My husband stayed in the car, my daughter looked panicked and I tried to mask my trepidation.
The McDonald's restaurant in the nondescript strip center on the outer edges of Montreal represented our first front-on encounter with a predominantly French-speaking culture -- or at least their first ever and my first in decades -- and it was surprising how intimidating that felt.
McDonald's, an American fast-food chain, might not seem the most logical choice for one's first meal in Quebec, but we needed lunch and my husband didn't want to face down the intricacies of an unfamiliar city's crowded highways and confusing detours on an empty stomach. He sighted the familiar yellow plastic arches and pulled over.
"I'll wait here while you get the food," he said, quickly pulling out a map to show how busy he was studying up on important matters.
"I will, too," said the 16-year-old in the back seat. Three years of studying kanji and hiragana weren't going to help her comprehend much Francais.
As the designated French expert in the car -- those six years of studying the language were back in the dark ages, folks, and I don't get too many chances to practice with Marc-Andre Fleury or Russell Martin -- this was my moment. Years of nagging everyone about how it would be great to go to Montreal had finally worked.
The reservations had been made, the free walking tour of the Old City put on the schedule and the family forced to walk around the house for weeks looking at homemade signs that said things like, "S'il vous plait" and "La porte."
They'd pretty much ignored that last-minute French push and I'd done very little listening to the French language CD that the library let me take out for a few weeks.
So, my daughter and I -- you don't think I was going in alone, do you? -- were left lining up in a very busy restaurant with people speaking rapid-fire French all around us as we tried to figure out what to order off le menu.
Fast-food restaurants tend to convey a certain amount of pressure (If you don't know what you want, the guy behind you does, so hurry up already), and adding a different language made it feel that much more like a bad game show.
"Bonjour," I said tentatively when we made it up to the front of the line.
The young woman behind the counter responded pleasantly, reeling off an official-sounding set of questions that meant nothing to my out-of-practice ear but brought back my own uniformed days behind a counter delivering the latest corporate message. She probably wanted to know if we wanted to try a wrap-eclair au poulet or a smoothie fraises-banane McCafe.
"Uh," I responded.
Despite my best intentions to make a go of it, to show the citizens of Quebec how much I respected their language, surrender was almost immediate. "Anglais?"
The talented employee smoothly switched to English and our exchange of money for food was quickly completed. Heading back across the parking lot, my daughter and I had to grin as the relief of not embarrassing ourselves too horribly set in.
Montreal -- once we'd navigated through the GPS instructions, missed our street and fought a path through heavy traffic to reach the hotel's valet parking -- was great. Almost everyone spoke to us in French (we'd left the too-obvious American T-shirts at home) and then, when requested, gracefully eased into words we were more familiar with -- even the extra dressed up for the X-Men movie shoot who stopped us to suggest that we come watch.
Being bilingual is something that we truly should work harder at, my fellow Americans.
After a couple of days in Montreal, we headed off across the countryside toward Quebec City. Must be something about how we time these trips, but somewhere in between the two cities, we needed to stop for gas and food. There was an exit off the highway in Berthierville.
My husband sent me inside again at the fuel station after he couldn't work out how to pay at the pump. The attendant looked worried when I asked if she spoke English, but we managed to communicate with hand signs and a few of the French words that my teachers imparted years ago.
A couple of doors down, a Benny & Co. roasted chicken restaurant with a stylish rooster logo smelled good and advertised take-out. All three of us went in, perhaps a bit less fearful since we'd had such luck in the big city.
The pleasant young woman taking orders shook her head at "Parlez-vous Anglais?" I ordered a wrap poulet (or something like that), which confused her. She pulled out the list and pointed to two options. I randomly chose one.
The other two wanted something portable like chicken nuggets, so I asked for deux orders of La Croquee (It said each had five croquettes).
Eventually our server brought out three red boxes strapped together with plastic. "It's beautiful," I said, surprised. "Merci."
She smiled and we hit the road.
As my husband pulled back onto the highway, I sat in the front passenger seat and began sorting out lunch. The two boxes on top had images of a winking chick on them, along with the word "bambin."
That rang a bell from French class.
Sure enough, inside the first box were nuggets, fries and a squeezable chicken.
"You got kid's meals," I announced. The car erupted in laughter as we imagined what our server thought of this weird family ordering off the toddler menu.
Teresa Lindeman is a staff writer for the Post-Gazette (firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-2018).