When I stepped off the bus in Montreal, sidekick in tow, en route to see a band you’ve never heard of, (and really, that’s your loss) the very last thing I expected was to be hugged by a young man in a dress — though, in retrospect, after all that followed, it was really not all that strange. No stranger than the sordid tale of Couche-Tard and the Jumping Asians, which, if I manage to avoid unnecessary digressions, I may end up telling. So, please, do read on.
The first thing you need to remember when visiting La Belle Province is that it is absolutely crucial that you distinguish the pronunciation of your ‘B’ sounds versus your ‘P’ sounds. You don’t want to end up like my protégée, the young Countess Penelope of Arcadia, expecting a hot chocolate, and ending up with hot tuna latte . She gave the waitress an undignified sneer as she exclaimed, “Il y a un poisson dans ma boisson!” and stormed out to one of the half dozen sex shops we’d passed along the way to purchase a bull whip with which to punish the offending waitress.
Returning twenty minutes later with a shocked expression and sans bullwhip, she instead flicked her gloved hand with a riding crop she said she’d purchased from something she called the Couche-Tard, and at the time I let it pass, but later I’d have cause to question just exactly what a Couche-Tard was, and what exactly it had to do with jumping Asians. Right then I just watched with amusement as my indignant novitiate peeled a layer of paint off the well-meaning waitress, who by this time had developed an expression on her face not unlike that of a Rembrandt aficionado at a Jackson Pollack exhibit.
“What is the meaning of this?” The attendant Countess demanded.
“Que veux-tu dire? Uh… zat iz, what do you mean? Zis iz what you ordered. Ze hot fish. Le poisson chaud.” The bewildered beverage mistress blundered her way around the English language with a Parisian accent for some reason, even though we were in Montreal. What can I say? I’m an unreliable narrator. An unreliable narrator with an unusually unconventional yet somehow appealing penchant for alliterative prose, so really, in the end, the taking of the occasional liberty is forgivable, n’est-ce pas?
“Not le poisson, you couche-tard! Le boisson! Le boisson!” Penny was the first to use the phrase thusly, and hence brought it into current usage, much like those uneducated but genteel writers who popularized the bastardized word “thusly” through sheer force of will, or like those poor grammatically impaired souls who insist that “hopefully” is indeed a real word. Sad, deluded fools, to be sure, and both the Countess and I would say a prayer for them at the Notre Dame after we finished our respective hot beverages, being sure to leave not a penny pourboire, but I am getting ahead of myself.
It was about this time that the Countess Arcade and I went searching for a soothing balm — one that could not be found in the potions and lotions section of the aforementioned sex shops along the red light district of the Saint Laurent — and found ourselves, unlikely as it may seem if you hadn’t just read the last paragraph, on the steps of the Basilique Notre Dame de Montréal.
Did we step inside? Yes, we did, and I am delighted to report, dear reader, that neither myself, nor my chaste and virtuous acolyte were subjected to any of the filthy violations purported to occur at the hands of the clergy in such places. Protective though I am of my young charge, I could tell that this came as almost a disappointment (along with the fact that I did not, in fact, burst into flames upon entering the Basilica — a fact that lost her five dollars, and, of course, the right to sing the “I was right and you were wrong” song), and so I assured her that if she wished to be violated by a stranger, we could always march right back up Saint Laurent, where the promise of defilement beckoned like, well, to be à propos — like a whore. I just told her to count me out — if my cohort wanted to indulge in that kind of smutty behaviour, she was on her own.
“It’s not that I don’t want you to see naked, sweaty men, dear,” I assured her, “it’s just that I don’t want to be there when it happens. Now, be a good girl and keep up — I believe there are still yet some sex shops that we have not yet frequented — you may ogle the preposterously prominent plastic penises of the storefront mannequins should that be to your liking.”
So it was that there, on the very steps of Notre Dame, that we were accosted by the jumping Asians. (Remember the jumping Asians? This is a story about jumping Asians, darling — do try to keep up.)
We were just stepping out the the cathedral, when four, maybe five stringy Asian students approached us, and without warning, thrust a camera into my hands.
Now, if you’re thinking that the next words out of their mouths were “You take-a peecha“à la Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, or whatever Charlie Chan Hollywood Chinese stereotype you want to cite, then you are a racist bastard.
In actuality, they asked us if we spoke English (I know, right?) and if we could take a picture of them. A pretty simple request, sure, until they added “but it’s a bit complicated…”
“Complicated?” I asked, a bit warily.
“Yes,” their glorious leader said, taking a little red book out of his pocket. “We need a picture of us jumping off these steps.”
I considered this for a moment, and as I considered this, I also considered the possible outcomes of jumping on the steps of the cathedral. I didn’t consider, however, not even for a moment, why these five (or was it six?) Asians required this photograph.
“I don’t know,” I hesitated, “what if you fall? That’s pretty far to fall.”
“Don’t be such a couche-tard, Helena,” Penny chided, “take the bloody picture.”
Penny, while neither British, or an orphan (nor indeed, it bears mentioning, an actual Countess), nonetheless occasionally adopts the affectations of a Dickensian street urchin, which is, one might argue, in direct contrast to her pretension of being a Countess. Somehow, though, the marvelous girl pulls off each flawlessly, and without a pinch of effort.
I was still waffling, however, when one of the Asians, a particularly zen-like girl who looked like Lucy Liu (if Lucy Liu had been a philosophy major and had no idea what a Hatori Hanso sword was) looked me in the eyes and said “A mountain isn’t far to fall when you’ve fallen from the moon,” and then performed the standing Lotus position (and not the one advertised by the exotic dancer with the unlikely name of Miso Honey at that club on Saint Laurent).
What could I do? I took the picture.
Now, previously, I had mentioned that we were in Montreal in order to see a band you’d never heard of, and while this has little or nothing to do with the jumping Asians, nor the Couche-tard, to be completely fair, it bears mentioning, and if you follow the threads carefully, I promise, despite my reputation as an unreliable narrator, that it may all make sense in the end. However, I feel it only fair to add one caveat, and that is that the story is not all that well woven, and that if you pull too hard on any loose threads, it may very well unravel — my sincerest apologies in advance.
We were there to see Marillion perform their album “Brave” from beginning to end — which is, I should mention, a pretty big deal. While I could gush and bubble about the band, this album in particular, I’ll simply take a moment to say that the show was an incredible experience, akin to driving a 1961 Ferrari 250GT California Spyder through the streets of Chicago. (I have it on the good authority of a close personal friend of mine that this car is, as he likes to say, “so choice.” I can only assume that is a positive endorsement.)
Brave is what the cool kids call a ‘concept album’, or what the hippies might call a ‘rock opera’, and it tells the story of a runaway girl who is found wandering on a bridge by the local constabulary, and brought in off the streets for her own good. After some investigation, it is discovered that the girl comes from a dysfunctional home, dad’s molesting her, (revealed in the cleverly-penned “Alone Again in the Lap of Luxury”) and she’s been wandering the streets, crashing in less than savoury places with less than well-meaning friends, and in the end, despite being dragged back home, she ends up leaving again and finishing what she had set out to do when she was found by the police. In the finale, the narrator berates those closest to her for hurting the very one that they should have protected, and then (in a way that Penny insisted was très passive aggressive), she says, in effect, that jumping off a bridge isn’t so bad when you’ve been through what she’s been through — metaphorically falling from the moon.
Now, if you experienced a vague frisson of déjà vu just now, don’t be alarmed — it was completely manufactured by yours truly. One of the telltale signs of an unreliable narrator (or bad writer, you decide) is that they will alter events to fit the story, and bring everything full circle.
Does that make the story any less true?
The answer is a resounding “Yes.”
Where was I? Oh yes — somewhere around here:
“Don’t be such a couche-tard, Helena,” Penny chided, “take the bloody picture.”
Which I did, and it was fine, and nobody got hurt, and we got into a heated discussion about people who put on ridiculous affectations when they insert foreign words into their conversations — you know, the latino chef who speaks perfect English until they say the word jalapeño, and then they pronounce it with so much accent that you need subtitles. Yes, we get it, you’re latino. But even though I use French words on a regular basis, like rendezvous, je ne sais quoi, menage a trois (well, maybe not on a regular basis), and I’m fairly confident that I’m pronouncing them with enough French in them as to make them sound French, I don’t feel the need to roll my ‘R’s or stop wearing deodorant while I’m saying them. I know not to pronounce the ‘S’s at the end of a word, but that doesn’t make me feel the need to dress all in black, chain smoke, and watch a Jerry Lewis film marathon (why do the French find him funny? I don’t know). I know enough of Spanish to know you don’t pronounce tortilla to rhyme with more filler, and I’m fairly confident I can correctly use the word presque isle in a sentence. After all, I’m not American. Ask an average American to say that word, and you’re going to hear something that rhymes with fo’ shizzle.
It was about this point, if I recall correctly, which I always do, that a group of college students walked up to us, and without any warning, a young man who kind of looked like Lucy Liu (if Lucy Liu were a white dude with hipster glasses wearing what was supposed to be a dress but looked more like a big apron of the sort that Jean Stapleton might have worn on All In the Family) put his arm around me while one of his friends took a picture. I didn’t even have time to wonder why. I just took it in stride.
At this point, I’d like to thank Lucy Liu for not just one, but two cameos in this story. Big round of applause for Lucy Liu, dear readers.
Which brings us, by the by, to the couche-tard. No, really, it does. All that bit about language and pronunciation and Lucy Liu was just a distraction, and perhaps a bit of a segue to talk about how words — slang words, foreign words, mash-up words — are adopted into popular usage.
“What did you call me?” I asked, suddenly realizing that this was not the first time I had heard or seen the phrase couche-tard that day.
“Couche-tard,” Penny said without missing a beat. “It’s a thing now.”
“Since when?” I asked cautiously, not wanting to sound like somehow I wasn’t up on current trends.
“Since now,” the Countess shrugged. “I saw it on a sign, it sounded offensive, but, you know, in a harmless way. I called you couche-tard, and you’ve obviously taken it as the insult it was intended to be, ergo — it’s a thing now.”
“Couche-tard?” I asked, usure.
“Well, yeah, I mean, douche bag’s played out, innit?” The Dickensian urchin was back in her voice. “And retard, well, thass just hurtful, and not at all PC. So…”
“But what’s it even mean, Penny? I mean, you can’t very well go around calling people names when you don’t even know what you’re calling them.”
Could you? Is that a thing one can do?
“That’s the fing,” Penny smirked, affecting an even heavier urchin accent, and took a bite of a pastry, spraying flaky golden crumbs down the front of her. “It don’t mean nuffink. It’s like, Sleep-Late, or Late-Night or sommat. Just sounds offensive.”
“Wait a minute,” I said, doing a double-take. “Just — just hang on just a second. When did you get a pastry?”
“When you were going on about jalapeños and Jenny Saquois and stuff.”
“Je ne sais quoi. It means I don’t know,” I corrected her.
“Well, if you don’t know what it means, I’d be careful using it if I were you — some of the people around here can be pretty touchy about their language, if you know what I mean.”
“I know what it means,” I said, feeling like I’d just stepped into a John Hughes film for a moment. “It means ‘I don’t know what’, as in, it’s indescribable. There are no words to describe that ‘it’ that you’re trying to describe.”
“I don’t know gov’ner,” the Countess Penelope of Arcadia-cum-street urchin teased,”thass a lot o’ words, that is.”
“You sound like Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins, you know that? Anyway, where’d you get the pastry?”
She pointed down the street, and that’s when I saw it — and it was winking at me, the smarmy bastard! Like it knew something I didn’t.
“Huh,” I said. There really wasn’t more to be said. “Well, did you at least get me something?”
Penny shook her head sheepishly. “Sorry.”
So I called her a Couche-tard.
Apparently, this is a thing now.