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ATPM 3.10
October 1997



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Segments: Slices From the Macintosh Life

by Tony Harwood-Jones,

PowerBook in Quebec

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Flood alert!

The scene is a small Midwestern city in North America. The whole community is desperately sandbagging. Heavy equipment, lines of sweating people, and scores of military personnel and machines are everywhere.

The media are there. Often, they are in the way as they lug their mikes and video equipment through the muck, trying to get their story.

One crew approaches you, and you pause, nervous about breaking the rhythm of your work. The reporter is Chinese.

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Or, "Me velly solly, no speekee Chinese??"

That night, relaxing in front of the television news, you watch CNN reporters in Bosnia, Chechnya, and Indonesia. Do you notice that for each story they have found local people to interview who respond to English questions with English answers? When you turn on your computer and log on to your ISP, do you notice when you visit websites originating in Japan or Germany that they are in English?

Many English-speakers simply take it for granted—we can't speak "their" language, but "they" ought to be able to speak ours! After all, English is the language of aviation, commerce, and the Internet. Why not? The result is that many of us get a bad reputation as boorish North Americans, trucking through remote areas of the world, demanding to be served in our mother tongue.

In Canada (my country) we have a golden opportunity to avoid such boorishness. Since 1763, French and English have lived uneasily together, officially committed to the legitimate presence of two languages. Sometimes we try to ignore our bilingual status, pretending that those who speak another language all live far away and are not our concern, but in truth we are a peculiar people, with the French-English question never very far away from our minds or our politics.

Many have worked hard to become bilingual and bicultural. Some have succeeded, especially those who live in areas where sizable populations of both French and English may be found. With sophistication and ease, they slip from one language to another, seemingly at home in both tongues.

Others have given up the idea of becoming fluent in another tongue themselves, but send their children to school's where Canada's "other" official language is taught, often in an "immersion" setting. They believe that the young are more resilient and have an innate ability to quickly aquire language skills.

I'm one of the latter, but I try to go further. I "force" myself to speak French by traveling, from time to time, to the Province of Québec, where nothing but French is spoken or heard for years at a time. I bumble along as best I can in the name of being bicultural, trying to avoid boorishness. If a Chinese reporter were to ask me a question, I might well be stumped, but I am determined that a reporter from France or Québec would stand a chance of getting an intelligible answer from me!

I have a stubborn streak. Well, I guess I'm just a bit bull-headed. I will attempt to be bilingual, even if it kills me or the hapless French people I meet along the way.

In the summer of 1997, my wife and I set out on a 8500 kilometer holiday. We started from our home in the Canadian mid-west and drove eastward to the Atlantic ocean. Along the way, we deliberately spent time in the heart of Québec.

I took my beloved, beat-up old Powerbook 180 along, too. This too was stubbornness, mind you, because the Powerbook was acting "ill." The Finder had been losing track of the hard drive. When I finally took it in for repair weeks later, I learned that the "zero block" was toast. Dead.

Having aquired some skills of a good computer nerd, I was "backed up," of course! I had saved the entire contents of my internal disk via a recently purchased external Zip drive onto one of those 100 Mbyte floppies. As I said, I have a stubborn streak. If my internal drive won't boot, these "Zip" things can be persuaded to operate like a start-up disk.

At the start of my holiday through Québec, my Powerbook still worked, though it wasn't quite so sleek, svelte, and portable as it should have been. You see, it now required this great fat umbilicus to the little blue box which houses the Zip disk. The blue box in turn had to have some AC power, which nessecitated a Power Supply that fits your standard wall socket. This, added to the Powerbook's own AC power cord, made for a collection of wires which would have made Tarzan a happy man if they'd been hanging in the jungle.

The purpose for taking my Powerbook was not games, nor even work. I wanted access to the Internet (e-mail, to be specific). I have many correspondents. I enjoy writing to and hearing back from them.

Whenever Heather and I stopped for the day, I would unload my half-dead Powerbook, connect the Zip drive and the tangle of wires, then add one more tendril (a phone cord), and off I'd go to the 'net. Some motels where we stayed had datajacks. Most had more old-fashioned phone systems, but I almost always found some way to log on to the 'net.

I began sending e-postcards. You know, "Dear friend: today I am logging on from Wawa, Ontario! Heather and I have just finished a wonderful eight hours of driving along the spectacular north shore of Lake Superior! Wish you were here!..." That kind of thing.

Some motels defeated me. One had had a fire in the main switchboard the night before. Not one room phone worked.

Other motels accessed long distance only through voice conversation with a live operator. It's difficult for a modem to explain to an operator what it's doing! In Canada, few internet service providers have local access numbers outside major cities, so travelling customers log-on via a 1-800 number. But, I managed to get access to the 'net from most of our stops.

We drove out of Montreal and into the interior of Québec. That day, we had beautiful weather, beautiful countryside, and some of the oldest permanent settlements in North America! History was abundant.

When night fell, we pulled up at the "Motel Colibri."

The receptionist greeted me cordially when I walked in.

In French.

This was it! The "do or die" moment! This woman might speak English, but it was unlikely, for we were off the beaten track. My experience in this part of Canada is that people speak French exclusively. So, out of my mouth came Vous avez, peut etre, une chambre pour deux, ce soir? The thought process was: first, think of what you want to say in English, next laborously translate it into French (in your head), then speak.

She answered my question all right, but I had to ask her to repeat it a couple of times—slowly. We worked our way through the formalities of renting a room.

The room was nice, clean, pleasantly decorated. It had all the basics, even a TV with remote control and a phone. After a little rummaging in the desk, I found a seldom-used instruction sheet for the phone—in English.

I dialed the Internet access number. Uh-oh. It was one of those 1-800 numbers which required voice contact with an operator.

So, what did I do? Forget about e-mail until we get on the other side of Québec? No. Stubbornness rules. Even small motels, I reasoned, have FAX machines which must make long distance calls without using human speech. I wouldn't pursue it tonight (we were tired), but I resolved to ask the front desk for access to the FAX line in the morning.

This task would require some "technical" talk in French!

Hmm... the word for computer is ordinateur, I was sure of that. I guessed that the words for FAX and Internet were roughly the same as in English....

I set up the Powerbook, attached it to the Zip drive, and for simplicity, plugged both power supplies into a single extension cord. This way, if the fax phone line was far from the only available wall outlet, I'd be ready!

I then proceeded to write and address my e-mail. Once I got connected to a line, it would take less than a minute to log on, send the completed messages, collect any mail from my "in box," and log off. Inconvenience to the management would be kept to a minimum.

Morning came. I gathered my courage. French phrases were rolling around in my brain as I ambled nonchalantly down to the front desk.

A couple people in the coffee shop immediately looked up to watch me stumble through my request to the woman who appeared to be in charge.

Good morning—please—I have a small computer with me—and I wish to join it to the Internet. It will compose a 1-800 inter-urban call, but it cannot speak to the telephoniste. Is it possible you can permit me to connect my machine to a FAX line?

At first she looked blank. I was terrified that none of my French words had made any sense. Then she verified that I had asked about long distance and that the call would be sans frais - without charges.

She paused, then pronounced, "Je vais demander a la bosse!" She left the room and consulted with an unseen authority behind what I took to be an office door.
Shortly, a diminutive, but smartly dressed woman with an air of command emerged and asked me to repeat my request once more.

In some agony, I said it again, hoping that all my words were correct.

She motioned for me to follow her and returned through the door, which turned out to be the door to a large restaurant kitchen. Pointing to a phone jack on the wall by a cutting table, she explained that it was an unrestricted line. If that was acceptable, I was welcome to use it.

Connected to the jack and hidden behind a number of cookbooks, there was a small telephone-cum-FAX. Not too far down the room, there was an electrical outlet. I grinned, thanked her, and almost shouted, "Je vais retourner dans un minute!"

Soon, I was returning, carefully carrying a jumbled pile in my hands of Powerbook, Zip drive, transformers, cables, extension cords, and a phone wire down the hall! From the interior of Québec, on a vegetable cutting table between cookbooks and cannisters, I connected to the vast world of the Internet. The staff viewed my activity with interest and even asked a few questions, to which I found I myself answering with increasing confidence and ease.

We stayed a few of days, did some touring, and saw the historic sites. Each night I was back at the cutting board, jumbled electronics and increasingly fluent French at the ready!

The day we left, I had breakfast in the dining room and was served by the elegant and authoritative person who happily called herself La Bosse. I even fell into French conversation with a fellow at the next table! He started it by saying something I could not comprehend. I asked him to repeat himself slowly. His wife spoke sharply to him, evidently saying, "Can't you see this guy is English and can't talk our language?" Undaunted, he forged on, saying something like, "How's the weather where you come from?"

As it turned out, he knew of my home city of Winnipeg, partly because his city had recently suffered a devastating flood. Afterward, Winnipeg sent aid. When Winnipeg was inundated later (the French word for "flood" is inondation), his city had returned the generosity they'd received. He was proud of that demonstration of unity in our bilingual country.

His city, like mine, had been overrun with international media types. Like me, he couldn't have answered any questions posed by Chinese or Russian reporters. However, he also couldn't have answered any English ones. Yet here I was, conversing in rudimentary French, the only language he knows.

La bosse later told me that, while I may not speak French well, I do show great courage. She thanked me. I left with my head held high with my Powerbook and mess of wires ever at the ready under my arm.

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