I am on a train travelling home from Quebec City. I have been to visit my younger sister. As I get further away from her, I am watching the landscape of my youth – the flat plain of the St. Lawrence River lowlands – pass by.
An important element of my relationship with my sister is language. We speak two languages – French and English. My sister speaks French most of the time because her partner is French Canadian and she works in French. I speak English because my husband speaks primarily English and I work mostly in English. But when we are together, and especially together among other people, the language between us is fluid, and uniquely our own.
When we are with my husband, we speak English and when we are with her partner, we speak French. We will occasionally in these situations break into the other language when what we are discussing seems more appropriately spoken about in that language. If we are asked why we do this, we will look at whoever asked us and shrug. We don’t know, but this common language developed over many years, is one element that makes s close.
This weekend, we went to the market to buy Christmas gifts and our unusual language was evident to at least one merchant. We were trying the cake he was selling and initially we were speaking with him and each other in French. Then the cake reminded us of one our English-speaking aunt made and we began speaking English.
The merchant looked at us and asked,” Francais? English?”
My sister said, “Either.”
I said, “N’importe lequel.”
He shook his head.
Then we told the merchant in French that we would be back because we had to try all the cakes before deciding which we wanted. We also have the same habit of considering all options when we are shopping. We did eventually come back.
My sister began, “Nous prendrons le gateau au fruits.”
I said, “The one with the cranberries.”
He said, “Oh, it’s you two!”
We all laughed.
We had discussed later that our shared sense of humour helped all my siblings to be close. My sister’s partner wondered whether it would be the same if none of us had a sense of humour.
“On ne sait pas.”
We are hilarious.
I was remembering this exchange as the train came into Montreal, the city where I went to university, in English. My education and work have led me to English much more than French, separating me from my sister. But, after a weekend with her, in a place similar to the town where we grew up, I am like her again: speaking and thinking more in French than in English.
Finally, the landscape as I watched from the train window changed to that of the Ottawa River Valley where I now live. I am nostalgic in these gentle hills for the flatness of my sister’s landscape, but I am home. I am thinking entirely in English. I miss her already.