From an old website, Alien in Montreal
On my first day of school, I sit on the crowded bus and stare out of the window, nervous.
I can't help but think back to my first day at secondary school, oh, so many years ago. The night before that fateful day I had cried half the night away, worried to death about stories of heads being flushed down toilets by large boys. On this day, however, I nursed nothing more than a mild hangover – no tears were shed.
I'm on my way to Quebec's free French lessons for immigrants that don't happen to parle Francais when they arrive. The course took almost five months to arrange -- after getting my final immigration papers in December, I went straight to an old, crumbling governmental building and booked them on the same day, barely an hour afterwards, in fact.
Eventually I got the call, and attended an interview in some god-forsaken bit of Montreal without metro links, and sat through an interview with a kindly woman. It was one of those rare days – one of those days when I can somehow speak French with ease. When my inhibitions fail and, from out of the ether perhaps, an invisible hand guides my mouth and it utters things I don't really know how to say. Suffice to say that I'm worried from the beginning that they'll put me in the wrong class.
As I stare out of the window, I remember the French lessons that I took at school, when I was between 8 and 13. All I remember from them is chien, chat and bonjour. I managed to blank them out completely somehow. I wonder if my lessons here will be similar.
I hope not.
I was told to arrive at 8:30 and go to the secretary's office. This I dutifully do, following the yellow highlights on the blurry photocopied map that I had been given. There are three other, nervous looking people in the waiting room. They look away as I enter.
'C'est pour le cours Francais?' I say, badly.
They all wobble heads and look at their feet. No-one answers. Ah, friendly, I think.
We wait, time passes.
The secretary arrives and looks at us sternly. 'Que es-ce tu fait ici?' She demands (or something similar)
One of our number spews out a whole load of French and the secretary nods. Oh my god, I think, they can already speak French! Panic rises within me.
From what I can understand, we're to go to the classroom, not her office after all. She gives directions to the French speaker in our group.
We eventually arrive in the correct classroom and take seats. The teacher arrives and chats away in a jolly manner in French. My heart sinks. After some chatting and checking of names I'm rather pleased to see that the French speaker from earlier is in the wrong class – he should be next door, in 203. This is 202. From what I understand there is also a 201, a 204 and a 205. I relax a little. I'm in the lower-middle group.
Some of the class discover that they share some common unintelligible language. They quickly form a small clique and shout at each other across the room, laughing and making everyone else feel nervous.
The teacher finally takes control and we do a tour of the class – the usual thing – name, country, occupation. The teacher, and I, am surprised to find that we have five Bulgarians in the class. These are the clique people. Add to this the Ukrainian and the two Romanians, and we have a class full of people that can all speak Russian.
There are also some Peruvians, two Chinese girls, a Moroccan, an Algerian, an Argentinian, and a Columbian. Oh, and, of course, an Englishman.... me.
Teacher is quirky and fun. She sings, acts, plays, and generally disarms the class quickly. She speaks entirely in French. I find that if I spend 100% of my concentration on listening, then I can understand 70% of what she says, but if my mind wanders for even a few seconds then I lose everything and start to smile in that way that lost people smile when they understand absolutely nothing that is going on, but don't wish to admit it.
Everyone seems to know words I don't. I don't understand anyone when they speak.
This is worrying.
My neighbour, a Romanian, asks me something. It includes the word 'Paye' which I think must be country. So I say, 'Angleterre'.
She shakes her head. She says something else. It contains the word 'Nee', which I think means born, so I try again, 'Angleterre?'.
She shakes her head as if I'm stupid, and turns away to talk in Russian, or Romanian, to a neighbour. This depresses me somewhat.
Then the lesson begins properly. We start with some articles. De, De la, De l', Des, Du and so forth.
Grammar, explained ENTIRELY IN FRENCH.
I feel like crying. It's not so different from my first day at school after all, it turns out.
I find, and sit in, the cafeteria, alone. It makes me think of American teenage high-school movies when the geeky new kid sits on his own in the canteen and has food thrown at him. Of course, I'm not really geeky, and I chose to sit alone, rather than with the Eastern Bloc clique, which I pretend not to see, in the other corner of the room.
After lunch we take a tour of the college with another, younger teacher. During the course of this, she manages to discover I have a Quebecoise wife.
Murmurs pass around all my peers. They all assume that with a French speaking wife, I shouldn't need a French course. What am I? Stupid?
Ah well, only eight more weeks to go. At 30 hours a week, that's only 240 hours... God help me.