I can’t claim to know it at all well: lacking an insider alongside to direct me, I’ve spent daylight hours during the past week mostly either meandering around it with my guidebook on one of the clunky but marvellously ubiquitous Bixi hire bikes, or seeking refuge from the cold in a variety of cafés in its (small) pretty bit. It’s not the most exciting place to visit at this time of year – better to come when the weather’s warmer and the Cirque du Soleil are performing – but it’s been a gentle place for a low-octane stay after the excitements of Peru, and you can tell it would probably be a good place to live.
For someone who, like me, came to French from the Old World, the accent’s obviously (and appropriately) outlandish; this must be what it would be like to find yourself in inner-city Glasgow after a lifetime listening to the BBC World Service. For this is French toutes voyelles dehors; its vowel sounds have an elastic quality, ready to ping off in unexpected directions at any moment, and are only loosely restrained by oddly toothy consonants. Ça becomes ceu, voilà voileu; nasal vowels, as in bon vin blanc, jump about like nervous cats, and the ‘-aire’ sound in faire or annuaire spirals so long in intersyllable space you wonder if it’s ever coming down.
It can make it hard to follow the line of a speech or story. I’ve had to give up on some of the Québécois conteurs in the storytelling festival that brought me here and has been my main occupation during the hours of darkness – given them up with regret, as it’s the spontaneous use of language that gives a tale much of its colour. (Luckily the Swiss, Venezuelan and Burkinabé storytellers have more than filled the gap; my favourite tale so far has to be a hilarious account of a US First Lady seduced by many-tentacled lesbians from outer space, by the Swiss Catherine Gaillard.)
But the Montrealers are just so damn likeable that you end up smiling even when you understand only a fraction of what’s being said (which isn’t generally for long: they kindly switch to a mid-Atlantic variant of French when they hear my own accent). There’s the default use of tu rather than vous, for starters – ditching the centuries-old ballast of buttoned-up French obsession with etiquette and status in one fell swoop, and irresistibly putting you on a friendlier and less formal footing with your interlocutor in the process. There’s the bilingualism that doesn’t seem to carry the resentment it does in Belgium, for instance, where it’s safer to speak English than to use French with a Flemish-speaking shopkeeper. There’s the polite driving culture, and the metro and railway staff who’ll go out of their way, even outside the rulebook, to help a confused tourist. And of course there’s the band of damply optimistic indignés on the Square Victoria:
But enough wittering: time to set about finding the venue for tonight’s storytelling. I’ve grown cautious since spending a fruitless lunchtime hunting for one venue at the weekend on the rue St-Jean, only to reread the programme and discover it was the rue St-Jean, Quebec city. So tonight the plan is to locate the place well in advance, set myself at a table with a good view of the stage, and order a bon vin blanc…