Soldiers, rifles, and ice cream


The year is 1972. We’ve spent a week in Morocco and now we’re in Mali to visit our friends. Their house is too small to accommodate us, but we’ve been offered the apartment belonging to a young couple from France who are away for a few weeks in Europe.

We also have a mobylette to scoot around town, so we’re set for the trip of a lifetime. We visit the zoo, swim in the Olympic sized pool built by the Russians, drive up to the hospital to see our friend and her brand new baby.

We also stop off to see the doctor and feel terribly embarrassed when we are escorted to the front of the long line. People have been waiting for hours, but we’re first—a courtesy to the guests. In answer to our protests, the doctor says, “You have left the comfort and safety of your home to visit a Malian friend. You do us the honor.”

“I think I’ll go get an ice cream,” my husband says one afternoon. “Want to come?”

“No thanks.”

The ice cream shop is just a couple of blocks away. He can manage on his own even though he doesn’t speak French. He leaves and a few seconds later I hear him calling my name. I step out and look over the balcony.

My husband is facing a soldier who has a very large gun pointed at his chest. Our apartment is opposite the court house which has been heavily guarded for several days as there is a trial on for the men who attempted coup a few months back.

I call out an explanation. It doesn’t get me very far as the soldier apparently has no concept of what ice cream is. I try again with a more general message that le monsieur is going to the store. The soldier nods and waves his gun indicating my husband can leave.

Later I look over the balcony again to see my husband handing a cone to the soldier and then demonstrating with his own how to eat it. They both look mighty pleased with themselves and I breathe a sigh of relief.




Peace and Quiet



“We need you to interview a couple who have applied to teach in our province,” said the government voice at the end of the line.

“O-kay,” I said wondering why they couldn’t do it themselves.

“They’re from Lebanon and they only speak Arabic and French.”

Aha, that explained it. We had many immigrants coming into our city from war-torn areas of the world and the Lebanese civil war was on-going at the time.

“We need you to evaluate their French language competency.”

A date and time were set and I met the couple in the appointed government office. I talked to each of them in turn.

The wife was shy and timid, but her French was fine. The husband was more willing to talk about conditions in Lebanon.

“I was a teacher,” he said. “They took my job away and sent me to work at the airport. Every morning I said good-bye to my family not knowing if I would see them again. Every morning a guard pointed a gun in my chest and asked me to produce my identification. The same guard. Every morning. As if he didn’t know who I was. Bombs. Killing. Beirut was once the Paris of the Middle East. No longer. Such destruction.”

He took a deep breath. “We were so lucky to come to Canada. We had to come. I couldn’t risk the lives of my wife, my children.”

He paused for a moment as if gathering himself. “It’s so quiet here. You have peace. It’s so quiet here.”

All these years later, especially as I watch the news of war and strife around the world, one phrase echoes in my head. “It’s so quiet here.”





We’re not so different after all


Those who aren’t from Canada may not know that beneath the surface of the polite Canadian image simmers a hotbed of rivalry between French and English speaking citizens. The flames flare and recede in cycles of political turmoil and subsequent recesses.

I find a new acupuncturist who happens to be a Canadian of French descent, originally from a small town in Quebec. He grew up speaking French, but learned English and has a most charming accent. I’m a Canadian of Belgian and Ukrainian descent who grew up in a small town in Western Canada. I grew up speaking English and have no idea if my French accent is charming or not.

We discuss many things during an acupuncture session, including our childhoods. This is where the similarities come in. We share a love of the Eaton’s catalogue; both having spent hours poring over the pages filled with shiny pictures of our hearts’ desires—toys, toys, books, and more toys. We also remember the early days of hockey. The Montreal Canadiens being our favorite team.  We, out west, didn’t like the Toronto Maple Leafs any more than Quebecois did.

“Did you read Le Chandail de Hockey?” I ask.

“Bien sûr,” he says.

“I felt so sorry for the boy when the catalogue sent him the wrong hockey jersey,” I say.

“Imagine the shame,” he says, “playing with your friends who all have Canadiens jerseys,” he replies with a sympathetic shake of his head.

I shudder at the thought and ask, “Did you get substitutes too, when you ordered things?”

“Mais oui,” he says. “The hockey sweater my mother ordered for me was too small. She gave it to my little brother.”

“Me too.” I sigh. “I’ll never forget getting the little blue purse when what I really wanted was the red one.”

We sigh again and then chuckle and move on to other topics. The memory of the blue purse still rankles, but Michel and I have found several common grounds and our friendship continues to grow.

Well Endowed a la French Lesson

Six Canadian Anglophones in a French tourist spot on Lac d’Annecy. It’s a sort of Club Med on the cheap, and we’re delighted to be immersed in the French language and culture. After all that’s what we came for.

Each of us speak some French and can get by in most conversations. We’ve come here for a few weeks to improve our linguistic skills. Our instructor is a French woman who lives in Canada, but has family in the area; she’s a perfect guide. Our mornings are spent in a classroom setting; but it’s our afternoons that are the most fun. We visit local points of interest—there are many, from Chamonix to Mont Blanc to Annecy. We interact with locals and enjoy the food and the wine.

This is a working holiday? I don’t think so. But work we do. The most interesting aspect of our learning is the vocabulary not found in dictionaries. One fine day we’re out on the terrace of our classroom learning body parts. We want to know how to say things like beer belly, love handles, and well endowed. Our instructor is about to answer this last when we hear a cackle from the 92 year-old French woman on the terrace next to ours.

“In my day,” she says, “we said, ‘il y a du monde sur le balcon.” Translaltion – the balcony is full.