A statement as bold as, “The best tomatoes in Québec,” deserves validation, even at breakfast. Market day at Marché Jean-Talon came especially early that July Tuesday, a chilly morning almost a month into the rhythm of the road trip, and a sharp nudge in my stomach reminded me that I had not yet eaten. My eyes caught those of the tomato vendor, who wore a charcoal beret, and he extended a slice of his famously sweet wares. It sat perilously on an emerald-plumed cocktail toothpick and I popped the piece of sunshine in my mouth, giving the man a smile full of seeds and saying an awkward, Merci. The anthropomorphized tomato from the sign above the stall grinned down, plump and serene-looking, and bade me, “Venez y goûter,” or “Come and taste,” watching as scarlet juice dripped down my chin.
It was only a short walk through the red, white, and green awnings of Montréal’s Little Italy to get to the market, but as usual, I’d managed to get lost. For a woman traveling on her own after a self-imposed exodus from love, I had an especially lousy sense of direction, and still do. In true Blanche DuBois style, during my trip, I often came to depend on the kindness of strangers, but on that particular day, I asked a less than helpful old woman for directions while she waited for the subway. She sneered when she heard me speak the pidgin French I’d self-consciously constructed, turning away with an exasperated sigh at my panicked hand gestures. It wasn’t until almost an hour of wandering later that I discovered I’d been only about a block away.
In the days leading up to my culinary tour of the Marché, when I wasn’t alone with a map and a foreign language dictionary, my newfound friend Dénis took me to his favorite breakfast spot in the neighborhood, Caffé Italia, for toast and Nutella, and espresso. On the morning I went to the market, though, he went to the gym early, telling me that if I got to the Marché Jean-Talon before the crowds, I could dine like royalty on samples. I sat at his kitchen table drinking coffee and half-listening to Quebéc’s morning news, and watched as he left with a duffel bag in hand. “Don’t worry,” he told me as he closed the door, “you can’t go wrong at the market.” Hoping for the best, I put on my jacket, one that had never seen July outside the confines of my coat closet. I remember that as I locked the deadbolt behind me, I couldn’t help thinking that even the news sounded better in French.
I had Dénis to thank for discovering the market, and the neighborhood, in the first place. I’d turned to Couchsurfing, an internet community of travelers, when I needed somewhere to stay. While searching for a place to crash in Montréal, I found a picture of a friendly-looking man helping to free a Galapagos sea turtle that was entangled in a fisherman’s net somewhere near the Equator, far from blustery Québec. As it turned out, Dénis was the website’s official ambassador for Montréal, and I learned that he’d hosted people from as far as Italy, Australia, and Russia. Despite the overwhelmingly positive reviews I’d read that spoke of “the best host ever,” there was a nervous tingling in my gut as I followed the concise directions Dénis had given me to find his apartment. The anxiety I felt was not so much one related to the fact that I was a woman traveling solo—and perhaps it should have been—as it was a fear of the vast gaps between languages, a barrier so seemingly difficult to move beyond. When I finally arrived at the apartment I parked on the street, trying to shake the feeling that I was about to have a pop quiz in a French class I’d never taken. Propped against the stairs, though, I saw a pristine and unapologetically red Vespa and somehow I knew then that we’d get along just fine, playing with the strange idea that maybe some commonalities don’t need words to be expressed.
I got to Dénis’ at that time of day when mothers begin calling their kids inside for dinner. When I knocked on the door, a man of about forty, slightly shorter than me, with blue eyes and designer glasses, smiled. “I’m Dénis,” he said, shaking my hand in a light, European way. I immediately felt at ease with his sincerity, his polite way of helping me with my bags. Looking to the modern lines of his monochromatic living room, we eventually sat, and in hesitant English, Dénis told me about leaving his corporate job of over twenty years just a few months before despite obscene amounts of money, cars, and vacation time. Like me, he was obsessed with travel, the urge to move, and filled hopelessly with wanderlust. His dream was to teach in China, having just fallen hopelessly for a Chinese girl—ain’t it always the way?—but he was having a hard time getting a work visa approved. I found out about his childhood in Québec City, and he told me I had to go there if for no other reason than to see Parliament. On the kitchen counter, he spread a Montréal map wide, and taught me the tangled history of his city; likewise, I discussed my tangled love affairs.
“What are you running from?” I recall him asking, “What is it that scares you?”
“Never falling in love again,” I think I said, or perhaps it was, “Never being whole.”
Looking back I realize that the two aren’t at all the same thing.
As I walked down the crowded alleyways of the Marché on market day, past women in sun dresses and men in blazers, there were stores of every kind. A poissonnerie held glistening whole fish with clear, bright eyes, and sold fried smelt by the dozen. In the street, a man deftly worked a rotisserie that spun skewers smelling of slow-cooked meat and rosemary. Further down the way, a cheese shop caught my attention. It was called, interestingly, “Qui lait cru!?!” or “That raw milk!?!” My fondness for the Food Network allowed me to appreciate the statement being made by the shop’s name: in France, there’s a huge controversy about whether or not to continue using unpasteurized milk in the making of their beloved brie and camembert. It’s an issue of such importance to the French people that the responsibility of making the decision of safety versus tradition has fallen to the government. In Montréal, that little cheese shop had cracked a joke at what they see as pretentiousness, and their window full of culinary contraband advertises rebellion.
On the narrow streets, in a mist of rain, people stood in a line that spilled out the door of a tiny boulangerie in hopes of buying fresh, artisanal bread. While they waited, they smoked elegantly or flirted with each other; some talked on cell phones. Occasionally, two friends would find each other through the crowd, hugging and kissing cheeks in that continental way—French Canadians are far friendlier than people give them credit for. Conspicuously absent was the rush and stress I was used to as a displaced American, where no one would ever deign to wait so long for something as simple as bread or cheese. Cooking and enjoying food was, in those days, and still is, a way for me to appreciate life, to live it through my senses, and beginning in Montréal, I began to use it as a bandage, a means of healing. I felt like I was in on some kind of secret there, one that I carry with me even now, but I wonder if the world might collapse if everyone knew that the simplest things are sometimes the most worthwhile, especially where food is concerned.
I began to pay particular attention, that morning, to the produce stalls and their free samples, which were my reason for coming to the market in the first place. The vegetables were random, flawless statues, with asparagus soldiers stacked in neat rows and shining, sensual-looking eggplants. Eggplants were not eggplants there, they were aubergines, and the vegetables in front of me were like a living, breathing representation of purple. Small flimsy, green, plastic baskets of strawberries and raspberries were each grouped with a single, pink orchid which seemed to serve no other purpose than to make the fruit look even more like an edible Impressionist painting. The air was heavy with the smell of summer fruits, and I was persuaded, wordlessly, to buy a plum, its juice sweet, acidic, earthy.
Much like subsequent visits I’ve made to the Marché, all around, the vendors shouted above the heads of customers to their neighbor. Every bushel of apples and bunch of grapes sold was a competition, and housewives tasted handpicked local blueberries that have no equivalent name in Parisian French, the Québecois instead adopting the word bluets, maybe considering a tart to come. One of them spoke to me, and as I remembered that I was and am useless in their language, I smiled politely and walked away. The women’s delicate expressions and bargaining were strange to me, because although they’re in Canada, they are still French; clearly, those berries were serious business. I, on the other hand, ate greedily for no reason besides my own pleasure, trying everything from mangoes to smoked salmon to dripping, amber honey. As the market was alive with conversation and the sound of passing traffic, my palate was alive with the spoils of the morning. Dénis was right; I came, I saw, I ate.
As is the danger in any bustling, breathing place, my wandering through the market was interrupted, before I’d learned pardon or excusez-moi, by a near collision with an important-looking shopper carrying a baguette. I apologized under my breath in my most sincere attempt at French, which was, as the woman’s condescending glare reminded me, woefully inadequate. It’s times like those that make me feel out of place the most, but like Dénis told me, Montréal itself is a somewhat precarious marriage between Francophones and Anglophones, as the city is divided in half by the boulevard Saint-Laurent. On one side of the street, everything is in English: street names, universities, churches. The homes there are large and utilitarian-looking, and even with their sprawling lawns and climbing roses, seem to be missing something. Once you cross Saint-Laurent, though, French is everywhere—familiar stop signs say arrêt, flags with the Québec fleur de lis fly, and, as Dénis said, things are “interesting.” Nevertheless, I occasionally caught a whiff of English at the Marché Jean-Talon, hidden among the smell of baking croissants, and I’d smile to myself.
I’d like to, at this point, say a few words about my inexplicable love affair with French that began perhaps a decade ago, or maybe earlier. Sometime during the summer before middle school began, a humid July spent with my father in Newark, Ohio, a city that for some reason opted to have Kmart as an anchor store in the local mall, I decided that French was for me. I’ll be the first to point out that I’d never met a French person, and had barely heard a word of the language at all except for the select phrases thrown around in cartoons like Madeleine or uttered by Pepe LePew.
Unlike schools these days, where kids count forwards and backwards and say, “The weather’s cold today,” in Spanish at age four, I wasn’t allowed to take a foreign language — apparently a prospect that could only be entrusted to awkward, angsty twelve-year-olds — until I’d reached the seventh grade. I regret that, now, having only begun to learn the syntax, grammar, and soul of a second language long after the window of opportunity had all but closed. Nevertheless, I’d gotten more and more excited as September grew closer, if for no other reason than, in my young mind, I expected to be speaking impeccable, charming French no later than November, saying, “Joyeux Noel,” instead of “Merry Christmas.”
Like so many things, my expectations were dashed in a phone call. I used my dad’s cordless, an enormous device, then, while he was at the office, to call my mother. After talking for a while about the unfortunate things my dog, Daisy, was doing while I was gone, she eventually said pragmatically, “Hayley, we have to sign you up for your foreign language. You’re taking Spanish.”
“What? No, Mom, sign me up for French. I want to take French.”
My mother sighed. “Honey, think about it. You’ll never use French, let’s be practical—”
“—but it’s so beautiful!” I argued, cutting her off, thinking of the songs in French my best friend got to sing in her music classes for the gifted, perhaps remembering snippets of lines I’d heard in movies: bon voyage, c’est la vie, au revoir.
“You’ll love Spanish,” my mother said. “And you’ll probably actually have a reason to learn it.” That’s that, her tone implied, and the phone call ended with a reluctant, “I love you,” on my end. In the fall, I was enrolled in first period Spanish class at Verity Middle School with Señora Womack.
That period of time was when my love of French truly came alive—it was almost like a secret, a transgression, a need to be fulfilled in private. I enjoyed Spanish, and did quite well with the language throughout the years I spent with it, during a church mission trip to Mexico, into college, and while I fondly barked orders at my job to Hispanic cooks. Still, though, the twelve-year-old me asked every friend who took French with Mrs.—er, Madame—Clark to start saving all of their notes and spare handouts for me, which I poured over, learning to pronounce the words horrendously, and even developing a habit of reading aloud the French labels on toothpaste tubes and shampoo bottles. “Rinse! Repeat!” I imagine myself saying in the shower as a teenager, in badly butchered French. Soon after, as I pursued my dream of being an opera singer, I learned to sing in French, becoming more convincing with every hour in the practice room. When I auditioned into the chorus of a professional production of Carmen at fifteen, I listened to the French pronunciation tape until it broke—while I got dressed, while I studied, while I slept, the words filling my mouth like balloons.
I asked my first boyfriend—who took French at the Catholic high school, of course—to write to me in French, and when we broke up after our two-month-long relationship that felt to my young heart like two years, I repeated the words like a mantra, or the rosary: Je m’appelle Troy. J’ai quinze ans et j’adore une fille. Elle s’appelle Hayley. But once I found myself in Québec and began to fear that I’d be longing for it afterward, I couldn’t help but seriously wonder—what was my real reason for loving French? Why did I care so much about a language I’d barely even heard? Perhaps it’s out of a need to connect—to stare in wonderment at a life that isn’t mine, but one that can be accessed through communication, whether it be by way of conversation, food, or giving a smile to a stranger. Some things, after all, are universally understood, aren’t they?
I walked back to Dénis’ house that summer day on weary feet, thinking over the new words I’d learned in the market: boulangerie, poisonnerie, aubergine. Saying the phrases aloud made me feel like a young Brigitte Bardot, albeit less convincing. Children played ball in the street and yelled things to each other that I didn’t understand. Their laughter echoed off the buildings while the sun warmed the laundry that hung to dry above. In front of me, a man who was older and good-looking paused at the wrought-iron railing at his steps. He spoke and I could hardly manage my, “Je ne parle pas Français,” before he asked me in a thickly accented, “Are you lost?”
I looked around. There was the Caffé Italia, surrounded by animated, mustached Italians, talking about something in grand gestures. The Jean-Talon subway stop was across the street, where the woman from that morning dismissed my French. I remembered the note Dénis left me the morning after I arrived—in thoughtful cursive, it wished me a good day and thanked me for what he described as, “a conversation that changes someone.”
“No,” I shook my head, “I’m not lost. Merci beaucoup.” He smiled and went inside, closing the heavy wooden door behind him. I reached down to feel the outline of the folded map inside my jeans pocket, but around the next corner, I saw that red Vespa, waiting.
About Hayley: Hayley Hughes, a graduate student in English Literature, writes and teaches from the suburbs of southwestern Ohio. Some of her favorite things include Canada (“Montréal” is a chapter from the travel memoir Hayley is writing about a recent solo road trip to Québec), random drives, and discovering new hole-in-the-wall places to write from. A classically-trained singer, Hayley has an abiding love of language and music of all kinds, themes that frequently pervade her work. Hayley has participated, on scholarship, in workshops with Paul Lisicky and Joyce Dyer, and spends every possible moment drinking coffee and honing her craft. In addition to Cobalt, Hayley has been published in The Eunoia Review.