I smoke Gauloises. This is what I have left from my five years in Quebec.
I arrive in Montreal in August of 1997 by taking a ride with an adopted cousin of mine named Hiri. Hiri and I kiss while we are in Chicago a year prior for a National Association of Black Journalists conference. I find out from my mother later that he is actually related to me, but not by blood. I have written an essay for Hiri to help him graduate from Ryerson. He is already working as a journalist with the CBC in Toronto and is driving me to Montréal to see his family. The car is a 1993 silver Honda Civic. I find it low to the ground, and being a woman of five feet ten inches, my legs are stretched out in front of me in an awkward “too laid back” manner. Hiri’s driving on the highway to Québec is making me nervous, and I prefer to be upright and alert in my passenger seat so I can be a second and third pair of eyes. I also wear my glasses.
Hiri drives me to Montréal to pay me back for writing the essay, although, in my mind, he still owes me fifty dollars for the paper. Hiri is getting tired of driving, so he suggests we make a stop on the road just before we enter the province of Québec.
“Why do you want to go to Quebec anyway?” Hiri asks.
We are standing on the shoulder of the highway on the right-hand side of the vehicle. We both have the soles of our feet on gravel.
“What do you mean? I want to do my master’s degree.”
“Why do you want to do your master’s degree? You could get a job without one. I am just glad I’m done at Ryerson and that is the last school is ever seeing of me.”
I look at him with my brows trying to touch.
“I do not understand. Hiri…Rita Shelton Deverell told me that if you are ever in trouble in your career – go back to school. I believe her. Look what it has done for her. She is head of Vision-TV.”
Hiri nods. “But, you will be spending all that money.”
“It is an investment”
“What you should have done is lived in Québec and tried to get a job first – then go back to school. You will be paying out-of-province fees. Better still, why not go to a Toronto school.”
“It’s not a bad idea to improve my French either, you know, Hiri.”
Hiri is silent. He grew up in Montréal, and even though it was on the West Island, he is fluent in both written and spoken French.
“Yes, I know French…but it’s rusty. It’s the Ontario school system in French. Montréal is a good place for me to be and I want to get away from home for a while.”
I did not answer.
“Plus, I was not enjoying that research job at the CBC. Too many late nights.”
“You were offered a more permanent position. I think you’re crazy,” Hiri says.
“When I’m running the place one day, you will not think so. Even Hanna Gartner went to Concordia and who knows what could happen?”
At that time, I did not smoke.
Hiri and I reenter the car and my vision is bombarded with large green signs with white lettering of French directions and street names that I did not know then.
After five years of living there, now back in Toronto for ten years, I get the degree, I work for the CBC, I teach and still do, I am back in school, and I smoke Gauloises. Back in 1997 in Montréal, you could buy them for almost five dollars a pack just about anywhere. Now I pay eighty-seven dollars for a carton of ten cigarette packs.