Report from Canada: Val-David and the Vagaries of Language

By Robert Israel

Two Belgian draft horses – massive creatures broader than three men put together — pull the sleigh. Snow swirls. We are hunkered beneath horse-hair blankets. On the outer edges of Ferme Duqette, a rambling century old farm in Val-David, Quebec, we enter a secluded copse. The lights from the paddock disappear from view. The sleigh bucks. The driver murmurs calming words in French, he clacks his tongue, tugs on the reigns. We plunge into the woods.

Boulders loom menacingly along the sides of the bridle path. We are in a strange yet hauntingly familiar world. Apart from the horses’ snorting and the incessant tinkling of their harness bells, all is shadowy, subdued. Lac Raymond is frozen and milky. The whisper-still Laurentian hills surrounding us are barely visible in the gloaming.

Belgian draft horses

The driver turns to face me and flashes a toothless grin. He’s eager to provide us with a vocal tour, but lacks the skills to do so in English. He apologizes. A cheerful fellow with a black wool cap and ear patches folded down and tied beneath his chin, his face is a map of deep furrows. I am inspired to recite Robert Frost’s poem about viewing the frozen lake while musing on life’s wearisome journey of promises to keep and many miles to go before one sleeps, but my English is lost here. And besides, the mood is far from sober. So I offer up a bit of French toilet humor I learned from a childhood friend. The driver roars with laughter. He recites it back to me, in patois, his guttural chortle booming as if he were quaffing ale at a backcountry pub.

And then the horses stop.  I mean to say they suddenly come to a dead halt. I look around. Darkness is encroaching. There’s only “easy wind and downy flake,” to borrow a line from Robert Frost. I quickly surmise that the horses are neither spooked nor fatigued. They stand in repose. Frosty plumes emerge rhythmically from their nostrils. As it happens, they hear deer, or more precisely, they catch a whiff of deer somewhere nearby. The driver seems to know this, and yanks on the reigns. He commands them to back up. Clip-clop, clop-clip, they take five steps backward. He guides the reigns gingerly, and, using those same soft French words again, beckons them to halt. In a moment they return to a state of eerie tableau. And then, just beyond the sleigh, between shivering poles of trees, a few yards from where we are seated under the smelly horse-hair blankets, I regard five deer, clustered and still as if etched in charcoal, ears twitching, watching us watch them.


In Val-David, nestled deep in the Laurentians, a region I have visited over several decades and return to enthusiastically, I confront the vagaries of language and I’m forced to labor to communicate differently with those I meet. I always ask, in French, if the person I am addressing comprehends English. I am told, Je parle anglais un peu, or, more often, Je ne parle pas anglais. And so I take the initiative to find French words, at night before bed I sometimes write down sentences – a subject, a verb, an object – but, in conversation, none of the sentences flow, so I resort to facial gestures, using my hands and fingers. Employing the art of pantomime is most effective.

Val-David may be only hour and a half from Montreal, but it could be from a century ago. The spirits of the first voyageurs seem to haunt the woods I finally exit from, chilled, disarmed, yet elated I have taken a sleigh ride that began at the paddock at Ferme Duquette and brought me back through a snowy meadow all in one swoop. Centuries ago, hearty men and women followed those same bridle paths in pursuit of furs, game, open pastures. They knew nothing of ski slopes or well-appointed auberges that feature outdoor hot tubs and salons de beautie. While these bubbly cauldrons are fun to soak in (if you don’t mind ice crystals clumping on your hair and eyelids), ultimately it’s what one discovers among the people that is inspirational.

A wintry view of Val David, Quebec

Yet everywhere I go, conversation is neither simple nor easy. Take, for example, an encounter with Mlle. Nathalie Monette, owner of Bistro des Artistes on Rue de L’Eglise, the main drag in Val-David.  She offers me a welcoming smile as I enter and hands me a menu written solely in French.  I am able to place a basic order, she dutifully writes it down, nodding approvingly at my choice. Before she scurries away, I call her attention to her photograph displayed prominently in the menu alongside a short biography, (again, written in French), lauding her origins as a native of the Val-David and her years of apprenticeship at notable restaurants in Quebec. She is not someone who seeks or embraces celebrity. She is visibly discomforted when I call her attention to the photo. Wordlessly, she grasps her own cheek and jowl, pinching the excess flesh on her face between her fingers and says, (freely interpreted from French): Alors, that photograph was taken when I was younger, if only I could have aged more gracefully!

“I want to use more English,” the clerk at the market tells me. “But there is no one to speak it to.” The boy beside her who bags my groceries says, “Yes, I speak English all the time,” but when I attempt to engage him in English conversation, his face goes blank.

I am not alone in my struggle to communicate. Even those with a fluency in French find it a challenge.

“The French we use here in Quebec dates from the fifteenth century,” a woman I meet in a warming hut in the provincial park tells me. We have all retreated to this outpost to enjoy lunch by a blazing wood stove, taking a break from climbing the arduous the cross-country ski trails. She introduces herself and her husband. He is a native of France, she grew up in northern Quebec and works at Marche Jean Talon, the massive market in Montreal’s Little Italy where one can purchase a juicy peach even in the depths of winter. Her husband does not share her French-Canadian accent, or her vocabulary. Quebecers, he says, often look quizzically at his use of French.

“Her parents live six hours north of Quebec City,” he begins, peeling an orange he purchased from Marche Jean Talon. A bittersweet citrus burst fills the shack and mingles heavily with the wood smoke. “In northern Quebec, they invent words, combining English and French,” he says. “When I visit her family, we talk around things and avoid discussing things emotionally. Much is lost.”

An outdoor hot tub at Val David, Quebec


Yet the chasm between antiquated vernacular and modern language usage in the 21st century in Quebec is on the wane. Since I first traveled here some thirty years ago I can report that the mood has lightened, the hostilities that once flared between the English and French have calmed. There may be occasional bristling when language gears don’t mesh, but, overall, Anglo visitors with limited French speaking abilities get along amiably.

It’s the mysteries of what is not said, the untold stories, the personal histories stored in repertory that go unshared – these remain beguiling. One only gleans so much from ephemeral encounters. One’s appetite craves more.

“What gives value to travel is fear,” Albert Camus wrote. “At that moment we are feverish but also porous, so that the slightest touch makes us quiver to the depths of our being.”

This may explain why I am drawn to the Laurentian region, especially during the depths of a frigid winter: there are far fewer distractions then, and most of those I meet are willing to find ways of understanding each other, despite the vagaries of language.

There is no pretense among the people who live in Laurentian hamlets connected by bridle paths and old roads. They share whatever they can of their lives by using a common language of vitality.

Robert Israel is a Boston-based writer and editor who can be reached at


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