I envy the French language for the word dépanneur. It turns what it does—dépanner, to help out—into a name for both its storefront and its staff, making that most personal of shops a kind of person in itself. We go to the dep to indulge, and the dep justifies those little vices in its name: I’m here, it says, and I’ll help you.
That connotation of aid reassures us that by buying cigarettes and wine, we’re only satisfying a need. The dep—store and repairman—fixes us; the transaction becomes a conversation. Ketchup-flavoured Pringles, PBR Dry, lottery tickets—sure, man! You need it!
Image: A typical dépanneur. Credit: Miguel Tremblay
I wish I had stumbled upon this little ode of love a fortnight ago, as there has been heapings of nonsense in the media lately about an English-speaking dépanneur owner in Montreal who unwittingly broadcast his uncharitable opinion of the people of Quebec on the radio. Controversy and outrage ensued.
I think it’s a shame that one tasteless loudmouth could do so much to ruin the goodwill towards people who play a fairly essential role in terms of daily life here in Montreal. The woman at my dépanneur speaks three languages fluently and is there every single day, without exception, selling basics (and a wide variety of treats.) I told her to take a few days off, and she answered that she would rather serve her customers. Dépanner (the root of the word dépanneur) means to fix a problem, and that’s exactly what she does.
How does bilingualism work? The etiquette is a mystery for those of us who come from monolingual places. In Montreal, the approach is actually very pragmatic, and I think the question of service in shops offers a good glimpse of how we muddle through. I’ve been meaning to write this up for a while, and this question from an American reader has spurred me into action.
Here then is a spectrum of greetings you are likely to encounter from staff in a Montreal shop, and what they mean:
Image: The Office québécois de la langue française on Sherbrooke Street works to ensure that the legislation surrounding the use of French is respected and to promote the use of the French language. Photo by Michel Ferraro.
Despite all of the above, it’s not unusual to flip back and forth between the two languages during a conversation, especially if complicated vocabulary is required. Do you have any bilingual Montreal stories you would like to share?