It’s the end of the first week and three things have become very clear about the Grand Paradise Hotel, Bavaro: it’s a great place to be spending three weeks; the mystery of the dead dwarves will probably never be solved; French Canadians are, on the whole, difficult to love.
I realise it’s dangerous to pigeonhole an entire race, and I’m sure we Brits would come pretty low on most people’s list of Top Ten Nationalities To Holiday With — to be fair, I’d often rather not holiday with us, either — but there are some observations I feel I should share about French Canadians, which I hope will be taken in the spirit of helpful feedback, and perhaps just a soupçon of mischief.
I consider myself a fairly sociable sort of guy. I’ll chat with pretty much anyone, including, on one occasion in a Turkish bar, a wild-eyed and palpably inebriated Russian who I think may have been a serial killer: his conversation grew steadily darker and more confrontationally gutteral until at some point, after his umpteenth straight vodka, I was pretty certain he was going to challenge me to a bout of nude Graeco-Roman wrestling. I kept praying he would pass out, but, like a Weeble, he wobbled but would not fall down. Luckily, before I could be forced to reluctantly re-enact some of the perkier scenes from Women In Love, his sober companion came to the bar and enticed him away by the straightforward device of keeping a bottle of vodka just out of his reach. Like a kitten chasing a bit of string, Ivan the Terrible followed and I was saved.
Despite such dangers, I’m still happy to strike up a conversation at the drop of a hat — as will my wife, who is known affectionately as “Village Friend” by virtue of her talent for learning people’s entire life histories within five minutes of their first acquaintance.
We once spent a night on the town in Greece with a large cross-national group that included ourselves as the token Brits, a couple of Germans called Helmut and Kirsty, Fabian and Marie-Claude from Belgium and several others, whose names escape me, from Holland. I speak a smattering of French, and my wife knows some German; the Dutch, of course, spoke perfect American. Nevertheless, for the first part of the evening, we communicated partly in elaborate charades, most especially the universally understood gesture of “I’m going to the bar, same again?” (a sort of tipping-an-invisible-glass-to-your-mouth motion, with a raised eyebrow of interrogation — you must know it already). With the help of George, the Greek barman, we all managed to get nicely merry, and suddenly a miracle happened: I don’t know how, but we all stopped miming so much, started talking and began to understand each other. My wife had an immensely detailed conversation about dental bridgework with Helmut, although she swears to this day that her schoolgirl German could not have made this possible. I fell into conversation with Kirsty, a Brunhilde-blonde of operatic girth. Earlier I had heard someone call her “Oma”; I assumed this was her pet name, and began sprinkling it into the conversation, just to show how relaxed we had all become. The effect was quite amazing: every time I said it she would blush coquettishly and flutter her heavy eyelashes in a schoolgirlish way, giggling furiously. After a while she began punching me playfully in the upper arm. Quite forcefully, actually. My arm was beginning to bruise as the night wore on, until eventually my wife leaned over to me and demanded to know, in a brusque whisper, why I kept calling Kirsty “Grandma.”
“Stop it, you fool, you’re embarrassing her!”
We met the same group several times that holiday, and whenever Kirsty saw me she would giggle and give me that same blushing look from under lowered lashes. I didn’t know where to put myself.
Where was I? Oh yes. Sociability. I hope I have established our bona-fides in that regard. We have form, let’s just leave it at that. Which makes it difficult to explain why, with just a few notable exceptions, it is so hard to socialise with French Canadians. Don’t get me wrong: among themselves they socialise admirably — judging by the Music Quiz, one might almost say excessively. The story is very different, though, when you encounter them out and about.
If you want to be snubbed properly, my advice is to seek out a French Canadian and smile at them. You will be given a masterclass in daylight snubbery. Rather than just pretend they didn’t see you, they will meet you in the eye and assess you in a very calculating, and, frankly, disconcerting way. To leave no doubt that you are being snubbed, they will then, with just a hint of a sneer and a sniff of disapproval, turn away and carry on their lives completely without you. You are left in their imperious wake, feeling the very epitome of chopped liver.
You might suggest I am exaggerating — and I will happily cop to that charge in much of my writing — but, after several attempts which all ended the same way, even after greeting them in French to soften the blow, it became clear to me that this was no isolated example, it was pretty much par for the course. Thus was born something of a quest for me: to try and initiate some sort of conversation with a French Canadian that didn’t end with being snubbed, just to see if it was, indeed, possible.
The exception who tested the rule was a lovely guy called Alain, from Montreal, who cut a rather lonely figure among his frenziedly inter-partying compatriots. Far from stand-offish, he seemed keen to initiate a conversation, and we arranged a rendezvous at a bar for later in the evening. He was delightful company, although he gave the impression that he knew very little of the world outside his small part of it. His English was excellent, and he seemed genuinely delighted to find I could speak some French; after a while I felt we knew each other well enough for me to broach the potentially sensitive subject of the others’ generally snubbish demeanour.
He took my query in good grace, and looked a little sad. Leaning forward, he said, earnestly: “David, I must tell you, those people, they are not like you and me. They are just different. This is all I can say.”
It seems to me that theirs is a strange sort of insularity. Perhaps it stems from being a minority in their own homeland. Perhaps they are sensitive to the language barrier. Perhaps they have an axe to grind with the rest of us; certainly they appear to carry a frite on each shoulder. Throughout the holiday they kept themselves very much to themselves, even to the extent of having a separate entertainment team to everyone else, with their own events and specially branded signage to differentiate their parts of the hotel.
It was, I reflected, ironic that in an all-inclusive complex they were busting a gut to be completely all-exclusive.