Let me just preface this by saying I grew up in Montréal with an English-speaking Mom and a French-speaking Dad. This is not me showing off. Growing up bilingual is a thing where I’m from and having more than one native language is completely normal and not unique. It wasn’t an easy road, though.
When I was 5, my parents sat me down at the kitchen table and informed me I would be going to French elementary school. Naturally, I was appalled. Why the hell do I have to go to French school? We speak English at home! My cousins went to English school. My friends spoke English. I didn’t need to learn French. IT WASN’T PART OF MY BRAND.
Because I had vacationed in New Jersey with my family the summer before kindergarten and knew Americans mainly spoke English, I made the executive decision to not learn a second language. Who the fuck has time to learn another language at 5?! I was BUSY, man. I told my Dad about my plans. He watched me fold my high-waisted red GAP jeans into a suitcase and walk towards the front door without saying goodbye. Ruthless. By the time I made it outside, I realized I had no idea how to get to New Jersey and abandoned the plan. My parents laughed at me as I slammed my bedroom door and this was the beginning of my language learning trauma.
During the first few weeks of school, I had a really hard time. Camille, my incredibly patient Kindergarten teacher, had asked the class to memorize our home phone numbers…in French, naturally. I couldn’t do it. I watched my ENTIRE CLASS succeed effortlessly. I was the only kid who didn’t know how to memorize EIGHT French numbers in a row. I’m almost thirty and literally blogging about the first days of Kindergarten. Do you know what that shit feels like when you’re 5?! It’s heartbreaking. It took me DAYS to learn it by heart, but I finally did it. I brought a tiny piece of paper in my bookbag one morning with my phone number written on it and repeated it a million times in the lockers before going up to my teacher and KILLING IT. SALUT CAMILLE, QUATRE HUIT DEUX QUATRE UN TROIS CINQUE. Still got it.
It was a rough start, but all it took was a few months of hard work and I was bilingual. Yeah, it was great and all, but I also want to point out that growing up learning the same two languages as everyone else makes you a little bit lazy too. I always spoke “Franglais” with my friends. There was an English and French option for every word you needed to communicate. WHAT A BEAUTIFUL MESS.
NOW. I’m going on and on about all of this because after going to French elementary and high school and just living my easy bilingual life, I moved to Italy. I’ll save all of the embarrassing stories of learning Italian as an adult for another time (god, there are so many), but I’ve been thinking about my French Canadian background a lot recently. It’s a huge part of my identity and it’s strange because growing up, I fought to be “English.” I never felt French, I just went to French school. I always hung out with an English crowd and to be completely honest, I didn’t feel any sort of attachment towards my French Canadian background. But after years of living in Italy, I miss the language. I miss Québécois swear words. It’s such a special place to grow up and if you know a little bit about Québec, you know we speak French a little different than the rest. Parisians make fun of us. They think we sound weird.
These days, when I visit home, I need a few days to pick up the language again and feel normal. I tend to forget words….really easy words. I mix up Italian and French all the time and it makes me a little sad. My Dad fought so hard for me to learn French and I don’t feel fluent anymore. It’s tough. It makes me feel like I’m losing part of me and I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to fix it unless I move back home. Whatever #firstworldproblems but you know what I mean!
I don’t want to end this on a dramatic note so I WILL SAY that having a French last name in Italy is INCREDIBLY ANNOYING, NOBODY knows how to say it (just a select few and I really appreciate them) and now I have to pronounce it the way it’s spelled which is literally PROTAY-A-OUH. If you’re Italian, you probably know how to spell my last name now. You’re welcome.
P.S. For anyone who cares about updates on the beautiful disaster of a home I bought in Florence, it flooded a second time, I got a new “contatore” ENEL and I decided to go ALL ELECTRIC. I’ll have an update soon. xoxo