazed by how detailed your memory is! You remember the names of the restaurants you visited? I’m in awe. It makes me think of trek I made through Europe when I was 18. When I returned, my parents said, “So? How was it? What did you see?” And I said, “Whoa. We went to, like, this castle in Austria. And bought great chocolate in Lucerne, and you know, we walked around in Brussles and saw a few places…”

    I could literally see them watching their money go down the drain.

    Those French kids. They’re always smoking, aren’t they?

    • I have to confess that I wouldn’t have remembered the name of the crpe place if I hadn’t also found a copy of our itinerary in my little book! I also couldn’t remember the name of the school! Did you do a journal while you were in Europe? Some day, I want to go to Tuscany, Italy! Wendy

  8. planejaner

    I wonder if you could find Isabelle now…
    what a sweet remembrance.
    jane

  9. Oh god…Fox On The Run…that song drove me nuts, now it is stuck in my head.

    A trip like that is so foreign (sorry, I know there’s a better way to express this) to me. I just can’t imagine struggling to communicate for long.

  10. You saved all the letters! That’s incredible! I am lazy and I have never succeeded in keeping a journal. I do often wish that I had.

  11. Hippie Cahier

    Honestly, Wendy…we’re living parallel lives! When I was in ninth grade we took a trip to Quebec and Montreal from Maryland. Ours wasn’t an exchange program, though. We stayed in hotels. My favorite memory: while we were wandering around somewhere, we kept passing a very large Grizzly Adams looking man in a long fur coat who asked us each time we passed: “Aimez-vous le rock and roll?” It became our tag line for years to come. I’m living vicariously through your trip down memory lane!

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