Sometimes you can’t see what a thing really is until you’ve seen what it isn’t. I felt this way about English when I learned American Sign Language. I love Sign, the way hand shapes suddenly become something pictorial, like a movie in front of your body, the vast expression and freedom that gives. But English has many synonyms where Sign uses just one word. I realized that I loved that about English. The ability to pick a synonym by sound or subtle meaning, the freedom of language that English provides. Telling a story verbally in English is so much flatter now that I see the cinematography that Sign provides, but I never knew how much I would miss those vast options of expression until they were limited. I fell in love head over heels with Sign, but I also fell in love with English at the same time. I didn’t know what it was that I loved until I saw what it wasn’t.
I thought I would feel the same about being an American, which is one of the many reasons I’m dying to travel to Europe. My quick trip to Montreal last Sunday night, a flighty three hours when I was not in the States, proved my assumptions to be true.
When I asked Brian if he would be OK with us nipping over to Montreal for dinner at 4:00 in the afternoon, I don’t think either of us had any idea what we were getting into. I expected it to be like crossing state lines but with more security. Things would be mostly the same on the other side, of course, but we wouldn’t have the GPS to guide us. I copied careful directions from Google Maps, and we were on our way.
The line at the border crossing was long. It took us almost an hour to get through. There was more than one car with Canadian plates having a dance party, though. Brian and I laughed at the boys in the brightly colored shorts and backwards baseball caps as they slid open the doors of the beat up blue minivan and had a Hammertime dance break on the shoulder of the highway. The border patrol agent asked us, “got any bombs in the car?” with a jocular grin. And then we were speeding through the most beautiful farm country on route 133. Hot air balloons flew over silver silos amid green fields. Stone farmhouses with white Victorian trim peopled the roadside. Things went downhill from there.
The signs were in French. Why it did not dawn on Brian or I that Montreal was the FRENCH part of Canada, I will never know. I feel like I’ve failed the Chapman University history department with that one. The only French I know is limited to telling people that the chickens are disguised as cows. I failed high school French in a travesty of garbled verbs. Neither of us could read the street signs.
Street markings were different, too. Thick white lines did not mean that the lane was ending. Signs above the highway with arrows did not mean that you had to pick one of those options – if you followed none, you just stayed on the current road. I misread the directions, and we were suddenly lost on a back road in a foreign country with no cell phone service, no GPS, and no way to pull over and ask for directions. It took us only a few minutes to turn around and find the highway again, but we both realized the full implications of what we had done, and how terribly ill-prepared we were for this jaunt to have dinner.
We parked just off the cobblestone streets of Old Montreal. Brian had looked at Trip Adviser for the best restaurants in the area, and we found ourselves standing outside the first on the list. I never felt more hickish than when we walked in and asked for a table. No reservation, in jeans and t-shirts. They fit us in.
I realized, sitting next to Brian in that restaurant, what our essence was and what America had made us. There we were, boisterous, full of jokes, too casual for the environment, barely able to bumble through the menu. We misunderstood the word “Sortie” to mean bathroom – the exit was evidently down the hall from them – and embarrassed ourselves in another store. Brian wandered into the woman’s restroom because he didn’t know whether to pick the H or the F. By the end of the night, every subsequent mistake just set us giggling. We cajoled the waitress with the stories of our embarrassing exploits. I understood just a little why the rest of the world sometimes hates us. Put this vibrant ignorance together with the conviction that all others want to be American, too, and it is easy to see how we become insufferable.
Old Montreal was the most beautiful city I have ever been to. It was like something out of a movie, out of a history book. I bought postcards in a kitschy tourist trap and took a million pictures in the yellow glow that surrounded the gray, opulent buildings and spilled into the slim alleyways. Brian and I drove home, fearful in the darkness that we would lose our way again, and crossed the border with no wait back into the States. We sped through the border checkpoint with a sigh of relief to be back in a place where the GPS worked, where we could ask for directions, where we weren’t total idiots.
It is the Fourth of July today, and I can honestly say that I love being American with all my heart. It is nice to be able to fully appreciate what being American means. It was a flighty trip, a scant three hours in a foreign country, but it gave me something. It makes me eager to travel more and explore other facets of the identity I gained simply by being born in this beautiful country. I usually use the 4th to quote sappy lyrics of my favorite American songs, but I’ll skip it this time.