October 23, 2013

Language barrier can be a challenge

By SUSAN TOBIAS, Pinch of Time

---- — On a nice fall day last week, I journeyed north to Canada to attend the burial of a dear friend. The red, orange and yellow leaves, lit by the sunshine, made for a beautiful drive.

I have always loved the Canadian back roads. My father used to take us kids for rides on the winding ones, give the car some speed and go over the knolls, “cahoos” as he called them, causing us to raise off the seat. We loved it, almost like a roller-coaster ride at the fair.

I checked my directions ahead of time. I remembered going to the same little cemetery with my friend to pay respects to her parents. We used to drive through the Mooers border crossing, proceed to the intersection of Covey Hill Road, turn left and drive for a distance. I thought the church was on Covey Hill.

Her family said that wasn’t quite right, that I should drive to the intersection in Hemmingford, turn left onto Route 202 and drive until I see the church and graveyard.

When I turned onto 202, I passed road signs printed in French. My French is limited to “Nord” and “Sud,” learned when I used to drive family to the Montreal airport. It looked like the signs had an arrow, pointing to the right, so I took it to mean they applied to a side road.

I had been driving for about 3 miles, enjoying the stone walls and French-Canadian architecture, when suddenly I noticed a very large power shovel completely blocking the road, clearing a ditch. Stopping my truck, I sat in the middle of the road for a minute, trying to figure out if he was going to move and let me pass. That didn’t happen.

So, I made a three-point turn around on a somewhat narrow road with a very large Toyota Tundra and headed back to Hemmingford. When I got to the side road near the signs, I figured I’d hang a left and go down the road, thinking I’d be beyond the road work and proceed to the cemetery.

It wasn’t long before I was at a dead end, turning around in someone’s driveway with a whole pack of cute, furry dogs barking at me. I headed back to the signs.

Among other French words on the signs were “pont” and “barre.” Wait a minute, I said to myself, pont means bridge, like the Mercier near Montreal. Barre is an awful lot like barrier. Suddenly it made sense. There was a barrier to the bridge on 202. OK, now what?

I returned to my original plan of taking Covey Hill Road and headed south. As I approached Covey Hill, there was actually a sign that said “detour,” in English. Imagine that.

Covey Hill has to be one of the most beautiful roads in southern Quebec. Its graceful, rolling hills, small hobby farms, stone houses and apple orchards all culminate at a pinnacle with a panoramic view of the Chateaugay valley. At an intersection, a sign said “frontier” to the left. I remembered that sign and turned right, going north again.

I arrived at Havelock Corners only to see signs that said “pont” and “barre.” I knew I was in the right place. Turning left, I spotted the little stone church, with it’s stoic gothic lines, settled against a blue sky, with splashes of fall color in the background and my friend’s family waiting for me.

It may seem out of character to say it was a beautiful day for a burial, but it was just that. When I was driving around, chasing myself, I could hear my friend’s voice saying, “Susie! Where are you going?” which is what she used to say often when we’d go on “mystery tours” on Canadian back roads.

I decided that day that I need to learn a bit more French if I’m going to visit Canada, I need to slow down and take the back roads more often, and learned that any day can turn into a good memory, even on the way to a burial.

One last thought, as always, please be kind to each other. The world needs more kindness.

Susan Tobias lives in Plattsburgh with her husband, Toby. She has been a Press-Republican newsroom employee since 1977. The Tobiases have six children, 18 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. They enjoy traveling to Maine and Colorado, and in her spare time, Susan loves to research local history and genealogy. Reach her by email at