The algorithm for prosperity, Julius once told me, formulates the increase in personal creativity from new opportunity. We, the locals who’d struggled for years, found easy and interesting work. The newcomers wanted to learn French and fast. They didn’t stop to fret about the details. Just go, go, go. That’s how they were. And it’s true that their energy and determination were contagious. Their money helped too, while it lasted. All the new condos in Griffintown and Île des Sœurs filled up quickly. However measured, this air of new prosperity wafted across our island like freshly brewed coffee.
I started off with two students in the spring. By the Jazz Festival, I was up to ten. Most of my students came from New York. Young, car-less and unencumbered, they were relieved to have escaped on the ten-hour Amtrak ride north and eager to explore Montreal’s hipster cafés.
Julius was different. Hailing from Austin, he preferred meeting in Starbucks for his lessons. I’m not sure whether it was the air conditioning or his nostalgia for things American. But he sure worked hard to untangle the Texan Spanglish from his French.
“Bonjour Julius,” I said, after he’d settled his lanky frame into the armchair facing mine. “Comment vas-tu?”
“Très bien, merci!” I was pleased he’d stopped pronouncing the silent consonants. It had only taken him two lessons to move from ‘tress by-en’ to something remotely francophone sounding. And he was the fastest to drop the “t” sound when saying “Montréal.”
“Les verbes irréguliers. Testez-moi!” Julius brandished the verb wheel I gave to all my students. A handy thing: point the arrow at the irregular verb and presto! All the conjugations appeared in little windows.
“Passé composé. Aller. Je.”
“Je suis allé?” I nodded but said nothing. Julius craved approval, so I was careful to start off slow and build the praise, ending the lesson on a high note. A shameless marketing ploy designed to bring clients back.
After 45 minutes on verbs, we moved on to dictée. I read an article off my smart phone about the city’s new bridge taking shape over the river while Julius painstakingly typed on his laptop, tongue clenched between his front teeth.
When I first started tutoring the newcomers, the articles I selected were about their home states. Descriptions of labour shortages in Texas and California, spurred by the exodus and deportations. Or sometimes they were pieces on the global backlash triggered by (un)diplomatic incidents in DC.
I’d assumed such excerpts from Le Devoir or La Presse would help enforce my students’ resolve about their decision to flee (things were falling apart) and demonstrate this country’s keen interest in international affairs.
Instead, the articles provoked tears or fist-pounding anger. I soon realized my students’ frustration stemmed from not fully comprehending the words, compounded by understanding the gist and feeling terrible about it. Especially for those they’d left behind. I understood (possibly before they did) that it would take more than one winter to Canadianize them. So I learned to select articles about local developments and worked to make them feel they belonged here with the same warmth I’d often experienced when visiting their country. I immediately connected with the artists from Brooklyn and the ingenious creativity they brought to our galleries and literary events. If it took longer with Julius, I came to admire his spunk and learned much from his resolve.
Julius completed his dictation, and after we’d reviewed his mistakes (the ones spell check did not capture), we embarked on the final phase of the lesson, which I call “libre échange”. At the outset, this conversational exchange with a beginner consisted of me asking yes or no questions with a lot of hand gestures as clues, then explaining slowly, clearly and with innumerable repetitions, how to speed up the learning process: No CNN, New York Times or Buzzfeed. Immerse yourself completely. Watch Radio Canada. Speak only French in stores and restaurants. Be undeterred if people switch to English. Take a local lover. Have sex en français. Julius actually took notes the first time I told him all of this.
And while I obviously had no way of knowing whether my students followed my advice to the letter, I sensed that Julius did, judging by the results. A firm believer in ‘metrics,’ he wanted to quantify his progress through testing and essay questions, which he took home and diligently crafted. But I vowed that only when he started reading work written by a Tremblay would I allow myself to feel a sense of accomplishment.
I asked him how the job search was coming along. He squirmed, fiddling with the white cardboard cup of his extra large coffee, “J’ai une entrevue bientôt.”
I had him practice the answers for a typical job interview, impressed by his determination, even after I had to repeat a few basic questions. Julius, with a double master’s in math and journalism, wanted to find a job similar to the one he’d left behind. Five years ago, straight out of grad school, he’d started consulting for McKinsey, after which he’d crossed into local then state government as a political operative, an aide to municipal and Texan officials, winding up in the governor’s office doing media relations. (“Pour les républicains,” he’d said while I nodded in a way I hoped was reassuring.)
But when the new President had been sworn in along with ‘my man’ (one of Julius’s monikers for the Secretary of State, a Texan just like him), there had been a ‘house-cleaning’ in the state capital. Julius didn’t much like his new bosses so he decided to try his luck up here. Like many of his compatriots who’d arrived early on, he’d read that our city had the highest concentration of artists, second only to London among global metropolises, partly because of affordable rents. Plus, Julius claimed he’d always wanted to speak a third language, having learned Spanish at a young age but never French.
That was his official story. Later I learned he’d followed a grad school lover from Boston, a woman who turned out not to have much interest in Julius. Often, when I delved into the reasons for my students’ displacement, they were unable to articulate a logical progression of events. It brought to mind the words of my Vietnamese friend who’d arrived as a boat person in the seventies. When asked why he’d left Saigon, he would shrug. “Because everyone else was leaving.”
My challenge with Julius in particular was to help manage expectations. When he first related his background, I suggested he’d be better off looking for work in Ottawa, but he was stubborn about staying here, even after he admitted his lover from Boston refused to see him. I also suggested Toronto, a magnet for many of the expats, particularly the older ones with houses and cars and assets to disentangle before leaving. Others settled in border towns like Cornwall and Windsor, as if they’d be able to quickly hop over the border in four years (best case scenario) or eight (worst case). Canada hadn’t seen this many Americans since the draft dodgers back in the sixties and the federal government, along with a few provinces, eased restrictions on student and work visas, particularly for the educated and/or rich. Their arrival precipitated a boom, not only in housing, but also in immigration-related services involving lawyers and nebulous consultants who offered to help navigate the labyrinth of federal/provincial regulations. The oldsters wanted free health care and fast! But here in Montreal, we got the younger (albeit poorer) crowd, Toronto and Ottawa, the middle-aged savers.
With enormous, knee-jiggling effort, Julius described the job he was after. The interview was with a tech firm started up by some ex-Silicon Valley types who needed his skills in metrics and communications – bilingual of course. “Je peux les aider,” Julius stated with a confident smile. “Les trucs Texans vont fonctionner bien ici.” Just what we needed: political strategies straight from Texas.
We segued into the latest developments in Washington. Julius turned red (the colour of treason) as he referred to the new Commander-in-chief as a “tantrum-prone serial liar”. Then, when our two hours were up, Julius stood, dipped into his wallet and paid me. He wanted to meet next week, after the interview. Same time, but a different Starbucks – the one in old Montreal. “Le vieux port,” I corrected.
As I walked along the river to meet him, I noticed another batch of cranes on the skyline. The contraptions jutted out like immobilized herons, noisily swarmed by gulls, pigeons and sparrows. Migrant birds, too, although they’d fly south in the fall. Much had changed, and quickly, but some things remained the same. Come winter, the snowbirds would still fly down to Florida. Canada geese would still shit on the Carolinas.
Julius jubilantly reported that the interview had been “formidable”. He even paid for my coffee, aced the verb testing and during ‘libre échange’ talked about a woman he’d met, 32, his age, “une vraie Québécoise!” We practiced ‘conversation sexy,’ he paid and left, loping out of the coffee shop like one of our cranes stalking rue Notre Dame.
The lessons with Julius continued past the Canada Day celebrations, through the comedy and film festivals, into the back-to-school days, made frenetic by a spike in the enrolments at colleges and universities. It seemed many newcomers (or their parents) could afford the foreign student tuition. New bars sprung up, bookstores flourished and most of us benefitted in some way.
Meanwhile, south of the border, the new occupant of the oval office was moving with stunning alacrity, implementing his platform one policy after the other. Even his constituency was surprised. He strengthened second amendment rights, just like he’d promised, getting state concealed carry permits recognized nationwide. Of course, making America great again turned out to be more complicated than planned. After the U.S. navy was dispatched to the East and South China Seas, skirmishes ensued, ambassadors were recalled, and Chinese-imposed trade embargoes led to shortages of baby shoes and dryers in mid-western Walmart’s.
At first, these crises were viewed from here with smug belligerence, enabled by our new prosperity. But when the shootings started, we united at candlelight vigils to comfort our newcomers. We were all baffled as, across the border, citizens turned on each other along racial and religious lines. The algorithm of hatred became so horrifying, the border that separated us felt invisible. We started whispering, “If it could happen there, it could happen here.”
A change came over Julius. He forgot the past subjunctive of an auxiliary verb and slammed his laptop during dictée. I assumed it was me. Born here to a family of immigrants, I learned to speak French as a child but it was my third language. Maybe Julius had outgrown my capabilities. I told him I had a good friend from a Québécois family who could take over his lessons.
“Pas toi aussi!” He slumped back in his armchair. His relationship had gone sour, his money was running out, and none of the interviews he’d worked so hard to finagle had materialized into job offers. The only firm offer was from a steak house catering to the hockey crowd.
“Tu dois essayer à Ottawa peut-être?”
He pressed his hands between the knees of his jeans, more praying mantis than heron. Folded inward. I worked hard to encourage him over the next month. “Waiting tables is an excellent way to improve your French!” I said, although feeling for his plight. It was tough being nouveau poor. Then, one day, he texted me in English which was unusual: “Going to DC. Thx for everything.” “Pourquoi?” I responded immediately. He told me to check my newsfeed.
That morning, the President had taken a swing at a protester in Baltimore and, after the security detail wrestled the protester to the ground, he’d kicked at the fellow’s head. Repeatedly. Hours later, after his victim had died, he was charged with manslaughter and frog-walked out of the White House.
A few, like Julius, tried going back. Most didn’t. Wisely, it turned out. The turmoil only intensified. After the Texan Secretary of State (aka ‘my man’) was thrown out of office for being born in Calgary, Julius returned, trying his luck in Ottawa this time.