Hi Frugalistas! Being the true Francophile I am I was desperately keen to visit Quebec on my recent trip to Canada. The question I was interested in exploring, and answering, was “how French is Quebec?” I don’t consider myself an expert at all on the topic of Quebec or Quebecois culture. But I did spend time with Quebecois. I spoke French with Quebecois. I ate Quebecois food and drink, and enjoyed Quebecois architecture. I experienced the Quebecois “joie de vivre”. But how French is Quebec? Well, I think that’s complicated……
My First Assumption About How French Quebec Was
Before I went to Montreal and Quebec City I knew that they were in Quebec, which is of course, the “French” part of Canada. I knew that Quebec French was different to French as it is spoken in France. I knew there had been at different points of history strong separatist movements for Quebec to become independent from the “English” part of Canada. But for some reason I assumed that was because the Quebecois identified as being “French.”
In planning my trip, learned there were different local Quebecois foods. I worked out that there were a lot “outdoors” adventure activities. I discovered that the Montreal Canadiens hockey team totally ruled. Hhmmm….. none of this seemed very French.
But even so, I still had this mental image that somehow Quebec was still French. Poutine eating, hockey loving and outdoorsy French people with “funny” French accents.
Reflections on the question: “how French is Quebec?”
Then I visited Quebec. I realised immediately upon arriving in Montreal how naïve my question, and indeed my assumption and hypothesis was.
Montreal was not like France. In fact it was not like anywhere I recognised.
The more I explored Montreal, the more I realised that Montreal was definitely its own city, with its own identity. It didn’t look French. It was very multicultural. It was historic, it was modern, it was traditional, it was funky.
The hockey playoffs were in full swing and the whole city was crazy for their beloved “Habs”, the Canadiens. Whether I watched French language or English language television, it was definitely all about hockey.
There were, of course, things that did remind me of France in Montreal. Both the Marches Jean Talon and Atwater would do any French town proud. But there was maple syrup and maple syrup products everywhere in those markets. The Canadiens flag hung proudly at Jean Talon. Yes, it was sort of French. But it wasn’t really…………
Walking around the streets I saw young women who definitely had that Parisian chic I am always so envious of. But when they opened their mouths they spoke flawless English with a Canadian English accent. They did not sound French at all.
Exploring newsstands I was thrilled to find a “French” Elle magazine. But it was not French Elle. It was Quebec Elle. I bought Quebec Elle and enjoyed reading it. But it was not French Elle. The clothes were different, the articles were different. It had a very different aesthetic and vibe. It was in French, but it was not French.
Then I went to Quebec City. Yes, it was decidedly more “French”. It looked more French in some ways, more people spoke French, and the French they spoke sounded “more French” to my ear.
But talking to people, exploring the city and understanding its history, I soon realised that, again, “France” had eluded me. Quebec City had beautiful historic architecture, it had a charming old town and a gorgeous outlook on the St Laurence River. I found shops selling those lovely French kitchenwares. I found a shop selling Quimper china. There were clothes shops to die for (I’m definitely going shopping next time I’m there!).
But never, ever, did I feel like I was in France. I was somewhere else. I was in Quebec. And it was fantastic.
Should you look for France in Quebec?
In my first post about Quebec, I wrote about how you can find France in North America. And yes, if you want to, you can find France in Quebec.
You can dine in French restaurants and eat duck confit. You can buy French clothes and speak French.
But to me, that’s not really the point of going to Quebec.
Reflecting on my time in Quebec, I think the question to ask is not “how French is Quebec?”, but “should you look for France in Quebec?” And I have to say, no I don’t think you should.
Just as the English speaking parts of Canada are not English, Quebec is not France. As an Australian, I’m conscious that despite my Anglo-Celtic cultural background, I’m not British. Yes, I speak English, but I speak different English, with a different accent (that some Quebecois couldn’t understand). And I like different things. I’m no more “at home” in London as I am in New York, or Vancouver.
To me, it’s therefore perhaps a bit ignorant, or maybe even arrogant, to assume that a people, a society and a culture is defined by something as simplistic as the language that is spoken. Culture and society is far more complex than that.
The philosophy of frugal first class travel is to seek out the authenticity of a destination. And I think I found that in Quebec. I found that it wasn’t “French”, and nor was it “Canadian” as I had experienced it in Vancouver and Ottawa. It was unique. It was “Quebec.”
And when you go to Quebec, I genuinely think that is what you should go in search of. Don’t be disappointed by the things that aren’t French. Don’t obsess about the things that are. Immerse yourself, and enjoy the sheer “Quebecness” of Quebec. That is the truly authentic Quebec, and that is precisely why you should travel. Not to find a pale imitation, or a version of some place else. But a unique, vibrant and singular destination and experience that is the perfect version of itself.
Author’s note: While in Quebec I was a guest of Quebec Tourisme, and their many wonderful partners. I would like to thank each and every person I met in Montreal and Quebec City for showing me the uniqueness and helping me understand so much about their cities.
Donna Janke says
As a Canadian from the prairies (the English part of Canada), I found it interesting to read your perceptions of Quebec. It is unique. I haven’t explored the entire province, but I have been to Montreal and Quebec City. Montreal has a large non-Francophone population. Many years ago I travelled there semi-regularly on business and the chic style of the women there both impressed and intimidated me. It’s interesting to read the chic is still there. Good advice for travelling anywhere – look for the authentic version of itself.
Thanks Donna. I’m so glad you got my take home message – find the authentic version of where you are rather than looking for something that exists somewhere else
Being from Montreal myself, I must say you wrote a wicked article here. Koodos !!
Thanks very much Danika. Much appreciated
I am from Quebec (Ste-Anne de Beaupré) living in the US now but visiting as often as I can. I think this is the most accurate writing I have ever read – and I have read many! We could see how you truly made an effort to try everything and not compare or judge. I might want to add that although people might laugh or criticize our humor, language, food etc… I can tell you that we are very proud, humble and happy. To us if a restaurant doesn’t have homemade soups, tourtière, poutine, baked red kidney beans and or maple syrup desserts on the menu, it’s not “really” Canadian. I don’t drink but there are a lot of homemade crafted beers… You are right about our uniqueness and it’s hard to keep this uniqueness. When I bring guests to a restaurant I tell them to expect BIG plate of food that might not look good and won’t be good for their diet or diabetes but I promise it will be tasty and they will need to be on a diet later or will find out if they are diabetic after the meal. That is why we need the outdoors to make room for the next meal. Meals mean family time and we love it. If you didn’t have the chance to experience all that, you have to go back Try during the Carnaval de Québec or la neuvaine de Sainte-Anne in July and don’t worry if you don’t speak French because if you just try to speak it we will help you. Believe me: we truly care that every tourist love Québec and will make every effort so that you love it too. It’s not for the money but for the experience we want you to have. It’s just the way we are! There is so much history, plan to stay for a few days and visit the Old Quebec (le Vieux Quebec and place Royale, its churches … Just enjoy and if you do that you will want to come back.
Martine, thank you so much for your feedback and your very kind words – it means so much coming from a Quebequoise! I can’t wait to go back to Quebec and experience more of its unique culture and wonderful people.
I love your article! Having grown up in Boston, an avid francophile from an early age, I loved visiting Montreal to practice my French. Really, this meant being able to read signs and menus. Having traveled a bit now, I realize how important it is to go prepared but without expectations. Comparing and contrasting is not what travel is about. It is about being surprised around every corner, about being delighted even when things are not your cup of tea. Thank you for writing this.
budget jan says
We found the people of Quebec to be very friendly and helpful. The whole province is charming and we found Quebec City to be particularly so and quite unique as well. It was nothing like I expected. 🙂
I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it certainly was a surprise in a really good way
I agree with you so much, Tami. I love the idea of being surprised around every corner!