My French teachers may have taught me grammar and some basic vocabulary, but it was Dédé Fortin who taught me how to feel things in French. I don’t pretend to be a good language learner. If I’m inordinately proud of my modest abilities in French, it’s because it was such a huge effort for me to learn. Basic grammar came easily enough and my memory is good for vocabulary. I arrived in Quebec with these rudimentary skills. However, fluency eluded me. I could read a newspaper, but couldn’t hold a conversation. I could watch the t.v. news but not a sitcom. All those one to three word half sentences that make up a large portion of social interaction were like a verbal equivalent of shorthand, and were as indecipherable to me as shorthand is to someone who has not learned it. Quickly spoken sentences in which sounds, and sometimes entire words, were dropped were a total mystery. On top of that there were the occasional differences in pronunciation and vocabulary between Quebec French and French French. These differences are often exaggerated by snobby Francophiles, but they do exist and can add to the puzzle.
Beyond that, however, was another aspect. Words in French didn’t go to my heart. Certain turns of phrase have extra power, or musicality, or beauty. I couldn’t recognize that in French. The words had only their literal meaning with no resonance. It was like a world without color.
Going backwards a couple of years to the time before I even thought I might be moving to Canada, I drove there with a friend who was attending a physics conference at Laval University in Ste Foy, near Quebec City. Shortly after crossing the border, my friend turned to me and said, “Hey, I bet we can get a radio station in French.” A bit of fiddling with the dial and we had a pop music station playing songs in both French and English. A song came on that had lyrics that were spoken rather than sung. Of course we couldn’t understand the lyrics. Then, there was a break, a fiddle and some stomping that sounded like clogging. I looked at her and she at me. Interesting.
Later, in Quebec City, I walked into a record store and tried to describe the song. They looked at me a little funny. I asked other people including this long-haired guy that tried to pick me up while I was sitting on a park bench. No luck.
About two years later, I was married to that long-haired guy and had recently moved to Canada. On Saint Jean-Baptiste day, the Quebec national holiday, we went to the park where they had bonfires and music that went late into the night.
The next day on the news, they showed video clips from festivals around the province. Suddenly, “Hey! It’s them! It’s them!” I grabbed my husband. “Who are they? That’s the band I keep asking everyone about.”
“Huh? Them? That’s les Colocs.” He went over to his small but neatly organized stack of cassette tapes. He handed one to me. “You can keep it. I’ve only listened to it a couple of times. I don’t really like it.”
Yippee! Yippee! Yippee! Les Colocs! For the next month I listened to it obsessively every time I was alone in the apartment. I learned all the words to all the songs. I started trying to find other French Canadian music that I liked. I also began to discover a dark side the man I married. It was just a small sign at this time. He made fun of me for my taste in music. “Why do you want to listen to that stuff? You do realize that we mostly listen to American music. They only play that stuff on the radio because of the language laws.”
Despite his discouragement, I began to track down other French Canadian musicians I heard on the radio. Once, when my husband was away at an academic conference, I went to a nightclub in the old part of town to see les Respectables. One of the band members made several pretty good attempts to chat me up. Ah, but I was a newlywed and still in love… silly me. He really began to rib me when I started listening to Jean LeLoup. (“Ick, he’s weird.” “Well, that makes two of us.”) It was ironic because while I lived there he would constantly complain that I didn’t like Quebec well enough, but whenever I found something to like there, he’d put a damper on it. Whenever I’d start having fun, he’d dump cold water on me, then complain that I wasn’t cheerful. It was subtle at first. After all, we all tend to argue a bit about musical taste, taste in clothes, movies, books, hobbies. It took a few years before I realized that he disapproved of just about everything I liked, nor could he just shrug and say, “To each his own.” He had to needle and tease.
Finally, I saw a notice somewhere or heard on the radio that les Colocs would be playing in Quebec City. They were playing a place I’d never been to located on a bleak little stretch of Boulevard Charest, if I recall correctly. I wanted to go so badly, I put up a big fuss until the spousal unit agreed. The place was not especially large, but it was packed. Being short, I found a little platform or step up against a wall near the back. I squeezed on it next to a couple of guys a few years younger than I was, sensitive looking types who seemed as excited as I was. Watching the faces of the two next to me, I began to get an idea of which lines worked and which did. I could see the emotions registering transparently on their young faces. Then the first notes of “Juste une p’tite nuite” began. This was a song especially hated by Hubby. It was too “mou.” Soft. Wimpy. The boys to my right both closed their eyes. They mouthed every word along with the singer on stage.
Music, even without the meaning of the lyrics, carries its own emotional content. It was through listening to the songs of French Canadian songwriters, and above all André Fortin, that I learned, not simply to think in French, but to feel in French.