“Pardon my French” is a common English language phrase ostensibly disguising profanity as words from the French language.
Québec is a predominantly French-speaking province in eastern Canada with 2 vibrant cities in its south, connected by the Chemin du Roy highway along the Saint Lawrence River.
Prior to our trip to Quebec Province I was told by a fellow, and in no uncertain terms, that I would have to “parlez vous Francais” in order to get by and get around. It turns out that what he told me was a canard and I don’t mean French for “duck,” I mean English for fabrication. That’s a good thing because Cora and I didn’t spend but about 5 minutes trying to learn French.
Along with Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and Romanian, French is one of what are called the Romance Languages. Cora being familiar with Spanish couldn’t bluff her way into French because while they’re all derived from Latin the similarities seem fewer than the differences. So she basically said the hell with it, or as the Quebecois might say, “l’enfer avec ça.” I wasn’t much better but I did make the minor effort of an occasional “bonjour,” and “merci.”
This isn’t to say that I didn’t have some instances in which a knowledge of French would’ve been handy. Traffic signs, particularly those spelling out parking regulations, were all in French and I had to puzzle over those to make sure that my car wouldn’t be towed away to some distant lot. There was a time or two when I availed myself of the Google translator to decipher those signs. After some repetition with the street and traffic signs I was able to make my way relatively comfortably.
And what about those parking lots dotting the whole city of Montreal with signs that read AVIS in bold letters. One afternoon as we walked past one of those lots on the way to the metro I noted to Cora, “Did you notice all these lots that belong to Avis Car Rental? Someone worked out a real sweet deal.”
And then one day I remembered that we were in a place where French is the dominant language and it gave me pause to consider that maybe those weren’t car rental lots after all. I did a quick lookup of AVIS in the Google translator and lo and behold it turned out that one translation of AVIS is NOTICE. In this case it was meant as a warning that parking an unauthorized vehicle in the lot would result in whatever comeuppance the sign threatened – in French.
In the small villages of the Eastern Townships where we might have expected to need the translator we got by comfortably with English. Even machines recognized us. I had a moment of pause the first time that I had to gas up the car. “Mon dieu, I told Cora, “even though the procedure for using these is pretty much universal, I’d still like to be able to read the prompts.” After asking what “mon dieu” means she asked what the problem was?
“The instructions are in French.”
Well, I needed gas so I took a deep breath, inserted my debit card and the prompts were magically transformed from French to English. Louange dieu, praise God; no, praise the Quebecois.
Montreal’s Metro, the parking machines and pay stations and most of the tourist information had English options. There was only one instance in which we had a bit of a struggle. Cora and I were in Quebec City puzzling over a map to make sure that we were headed in the right direction to get to The Citadelle. A woman passing by noticed our confusion and stopped to help – in French. It took a little bit of broken French and English and some pointing from map to street but she kindly had us going in the right direction. So, no you don’t have to parlez Francais to get by. Still even just a bonsoir or a merci can give the impression that you’re trying. It’s a nice gesture. The locals pretty much had us pegged as Americans anyway and started conversations off in English.
Just what is it that outs us as Americans? I realize that there’s been this long standing reputation initiated by American louts who’ve travelled overseas and acted in a superior and condescending manner as if the locals were their personal lackeys. It was those overbearing bumpkins that ruined it for the rest of us. So now it’s part of the baggage that we pack with us; a presumption that Americans are all rude, pushy, condescending slobs. With that realization I go out of my way to be polite and unassuming. I didn’t wear a t-shirt with a red, white and blue American eagle or (God forbid) a MAGA hat and yet without uttering a syllable I would automatically get handed a menu in English or be greeted with “Hello, how are you,” rather than “bonjour.” This sort of thing often happened when I travelled to Italy and was fluent in Italian. Just what is it that outs us as Americans?
The metric system however is a horse of a different color.
“Thus the metric system did not really catch on in the States, unless you count the increasing popularity of the nine-millimeter bullet.” ~ Dave Barry
Above and below: Beautiful produce at Jean-Talon Market. But how much does it cost? Is a big handful closer to a kilo or a pound? And just what is a kilo?
The moment that we crossed the border we entered a whole new world of measurement. We left the world of English measurement behind and entered the metric world or more accurately put, we entered the rest of the world’s system of measurement. America, with it’s often annoying, hard headed superiority complex is one of the last bastions of English holdouts.
“We don’t need none of that metric BS. We’re doing just fine with the system we got. We’re right dammit and the rest of the world is wrong,” must be the rationale as we pledge dogged allegiance to the English system.
Seriously why would we want to go to a system that’s based on tens when we have a perfectly confusing system that seems to be based on something that someone apparently pulled out of his ass when he decided that 1 jack is equal to 1/64 of a gallon, a gill is 1/32 of a gallon and a pint is
¼ 1/8 of a gallon (I originally published this with a pint equaling 1/4 of a gallon. A reader corrected me and hence the change. See? We need to move to metric).
When you cross the border into Canada and you see that the speed limit is 100 you just might get the notion that you can let out the throttle. But no that doesn’t give you license to romp on the accelerator. It means 100 kilometers per hour. If you have a fairly new car the confusion is brief though because American car makers have incorporated K per hour onto the speedometer.
So while it’s good to know that you aren’t going over the speed limit you’re still screwed when it comes to distances; 400 meters, 800 meters, 1 kilometer. What do those distances mean? If we’re 130 kilometers away what does that mean? Resting assured that you won’t get tagged for speeding is small comfort if you want to know how far away you are from where you want to be. 130 kilometers? What does that relate to? Is it just around the bend or is it. if I may channel Led Zeppelin, over the hills and far away? Is 500 meters farther than 1 kilometer? After all it is a bigger number – right? Just what is a kilometer? If you know your Greek you know that kilo means 1000 and so it stands to reason that a kilometer is 1000 meters and so 500 meters is one half of a kilometer. But if I can’t relate a meter to anything then it’s still, as the saying goes, all Greek to me.
And if you think for one moment that the girl on the Google GPS will bail you out, well, you can just toss that notion. As soon you’re over the border Google girl’s allegiance changes from American to Canadian and the little turncoat calls out everything in metrics. It’s not so bad when you’re 100 kilometers from your destination and you’ve got time to sort it out but when she calls out a right turn in 200 meters does that mean a stone’s throw or a cannon shot? (Hint: It’s closer to a stone’s throw).
As we crossed the St. Lawrence River and approached Montreal I was completely disoriented. I missed exits, turns and entire boulevards. It was a constant revolving ruckus with Google girl recalculating and recalculating and sending me round and round, over the bridge and back again. I’m certain that I heard the little shit laughing every time she sent me back to the other side of the river. For my part I was spewing a torrent of expletives and billingsgate that was singeing Cora’s eyebrows. Every wrong turn that sent us back over the river to try again had me damning the Google girl to the lowest circles of hell but of course that damned automaton just took it all in stride.
And then, maybe it was desperation driven, my mind rolled back to my track and field roots. I’m old enough that when I ran track in high school I ran the 880. That translated to 2 laps on a 440 yard track which translated to ½ a mile. That’s ancient history because at some point, long, long ago USA Track and Field converted to metrics making the two laps 800 meters which is just short of 875 yards. I remembered from my distance running days that 5 kilometers equals 3.1 miles. Now I had some reference points. When Google girl told me to make a right turn in 100 meters I realized that’s about 100 yards and I’d better set myself up for the turn. After finally getting to the correct side of the river and to our destination all I wanted was a nice, cold Molson to calm down. And I didn’t care if it came in liters or quarts or metric tons.
None of that helped me when we went to the Jean-Talon Market in Montreal. Jean-Talon, is a public market on the edge of Montreal’s Little Italy and to call it a gastronomic treasure chest would be damning with faint praise. Jean-Talon is an overabundant riches of meats, produce, flowers, breads and pastries and cheese, most of it sold in metric units. Ugh.
Jean-Talon is a banquet of colors, tastes, aromas and sounds that lustily titillates the senses; the perfume of flowers, the vibrant colors of strawberries, peppers, apples and even garlands of garlic, the crackling crunch that comes from the squeeze of a fresh loaf of bread and the dusky sweetness of a rich truffle. You can’t just window shop Jean-Talon because that would just send you home realizing that you’ve passed up it’s superb delights. You have to leave with something or the trip was all in vain.
Hence my problem. I love goat cheese and it was the goat cheese purveyor who first aroused me. I ogled a display case brimming with goat cheese. But the price? Fifty dollars for a kilo? I could only reference a pound and 50 bones for a pound of cheese was way out of the budget. The young woman behind the counter pegged me for an American (of course) and also recognized how I ached for her wares. She could also sense my confusion. She was gentle. She asked if I wanted a taste and I bit. It was sensuous; smooth, creamy with just the right sharpness. Perceiving my trepidation over the cost she guided me to a small wedge, “I can give you the price of this piece.” It was a generous portion and turned out to be well within the budget. I left with two wedges of goat cheese and a better understanding of shopping in the metric market.
With my shyness behind me I visited the charcuterie and after repeating the ritual from the cheese purveyor I came away with some wonderful salami. The bread and croissants were a piece of cake (so to speak) since they are all priced by the piece. I went back to our apartment with a sackful of beautiful food that became my evening snack as I read on the back porch.
And did I mention the gas station? We pulled into an Esso station and marveled at the posted price of 1.25 per. “Damn Cora, we need to move to Canada. The gas here is dirt cheap. It’s 1.25 per gallon.” And then again I paused and thought about it. “Oh yeah, nevermind. That’s 1.25 per liter.” I wasn’t going to stop and figure out how it translated to gallons because that would just be splitting hairs over something that didn’t really matter. The car was thirsty and the unit of measure, whether in gallons, liters or even tablespoons, was irrelevant.
Still the question remains. Why are we so stubborn when it comes to the metric system? Not only are some Americans stubborn, they’re downright angry and nationalistic. Take Tucker Carlson – please, take him. Carlson is a commentator on Fox News and I’m told that once upon a time he had his head somewhat together. And then, I don’t know, was it alcohol or drugs or a bump on the noggin that sent him spinning off into a whacky netherworld? It was probably a cross between career preservation and money because if you want to be a successful commentator you have to say ridiculous things – in a loud, emotional voice. Otherwise people might think you’re rational and rationality doesn’t pay the bills. Recently he opined (ranted?) about the metric system and it went off the scale of ridiculousness. This particular tirade featured a duet with Carlson and a fellow named James Panero bloviating in harmony.
Carlson described the metric system as a weird, “utopian, inelegant, creepy system, and a “yoke of tyranny.” Tyranny!!! Maybe I’m a little overly sensitive but “tyranny” seems just a smidge over the top.
The logic (and I use that term loosely here) went completely off the rails when they made the point that the English system is somehow user friendly because it is divisible into thirds, fourths and halves (they seem to have forgotten eighths and sixteenths). I don’t know about you but I prefer dividing by tens but maybe that’s just me being quirky.
Panero continued, “It (the English system) connects us to our ancestors through cups, through teaspoons and tablespoons, I can still cook the recipes of my grandparents.” Ah yes the old “we’ve always done it this way,” argument. I used to try the “we’ve always done it this way” ploy with my boss and she would hold out a hand, stop me in mid-sentence and give me the evil eye with one eyebrow raised in a menacing manner. Since Panero is so tied to grandma’s recipes does he cook them the way she did; over a hearth? Might just as well go all in James.
The fact that the U.S. military has long ago gone metric must be causing some pain in Tucker’s right wing. And his distress won’t stop with our metric military. If he goes to have that irritated right wing checked out he’ll find that his doctor is using the metric system. So is his dentist, his pharmacist, the technician drawing his blood and the lab analyzing it. The car that takes him to his metric doctor is held together with metric fasteners and the engine is rated in liters. If all this metrification is bringing him down and he needs a nice stiff drink to take the edge off he won’t find any solace in downing a 7 and 7 because the bottles of both his Seagrams’ 7 and 7-Up are measured in metric units.
The sad fact is, America will probably never completely adopt the metric system. Why? Because it was invented by the French and according to Panero it was invented “on the business end of the guillotine.” I don’t know what it is with these guys and the French. You can’t be a proper American nationalist if you don’t take the French to task for something, even if that something was a good idea. It’s these types who are still ordering “freedom fries” with their hamburgers.
On a more serious note, because I find it hard to take Tucker seriously, if you find yourself in Canada and flummoxed by the metric system just ask, because I found the Quebecois to be the friendliest folks in the world.
“In metric, one milliliter of water occupies one cubic centimeter, weighs one gram, and requires one calorie1 of energy to heat up by one degree centigrade—which is 1 percent of the difference between its freezing point and its boiling point. An amount of hydrogen weighing the same amount has exactly one mole of atoms in it. Whereas in the American system, the answer to ‘How much energy does it take to boil a room-temperature gallon of water?’ is ‘Go fuck yourself,’ because you can’t directly relate any of those quantities.” ~ Josh Bazell.
Oh….and…um…pardon Josh’s French.