At -40 Fahrenheit and Celsius are the same. That was the cold in Quebec City in January – so far below freezing, it ceased to matter.
Every morning, a brumal chill dug fiercely at my body as I stepped carefully over ice-glazed cobblestones. Because learning French was mandatory in this walled, francophone city, I enrolled in a 25-hour-a-week immersion class that started at 8:00 a.m.
I sat alongside fellow newcomers, from as close as Toronto to as far away and mysterious as Bhutan. Together we stumbled through basic conjugations and simple sentences: "She likes pie." "I am American."
By week four, the class dwindled from 25 students to 9. We sat on desks and ate, legs dangling, speaking a mix of French and English. Our lunches varied widely from one desk to the next. I ate a salami sandwich, piled with cheese, while the two Japanese women noshed on small salads and rice balls.
Ruben, who at 17 was our youngest classmate, ate the same thing everyday: an extra-long roast beef sandwich slathered in all imaginable condiments. He came from Venezuela, a tropical country that he explained, was "too dangerous to live in." He told me about kidnappings – at any moment, a person could be kidnapped for ransom. "If you go there, don't bring your diamonds," he told me. "I don't think it will be a problem." I joked, pointing to my bare wrist.
I asked to see pictures of his country. He showed me photo after photo of swaying palms that fringed wide turquoise waters, and verdant mountains ringed in clouds. "It looks like paradise, " I exclaimed. "Yeah," he agreed. "It looks like paradise."
As February turned to March, I hit the second wave of culture shock and became disenchanted with everything in my host country. Car-sized piles of gray snow snuffed out any positivity I once had. Où est le printemps? became a running joke in the class as March turned into April, the snow falling, the temperature inching upwards a few degrees at a time.
One afternoon, Ruben asked for a ride and I obliged, glad to have company. We walked along Petite Champlain – a touristy street lined with antique stores and chocolatiers.
"I wanted to show you something." He said, in English, as his French was much better than mine. "Spring!" There were a row of buds on the branches, poking through the snow.