Pour le Québec: 400 Years, 400 Blog Posts December 31, 2008Posted by Mark Folse in New Orleans, NOLA, Toulouse Street.
Tags: 400 ans 400 blogue, anniversary, exceptionalism, Montreal, Quebec
New Orleans is not the oldest city in America by any measure. A quick search of the Internet turns up many older settlements, even discounting those of the natives who were here before us. Even close to home Baton Rouge, Mobile, Biloxi and Nachitoches were founded earlier.
Still, you would be hard pressed to find any real indication in those places of their age, the feeling one gets walking through parts of New Orleans that the past is all around you; not just as crumbling bricks and mortar but a sense in the air, a way about the people you meet.
Part of that intangible feeling is our exceptionalism, our sense that we are something special, a people apart from others. You can believe in it or not, agree with it or not, but it is very much the city we make around us by our daily lives that draws the tourists in their endless hordes–the food, the music, the easiness that takes a drink not by the angle of the sun but by an interior clock–as much as our quaint Latin square and cathedral, or the wrought iron of our Spanish-built French Quarter.
Our sense of ourselves as a people and a place special and apart is shared by the Quebecois, who this year celebrate another old city on this continent, the 400th anniversary of Quebec City/Montreal. When I first discovered 400ans400blogues.com via a link into this blog, I knew I would have to write something
I felt compelled to join the 400 year/400 blogs effort in part because I am one among the partisans of New Orleans’ exceptionality, and that of our Acadian neighbors. I understand at some deep level the feeling of the Quebecois for their own self-hood and conflicted yearnings for nationality. I also join in this effort because a recurring theme of Toulouse Street and my old Wet Bank Guide blog is remembrance: of Katrina and the Federal Flood, of who Orleanians are and who we must struggle to remain. I have often borrowed the Quebec motto in these columns: je me souviens.
Here in New Orleans, we also remember.
The broad mass of Americans have ambivalent feelings about Quebec and the Quebecois. My own direct experience of Canadians was limited to the westerners who would flood Fargo, N.D. for shopping and cheaper liquor and cigarettes. They seemed good people, those I met, and I’m sorry I never made it up to Winnipeg while I lived so close. But they are of a different stock than the Quebecois, or even the hardy Scots-Irish who ultimately took over the Maritimes after the ancestors of Louisiana’s Cajun’s were expelled by the British from Acadia.
I have heard of a legendary Gallic animosity toward Americans. I have not been to Quebec and so can not say from personal experience. I only know in vague outline of the struggle of a people to maintain their identity, something I have always felt a sympathy for. I know for over a century New Orleans’ Creoles resisted Americanization, kept apart, struggled to preserve their language alive but ultimately lost the battle. Thankfully, the Acadians of coastal Louisiana did not, and the world is a richer place for it.
I won’t attempt a travelogue piece for a place I do not know. I do have a sense I would feel at home in Quebec even in my ignorance of French. When I traveled to Ireland I discovered a culture in so many ways like our own I felt as if I hand stumbled into some parallel universe where a place was transformed yet recognizable, understood immediate why a famous Celtic musicologist once remarked that the Acadians were a lost tribe of the Celtic race. I think I would find in Quebec a sensibility closer to that of New Orleans that I would not find in Windsor or Toronto or Calgary, a unique sense of self and a way of life that has not rushed to erase its European roots or turn it into a cheap once-a-year carnival.
I am not of the original French stock of Louisiana. My ancestors were among the earliest German arrivals, lured here by John Law’s fabulous campaign to attract settlers. They established themselves on what became the Côte des Allemands, and quickly came to speak French as their household tongue. Our family name, Foltz in German and the rest of the U.S., was changed almost as soon as they stepped off the boat. The Francophone officials who kept the rolls did as the Americans at Ellis Island: they spelled the names as they sounded to them, and so they, we became Folse, became in all but name Francophone Cajuns.
My father’s generation lost their French as young children when they moved up to New Orleans, and the Parisian-speaking Sisters would beat them in the classroom if the spoke “that ignorant French” of the rural Acadians, and the children on the playground would follow in kind. Somewhere along the way we lost something precious but became not Americanized as much as we became citizens of New Orleanians, were absorbed into the Afro-Carribean sensibilities of this city. We became a part of this exceptional place.
So from one exceptional place to another, from one severed bit of France to another, I salute Quebec City, Montreal, and all the Quebecois. The world conspires to turn us into some neutral and flavorless clone, strips of small square houses blocked out around busy avenues of big box stores all the same, demands that we not only all speak the same tongue but watch the same movies and listen to the same music, that we become part of the culture of Coke and cable television. And some of us resist.
Vive la resistance.