When I first came to Canada in 2010 I proudly wrote on my shiny new ‘résumé’ that I was bilingual. Given that I have been learning French since I was 11, studied it for 4 years at university and lived in Grenoble for one of these; I thought it was reasonable for me to do so. I wasn’t being too arrogant, was I?
Maybe arrogant isn’t the right word. I think naïve or ignorant would perhaps be better… I should have realised that the blank stares and uncomprehending smiles that I had received speaking English English in Ontario would be the same when speaking French French in Québec. Hindsight is a wonderful thing.
I have been brought up well, am generally always polite (very Canadian) and like to think that I have good social etiquette – a firm handshake, eye contact, smiling and nodding along to conversation even if it is uninteresting etc. I don’t generally offend anyone – at least I don’t think so… Therefore I am well aware that mentioning a stranger’s testicles the first time you meet them is, in most circles, inconsiderate and unacceptable. I am sadly not speaking hypothetically.
On one of my first visits to Québec, I was very kindly invited into the home of a colleague’s parents for a meal – along with two friends who were visiting Canada from the south of France. The family had not met any of us before and so we wanted to make a good impression and show them how grateful we were for a home-cooked meal and their hospitality.
I should explain that by this point (September 2011) I had been in Canada for a year and had become used to speaking to people in Québec as part of my job. At first it had been a real challenge given the speed at which they spoke, the incomprehensible accent and the ‘old’ French that they use. However, bit by bit I had overcome these problems and was now relatively confident, but this would be my first foray into rural Québec…
After a few hours on the road we were warmly welcomed by my colleague’s parents, made our introductions and were soon ‘à table’ and ready to eat. The conversation was flowing but I must admit I was struggling to keep up with all that was being said. My experience of speaking to people in Montreal and Quebec City had not prepared me for this. I heard mention of my colleague’s brother having ‘enfants’ so I decided to pitch into what was currently being discussed. I should have kept quiet.
The word ‘gosses’ in France is a colloquial word meaning ‘kids’ – the French friends I was with would later attest to this on my behalf. Sadly, it does not have the same meaning in Québec. After posing the question “Vous avez combien de gosses?” an abrupt and unnerving silence fell over what had previously been a lively and jovial discussion. I knew something was up. This was the kind of silence that could either make or break the success of a soirée and my ongoing association with this family. After an eternity of awkwardness; laughter. A lot of laughter. From the Quebecers at the table. None from the Anglo/French contingent. We just stared at each other, nonplussed.
It was then explained to me that I had just asked how many testicles my colleague’s brother had. That was when our end of the table started laughing. My inadvertently rude and inappropriate faux-pas had been an ice-breaker and I can thankfully say I have since been invited back into their home.
But let this be a warning to all francophones out there. When visiting Quebec, stick to what you know and don’t try to be clever. If you want to use the word ‘children’ in a sentence, just say ‘enfants’ – otherwise you might end up talking about someone’s balls.