Category Archives: Bilingual

48 hours in montreal

The only place I know offering francophone culture so strongly this side of the Atlantic is in Montreal, Quebec – an island city in the middle of the St. Lawrence River. Montreal is a lively, international destination which offers much in history and architecture, arts and culture, festivals and dining.  We recently visited the city for a few days and found enough time to explore some of its best spots.


Old Montreal

old Montreal

City Hall


Horse-drawn carriage in old Montreal

Horse-drawn carriage in old Montreal

A Great Night Sleep

Positive reviews from the NY Times Travel section prompted me to book a medium room at the hip and classy, no-snob boutique hotel, Le Petit Hotel,  in Old Montreal.

Room with a view.

Room with a view.

Comprised of only 24 rooms and a lobby café, the hotel is housed in a beautiful 19th Century building on the quieter, more residential side of Rue Saint-Paul Ouest. Its helpful staff provide you with excellent services, and gave us good suggestions during our stay. Tips: Request the well laid-out top floor/street view room and indulge in the (included) delicious breakfast offerings, especially the pain au chocolat and perfectly-brewed cappuccino. Online promotions are available and business travelers can receive room discounts.

Eats and Drinks

Hands down, our favorite dinner experienced in Montreal was at the fashionable Restaurant Holder on Rue McGill (order the veal or salmon), thanks to a tip by our hotel staff.  I’m told you also can’t go wrong with lunch at the busy but delicious Olive and Gourmando if you can handle the crowds (we couldn’t wait). You can’t leave Old Montreal without experiencing an evening drink on a rooftop terrace.


The rooftop terrace at Hotel Nelligan on Rue St Paul is a perfect place to enjoy a glass of wine at sunset with views of Notre Dame. Get there by 9 pm if you want to snag a table. Just look out for the characteristic Eastern Canadian summer thunderstorms, as we experienced a downpour minutes after this picture was taken.

Getting Around by Foot, Bike and Metro

If you stay in Old Montreal, there is no better place to walk the streets – or get lost –  and soak in its history and architecture. Make sure you look up. Like in Europe, some of the best architectural details of a building are found in the direction of the sky.




One of my favorite buildings is the Royal Bank of Canada building, where my mother worked in the early 1960s. In fact, I can proudly thank the influence of Montreal on my mother – and her bank teller friend – for my French name. Banking ceased only about a year ago. The inside of the building and the ceilings are breathtaking.

Inside the Royal Bank of Canada building.

Inside the Royal Bank of Canada building.


Notre Dame is a centerpiece of the old city.


Notre Dame

Notre Dame

To get further out to fashionable neighborhoods like the Plateau, grab a metro map and a day pass (9 Canadian dollars).


Or you can rent a Bixi Bike – the public bike share system – to ride  along the old Port and a grab a view of architectural landmark Habitat 67, a model community and housing complex  designed by Israeli–Canadian architect Moshe Safdie for the World Fair in 1967.

Habitat 67

Habitat 67

If you are ambitious, you can get a closer look at Habitat 67 and other architectural icons like Biosphere by riding your bikes from Old Port to Parc Jean-Drapeau. Don’t repeat our mistake by aborting an attempt to reach the island via the Jacques Cartier Bridge, which looked shorter in distance from Old Port than it was.  Instead ride the opposite direction on the bicycle parkway.  This would be done best with a day bike rental, as opposed to a Bixi Bike, which charges you if you exceed a 30-minute time usage period.

Hike up Mont Royal

A hike up Mont Royal is lovely and a good way to walk off those morning pain au chocolats and rooftop terrace drinks,  and the view at the top is a nice reward. You can grab the #11 city bus back down to deliver you to Avenue Mont Royal, where you can find a metro station back to Old Montreal or wherever else you’d like to go.


View from Mont Royal

View from the top of Mont Royal.

View from Mont Royal.

The Arts for Free (imagine!)

The permanent collection at Montreal’s Musee des Beaux Arts is always free. Please note special exhibitions are not, but on Wednesday nights tickets are half off. We visited the Museum’s current exhibit, “Utterly Breathtaking”  featuring Dale Chihuly’s large-scale, nature-inspired blown glass.


While below the city surface, Francophone/Anglophone tensions are nothing to laugh at (unless you are Sugar Sammy, see my past post here), visiting Montreal offers travelers a uniquely bilingual, culture-rich experience in a place well-deserving of its lively reputation. Its residents seem to have a less- North American, more-European sense of enjoyment of life and leisure and we’re glad  we caught some of it there too.

(Please note Bringing Travel Home is not sponsored by any person or organization.  Both my travel and writing are independent.)


sugar sammy

Last week Public Radio International’s “The World” featured  Canadian Comedian Sugar Sammy.  Sugar Sammy has found a way to poke fun at the hot issues surrounding the French and English language conflict in Montreal and other regions in Quebec, from the perspective of an Indo-Canadian living in French Canada.


Francophone – Anglophone tensions are up in Quebec right now (the only Canadian province where French is the sole official language – English speakers represent the minority) and have been highlighted with the latest news frenzy over an incident dubbed “Pasta-gate.” The international news has targeted the region’s well-funded language law enforcement that cited a restaurant for using the Italian/English word “pasta” instead of its French equivalent and tried to ban it. (Click here for a good article about the incident from The Guardian.) Last time in Quebec, when exasperated that I couldn’t find someone who spoke English  (It’s still hard for me to get used to a French-speaking region a short drive from our U.S. borders),  I was quickly reprimanded for the belief that they should speak English. Why shouldn’t I speak French? Point taken. Resistance to the global move towards English language supremacy is nothing new. And there is a long history involved with the Quebec conflict, much more complex than language alone.

The Quebec-born son of Indian immigrants, Samir Khullar – or Sugar Sammy as he goes by – has found a way to get the dueling French and English speakers of that region laughing at each other and themselves –  at least during his shows.  I think it’s brilliant – it may not change policy today, but laughter is always a good icebreaker and I believe begins the process of compassion and understanding.


Sugar Sammy believes in a demographic in Montreal that live in French and English on a daily basis. After years of doing separate French and English shows, he has started to do bilingual stand-up comedy shows – something he was told would never work – to French and English-speaking audiences. He has experienced much success, with sell-out shows. He even has the politicians playing along.

Sugar Sammy can make you laugh in four languages – English, French, Punjabi and Hindi . He now does four separate shows: in French (En français, svp!), in English (Illegal English Edition), the bilingual show (You’re Gonna rire) and a new show aimed at Quebec’s Indian immigrants and their offspring (Indian Edition). As a half Mexican/half German with a French first name, I’m intrigued. I’m crossing my fingers that our summer trip may coincide with an Illegal English Edition show because, sadly, we don’t know French. Yet.

I remain convinced that bilingualism is a true gift – I send my kids to full Spanish immersion public school in California. I just hope we can all get along and appreciate our capacity for speaking different languages. In a place like Quebec it might be a long shot. But Sugar Sammy might just make it a little easier and a lot more fun.

Photo credit: CBC

You can learn more about Sugar Sammy here. 

viva la vida

El Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is a joyful, Mexican celebration of life and remembrance of those who have passed. Its present-day form – which originated from Aztec roots in Mexico and later transformed into a Catholic celebration after the Spanish conquest –  is celebrated in many parts of the world (including here in the U.S.)  around All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days.

This year I had the opportunity to volunteer and partner with local downtown business leaders in planning our city’s first-ever Dia de los Muertos Festival, which featured an outdoor community altar. The day was  full of good energy, people enjoying traditional food like pan de muertos and hot chocolate, and entertainment including a procession,  a bilingual children’s choir, a Mariachi band and a Columbian dance performance.  A local bilingual Chicano poet did a reading and led us in the native traditional calling of the “Four Directions”  while burning sage as an offering to our ancestors. Each of the Four Directions – North, South,East and West – symbolize an element, like air, fire, water and earth.

I am especially proud of how our  community – at times mocked for our preoccupation with being politically correct – comes together and embraces different cultures in our community.  I wonder what effect the excessive concern with offending various groups of people has on the experience and richness of many beautiful traditions. Some people came to the festival because they were simply curious, other came seriously prepared with altar offerings.

In Mexico, they build altars at the cemetery. These images show our altar being built at an outdoor plaza downtown.

This holiday has always been one I’ve looked forward to.  An excellent source of information about Day of the Dead can be found at this  NPR article that decodes its many traditional symbols and provides some history.  For example, it explains that papel picado – the bright colored tissue paper hanging over the altars and streets – symbolizes wind and the fragility of life. You can also read my post on a beautiful El Dia de los Muertos art exhibit I visited here.

I am half Mexican – my father was Mexican-American and he grew up in a Spanish-speaking home – but we never celebrated this at home. But I still feel a deep connection to it. We don’t need to talk about death in whispers on El Dia de los Muertos. Instead we celebrate the lives of those who have passed and call out to their spirits by placing their photos and favorite items on an altar. They feel alive that day, and maybe they are there,  shouting, as we did with Poet Francisco Alarcon, “Viva la Vida!” “Viva la Vida!” – “Viva la Vida!” “Long Live Life!”

While I left my ofertas on the altar – some photos, a rose for my gardening papi,  an old Italian lira coin for my friend and Italian travel companion who left us too soon-  my mementos joined so many more photos and items left by others throughout the day.  There were pets and grandparents and young people. Everyone had their own story. They were part of the day. They are part of our lives. On the altar. And on the plaza, laughing, dancing, talking with each other. A beautiful moment of shared humanity.

la bella lingua

One of the best things about being back in Italy was speaking Italian again. Like riding a bicycle, words we haven’t spoken in years were plucked up from somewhere deep down, and we found ourselves effortlessly communicating again in our adopted language at dinner parties, restaurants and other countless conversations with old friends. My Italian isn’t too sophisticated –  I often take the easy road by constructing  sentences around the easier grammar tenses while my husband is much braver – but it was back. Using the formal Lei without a missed beat. Extending long greetings when you say goodbye to someone. Buon Giorno, salve, ciao, ci vediamo, grazie a lei, arriverderci, a  domani!  Getting in a heated argument- which feels even better in Italian – at the best place for a fight, a ticket booth line at an Italian train station. The Italian language is old, complicated, challenging, and different depending where in Italy you are  – but pays off as the most beautiful, expressive and delightful language to speak.

Confirming my love for the Italian language, I just finished “La Bella Lingua” by Dianne Hales.

“Learning a new language is like growing a new head…You see with new eyes, hear with new ears, speak with a new tongue.” – La Bella Lingua

  Right before our trip, I picked this book up at our local bookstore with the intimate knowledge that it’s always a gamble when choosing a novel from the travel section. But this is the real deal.

Ms. Hales has done her homework (and more). The book is a love story to the Italian language, providing anecdotes through her experiences living and traveling in Italy and pursuits in studying the language. Her über thorough research reveals interesting and little known aspects of Italy’s history, literature and culture, and demonstrates how several key Italians and scholarly groups – past and present – have contributed to helping the language develop and survive.  This book has inspired me to search at the local library for “The Divine Comedy” (or “Divina Commedia”)  by Dante Aligheri,  any film by De Sica, and the opera Madama Butterfly (which I was surprised to learn  opened in 1904 at Milan’s La Scala and bombed, then reopened in Brescia,  where we lived for several years, to then triumph in Paris and around the world!) 

Hales makes the point that while a unified Italy is fairly new, the Italian language  – which has served as  the great unifier – is very old. The 14th century dialect of Florence – the language of Dante Aligheri himself – is little changed and what is taught and spoken in Italy today.  English may be the language everyone needs to know, Hales writes, but Italian is the language people want to learn. With only 60 – 63 million native speakers Italian barely eclipses Urdu, Pakistan’s official language for 19th place as a spoken tongue. Yet Italian ranks fourth among the world’s most studied language. (Only four countries other than Italy recognize Italian as an official language.) The soaring popularity of the language is hardly surprising, she writes, with its exported food, fashion, art, architecture, music and culture … and I’ll add, Italian boyfriends.

For lovers of Italian – those of us who have lived or traveled to Italy and keep going back, who are fascinated with Italy’s history and culture and protagonists, and consider ourselves lifelong students of Italian,  “La Bella Lingua” shares our passion and provides a new perspective and adventure through the world’s most enchanting language.

Next up: My favorite study Italian abroad schools in Italy

el dia de los muertos

Being of (half) mexican descent but with little-felt cultural identity (sadly, I can’t even figure out how to type a spanish accent on a vowel), el dia de los muertos (Nov. 1st and 2nd) is a nice opportunity to celebrate a holiday of my ancestors by remembering those friends and family members who have died. At my daughter’s spanish immersion elementary school, her class has been making sugar skulls and this week they will be preparing an altar where we are invited to place photos of someone special in our family who has died. My late father will be represented.

At a local gallery this weekend, we poked around a wonderful dia del los muertos exhibit by local Northern California artists featuring fun skeleton figures and a beautiful, large, colorful altar with sugar skulls, candles, pictures, and offerings of favorite foods and items of those being honored (included was a toothbrush and tube of toothpaste in honor of a former dentist and namesake of the gallery). My daughter enjoyed sitting on the floor and sketching the larger skeleton figures, including “Amy, Amy, Amy (Amy Winehouse), “King of Pop”, La Sirena and el Virgen de Guadalupe (some of which you can see in the above photo).

Scholars trace the origins of this modern-day Mexican holiday to indigenous observances dating back hundreds of years and to an Aztec festival dedicated to a goddess called Mictecacihuatl.   You can read more about dia de los muertos  here.

This time of year, I much prefer it to Halloween and the creepy tombstone decorations popping up on people’s front lawns everywhere and endless amounts of junkie candy yet to come. El dia de los muertos is a festive event –  perhaps at times even humorous – accepting death as another step in life and remembering those who have gone before us.  In some way, for me, the altar and artwork created in honor of this holiday connects the living with the dead in a very natural, uplifting, healthy sort of way.

This coming week, there will be dia de los muertos celebrations, art exhibits and other educational events taking place throughout cities across the world open for anyone to take part as an observer or a participant. If you plan to celebrate, or if you prepare a private family altar, I’d love to hear about it.

I’m a coatí

My daughter loves nature, wildlife and animals so she is thrilled with her latest homework assignment. She got to choose a poem about a rainforest animal to present at her class”poesia y postre” (poetry and dessert) night next month.  

The poem she chose is from award-winning and local Chicano poet (he lives in our town and works at our university) Francisco Alarcón. In his collection of bilingual/environmental poems,  “Animal Poems of the Iguazu”, he addresses wildlife and habitat preservation and introduces children to the wonders of the natural world  -through the Iguazú rainforest of South America.   The artwork  in his books – by Maya Christina Gonzalez, a San Francisco-based artist – is wonderful – playful, colorful and vibrant.

 [Alarcón has written other literature for children, as well .  Try not to smile when working in your veggie garden after reading “Laughing Tomatoes” from his Spring poem collection. ]

The Iguazú (also spelled Iguassu) is part of a national park between Brazil and Argentina. It has 275 falls and the surrounding forest is full of rich flora and fauna, and home to hundreds of species of birds like toucans. It is now officially added to my Places we Need to Go list.

The poem she chose to present – in both english and spanish –  is about a Coatí(member of the raccoon family and found in the Iguazú rainforest) How cute is he?

It goes like this.

Coatí (by Francisco Alarcón)

I’m a coatí, very proud, of my great tail

so curious, so hungry, with my big nose

sniffing out, the food I know, you all carry


un coatí soy, muy orgulloso, de mi gran cola

muy curioso, muy hambriento, con mi gran nariz

voy olfateando, la comida que se

que todos cargan

His poems teach adults something too. From the same collection, the poem, Giant Ants  will remind those of us who love to travel how we can get caught up with photo-taking and facebook-posting instead of Just Being in the Moment. I plead guilty….

It goes like this.

Giant Ants (by Francisco Alarcón)

from our perch, we ants can spot, many people

walking in file, like giant ants, on steel pathways

holding digital cameras, taking lots of photos, of each other

ignoring the great, and tiny wonders, all around them


Hormigas Gigantes

desde nuestros miradores, las hormigas podemos, divisar mucha gente

caminando en fila,como hormigas gigantes,sobre senderos de acero

com cámaras digitales,en mano sacándose,muchas fotos entre si

ignorando las grandes,y pequeñas maravillas, a todo su alrededor