The lights at the intersection cycled from green to yellow to red and back to green while I stood on the corner, immobile, flummoxed by the message on the building opposite me.
Two words painted on brick:
My mind raced. What did it mean?
Was it a message of despair? A comment on the futility of a creative life?
Was a hopeless artist asking, through graffiti, "What's the point of all this, anyway?"
Or was this a heated invective against wasting the opportunity to make art?
A creator's command: "Fill the world with inspiration! If you will not, leave this earth and clear a path for the rest of us!"
Or maybe, I thought, shifting my grocery bag from one hand to the other, this was a whispered supplication, a reminder to spend our days thoughtfully.
Maybe this was a two-word echo of Henry David Thoreau's reasoning for going to the woods: "to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life."
Just then, I took in the storefront immediately below the painted sign, and I realized that I had it all wrong.
The store was a yoga apparel shop. The painted message, which was in French, was simply a reminder to take a deep breath.
- READ Sarah Lolley's earlier blogs: How far is a Montreal mile?
- The fine art of parenting in a Montreal winter
- Unearthing Montreal's hidden gems
"False friends" are what linguists call words like these: English and French words with the same spelling but different meanings. (Just think of four, the kitchen appliance or coin, the place where two walls meet.)
But I think that "false" is a bit unfair.
I, for one, love the way these Montreal frenemies (fren-amies?) harness my overactive imagination and send it on wild mental goose chases.
Frenamies all over the city
The word PAIN screams at me from a Plateau storefront and I turn, expecting a medical clinic.
Instead, I see a bakery.
My mind makes the split-second adjustment from soreness to sourdough, but the image of agony persists and a new avenue of thought opens up: for the low-carb dieter, are they not the same thing?
After all, you know what they say: no pain, no gain.
At two o'clock, there's a class at the gym named bras. Wait.… Is that what we're expected to wear? But no, of course not, I realize, rereading the word: it's an upper-body workout.
My mind flip-flops from underwire to biceps. Then it marries the two together: half an hour of push-ups and dips can't help but improve the way I look in lingerie.
Why is the duck on the children's poster at the library talking about money?
Oh, he isn't: he's just quacking in French.
"Coin! Coin!" says the duck. Who knew?
At the Benny Centre pool in NDG, I momentarily think the lifeguards are reminding us we've almost made it to Easter, with their yellow sign reading Lent.
I watch the swimmers drudging along in the slow lane and wonder how many of them are Catholics who've given up a sedentary lifestyle as penance.
And then there's the word email, printed on my tube of toothpaste of all places.
"What's that about?" I wonder as I brush, leaning into the mirror to stare wearily at the bags under my eyes as dawn breaks outside my window.
Does fresh, minty breath translate into more peppy electronic communication?
I glance at the tube of toothpaste again and see that I missed a minuscule accent: émail. Enamel. Tooth enamel, of course.
My cheesiest frenamie
You might actually know my oldest French frenamie. A lot of Canadians do, their faces breaking into sheepish smiles when I mention him.
I am wise to his double-meaning now, after all these years.
But I still choose to read him in the wrong language.
I love the resulting images my mind conjures up: regimental coats and muskets, the fife and drums at dawn and an ancient, greystone rampart.
You see, this French frenamie of mine and his English neighbour have joined forces on the grocery store shelf, their union making them more than the sum of their parts.
Alone, they are mere descriptors of a block of mass-produced cheese.
But together, they form the muscular and heroic name of a dignified cheddar: Old Fort.
This is the fourth in a series of blog posts by the 2017 CBC and Quebec Writers' Federation writer-in-residence, Sarah Lolley.
We'd love to hear about your 'frenamies.'
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