I grew up in a wildly multilingual family and Canada’s bilingual nature fascinated as soon as I started learning French in elementary school—it was just a short flight from New York, but felt as distant and exotic as Belgium where my parents had lived for awhile. I eventually became my high school's star French student, thanks to tutoring from my mother whose Frnech was perfect. Even the subjunctive somehow sunk in. I received a certificate of achievement from the Alliance Française in New York, so a trip to Montréal seemed ideal after I graduated high school and was feeling presque bilingue (almost bilingual). Unlike my older brother whose French was execrable.
He put me in charge of hotels and I picked one on Place Jacques Cartier which was then somewhat ramshackle and noisy, but for a student like me, exciting. Just being able to use French outside of a classroom--and be understood--was thrilling. I'd been studying it for eight years but in a hot house—now it was alive, transactional.
Getting into the country was unexpectedly dicey, though. It was 1971 and both of us looked like hippies. Clean hippies, but hippies nonetheless. And I didn't realize that joking with Passport Control was not a good idea. When I was asked if I had any money with me, I emptied my wallet onto the table and made some smart-ass remark like "Ai-je assez?" (Do I have enough?)
My brother claims that we were taken aside for an hour and interrogated. I have no memory of that. What I do remember was the superb food everywhere we went in Vieux Montréal and elsewhere that week, the sense of finally having escaped the confines of my home, and most of all the wonderful feeling of being a different person when I was speaking and thinking in another language. Oh, and how difficult it was walking in stalked heels on cobblestones (it was the early 70s, remember?). I knew then I'd be back—and in more suitable shoes.
But my next trip involved another language: Shakespeare's English. For twenty years or so, my spouse and I were members of the Stratford Festival, working towards seeing every Shakespeare play at least once, including the more obscure ones like Timon, Prince of Athens and Pericles, Prince of Tyre. We say many other plays by American, Canadian, and French playwrights.
Though I'd seen some wonderful shows in New York, nothing beat watching Christopher Plummer as Lear in front row center seats or Martha Henry in Long Days' Journey into Night, a play I'd seen and studied extensively in college. Her silence was more evocative and devastating than many actor's monologues. The play left us so stunned we couldn't vacate our seats for a good ten minutes afterwards--and we went back to see it again that summer, just as we saw other plays twice when they were terrific.
Stratford was a revelation: not just a charming, scenic town, but a place where you could run into the cast members anywhere and they were happy to chat. Stratford became so much a second home over the years that we chose to get married there when it became an option.
And then there were several trips to Montréal and Toronto each, a week in Vancouver, a handful of celebrations we had at the Langdon Hall Country House and Spa, trips to Québec City by ourselves and with one son and his wife, and my own professional visits as an author to Windsor. I know I have a lot more to explore in Canada and luckily there's plenty of time for more great food, wonderful people, memorable sites.
Lev Raphael is the author of two dozen books in genres from mystery to memoir, most recently Assault With a Deadly Lie, a thriller about out-of-control police. He is a guest assistant professor in the English Department at Michigan State University