“Est-ce que je peut parler a Monsieur Bezeau?” I asked.
For the next several minutes, we had a lovely conversation, almost completely in French with a few English phrases thrown in from his side, which is completely natural for any area in a six-hour radius of here. I did my very best to practice good French, because he seemed to be naturally French-speaking. Eventually, however, I started to realize that he was filling in parts of the conversation with English (a lot like I do), and at those times, he had no discernable French accent whatsoever. Then it struck me – perhaps my phone partner would rather speak in English? So I asked him.
“Yes, well, I am more comfortable in English,” he said to me, with some apparent relief.
“Well I’m fine with either one,” I said, and we proceeded in English.
The funny thing we both realized was that he did not detect any hint of my English accent (I’ve been told that I have one).
“I thought you were French!” he said.
So, I thought later, what does that tell me? Well, for one, that we were both doing a pretty darn good job speaking “la belle langue.”
This was a revelation to me because I have spent most of my life trying very hard to speak French whenever the occasion called for it. I should take a moment to explain how very proud that moment made me – me, the kid from away, the little square-head, la petite Americaine de l’autre bord, nicknames my boyfriend’s friends called me when I was 15 or so and visiting The Other Side for the first time (not the great beyond, I should clarify, just over the bridge to Canada).
“Eh eh, t’ammener ta blonde?” they would tease him.
“Hey, tête carrée!” they would tease me. He helped me give it right back – “Call them a round head, see if they like it,” he would laugh.
If the term square-head or “tête carrée” is unfamiliar, let me explain: It is partly a slur against Anglophones, partly a term of endearment, if there can be such a combined thing. It meant, back then among friends, that I was the little American, English-speaking girl who was not yet versed in Acadian or Brayon French, just plain old English, and that was a cause for getting poked fun at in those days (maybe even to this day).
I looked up the term recently on the Madawaska Historical Society’s website, under Part 6, Life and Customs, where a large part of the list of Acadian sayings makes me feel right at home – after all, I have lived up here for 29 years. I had to smile as so many of these terms are still in use, and many of them come from old French rather than from a broken patois.
“The English were known to the Frenchman as ‘Tête Carrée’ or ‘Square Heads,” the text reads. Also, the list notes that girlfriends were known as “blondes” with absolutely no reference to hair color (I was brunette, didn’t matter). Everybody I knew said “icitte” for “here,” “frette” for “cold,” and “haler” for “pull” although the more proper versions are “ici” and “froid” and “tirer” just to name a few. The list of Acadian sayings can be viewed at http://www.madawaskahistorical.org/mhs_history_Madawaska_ways.html.
In essence, with all due respect to the public education system, my French as a Foreign Language class in high school at FKCHS (which I took while most local students took French grammar and verb usage classes) were not of much use once I was submersed in my teen Valley social life. Did I really need to know how to say “How much is that half-grapefruit?” in Parisian French? Not so much. A class in Acadian / Brayon / Valley French would have been more helpful, but I did all right.
I taught myself, beginning with “French 101: Working at Rock’s Restaurant” at about age 16 (you do learn best from speaking to people every day, I’m a good example) and went from there to here, listening all the time, mainly fluent now but still learning. I think a measure of my self-education is that I have had lengthy phone conversations with people from deep in the heart of Quebec. And we can understand each other.
No one has called me a tête carrée in a very long time, but now and then I still get teased about my “English accent.” Not that there is anything wrong with that.