Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Some vague and general and probably unfounded musings on Winnipeg

I went to Winnipeg last weekend for a wedding. I was looking forward to it, actually. The woman who is getting married went to medical school there and ended up falling in love with the place (and a guy from there as well). It doesn't get a good reputation (poor, boring and windy) in general in Canada but then in reaction gets a respectful appreciation as an underdog. David Collier and Guy Maddin have helped to make it seem kind of downtroddenly cool and truly Canadian in my mind.

The flight is mellow from Montreal, only 3 hours. We came in on a beautiful Friday morning. Yes it is flat. But it's surprisingly green from the sky. There are large swathes of tree-filled neighbourhoods spreading out from the downtown core that do a lot to alleviate the flatness. You can also see that fancy bridge poking up. Otherwise, though, it's pretty flat!

We stayed downtown at the Marlborough hotel. It was once a beautiful old buildng that had been almost utterly destroyed by "renovations". It was shame because there was one beautiful banquet room with soaring arced ceilings and the breakfast coffee shop which used to be the bar was amazing, with this cool giant wooden clock. But the rest of the place had had the ceilings lowered and basic Canadian tackiness put everywhere. We might as well have been in Nanaimo. The rooms were particularly depressing, as they had all been moved from the original building to the extension built in the 60s. The original building was now used for businesses and I wasn't able to see the inside of any of the offices, but the woman at the front desk said they were quite nice on the inside.

What struck me the most walking around downtown Winnipeg was how much it resembled the downtown of a medium-sized American city: generally rundown, lots of big, blocky buildings, some of which were boarded up, department stores that had seen better days, little bright spots of culture or community resources here and there like wild raspberries in a vacant lot. A lot of people (many handicapped) in want hanging around, while working people seem to be hurrying somewhere.

The other thing was how visible the native (or do we say aboriginals, first nations people? I'm not sure anymore)presence is there. At least downtown, you could almost get the feeling that they are the majority. You definitely get the feeling that the aboriginals are a significant part of Canadian life. Unfortunately, a lot of the natives were the people in want, clearly affected by poverty and the ills that tend to go along with that. Fortunately, a lot of the natives also looked like they were doing fine and were often also the people hurrying from job to home or job to lunch or whatever.

This is complete and utter speculation and could be total hogwash, but it seems that if you grow up in Winnipeg, the first nations are present and real and not just something you hear about on the CBC and that maybe growing up in such a context would make you more aware of the complete failure of our government and society to adress the ills of a population that we fucked over in the first place. Do people from Winnipeg put up with this kind of racist, yellow journalism, for instance? The people I hung out with in Winnipeg were very cool, often impressive. But that might have been a very concentrated group of highly educated, socially-conscious individuals.

Another strong cultural influence in Manitoba are the Mennonites and all the hyper-focused christian sect spin-offs (I think I heard someone say they are related to Methodists at the base). I didn't see any of them, but I read an interesting article on one group that ran a pig farm, who made the Amish look relaxed. The groom was also of Mennonite descent, but he patiently explained to me that being Mennonite was like being Jewish. Only some of them wear the funny hats. (Speaking of Jewish, it was a bit disturbing to turn to the "Places of Worship" section in the hotel info binder and not see a single synagogue. I did later learn there is a strong, but small Jewish community in Winnipeg.)

Because I was so focused on looking for used bookstores, I didn't get enough time to just wander around the residential neighbourhoods. What I did see was quite pleasant. Lots of small houses, under trees. Like the downtown, everything looked rundown, though generally clean. You know come to think of it, the residential neighbourhoods reminded me somewhat of Oakland. Lots of people sitting on porches, walking to and from or hanging around the convenient store.

It must be noted that the weather was perfect while I was there, clear, sunny and warm but not too hot. I joked with my hosts that I was seeing Winnipeg in the best possible light and this blog post may have been very different had I been there in February. I also note, if it's not super obvious, that I saw a teeny slice of a city and my perspective is certainly akin to one of the proverbial blind men observing their elephant.

But overall, I felt like Winnipeg was hardcore. I may have seen one actual hipster (aside from the guests from Toronto) and it was questionable as many people just wear moustaches there, in a non-ironic fashion. Definitely no yuppies in site, though I might have not been in the right neighbourhoods. And the people were real and liked to party. I felt comfortable, Canadian. It's a good city. You should go there if you get the chance.

(I talk very specifically about my used bookstore experience in Winnipeg on my other blog, if you're interested in that sort of geekery.)

Monday, September 15, 2008

You most likely need some Radio Radio in your life right about now

These Maritime rappers put out Cliché Hot at the beginning of the summer and I couldn't stop watching it on YouTube. Now, they have just released Jacuzzi and it is as awesome, if not better.

I know Mondays can be a little rough. Start out with Cliché Hot below:

And then after watching that for a few days, jump into the Jacuzzi:

The best line is "Ma jacuzzi est trois milles fois plus grousse que la tienne" ("My jacuzzi is three thousand times bigger than yours.")

Monday, September 08, 2008

The Oppression of the Jolly Fruits

I recently discovered some shocking information, something that is threatening to take over my whole life. Supposedly, we are supposed to be consuming 5-7 servings of fruit per day! I, in what I thought was normal behaviour, tend to eat 3 meals a day, the classical trio of breakfast, lunch and dinner. Now I have to add at least 2 and preferably 4 new eating periods to my already busy life. I can barely get it together to figure out what to eat for dinner. I spoke to several people about this and they all seemed totally au courant and blasé about it. When are they eating all this fruit? Where do they keep it hidden? I guess when you are brought up with these kinds of dutires from day one, eventually, no matter how onerous they may be, you eventually internalize them and they just become another part of your life. Though it is late in life for me, I figure that if I can learn a second language, I can at least make the attempt to start finally having a healthy diet.

But it has not been easy, by Persephone! Thank god I learned of this news just before I was to spend several weeks in Vancouver and Golden, BC and could take advantage of the fruits of the Okanagon Valley, the bread basket of British Columbia. And then luckily I got to spend a weekend almost immediately after that in California, to celebrate my parents' 50th anniversary (think of all the fruit they have shared). During those times, my new diet was made slightly easier in that I was surrounded by a fruit-enabling infrastructure. But since I have gotten back, it is taking all of my efforts to stay on track. It is not easy, let me tell you! My life now is centered entirely around the procurement and consumption of fruit. I work all day so I can make money to buy enough fruit. Then I spend the rest of the time buying it or eating it.

I mean at some point, we have to start asking ourselves, what is the point of eating all this fruit? To stay healthy so we are able to eat more fruit? When does the cycle end? Now I know how it feels to be a panda bear. I see how they are so loved by the Asians, because they represent the ultimate contradicting duality of buddhism. They must be the most stressed creatures on the planet yet they present the calmest outward appearance. Not like us! No wonder we are always getting into wars and stuff. It's exhausting! I write these notes in snatches between biting into a peach and realize I am going to have to learn how to type with one hand so I can still blog and eat fruit. Or maybe meezly and I can have an arrangement where one of us prepares fruit smoothies for an hour while the other sucks them down with a straw, while fulfilling all the other tasks in life. And the flies. My god, the flies! One dreads winter now more than ever. What will become of us? Should we load up the freezer now and just suck on frozen fruit, praying we can just make it through to spring, staggering to the supermarket, our skin pale, our teeth falling out, to just reach for the first strawberries...

For the time being, though, there is some good news. I am happy to announce that I have finally found access to some decent local, seasonal fruit here. In the four years I have been in Montreal, the fruit scene is a disaster. Mealy crap from California and Florida fills our supermarket shelves. I had heard from my sister about the delicious fruit of Ontario and saw some for the first time at Joli Fruits on 3800 St. Laurent up from Des Pins. I bought some Ontario peaches and they were freaking delicious! I mean really, really awesome. So good that I could actually, honestly have them for desert and not feel like I needed a chocolate cake and a pint of Haagen-daz to really feel satisfied. I spoke with one of the proprietors and she said that they had to make an extra effort to get Canadian fruit in the store. They also had some good wild blueberries from Québec and a few other things.

Recently, Galen Weston, faux-everyman boss of Loblaw's and Provigo has been doing these ads promoting their selling of the goods of Canadian farmers. I certainly have never seen any Canadian produce or fruits in the Provigo on Mont-Royal and St. Urbain. But I am happy to report that they were selling the Ontario nectarines as well, which are equally delicious (though not quite as well ripened). So good news all around.

So tell me dear readers (if there are any), is this just something that I have found out about recently and was always available, or is this a change in Montreal supermarkets purchasing practices? And are you able to find fruit from Quebec and Ontario in your neighbourhoods? If not, please take the time to ask the proprietor why they don't stock it. It's insane that they truck tasteless crap from the States when we have our own excellent supply a province next door.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

British Columbia: Where the Customer Is Always Wrong

I have a cosmopolitan and multi-faceted upbringing, but I ultimately consider myself a B.C. boy. There are many things, though, about my home province that make me livid with rage. My poor significant other, who herself hails from B.C., has to hear my rants and railings on this (and many other subjects) all too often. Since I was just there, I had a refresher course and will now share some of it with you. Today's subject is customer service.

You see, in British Columbia, the customer is not always right. Actually, he or she is usually wrong. It's strange is such a greedy and commerce-oriented culture that this should be so. I don't really understand the roots of it. It is probably connected in some ways to the general resentful humility of english Canada in general, where we are too frightened to complain. But somehow, it really gets distilled in B.C.

I'm in the bank in Golden, a lovely town at the foot of the Rockies, just off the Trans-Canada Highway. I am depositing a cheque that is greater than the quantity currently in my account. The teller tells me it will take 8 business days to clear. Now this is the same ridiculous bullshit that goes on in any bank in Canada and the states, basically shit service by huge corporations raking in the profits (record-breaking years for Canadian banks recently) and I was in no rush to get the money. But I challenged it anyways, as I always try to do if I have the time. The teller is new and very polite and directs me to the assistant manager. The assistant manager gets her back up and tells me that it has to be sent to Vancouver to be cleared. I asked how that could possibly take 8 days. She made some vague statement about how long it takes to get things to Vancouver, that I should ask DSL. Well, I had just come from Vancouver the evening before, on the Greyhound (head still connected to shoulders, thankfully) and it took 12 hours. I pointed this out. She said "We live in a valley here." That was just so absurd that I let it go.

Clearly, the bank has a ridiculous policy and doesn't train their employees properly. But the real point of this minor anecdote is her attitude. All she had to say to me was "You know, I don't really know why it takes so long. I can see from your perspective that it doesn't seem to make sense. I'll pass your concern on to my superiors when I get a chance." But that is not the mentality in B.C. Our exchange was polite and she was not annoyed with me per se (believe me, I annoy people so I recognize it when I'm doing it). She was annoyed that anyone would question a policy. It's just not done. For her, it's 8 days and that's it.

Earlier, I had been in Vancouver. I went to a privately-owned liquor store on Commercial & 10th. As I went in, there was a young Japanese couple who were clearly tourists. The guy was outside smoking and his girlfriend came to the door and said something to him. He came in (as I was coming in) and went to the counter where his girlfriend had left a case of beer. It turned out that she was under age or didn't have ID. I guess the guy had sent her in to buy the beer while he smoked. So the guy went into buy the beer. He did have ID.

The employee behind the counter refused to sell him the beer. "I just saw her go out and talk to you. You're clearly buying the beer for her." I was too busy paying attention the shitty and overpriced selection of whiskeys (yes, we're in B.C. here) trying to find a gift for people I'd been visiting in town. At some point, the employee took the beer and put it behind the counter. So the Japanese guy left the store, came back in, got another case and went to buy it. I guess his strategy was that if he took it himself to the counter, it shouldn't be a problem. The employee wasn't having it and started to get righteous. I said, "Hey, come on, it's obvious that they are together. He's not just buying beer for some minor." The guy had a nice righteous spas then, going on about the $2,000 dollar fine and then capping it off with "and if you take his side, you'll be refused service as well." You could tell that he was really psyched to be acting all superior about the liquor laws. The other guy behind the counter had that look like "yes, the guy I work with is a dick and there is nothing I can do about it." So I said, "Fine, you lost this sale." which would have been a few bottles of top-shelf liquor and left. I sympathized with the Japanese guy (yeah, welcome to B.C. where the economy depends significantly on tourism and oh yeah we're going to have an Olympics here in a year and a half where we'll be hosting citizens of the world. Good luck with that.) and told him where he could get some off sales nearby (another brilliant B.C. invention, where you have to go to a bar, pay twice as much as the already insanely expensive beer).

Part of the reason that employee could afford to be such a cockface to two potentially-paying customers is because of the government restrictions on liquor sales (which I've already starting ranting about but should be its own blog post). In effect, they have a regional monopoly. Stores are extremely limited and so there is no competition within easy walking or transit distance. But it is also an example of the general attitude that a customer should not buck the existing structure and that if they do, it is them who are in the wrong, not the business.

Later in the week, H&M stores hit the news in B.C. because a woman who was breast-feeding her baby in the store had been asked to leave. This caused a huge uproar and a great protest where hundreds of women went to the store to breast-feed their babies. H&M handled it well, sending out their head of PR from Toronto, welcoming the women and apologizing. But I can just imagine the initial encounter and was not surprised at all to hear that such an event took place in Vancouver. I can picture the employee, probably getting backed up by the manager, later talking together about the customer's poor behaviour. I mean how the hell do you do that to a customer when you are trying to sell clothes to women? Considering the baby boom going on right now, pregnant women and new mothers are your market. You should be welcoming them to your store. Not in B.C.

Politically, B.C. is a complex place, an interesting mix of old-school left government support and resource-based free market principles. For the last decade, the Liberals have been in power, espousing the business side of things. Most people in B.C. seem to like it and they have certainly been benefitting from the economic growth, especially in the real estate market. But it is still the most bureaucratic province I've ever been in and there is a strong foundation of government in the economy and society. The cultural tradition is there as well and I think this may be the source of the terrible customer service. People are used to doing their business in government-run establishments (like the post office, ICBC, the liquor stores) and they think that private retail establishments should be run like that. That would be great if the government was still offering the strong infrastructure services and social support like they used to. But those budgets have all been slashed. So it's the worst of both worlds (as is usually the case when the government sells out to private industry) and the average consumer is the one who gets screwed.