As an anglophone living in the Canadian Prairies I once got a job as the keeper to a multimedia library of French comic books, CD’s and movies. Looking back I realize how lucky I was to have had the opportunity to find such an immersive experience where I least expected to. At the time I just thought that the unusually large collection of crass adult french comic books was weird (Seriously, have you ever read these things? They should come with a parental guidance scale). I would wager that this initial misunderstanding and lack of appreciation for Astrix and Barbe Rouge was probably a case of undiagnosed culture shock. As it were, in true sink or swim fashion, I was quickly reintroduced to the French language through a huge collection of bandes desinées, classic French films of the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s along with epic french music.
There were many moments over the first few days on the job that I asked myself how I had ended up in that position. There I was, a new inhabitant in a small Canadian city, one ocean and 4 provinces away from France and I manage to find myself in the only complete French ex-pat work environment within a thousand miles.
On top of this it had been years since I had any French training or immersion. I wish I had an audio copy of my interview for the position in which I made an attempt to answer the interviewer’s questions in French. To this day, I’m still not sure if I got the job because I impressed them with my skills (unlikely), or if they were just so impressed that I was even trying (much more likely.) In fact it was probably that there were a lack of people lined up for the job (MOST likely.) At any rate, after having flubbed my way through the whole ordeal on a solid foundation of “Fran-glais” I was now supposed to man the reception desk in the common area of the Institut Francais at the University of Regina. In addition to this, the job was some 2,000 km from my home-town in Ontario but the fact that my environment was now completely French meant that it might as well have been the other side of the world.
The CD collection in the library was extensive but for the most part it sat gathering dust in a drawer. Despite this however, the unsuspecting crowd of University students studying in the Rotonde was at the mercy of my disk jockey skills. Edith Piaf, in all her french diva glory became one of my go to favourites. Her crooning filled the open common space in the middle of a University in the Prairies, “Non, Je ne regrette rien.”
I should probably explain that Regina is the capital of the province of Saskatchewan which sits in the middle of the Canadian prairies. It’s a smallish capital city with a population of approximately 180,000 people. It has one of the highest crime rates in Canada and a vast divergence between the upper class and the poor. In the summer it’s hot and dry and arid. In the winter the temperatures border on frigidly cold to inhumanly freezing. A round trip plane ticket from Toronto’s Pearson Airport costs $800 (or more in the peak season) so people usually just end up going to Europe (where it’s not an ice tundra in the winter). Lastly, it’s a two hour time difference from where I grew up close to Toronto in Ontario, and if you don’t have an exact purpose taking you there, it’s a hard move to justify to friends and family. It is however extraordinarily easy to justify to yourself when it’s about a boy, who was being transferred to Regina for work.
It didn’t take long after the move before two things became apparent. Firstly it was painfully obvious that I had made a horrible miscalculation about a boy. As it turned out romantic displays of commitment (like uprooting your life for someone else) only really work when they are reciprocated. And so, to occupy myself in a foreign place with an uninterested love interest, I spent my time wandering the streets of Regina’s downtown, exploring the old prairie Victorian architecture of churches and museums. I learned about the history of the city and I could tell you about the tornado that whipped through at the turn of the century destroying parts of the downtown core. I found a job serving tables and catering at an old boy’s Business club. I made friends.
And so, I fell in love with Regina like some people fall in love with Paris. It’s an unlikely pairing – a city that isn’t known for much except maybe the Wheat Board of Canada and the Canadian Football League team, but all my memories there have a rosy glow. I think that Regina, as it turns out is a city that when you love it, it gives you love back.
It was four months after my initial arrival I finally started getting call-backs from the stack of resumes I had mailed out when I first arrived. I quit my job at the restaurant to take the reception job manning the French resources library at the University. I spent a lot of time learning French, and French culture. I figured out how to manipulate Microsoft Word, Excel and Outlook in French and memorize le subjonctif. And then, just as I started to hit my groove, I was planning to leave the city again. When I arrived in Ottawa at the end of the summer for my Master’s degree everyone I met thought that I was actually from Saskatchewan, when really I had just come from down the road, by way of the prairies.
It’s been three years now since that move and time and distance give you perspective. There are so many different roads we can take to get to wherever is is we are going. Having had many pity parties along the road when things weren’t going my way, I know I should admit that I’ve lamented on many occasions that my cards weren’t dealt fairly. Thinking, to myself that “I should be there now, not “here.” It’s painfully obvious that I now know that the opportunities presented to me in Regina helped me get to where I am today and it’s not a novel notion.
What is novel comes from the moment you get to sit back appreciating for the first time, “Non, je ne regrette, rein.”