On the Path of an Immigrant Child
by Akos Verboczy
translated by Casey Roberts
Baraka Books, 2017
Born in Hungary in 1975, Akos Verboczy moved to Montreal at the age of 11. Excerpted from Rhapsody in Quebec, “Sneedronningen” is one of fifty vignettes he uses to explore and refute the clichés about immigrating to Quebec. La Presse newspaper described Rhapsody in Quebec as one of the top ten non-fiction books of 2016 and it will shortly be made into a movie. It will be published by Baraka Books in April 2017.
But it is so hard for me to speak your language.
If you understand crow talk,
I can tell you much more easily.
Hans Christian Andersen, The Snow Queen (tr. Jean Hersholt)
I’m not boasting or trying to make you feel jealous, but I once became friends with a Danish woman with whom I shared an interest in education, Quebec and French. She had beautiful red hair.
She belonged to an association of French teachers in Denmark, founded by her father decades earlier, and was particularly interested in Quebec culture. The association wasn’t intended for professors from major universities or upscale colleges. Its members taught in regular public high schools around the country.
She’d be kind of like a German teacher in a secondary school in Baie-Comeau who was especially fascinated by Austrian culture… and who had travelled to Vienna on her vacation to deepen her knowledge of the place. Even if I didn’t know the colour of her hair, I’d be curious to meet her.
My friend didn’t seem to be the only one of her kind. When I met her, she was accompanied by a delegation of twenty-five teachers who had come to Quebec for meetings and workshops on Quebec culture and literature. I don’t know if their teenaged kids are taking Ritalin or smoking joints before entering their French classes, but what I do know is that they are reading Anne Hébert and listening to pop singer Daniel Bélanger “dry his sister’s tears.”
As for me, I was and am rather ignorant about Danish culture. I’ve seen some Lars von Trier films, I’ve read Andersen’s tales, those Great Danes make me laugh and I love the brioches, but it never occurred to me to take Danish. As with many languages, I get along just fine with translations, subtitles, dubbing. And when I travel, a few words and everyday phrases. Do you see how narrow my mind can be?
I am always appreciative of the kind of people, rarely enough encountered, who have learned a foreign language just to satisfy their curiosity. We often extol the young immigrants “who master three languages,” like me supposedly. Fortunately, Statistics Canada doesn’t administer language tests because it’s not always completely true. Like other immigrants, I can’t write a letter in my native language without mistakes, and even if I could, being able to do so wouldn’t deserve a great deal of merit. Not like what should be given to the young Quebecers who learn Catalan, German, Russian, Spanish, Mandarin, Portuguese or Arabic merely out of passion for a culture that is foreign to them, in spite of the lack of encouragement from their parents or our education system to do so.
Like the students of this Danish teacher. When I spoke to her about Andersen, to make myself look good and show that I also could be interested in her culture, she let out a deep sigh.
“You know, we keep recycling Andersen until we’ve kind of had enough. It must be the same for you with Tremblay, Nelligan or even a French writer like Victor Hugo.”
“Uh… yes, for sure, though in fact, it never gets to that point. Here in Quebec, we want the young people to just read stuff that interests them, you know, books that are close to their concerns and accessible to them. And conveniently also available at the video store. We certainly wouldn’t want to chase them away with classics that could harm their self-esteem or turn them off to school. We have a big dropout problem in Quebec, you know…”
To change the subject – and preserve the honour of the motherland – I told her about a poem by Michel Garneau I had read in college and, suddenly, she was once again fascinated by Quebec. And me by her hair.
Thinking back on it, I suddenly regret not having asked her to marry me. Not necessarily so that we could have had frizzy red-headed children, but to have been able to pass on to a new generation her culture of openness. A culture that opens us to a world so vast that it exposes the narrowness of our own. She would have been the perfect model. Like her father and his colleagues, who worked every day to manifest the idea that the beauty of the world cannot be expressed in one language alone, always the same, and that a poem by Anne Hébert can even speak to the goof-off seated in the last row of the class of a regular high school in a Danish village.
I’ve often thought about her. When I travel, especially when I meet young backpack-carrying Quebecers so open to other cultures, but unable to talk about their own; who identify themselves as citizens of the world ever since they got drunk with two Australians and an Italian in Barcelona; who are convinced that their salvation, and that of their compatriots, will be gained through more English, and nothing but English; and to whom the incongruous idea never occurred to try to talk to the people of the world, without intermediaries, in their own language.
Obviously, this still requires having something to say. As for me, I started by reading, like this Danish Snow Queen, some novels written here in Quebec.