One missing digit
One missing digit (not a finger!) almost kept me from going to India.
En route to Chennai (Madras), I had a rude awakening at the Frankfurt airport: my passport number in my Indian e-visa was missing one number! I hadn’t noticed the missing digit when I received the email with my Indian e-visa. The airline check-in people at the San Francisco airport also hadn’t noticed the mistake. The German customs official would not let me through customs to my India-bound flight. I only had an hour to sort out my visa before the plane was going to board and I was getting stressed about how to fix my problem without being stuck in Germany or being forced to return to San Francisco.
Indian e-visa logo
My only option was to call the Indian e-visa company in India and ask them to change the e-visa immediately and send me an email with my new visa. I thought I would use the Indian SIM card in my international mobile phone to call the Indian e-visa company. It turns out that my Indian SIM card didn’t work outside of India. Instead of the Indian e-visa company, I called the Central Fire Department in Frankfurt! The clock was ticking. I totaled over $70 in international call charges while using my US mobile phone to call the Indian e-visa company in India. My calls kept on getting dropped while I was waiting on hold. Desperate, I called a colleague in India who was able to reach the e-visa company and get me a new visa sent to my email account. I showed the German customs official the screen on my laptop with my new e-visa and he let me through!
When waiting in line at the e-visa desk at the Chennai airport, I read an Indian government tourist brochure warning all visitors to only drink filtered water and for single foreign female travelers not to accept invitations to Indian men’s homes. The brochure was a good distraction from my mild worry that the Indian customs official might not have my new e-visa with my complete passport number in the computer system. Luckily, my small worry went away and I got my visa stamped in my passport and headed to the arrivals hall to find a taxi driver holding a sign with my name.
With the exception of some cows standing in the middle of the road and not moving until honked at, the road from the Chennai Airport to Pondicherry in the middle of the night was clear. The ride from Chennai to Pondicherry is around three hours by car. About halfway from Chennai, the taxi driver stopped at a roadside chai (tea) stop. My glasses fogged up as soon as I exited the air conditioned taxi to the warm humid air outside. The chai wallah (tea maker) poured the chai (sweet and spicy milk tea) from one big pot into another and then into the metallic cups. I fell asleep on the ride from the tea stand to the guest house.
It was around 4 or 5am when the guesthouse night watchman opened the door to let me in. He had been sleeping on the floor on just a sheet or thin blanket. My room wasn’t ready yet, so he showed me to a bench in the hallway where I could rest. I couldn’t fall asleep and walked around the hallway and breakfast area studying the decorations of Hindu gods and goddesses and pictures of what Pondicherry used to look like when it was a French colony (until 1954). Seeing these images reminded me of Vrunda, my Indian friend from my childhood in California, who taught me about some Indian deities.
This may seem like the beginning of a travelogue about a trip that almost went awry, with the stressed out Westerner finding herself and inner peace in a meditation or yoga retreat in an Indian ashram. Or perhaps a story of the traveler who defied the tourist brochure warnings and got diarrhea and then fell in love with a local. It’s none of those things.
I did take a couple yoga lessons from an Ayurvedic doctor, but I had no Eat, Pray, Love experience in an ashram, nor was I meditating in a rice paddy. I didn’t become a Hari Krishna. I didn’t open an information technology company in India.
Yoga classes at 7am in Pondicherry, on a thin mat on cement, by a pile of bricks and wood.
I journeyed to India to have my first entry into Indian life and culture. I wasn’t expecting that going to Pondicherry, a former French colony, and staying in two French hotel chains in India would start my re-entry into French culture and prepare me for an even deeper French re-immersion in Canada.
Life works in mysterious ways!
(I did also enjoy my discoveries about India but this post is about reuniting with my inner Francophile.)
In the morning, I was delighted to see the female guesthouse staff come in with jasmine in their braids.
Pondicherry is a walkable town with a waterfront, but the beach mostly has big rocks. Many tourists come to the town for the French architecture and the Sri Aurobindo Ashram. I heard that young Indians, especially university students, flock to the colonial French town for the cheap liquor. (No wonder why I saw more young men in front of the Pondicherry liquor stores than in other places in India.)
The guesthouse was a mix of Indian and French cultures. The breakfast foods included delicious French croissants, Indian dosas (fermented lentil pancakes), curd (yogurt), fresh fruit juice and chai. The owners were a family of mixed French and Indian ancestry. The wife was a French citizen because her great grandfather was from France. She spoke fluent French, had attended French schools and sent her children to a French school in Pondicherry. The eldest son was studying in Paris. I mostly spoke to the family in English.
Across from the guesthouse was the Alliance Française, the French Cultural Institute. On a Friday evening, when young people are usually enjoying a stroll along the waterfront or spending time with friends, I was surprised to see many motorcycles in front of the Alliance Française. The motorcycles were those of the many young people who had come to study French on a Friday night! French was quite a popular subject to study for those who work in tourism to cater to French tourists who come to Pondicherry and to Auroville, a nearby utopian village founded by a Frenchwoman.
The poster for the calendar of events was all in English, and not in Tamil, the regional language. One of the listings caught my eye: a film about the Pondicherry Indians brought into French Indo-China. This reminded me of a Vietnamese-Indian Frenchman I had met in California who had told me that his parents were descendants of Indians brought by the French to trade in the Bến Thành market in Saigon, Vietnam. There was also an Indochinese restaurant in Pondicherry but I didn’t eat there.
Monument to Indian soldiers who died fighting for France in World War I.
There were French monuments, schools, a bookstore, a French cafe and other businesses catering to French people.
This looks like a mixed Catholic and Hindu religious symbol.
French hotels in Pune and Mumbai (Bombay)
In Pune, there was French music playing in the elevator. But it was the lyrical French music playing in the evenings in the lobby and restaurant in the Mumbai hotel that really hit me.
One evening, the song Le Mistral Gagnant by the French singer Renaud overtook me. I had previously heard the song many times on the Toute Intimité album by the Belgian-Italian singer Lara Fabian.
A m’asseoir sur un banc cinq minutes avec toi
Et regarder le soleil qui s’en va
Te parler du bon temps qui est mort et je m’en fou
Te dire que les méchants c’est pas nous
To sit on a bench for five minutes alongside you,
And to watch the sun as it sets,
To talk about the good times that are gone and I don’t care,
To tell you that we are not the bad guys
Le Mistral Gagnant, lyrics by Renaud
Over dinner in the hotel restaurant, I was preparing my presentation on language activism for the North American Polyglot Symposium in Montreal (now called the Lang Fest). In between drinking wine, eating cheese and French bread and thinking of my presentation, I stopped to pay attention to the French music, especially when there was a Charles Aznavour or Yves Montand song. The food and music immediately made me happy. They may have helped me write my presentation!
The hotel was trying to be as stereotypically French as possible. Some of the chefs wore big white French chef hats while distributing fresh croissants in the morning. I was jokingly wondering if someone was going to ride around the restaurant on a bicycle, wearing a beret on their head and holding a baguette under their arm.
Montreal and Quebec City, Canada
I left the isolated French environment of the Mumbai hotel to vibrant French-Canadian culture in Montreal and Quebec City.
I was a little hesitant about being in Montreal because I knew that sometimes the French spoken in Quebec could be very difficult to understand. It had been a long time since I had been exposed to Quebecois French. When I first arrived, I barely understood the first person I heard speaking in Quebecois French, because he was speaking very fast and using a lot of slang. Luckily, he was the only person I couldn’t understand.
Signs en français
While driving into Montreal from the airport, I looked out the window at the red brick buildings with signs of businesses in French. The first sign to catch my attention was for a dépanneur. In France, a dépanneur is a repairperson, but in Quebec it’s a convenience store. The name comes from the verb dépanner which means to get out of trouble. Figuring out what the sign meant was a fun game for a multilingual person like me.
Multilingual and multicultural Montreal
Montreal is the dream city for a francophile who also likes multicultural environments.
Unlike some Chinese stores in California that don’t have signs in English, even the little Chinatown in Montreal had all their signs in French as well as Chinese!
Speaking to the Asian cashier in French at a Lebanese shish kabob restaurant with all of the signs in French brought a smile to my face.
In the old part of Quebec City, there was a street with many French bookstores. One of them, Librarie Nelligan, was named after a very famous Quebecois poet, Émile Nelligan. In an age of disappearing bookstores, I was thrilled to see so many French-language bookstores in North America!
I felt very proud of the Quebecois for keeping their French language. I know that it’s been very difficult to keep the language alive. Some people might say that the measures that the Quebecois have been taken to keep the language alive are not democratic. Immigrants to Quebec were forced to learn the French language. I heard some people in Montreal complaining that if French-speaking parents want to sent their children to public schools, their kids have to attend French-language schools. If the parents want their kids to go to English-language schools, they have to pay for a private school. One of my anglophone colleagues from Montreal didn’t like how he was forced to learn French. I understand that my delight may not be shared by all in Quebec.
French music has had a profound impact on me. Hearing French music in cafes and restaurants in Quebec made me realize that even though I loved a lot of old French music, I actually hadn’t been partaking in any French cultural activities for a long time. I sometimes went to a French conversation group, but I usually talked to the same people. I hadn’t read a French book in a very long time. I did occasionally watch French movies. But, I wasn’t doing anything actively to maintain the language.
Le mistral gagnant
I chanced upon the Southern French restaurant “Le Mistral Gagnant” while walking around Quebec City. The sign caught my attention because it was the same title of the song that I was listening to with my eyes closed in the hotel lobby in Mumbai, India a week prior. I realized that I didn’t even know what the title meant. The restaurant owner told me it was the name of a candy from the south of France and also the name of a type of wind in the south of France.
Provençal (Southern French) decor at Le Mistral Gagnant
In between sips of white wine, I relished every morsel of the bread with butter and fish in the tomato and olive sauce. I ordered another glass of wine just to sit and listen to the French music playing in the restaurant.
Later, I read the lyrics of the Mistral Gagnant song and learned it was about a father speaking to his daughter about his memories of childhood and telling her to enjoy life, even when “le temps est assassin” (time is a murderer). He speaks of the French Mistral Gagnant candy as a memory from his childhood. The candy had a paper inside. If the paper said gagnant (winner), the lucky child won a new free candy. The song represented what I had learned about myself. I was like a little child again rediscovering awe and beauty in the world. I came to India to learn about India, but I got a winning bonus: I rediscovered French culture, language and food.
I didn’t need a candy wrapper to give me a new candy. I already had the winner inside myself, I just had to make an effort to include the winning formula (French music + language + culture + food) back inside my life.
Mistral gagnant candy
It’s beautiful to rediscover a dormant part of yourself. It’s like meeting an old friend again that I haven’t seen in a long time. But that old friend is myself. I’m really glad to reacquaint myself with the Francophile in me.
Que si moi je suis barge, ce n’est que de tes yeux
Car ils ont l’avantage d’être deux
Et entendre ton rire s’envoler aussi haut
Que s’envolent les cris des oiseaux
Te raconter enfin qu’il faut aimer la vie
Et l’aimer même si le temps est assassin
Et emporte avec lui les rires des enfants
Et les mistrals gagnants
That if I am crazy it is only because of your eyes,
It’s an advantage to have two eyes,
To hear your laugh rise up so high,
That it makes the bird’s cry fly away,
To tell you to love life,
Love it, even if time is a murderer,
That takes away children’s laughter,
And the Mistral Gagnants
I won’t let “murderous” time take me away from my own laughter and my passion for French culture!
For a lesson in French about this song, please visit the Français avec Pierre video tutorial.
Thin buttery buckwheat pancakes
To bring me back to my childlike culinary awe, I searched for a crêperie, a restaurant serving both savory buckwheat galettes and sweet white wheat flour crêpes. These are typical foods from Brittany, the provinces on the French Atlantic Coast, where I lived as a foreign exchange student at age 15.
The regional flag of Brittany, Briezh Cafe, Montreal
Even though many years had passed since I had last seen anything that reminded me of Brittany, I was immediately transported back to being a 15 year old exchange student. As soon as I saw the glistening butter on the buckwheat pancakes, I was filled with gastronomic joy, remembering my first meal in Brittany, a galette with egg, emmentaler cheese, mushrooms, and tomato. I could taste the galette in front of me and imagine the first one I had ever had, as though I were in some culinary time machine that kept me in the present moment and took me back to the past simultaneously.
It wasn’t just the food that I was missing, it was the entire multi-sensory French experience. In Quebec City, I only had 25 minutes to eat because I was in a hurry to catch my bus back to Montreal. Usually in a restaurant, I might read or talk while waiting for my food, but this time, I wanted to savour every moment of my experience in the restaurant. I felt like each moment of those 25 minutes was precious. I could have easily turned around and started chatting in Spanish with the Venezuelan family seated next to me, but I didn’t. I wanted to take in the smells from the kitchen, enjoy the French music and the decorations, many of which were actually written not in French, but in the Breton language.
Sugar Sammy, You’re Gonna Rire
Like any good story, I need to create some sort of finale to tie my almost ill-fated trip to India and my connection to French culture. When I arrived in Montreal, I read an article about a free show by the Canadian-Indian male comedian, Sugar Sammy, in the Just for Laughs comedy festival. On my last day, I attended the “You’re gonna to rire” multilingual comedy show. (“rire” means “to laugh” in French.) Sitting outside in a park in downtown Montreal, I ate Lebanese food and laughed at Sugar Sammy’s jokes as he gracefully went back and forth between Quebecois French and English, and even added some words in Punjabi. The bilingual audience laughed at all his jokes, in English and in French. The Punjabi ones went over my head!
You don’t have to go all the way to the state of Tamil Nadu in India to get a mix of French and Indian cultures, just watch a Sugar Sammy show.
I am grateful for the opportunity to have traveled to India (both to discover a new country and to reconnect with French language and culture) and to the North American Polyglot Consortium for inviting me to Montreal. Those two places reacquainted me, not with just the French language, but also with myself.
P.S. I did learn my lesson about triple checking my passport number in my travel visas! I don’t want to let one digit to keep me away from a linguistic and travel adventure again!