It turns out that Mum took French for a bit in high school, and I did French (for reading) to satisfy one of the language requirements for my PhD, but we're all hilariously hopeless when it comes to the real thing.
Mum, Dad and I flew to Quebec City today... after an early lunch and a streecar/ walk to Toronto's Island airport, we boarded a small plane and made our way north-east to this city with a strange, compelling and tricky history.
Here I am by the Place Royale, just by the Old Port right next to the still-standing Old City which is now a world heritage site.
On the one hand I find myself excited to be here, and I've had a really lovely day and evening hanging with Mum and Dad, and on the other I know what this place really is: a line in the sand for European colonialism in this part of the world. The oldest city in North America? It's a sticky claim to make - not only because Mexico is part of North America and Tenochtitlan was a huge metropolis - but also because it conveniently and quietly pushes the long, complex and vibrant histories already in this area to one side. A claim about architecture and demography (but really about race) which neatly side-sweeps the table clean, scattering people and places over the edge and out of view.
Mum and I found ourselves struggling to see the 'old town' as real - it felt like it was a toy town, unreal because it was so clearly out of place. Funny, aye, that its Europeanness made it feel like it was plonked on here - 'we're only a few hours from Toronto, and this is like olden days Europe' we marvelled - but marvelled isn't quite the word. It felt a bit strange, this out-of-place-ness, and words from various people echoed in my ears: 'you'll love it, it's just like Europe.' 'It's the closest thing to Europe.' etc... I talked to Mum and Dad about this feeling, the sense that it was so strange that a town which has been here for 500 years should feel so out of place (and, in its out-of-placeness, somehow fleeting or false) and yet at home we see European buildings from the nineteenth century - a hair's breadth older than a century - and these feel so 'classic New Zealand,' so at home, so local. How can this be?
Well, it's complicated. Of course. It always is. Quebec City is lovely and beautiful and fun (when taken with half a grain of salt - yes, it's quite touristy - but hey we're tourists and no amount of self-righteous disavowal will change that) but it's also a key site in the history of genocide in this continent. Colonialism is colonialism, even when it arrives in pretty buildings and dear little bakeries and lovely gelato shops and crepes with maple butter. Yes, even then!
We also talked about the ways that being in a Francophone place meant the international references were a bit different to the usual suspects of the Anglophone world (yep, Mum and Dad are the reason I think the way I do about lots of things - they're always up for a good critical chat about colonialism/ etc): African, Vietnamese, North African, Caribbean influences are all around, as is the influence of a place rather closer to home:
Here we stand, Mum and me, two Polynesians outside a Polynesian-themed cafe. I have no idea if the people running this place are themselves Tahitian (it was closed when we walked past) - but in some ways this is secondary to the point that French colonialism is a different net than English colonialism: slightly different patterns of knotting, slightly different size, and different fish. Oh, but still colonliasm. Or, as Dad 'titled' this photo when he emailed it to me from his iPhone, 'Another colonial reminder.'
A lot to think about, a lot to ponder, a lot to reflect upon.