In July 1968, London was the first stop in the epic, Edelblum Family, European Vacation. An hour flight away, the second leg of our seven-countries in twenty-two days took us to Paris. We were glad to put the Brits language barrier and their confusing exchange rate behind us. But, au contraire, mon ami. In the short time it took to check into our hotel and get a snack, it got worse in the, "City of Lights." A quaint cafe took advantage of our naivete to the complexities of their money system...and robbed us.
For the sake of math, our check at the restaurant that hoodwinked us was for 22 francs. My dad paid with a French 50 franc banknote. Instead of giving us 28 francs change, they bamboozled us by giving us 28 centimes change, (cents instead of dollars).
Later at a gift shop, dad tried to pay for some items with the 20 franc coin. The shopkeeper refused it and said it was a common error among foreigners because the coin was actually 20 centimes. When we went back to the hotel, Dad returned to the restaurant. He told them the situation through an interpreter and was told that he was mistaken. When the Brooklyn in Dad exploded, he was informed that such a false charge was both embarrassing and slanderous...and if he persisted, the proprietor would call the police. Rather than risk an international incident over a few dollars, dad set aside his pride and principles.
For the next eight years my dad would recount that story many times. So it was justly ingrained in my mind at an early age that the French were weasels. When I was twenty-one, I embarked on my cross-country odyssey which included Mexico and Canada and ended in Le Belle Province...Quebec.
Among my fellow travelers, I heard that the French Canadians were smug just like the French and unkind to Americans and English speaking Canadians. I thought it was untrue because, I found Montreal to be a normal big city. I was never profiled as an American or treated poorly because I didn't speak French. At no point did I ever equate the people of this part of the Great White North with their uppity ancestral cousins in France...that opinion changed when I arrived in Quebec City.
Montreal might be the provincial commerce center but Quebec City is the capitol and political hub. It should be noted that for decades, the militant separatist movement to make Quebec its own country originated in Quebec City and is still maintained there. Therefore even the ordinary French speaking locals have a edginess, especially towards Americans and non-French speaking Canadians.
I stayed at a youth hostel in Quebec City. During a conversation with a group of Americans, we compared notes and agreed that on a limited budget you could survive there on such delicacies as French onion soup and Caesar salad. When we became more serious, the subject of all the public signs being in French was discussed. Then others complained about the rotten treatment and general pissy attitude being laid on them.
The next morning, we toured the city together. In the afternoon, we decided to picnic overlooking the Saint Lawrence River, on the grassy promenade next to the Chateau Frontenac.BUILT IN 1893, THE CHATEAU FRONTENAC WAS THE BACKDROP FOR THE 1953 MOVIE, "I CONFESS," STARRING MONTGOMERY CLIFT. ACCORDING TO THE GUINNESS BOOK OF RECORDS, IT IS THE MOST PHOTOGRAPHED HOTEL IN THE WORLD.
To get our luncheon together, we split into committees. One group bought meat, another got cheese, others found a wine shop and me and some guy from Delaware went to a bakery. My buddy was too bashful so I wound up having to order the bread. For a few minutes before going in, I rehearsed saying, "Pan Francais, pan Francais, pan Francais."
The little bake shop was cluttered with customers but the robust baker at the cash register signaled us forward. I held up two fingers and muttered, "Pan Francais." The man's face lost its rosy cheeriness. He cocked his chef's hat back as if he were doing something distasteful and swiped the money from my hand. He splattered the change on the counter and literally threw the loaves at us. Then in a tone that would remind, "SEINFELD," fans of the Soup Nazi, he bellowed in English, "If you don't speak French, DON'T SPEAK FRENCH!" As we slunk out, I flashed back to the guillotine scene at the end of, "A TALE OF TWO CITIES." That's when he blithered, what I assumed were French insults, to the delight of the equally vengeful customers.
In November 1991, my wife Sue and I drove up to French Canada. It was in the mid-60's when we left Jersey but as soon as we got north of Glens Falls New York, we were in blizzard conditions. The three-lane highway was reduced to one and the 80 miles to the border at Plattsburgh, New York took forever. We cleared customs and suddenly the years of ignoring the Metric system in school slapped us in the face. We couldn't calculate the Celsius temperature but we knew it was freezing and the kilometer signs to Montreal left us estimating the 65 mile distance. But at least it stopped snowing.
It took ninety minutes to get there. Luckily, the city only had gotten a few inches of snow and they had a full day to clear it away. The streets were dry and we were able to get around. It warmed up a little so the next two days of sight-seeing were tolerable. Nothing really strange happened there except, we went into a souvenir store and the only clerk didn't speak English. What was really funny was...she greeted us by saying she didn't speak French, in French...so we spoke in English; well, she didn't speak English either. We did all our communication in Spanish.
THE MONTREAL BIOSPHERE IS A MUSEUM DEDICATED TO WATER AND THE ENVIRONMENT. IT WAS BUILT AS PART OF THE UNITED STATES PAVILION FOR THE WORLD'S FAIR (EXPO 67). THE CITY IS NOTED FOR ITS RESTAURANTS, SO WE ATE WELL. WE ALSO MARVELLED AT HOW UN-NEW YORK THEIR METRO (SUBWAY) WAS AND ACTUALLY SPENT A LOT OF TIME IN THEIR WARMER, LABYRINTH OF SUBTERRANEAN SHOPPING.
On our way to our actual destination, a bed and breakfast in Quebec City, we stopped about halfway in the town of Drummondville. We gassed-up and got lunch. The Frenchies spotted us a mile away and ignored us. I had to get up and get us menus and then had to summon an aloof waitress. The food was okay but almost twenty years later, I still wonder about that lumpy thing in my last swallow of coffee...
Quebec City lived up to my romantic build-up, but there was still a lot of ice, snow and slush all about. Our first stop was a shopping mall because we were wearing sneakers. At the shoe department of The Bay, (a huge Macy's-like store) no one admitted that they spoke English. The staff was so callous that at the risk of missing a sale, they offered no help. We had to survey the patrons ourselves until we found a willing translator.
The walled portion of the city has narrow, cobblestone streets that are reminiscent of nineteenth century Paris. A tourist bonanza, arty boutiques, intimate bars, cafes and vintage hotels were everywhere. We tried to stay on the sunny side of the street but that strategy almost proved lethal. It's hard to believe but true, ignorant bastards were shoveling snow, willy-nilly off three-story rooftops. Judging from the heavy splatter on the street and sidewalk, someone could really get hurt. Their liability insurance laws must be awfully lenient or maybe there's a bounty on Americans? Either way, how can they tell if the innocent pedestrians below (like us) spoke French? So I'm guessing the locals knew better and stayed away.
In the evening we got a late start for dinner. We scurried like Eskimos through the icy streets until we arrived at the huge, gourmet restaurant a half-block from the Chateau Frontenac. We were shivering as we entered the bar area that separated two identical, over-sized dining rooms. A gazillion employees met us as we came in. Among this gang were; a maitre d, some waiters, bus boys, a bartender, bar porter, hat check girl, a female harpist and the manager.
The maitre d greeted us by saying something in French. I said, "We don't speak French." In an obnoxious tone he said, "Do you have reservations?" It was mid-week, out of season, freezing, nearly 9:00PM and only one of the hundred tables was occupied. I looked into the cavernous empty dining room and said, No, we don't have reservations." His response was a snippy, "Then you'll have to wait in the bar." "Here we go again," I whispered to Sue. She said, "I can use a drink anyway and this is no time to start window shopping for another restaurant."
I was annoyed the whole ten minutes until our table was "ready." We were led through the elegant room to a primo table, in the furthest corner, overlooking the street. The maitre d pulled out Sue's chair as the waiter handed us menus. These morons must have had a good laugh in the kitchen because they spitefully left us alone with French-only menus. I called for the maitre d and asked him for English menus. He looked at me as if I had three heads and said, "I will translate." At our expense, he rambled through the bill of fair as if he was double parked. We were still clueless when he called over the waiter. On a wing and a prayer, we mutely ordered by pointing.
The first disappointment was the lobster bisque. I knew from my vast experience with Campbell's that I was eating generic tomato soup, albeit with a scant sliver of fruits de mer mixed in. Mr. Personality looked like he needed another laugh, so I summoned the maitre d. I politely told him, "I don't like the soup." He said, "For an additional $7.50, you can have onion soup." I was getting madder and madder and wasn't forking-over that much more for an inferior choice. I snarled, "What else you got?" He said, "For no additional charge you can have consomme." Rather than create a scene, I pushed the soup aside and said, "Forget it."
The rest of the dinner, the harp music as well as the service was excellent. The short-lived love-fest bubble abruptly ended when a busboy was using a small whisk broom to remove crumbs from the table cloth. The maitre d was wheeling over the dessert cart and stopped to rush over. He grabbed the broom and bitterly scoffed, "No Claude!" Then he humiliated the poor man with a French, sermon-like reprimand. I whispered to Sue, "What an ass-hole." She shushed me as the maitre d pushed the cart closer and the waiter poured coffee.
The pastries looked like individual works of art that belonged in the Louvre. What caught my eye was the colossal concoction that occupied the entire top rung of the cart...a circular, two-tiered cake that looked like a million eclairs glued together. Maybe they were closing and would have thrown the rest away but he cut me a slice that covered a dinner plate. When he set it in front of me, I nudged the dish aside to get a sweet-n-low for my coffee. This jerk bent down, got in my face hissed, "What's the matter, you don't like the cake either?"
I embrace other cultures and would love to say of the French, "vive la difference," but I just can't! This decision is more difficult because my son Andrew took that language and did so well. My tendency would have been to take him to Quebec City, but in that regard, he's going to have to find out for himself why the French and their ancestral cousins are an international punchline.