Tuesday, June 06, 2006

these days there's an old car on a corner i use often; it's got an old quebec license plate on it, though i can barely see it since i'm busy driving, and it's a busy corner. nevertheless i always point it out to my boys, and say, je me souvien (i remember)- you don't see one of those every day.

my parents took us to montreal for expo '67, though it may have been in '68- they were surprised that my brother, who had gotten 800 on his french achievement tests, was almost useless, whereas i, who had had no french at all, was reading signs and figuring out where we were. to me the most fascinating part was not the new technology of the expo, not the working subway system, not the french-style cathedrals, but merely the process of trying to survive when the world was in code. this, to my brother, was simply not in the a-b-c-d format that he had mastered so well. it happened too quickly.

that was a rainy summer- a cold, wet, campout using the new york times for toilet paper even as it was reporting the flower children and the sexual revolution...nevertheless, when i had the chance, i went back to montreal, on my own, several times, this time trying to fend for myself without a car, without a family. people were patient with me, and i didn't try to make them admit that they knew english fluently- i'd wing it as long as i could. half the time i didn't know where i was, but would take what appeared to be navigational guidance from strangers and go where they pointed. i'd end up in some part of montreal, or some back-country road where old houses looked like rural france- though i didn't really know what that looked like...

but there were two problems...the first was that the weather was always much colder up there than it was in new england or boston, where i generally started from in those days, although in this particular story i lived in iowa...and second, when you got close to the border, people didn't want to give you a ride, because they sensed all that immigration stuff and didn't want to be associated, even remotely, with a complete stranger who could be anybody. so i'd occasionally walk the last five-six miles to a border outpost- in this case it was north of vermont- and i was in one of those french villages and it was very cold. a small little french car had an "a vendre" sign in it, and i decided to buy it on the spot. after all- it was so clearly french that it would be quite a conversation starter out in iowa, if it made it that far. second, i was tired of walking, and actually had a few hundred bucks that i could call on if it was possible. but naturally, the woman who answered the door of the house spoke very little english, in spite of living so close. she was perfectly willing to sell me the car, and also some of her rabbits, which she showed me, but explained to me that there might be some problems getting the car across the border with the paperwork and all. i wanted one of those je me souvien license plates, even if it was only for a few days, but realized that that plan also could be unrealistic- why would they give me one of them? the provincial authorities would certainly be no easier to deal with than the woman, and she at least wanted the deal to go through. but what was with the rabbits? my name meant rabbit in french...i'd never put one in a cage...and it bothered me to know that this car was complicit in anti-rabbit-perpetuation activities. if i bought them, all i could do would be to set them free...and then how would that look? is that any way for a guest to behave? there was a bit of a cultural gap there.

i walked back to the usa that day, and that warmed me up, that and the idea of still having my money waiting for whatever stupid idea i might have next...and the next time i came back, had my own car, wife and kid, and shot all the way up to the mastigouche, if i remember correctly- but still some of the cultural issues. once i wanted to get out of the car and buy some fresh sweet corn at the side of the road. practiced a sentence of french until it was perfect, then said it so well that the vendor shot back at me with an entire reply, of which i couldn't understand a word. bowled me over, humbled me. i took the corn, and the centimes, and the folded over sack, and went on my way. and here i am today, the memories flash me (there are a few not mentioned here) as i come around that corner. but i don't let my eyes linger, because it's a busy street, and i have responsibilities...


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