Hurtling The Language Barrier

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I spent most of a recent afternoon talking on the phone to pleasant-sounding people with distinct French accents. We plan to take a trip to Canada in late June, to visit the villages of the Eastern Township, a picturesque region in Quebec just over the Vermont border. It is the setting for Louis Penny’s popular Inspector Gamache series, which both my Beautiful Mystery Companion and I are engrossed in reading. We are excited to take our first real vacation in nearly three years. And I’m looking forward to exploring the area where my mother’s family grew up, and which I visited as a child.

Crossing into Canada requires installing and completing the ArriveCanada app on my phone, then scanning our passports and proofs of vaccination. All of that was easy enough to complete but when asked to designate a port of entry, I was clueless. I found the phone number and called ArriveCanada, expecting to be on hold for enough time to lose a crop. That’s how it goes these days when you call big companies or most government agencies. But either Canada doesn’t get the volume of calls American organizations do, or they have more folks working the phones. Clearly, they don’t outsource their customer service to a far-off country. Someone answered in a pleasant French accent almost immediately, which always reminds me of my maternal grandparents, who emigrated to New Hampshire from Sherbrooke, Quebec in the 1920s.

The pleasant female voice on the other end of the line sent me to the Canadian Border Service Agency’s website to figure out the proper port. We plan to rent a car to drive there from Boston. Our last real vacation included a pleasant drive through my native state of New Hampshire into Vermont for the wedding of a longtime friend’s son. We will follow that same route but continue on into Canada to a village called Sutton just north of the border, which will be our headquarters for four days as we explore the Eastern Township.

The website contained a map that was utterly incomprehensible. It contained a series of green and red pins that were apparently ports of entry, but the map kept jumping all over the place, sending me to New Brunswick one second, over to Montreal the next, even heading way west to Saskatchewan. These are all places I am not opposed to visiting – just not on this trip. So I held my breath, found the number for the CBSA and called, put on my best abject clueless tourist demeanor and was again assisted by a kindly person with a lilting accent, who said she would figure out which port of entry I should put on the online form. She briefly put me on hold, came back and said “(incomprehensible) 55.”

After 54 years in Texas, I appear to have lost my ability to discern English when spoken  with a French accent, at least over the phone. I am hopeful our real-life encounters will be easier to understand. She repeated it again. No clue.

“Could you spell it, please?” I asked.

Canadians have a well-deserved reputation for being polite and accommodating, except possibly for certain hockey players. She started. “S, as in survey. T, as in traffic. A, as in agency.” And so on, until she had spelled Stanstead, which is the port where we will have to show passports, vaccination cards, etc. She used examples for each letter that would not have occurred to me. When she got to “D,” I waited for her to say, “As in dog.” But she said “directory.” I might need to expand my offerings when completing the same type of task for someone else, put a little variety in the routine.

I have also been expanding my sketchy knowledge of French phrases. I know the basics: yes, no, please, thank you, hello and goodbye. But a few others would be useful in case the person I’m talking to doesn’t speak any English. That is unlikely. When I took my two oldest daughters to London and then to Paris, every person we encountered spoke English. That was a good thing, because despite having taken several years of French in high school, Kasey and Meredith knew barely more French than I did.

Here are some key phrases I hope to learn before heading across the border:

  • Where is the bathroom, please?
  • Could you bring us the check?
  • What is your name?
  • Do you speak English?
  • And, most importantly, I don’t understand.

Au revoir, for this week.

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