Thursday, December 16, 2004

La neige est arrivée

Winter has come (and allowed me to procrastinate on my writing). I am very excited. I was a little worried and I know I still haven't seen the worst of it yet. But we've had some pretty good examples of shitty weather. Three days of freezing rain so that the sidewalk outside my house was like a skating rink. I'm really not kidding. It was about 2 inches of rough ice which you could have skated on for quite a while. It was hard to walk to the métro. You have to leave your bike lock upside down so that it doesn't get sealed with ice. When you do get your bike unlocked you have to bang it on the ground and roll it around to break all the ice off. The first time, I forgot about my brakes until I was rolling towards busy St. Joseph and found they were frozen open!

We had 4 or 5 days of -10 and a good 30+ cm of snow as well. So far, I'm handling it okay. Actually, I'm loving the snow! It's beautiful and fun to play in (I bought a complete used cross-country ski set for $135). But for me, it's the removal that is so exciting. You can really tell the slackers from the copers here in Montréal. You just walk down the street and see which house has the really clean driveway and walkway. These old guys bust out their sets of snow shovels and slowly and methodically go to work. It's beautiful to watch. Clean, symmetrical lines along the edges. When they finish shovelling, they take out the broom and sweep it all down so you can see the concrete. Awesome work, monsieur! At the hardware store, they have so many different snow shovels for sale. All kinds of lengths, widths and materials, even little plastic ones with fancy decorations to get the kids started early.

But even cooler is the city's response. Now that is awesome. If there's a decent amount of snow, the plows ("les deneigeuses") come out right away. They've got the big ones for the roads and these special sidewalk sized ones just for the sidewalks! They come barrelling down at you, their lights spinning, and you better get out of the way. I find it all very exhilirating. After the snow has accumulated to a certain amount, they go around and put up all these signs that don't allow parking from 9 at night to 7 in the morning. All the regular signs have special metal clips on them so that these special red snow removing signs can be put up in the winter when they are needed. They do this on one side of the street for a while and then when that side is cleaned, they put them on the other side. I'm sure it's a hassle for all those car drivers, but in the end, they get their parking spaces back from the snow.

So here's how they do it. Once a side of the street is cleared of all cars, a big angled plow comes down, dragging the snow from the midddle of the street and pushing it up against the curb. At the same time, or sometimes a little later, the sidewalk plows beetle up and down the sidewalk, pushing the sidewalk snow onto the curb pile. They have to get between trees, fire hydrants, bus stops, etc. so they go back and forth a lot. The fire hydrants also have this special red pole with a red octagon fixed to the top so the plowdrivers can see them sticking out of the snow.

Once all the snow is out in the street, piled along the curb, the best part happens. This massive yellow snow-eating machine comes barrelling down the street. It has a giant maw with spinning, spiral blades that suck the snow up. On top, it has a giant blower that spits it out. Driving parrallel to this snow-eater is a massive dump truck. They drive down the street in tandem, with the blower filling up the dump trunk. Behind the recipient dump truck, is a convoy of many other dump trucks, so as soon as one is filled, it speeds off and the one behind it catches up to the blower and starts getting filled, with barely a pause in between the operation. The whole thing is really loud and impressive. I'm sure little boys get pretty excited about those trucks. I know I'm cheering when they go by.

The filled trucks drive to one of 18 snow dumps in the city. I don't know what those places are or how they work, but that will be next in my field of research. Sorry, I strayed off-topic, but I'm sure there is some deep, cultural connection between the snow and the french language in Québec, but I just haven't quite discovered it yet. In the meantime, bring on more snow!

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

The Systematic Tyranny of the French

I'm finding french to be very difficult. The deeper and deeper that I get into it, the more complex it's becoming and the more vaster the amount of information I need is growing. It's frustrating and at time discouraging.

I have learned enough french that I can say that I know probably all of the grammatical elements and rules. And I know them fairly well. I definitely need a lot more drilling and memorization, but I am getting good grades on all my tests, and can do all the questions and exercises without referring to my notes.

However, what I'm starting to realize is that french is an extremely empirical language. What I mean by that is that it really isn't governed by any overall theoretical system that you can apply to a given situation. You just have to know what a french person would say in that situation and how they would say it. Yes, they have the subject verb object relationship of all romance languages and they generally tend to stick to that, but all the other grammatical elements are so filled with exceptions that it's really a stretch to say that there are rules at all in French. Not to say that it's a flexible language. Au contraire, mon ami! There is always a right way and wrong way to say something in french and they will always let you know when you've said it the wrong way.

Here is an example of what I'm talking about: adjectives. This part of speech, as most of us should know, exists to qualify or describe a noun. In english, the adjective always goes before the noun. Done. That's the rule. In french, the adjective can go before and after the noun. However, when you choose to put it before or after a noun is extremely complicated. Colors, for instance, always go after the noun. That's one hard and fast rule that I have actually yet to see broken. But I'm certainly not counting on it. (Seriously, french is so nuts that I wouldn't be surprised if someone said, every color except chartreuse goes after the noun). Supposedly, adjectives of more than 2 syllables also go after the noun. But incroyable and excellent can go before or after. There are also adjectives that have different meanings depending on where they are placed. Pauvre (poor) for instance. Un pauvre homme is a man for whom one feels pity. Un homme pauvre is a man who has little money. This usage is actually quite cool, allowing nuances and interesting double entendres. (The Bloc Quebecois tag for this year's election was "La Propre Partie du Québec" which means literally "Québec's own party" but propre, when it comes after the noun also means clean, so it had a suggestion that they weren't corrupt, which is patently false, but it was a nice piece of language anyways.).

That is just a small piece of french grammar and as you can see, it requires a lot of memorization and just practice. There are so many things like that. Adjectives also have to agree in gender and quantity with the noun they are qualifying. That's tough enough, but on top of it there are tons of exceptions. So you say "les fleures vertes" (the green flowers. Green is vert, but you have to add an "e" because flowers are feminine and an "s" because it's plural in this case). But if you say "les fleurs vert et blanc" (the white and green flowers), you don't make the adjectives agree because you don't do that with composed colors. Why? Only the french know and they're not telling. Sorry to bog you down in these details, but I'm trying to give you sense of what I go through every single class. Each day there is some new exception that totally throws you. We spent an hour today discussing when you say "jour" (day) and "journée" (day). The same goes for "soir" (evening) and "soirée" (evening).

So why am I complaining? I know, it's a language. It wasn't designed from the ground up, but is a rich reflection of the societies and history of a certain region and has developed over centuries and is still changing today. I can appreciate that and I'm certainly no fan of esperanto. But what bugs me is that the french textbooks and teachers are always acting like there is some system and set of rules guiding everything. So when you start out with French you're lulled into this idea that when you encounter some grammar that you don't understand, you'll be able to figure it out by following the rules. But there are no rules! Obviously, you have to learn the basics, but after that, I think you've just got to let go of any theoretical crutches and just memorize, listen, read and talk to people as much as you can. If you start looking for the french for justification for usage, you get into these crazy discussions that make your head swim. The teacher pulls out this huge book that explains just why tout (all) is an adjective only in the singular and an indefinite pronoun in the plural and why sometimes you pronounce the "s" in tous and other times you don't. It's maddening.

And there are much more systematic languages that manage to maintain a rich literature and spoken culture. In spanish for instance, you always pronounce everything the same way! It's brilliant and easy and hasn't stifled them at all. I appreciate that french is a complex language, but stop trying to tell me that it makes some kind of sense. It's rich and nuanced, but it is not well-structured and is riddled with kluges and exceptions.

Now here's the rub. This is from the same people that brought us the metric system! That's right. It was established under Napoleon's regime and when he conquered Europe, he got it in place there. I don't know how the french managed to force the rest of the world to follow suit since then. If anyone knows of a good book on the history of the metric system, I'd love to know about it. Anyways, why did they work so hard to dismantle a perfectly good system of measuring to be replaced by a soulless, impractical, yet highly efficient and systemized one but not do anything to their language? Bizarre.

Friday, November 19, 2004

Le Salon du Livre

I had a very inspiring morning. Today was a field day, a trip to Le Salon du Livre. It's a big expo of publishing houses being held in the Place Bonaventure downtown. This event has been happening for many years. It's only $6 to get in, but we got in free as a school.

I didn't really know what to expect. The event was getting a lot of press. There was an article about it in both the free dailies, as well as all four hebdos (hebomadaire means weekly in french; there are two english and two french free weeklies here). I also heard that they were going to be broadcasting all the daytime CBC shows from there.

I'm pleased to report that, judging by this event, the book business is really booming in Québec. The exhibit hall was huge and the booths were professional and nice looking. There were a lot of people at the event. I used to put on events and expos like this and you can tell when one is suffering. There was lots of energy and everybody working the booths seemed really positive. There were many smaller publishing houses that didn't have so many people coming to them, but they had an air of patient confidence rather than desperate loneliness that you see when a company in a booth is hurting for business. I read later that the budget for the event was 1.6 million dollars. 10% of that came from the government; the rest is booth and entrance fees ($6 for adults).

Except for one stall, it was entirely french. There were some big French houses (as well as Larousse and Robert, the two big french dictionary makers) and a Belgium company, but the rest were Québecois. Bande-Dessinées (comics) were well-represented as well as food and drink (the theme of this year's expo is L'Art du Vivre). But Children's books were far and away the biggest draw. There were tons of schools there and lots of authors signing books and speaking.

I watched a Radio-Canada (that's the french CBC) panel discussion led by the animatrice (that means hostess) Marie-France Bazzo. There were some pretty famous Québecois authors there, including Michel Tremblay. His plays and books are the first to incorporate the rich lower-middle class culture and slang (le joual) of Québec in the early '60s. His "Les Vues Animées" about his childhood relationship with movies is the first book I read in French and it was great. I came to the discussion as he was saying he's reading a lot of fantasy these days because he loves the way they have an internal consistency that allows you to believe the amazing things in that world. That was pretty interesting to hear! Sort of surprised me, because his reputation is as someone who really represented the reality of Québec in literature. It was a very animated and intelligent discussion and there was standing room only.

One of my stronger literary interests is crime. I know that it is a genre appreciated in France and in Québec and I had a suspicion that there are quite a few decent Québecois mystery and detective authors. My suspicions were confirmed when I ran into the Alire (that means "to read") booth. They have been serializing a book by Jean-Jaques Pelletier in Le Journal (one of two broadsheets in Montréal) called L'Argent du Monde. First of all, that is extremely cool to me that they are serializing a book at all in the newspaper. I love the idea of serials; the expectation of continued narration, the sense that the story exists outside of you and will thus never end. I recognized the cover design of that book and was drawn immediately to their booth.

I ended up having a half-hour conversation with one of the publishing house's employees. His name was Vincent and was extremely friendly and clearly passionate about the books they were selling. Alire is one of the larger publishers of science-fiction, fantasy, crime and espionage books in Québec and almost all of their authors are French-Canadian. The english-speaking writers who are translated are all Canadian. I was impressed with that. But even more impressed that they put out quarterly journals of short stories by new and established authors in the genres of sci-fi & fantasy (Solaris) and crime (Alibis) and they sell!

There are a few stragglers in the english market of these genre journals, but they are barely hanging on. Back in the heydays of the '50s and '60s, those monthly magazines was where writers "gagneaient leur croute" (made their bread and butter, literally, earned their crust) and new writers got a start. I found it very inspiring that this opportunity still existed in Québec. This is a lot of what Vincent and I talked about. He explained to me that because most of the english publishers focused all their marketing efforts in english Canada and the U.S., Québec was in a bit of a commercial vacuum. On top of that, the people here really like to read books that take place in their milieu. Jean-Jacques Pelletier, for instance, is hugely popular. Vincent said, "Il est un locomotif. Ses romans sont commes let petits pains chauds." [he's a locomotive. His books are like hot little loaves of bread, meaning, as he explained to me when I asked him, that people couldn't wait to eat them.] His books are about corporate espionage and international intrigue, but they are all based in Québec. There are tons of characters and there's action in all the global hotspots, but the foundation is back here in Québec!

I ended up buying Le Rouge Idéal, a mystery by Jacques Côté that Vincent recommended. It's about a cop in Québec City in 1979 hunting down a killer. "un tueur fou est en liberté dans la ville et tout porte à croire qu'il est engagé dans une terrible spirale de violence!" [a mad killer is loose in the city and [all are ready? see how tough french is!] to believe that he is engaged in a terrible spiral of violence!] Sounds pretty good to me, but pretty standard. I trusted Vincent's judgement after hearing some of the books he read and he claimed it was really well-received. I'll let you know when I finish it.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

La Francisation

I've been taking french since I got here. The reason I gave this post the generic title above is because I'm not sure about the name of the program or the part of the government that sponsors it. It's held in schools all over the city and appears to be under the banner of the Commision Scolaire de Montréal, but that is the body that governs all the public schools here. Each building seems to have it's own schedule for signing up and availability, but they all have a consistent curriculum and advancement structure.

You can call one phone number and they will tell you all the locations near you where the programs are offered. But they don't actually know when registration is or what hours each school is offering. You have to go to each one (or phone them; an intimidating task if you're french is iffy) and find out.

In order to sign up, you must bring proof of your Canadian citizenship. A passport will not suffice. You need to bring your birth certificate, or if you are an immigrant, whatever document provides that proof. Because I was born in the states, I had to bring this card that I got as a child that is proof of Canadian citizen born abroad (god bless Canada). They went and took out this huge binder filled with photocopies of all the appropriate pieces of ID. After some sweating on my part, they found mine and I was accepted. These kind of people are extremely rigid. Even if I was Dr. Norman Bethune, without the correct piece of paper, they wouldn't have let me register.

There are 6 levels in the program and 2 written levels after that. Each level lasts 12 weeks, 20 hours per week. When I started, you had to complete level 6 in order to receive your certificate of francisation. At some point, since the summer, it was lowered to level 5. Why, I don't know. This information was unceremoniously relayed to us in the middle of level 6. The certification is nominal anyways. It's nice to be able to show it on a CV, but people will be able to tell your level of language pretty quickly by speaking with you and completing level 6 is definitely not fluency. The program costs $40 per semester, plus $5-7 per level for paper costs. In some cases, if you are unemployed, you can apply to Emploi-Québec for $125 a week in living money. Since it's so inexpensive, and since most of the people in the program really want and need to learn french, they tend to take the courses for as long as they can, whether they have received their certification or not.

The classes are held in the mornings (8:30 to 12:50) and the evenings (6:00 to 10:00). I'm told the evening classes are tough because it's for people who are working full time and they tend to be pretty exhausted. I've had 4 different teachers. Three were pure laine ("pure wool" means 100% Québecoise) and one was from Haiti originally. All were rigorous and effective teachers. The classes are dynamic and varied, so that you have many activities throughout the day. You have a grammar lesson for an hour, then you read, then you get together in groups and work on a presentation, then you do grammar exercises. I am a very antsy person and can't stand meetings and sitting in the same place for a long period of time (unless I have the internet in front of me). I was rarely bored in any of my classes.

All the teachers come from that french mold of being very severe and believing deeply, with all their heart, in the importance of speaking french properly. They will make distinctions between what is spoken, written and what is truly part of the Joual. They love their language and culture of Québec, but they think that grammatically correct french is really what everyone should learn, speak and write. They take it seriously. It's kind of funny to see the severe look they have when someone brings up a usage they heard on the street. For instance, Québecers drop the "ne" in the negative here all the time. "Je n'ai pas" becomes "J'ai pas," "je ne suis pas" becomes "shuis pas," etc. A student brought that up when I was in level 5 and the teacher acknowledged it and said it was okay for those who "trainent dans la rue" (learn in the street) but if we wanted to learn to speak like that we should go out there right now.

The students are almost entirely immigrants to Canada. In the school I was at before I finished level 6, there was one young woman from Toronto who was Canadian and an anglophone and came to Montréal because they had way more styles of belly-dancing education here than in Toronto. Other than her, the only other non-new Canadian was a guy from Edmonton. He was of Pakistani descent and studying to be an Imam. I'm guessing that there were about 200 students in that particular school. The rest were from all over the world. The majority are latinos, especially Mexicans. There are also quite a few people from Southeast Asia, mainly Vietnam. The other countries represented by more than a single individual are Romania, Turkey, Morocco and China. There was one guy from the Netherlands.

Everybody is really positive. Sitting in a classroom full of all new immigrants, many of whom have families, professions, whole lives behind them, is a good feeling. They are very positive and motivated to learn the language. There are some younger people who don't make it to class consistently, but most people are pretty focused. You really get the feeling (and hear this from them) that they are grateful that they are in Canada and appreciate the opportunity they are given. Their relationship with Canada and Montréal is obviously complex, but that's for another post. The biggest complaint is generally the winter and that's coming from people who lived in South America, so it's very understandable.

Everyone is very civilized and friendly and you make friends quickly. After you get to know people, you begin to hear about their stories and many of them are incredible. There was an older guy in my class from Salvador. Quite genial and kind of suave. He always dressed nicely, had a thick head of grey hair slicked back and wore gold rimmed glasses. He also had the deep, lined tan and thick hands of someone who has worked hard outside his whole life. I can't remember what started it, but he told the class about how he ran a small farm store in Salvador, selling seeds and equipment to the farmers in the region. He gave a lot of stuff on credit and his store became a sort of gathering point for the community. He was encouraged to run for some elected position in his region and before he even decided, soldiers came to his door one night and barged into his house and said they wanted to "interview" him about his candidacy. He didn't go into much detail, but that kind of thing continued and he and his family eventually had to flee. That particular teacher didn't like the discussion to get too political so she moved us right along. But I was thinking, damn this is the same guy who made a presentation to the class in halting french about healthy eating the other day and joked with me about how he went into a coffee shop and the servers were nude. That dude has lived a life! I know that I tend to wax patriotic too often, but it did make me feel proud to be a Canadian.

Another interesting thing that happens is that a lot of the other students have children. Well these kids are obviously learning french way faster than we are and the poor parents have to go home and get scolded by their children about their accents, poor grammar, etc. "At least I can still help them with their math," one father told me. They are producing a new wave of bilingual and maybe trilingual Canadians who in some small way will help weave the color of this country.

How's my french? I passed level 6 with 85% and am now in the written level 1A. I can now read, though slowly and with gaps. This is huge for me as it opens up a world of books, comics and periodicals that I've always been curious about. I can speak fairly well, though I need a lot more practice. My listening comprehension varies widely. I can understand most of news and talk shows on TV but can barely understand the other students in my kung fu class when they are just joshing around. I can write competently, but am a chasm away from the understanding that allows one to write the fluid, rich and nuanced french that I'm starting to love.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Remembrance Day

I have really had trouble finding a poppy pin today! I find this very discouraging. I live in the Plateau, which is considered a very french district. My school is out in Villeray which is pretty french as well (farther east and north) but also houses a lot of new immigrants. Today, I saw one person wearing a poppy.

I understand that the relationship between Quebec and the two wars is complicated. Canadian students learn about the two Conscription Crises of 1917 and 1944 where there were riots in Montréal and Quebec City. The situation was more extreme during WWI and in both cases, much of western Canada was also against conscription. But today many anglos feel that the french didn't do their fair share to contribute to the war effort. This isn't true as many french-Canadians fought and died in both wars. On the other hand, French-Canadians felt a great deal of resentment about the conscription laws, feeling that they were being forced to fight for an english cause while being treated as second-class citizens at home.

That is history and much of it is still with us today. But to continue to mix the sacrifices of Canadian soldiers with lingering resentments (and the current political situation) strikes me as dishonorable. As I have stressed here many times, the french have a lot to be resentful about and it's important not to forget the pressure of their situation. But when I see the ignorance (and even willful ignorance in some cases) about the role that soldiers have played in the formation of this nation, I lose sympathy with their cause. How can the same government that mandates "Je me souviens" on every license plate not promote Remembrance Day? How come there isn't anybody giving out poppies at the Métro here? Why isn't Canada's role in the two great wars explained to immigrants learning french at the government-sponsored programs here?

I have two strong memories about Remembrance Day. My high school was very British and almost four entire classes went overseas in World War I, most of whom were killed. We have an even longer list of students who died in World War II. For Remembrance Day, we would all march to the chapel to the moving sound of bagpipes. There, every name was read aloud. We also had readings and later, in class, discussions about the war. The notion that these men were almost our age was emphasized.

In 7th grade, in my elementary school, a box was passed around the class and kids put change that their parents had given them. Mr. Bergland explained it like this, "There are a lot of retired soldiers, they don't have a lot of money and some of what you donate can help them so they have some change in their pocket when they may need it." He jingles his change in his pocket as he told it. It was so humble but made so much sense to me at the time. Somehow, it imparted a real respect and made me rethink the way I saw the old guys who used to hang out at the Legion.

So I guess Remembrance day is an emotional and sentimental day for me due to my own cultural upbringing. Seeing the people here not treat it with respect does anger me. I guess I'm starting to see a certain selfishness in French-Canadians, an excess of resentment that is allowed to excuse other faults. I think it is not becoming, especially from a society who has suffered already from the ignorance of others.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004


A friend of mine is in the Master's degree program at Concordia in Print. She's working on street art, graffitti, things like that. One of her projects is to put posters all over town and see how what happens to them. She's interested in how the physical and human elements of the city interact with public art like that.

The poster she has been putting up this last week is a reaction to Bush's victory in the U.S. election. It says "EAT ME" in large red letters on top of an angry (and quite striking) graphic. She's a talented artist, though I question her conceptual approach at times. Anyways, she was putting up some of these posters just off of St. Laurent and a middle-aged man approached her. He spoke to her harshly in french. She could understand him enough to know that he was having a problem with the english words on her sign.

She's from Vancouver and has only lived in Montreal since the beginning of the semester a couple months ago and then for about a year before that. She had never heard of Bill 101 (the infamous Québec law that mandated that all signs had to be in French and that any english had to be in a significantly smaller size; there are language police who go around with rulers enforcing this law). She took Level 1 of the same government french program that I'm currently taking (as a matter of fact, she's the one who told me about the program) and has just started level 2. Her french is not great, but she's really making an effort, going to class 4 hours a night after a full day at school.

She argued with this guy that her poster had nothing to do with language. That it was a political protest against the Bush government. They ended up having a long conversation (that I think she really didn't want to have). He lightened up a bit when she told him she was taking french. He did, though, complain about all these students coming to Montréal, enjoying the culture and the life without having any idea of the traditions, history and struggle behind it.

Though cranky (and possibly perverted—she's fairly attractive) men complaining about language issues is annoying, I understand his position and kind of agree with him. There are some cranky Québecois around, especially older men, and their resentment, though perhaps well-founded, is not very helpful. But there are a lot of young anglos here who come to go to school. And they realy are amazingly ignorant. It's a truism that college students are ignorant (and think of themselves as well-informed), so you can give them some leeway. But it's the lack of will that I think really infuriates a lot of francophones. They speak only english, stay west of St. Laurent and drink Molson or worse Heinekin.

The issue of language is very high on most francophones minds here, I believe. I have another friend who took her French-Canadian boyfriend to her Y downtown. He was quite angry that in the changing room, it was all english. You can't be putting a political poster up without addressing it. It'd be like making some statement about gay marriage in a native reserve. It's offensive to the people here because it's ignoring a political fight that they have been waging for centuries, while taking a political position.

On the other hand, if you are unaware of the depth of history and feeling that the Québecois have, then it seems like they are just really sensitive and picky. But that's always that way the one with power feels. It's very similar to the feelings most Canadians have about the states. We're hyper-sensitive to their every move and when we complain, they are surprised and indignant. If you're going to come to Québec, you really should treat the language issue with weight and respect.

This posting is not necessarily directed at anglos from Montréal, because they have their own brand of resentment and can make a case for having been badly treated themselves. It's more for the happy-go-lucky Canadians from the west who have no idea what their getting into out here!

Friday, November 05, 2004

de la Bière

The beer situation in Québec is awesome. It's plentiful, cheap and good. And people drink a lot of it.

First of all, there are a bunch of regional brewers who make quality beer that is sold at domestic prices. Belle Gueule, Griffon, Tremblay, Boréale to name the more popular ones. Each make a rousse (a darker ale), a blonde (a lager) and now a blanche (some wheat type beer, I guess; good for summer). There is also of course Unibroue, but they are more expensive so usually bought as a special treat. These local brews can be found in any bar for the same price as a Molson or Labatt's and they are much better quality and richer in taste. It's so nice to be able to go to a normal bar, buy a pitcher of locally produced beer that tastes really good and spend only $13.

I generally get the Boréale Rousse. It has a cool polar bear on its label. Boréale means northern hemisphere (as in aurora borealis) and I guess it is supposed to suggest icey-cold freshness or something like that. I also order Boréale because I have trouble saying Belle Gueule. That "Gueule" is a tough one to pronounce properly, with all these things happening at the back of your throat. A Geuele is a snout on an animal, but also means a guy's face. A belle gueule means a good guy or a good-looking guy. It seems to vary. Also, une gueule de bois (a snout of wood) is a hangover. See how cool drinking beer in french is!

What really makes the beer-drinking so kickass here, though, is the government policy on it. It's legal to sell them in corner stores! They have government liquor stores here (SAQ's-Société de l'Alcool de Québec, I think) but they tend to concentrate on wine and spirits. You can buy beer in corner stores and supermarkets. Let me repeat that. You can buy beer in corner stores and supermarkets. I know for you Americans out there, that's not a big deal. But that kind of freedom is something people in the west can't even really imagine (I have no idea how it works in the Maritimes). No rip-off beer-and-wine stores here. Because it's open to competition, the prices are excellent. I'm talking two-fours of good beer for $25-$30 and they often have specials where they go for as low as $21 sometimes. They had a special on Bolduc stubbies (yes, stubbies) for $22 all summer and man a lot of those empties piled up on our back porch.

[A little aside. Corner stores here are called deps. That's short for dépanneur. Dépanner is to repair something and in official french a dépanneur is a repair shop. I don't know how they came to be corner stores, but the word also connotes helping someone out and maybe because they were open later and perhaps gave credit, they got that name. Just a guess. I'll look into it.]

I think that the deps must be surviving on their beer sales. They look pretty rundown, but they are everywhere, unlike in Vancouver where they are slowly becoming exctinct. They devote a lot of space and energy to their beer sales. Most of them have a stack of cases of the ones on sale near the cashier. The first time I went to the dep in my neighbourhood, they had the new Boréale blondes on sale in a big tower. I went to get one, thinking that they'd have to sit in my fridge for a couple of hours before I could drink them. I tried to take one from the stack and the owner told me to get some cold ones from the fridge.

I looked a little confused. I'd already been along the fridge aisle and there were only single beers there, amongst the usual assortment of juices and sodas. "No, no," he said. "You have to go inside the freezer," and then he led me to the last door which didn't have shelves behind it. Instead, you walked into the back, behind the drink shelves, which was basically a big walk-in freezer! And it was cold and stuffed with cases and cases of beer! I mean this was like the bat cave or something. My knees got all trembly. You could just hang out there. I did that laughy/cryey thing for a while and then just hung out there for a while, soaking up the spirituality of the place.

Now, I see that most deps have walk-in freezers. It's just taken for granted here. And guess what, B.C.? Drinking and driving isn't any worse here. People are not killing each other or turning into drunken beer-whores (well, maybe a little) or whatever other irrational fears you temperance fascists in the west believe will happen if you let people have free access to alchohol. And the breweries do a good business.

Unfortunately, the distribution of hard alchohol is just as bad here as everywhere else in Canada. They have those nasty little regulators on every bottle of booze in every bar I've been in so far. And when they don't, they measure it out with a shot glass. The martinis are foul, watery things, like drinking the juice from the little white olive jar. I'm waiting for the ghost of Mordecai Richler to point me to a bar where I can get a decent drink. George Bush or no, Americans do know how to make and drink spirits. It's ironic considering we were the ones who once sold it to them in their time of greatest need. But that rant is for another day and another political movement (for now, please complain about those bottle regulators every chance you can). For the time being, I'll drink the beer here and be very grateful for it.

Sunday, October 24, 2004

La Vie Rurale

I just finished watching La Vie Rurale. This is the Québec version of The Simple Life, the "reality" show with Paris Hilton and Nicole Ritchie, two stupid socialites going to live in middle america. La Vie Rurale is basically the same show, except the two women are from Montréal and they go work on a farm in rural Québec. Québec has a large and succesful entertainment industry. They have tv shows, movies, music and books all produced by French-Canadians for French Canada (though the more succesful artists also do well in France and I assume other francophone countries). Their shows tend to be original. You don't usually see a copy of an existing American show, as is the case with La Vie Rurale.

[Please note that the following analysis is based on my viewing of exactly one episode of each La Vie Rurale and The Simple Life.] The first thing about La Vie Rurale is that the two chicks are way hotter. People argue about Paris Hilton and Nicole Ritchie is so unattractive that wealth can't even help her. Anne-Marie Losique is a local celebrity (and the producer of the show; I think she's a lot smarter than she acts). Her father is the director of one of the bigger film festivals here and I get the sense that the entire family is in and out of the gossip collumns. I don't know who Jacynthe is, but since she seems to have only one name, I have to assume that she is some kind of star. Both are fine examples of the kind of beauty one can see on the streets of Montréal all too often: that deadly combination of physical assets, style and openness with some dash of something unique that I'm still trying to figure out. You can just tell when a woman is French-Canadian and it's usually a good thing.

The second thing I noticed is how good-natured the show is. The family that they are staying with seem really happy and well-adjusted. The mother and father are actually fairly attractive themselves and their daughter is, well, the classic farmer's daughter. They all seem to get along with the two stars. They help the mother prepare her wardrobe for a wedding. The locals all have a relaxed, bemused air about the whole thing. When the two girls spent a day milking the cows, another farmer remarked on how they seem to figure it out pretty quickly and ended up doing a good job. It was impossible to tell whether they did or didn't, but the sense was that they pitched in in the end.

Even the blurb for the show's publicity has a positive tone. The final sentence reads, "Grâce à cette expérience, elles feront un retour aux sources et aux vraies valeurs, si souvent oubliées dans les grandes villes." [Thanks to this experience, they return to basics and true values, so often forgotten in the cities.] The show has none of the meanness in The Simple Life, where the two girls make fun of their hosts and the hosts seem to be a bit resentful. There, there is an air of hostility. I'm stretching a bit here, but I'd argue that this difference is a reflection of the greater respect between the classes in Québec as compared to the States.

The show is on TVA, which, along with TQS, are the two commercial french television stations here. Both definitely work hard to keep the people entertained, to the point of showing (relatively) soft-core porn after eleven on the weeknights. So La Vie Rurale is not in any way intellectually superior to The Simple Life. As a matter of fact, I was met with much scorn by my french teacher when I said I was interested in watching it. There was a long segment where the two vedettes [stars] did nothing but lay on a blanket in their bikinis playing with their little dog. I'll be continuing my research for the near future...

Friday, October 22, 2004

À Mort le Canada!

I have encountered very little negativity towards the english here in Montréal and none directed towards me personally. It's around but very subtle. I'm sure things are different in other parts of the province and in other districts, particularily farther east, of the city.

You do see some graffiti every now and then. It was a bit of a surprise to see the one above. It's part of a long wall of really cool graffiti that divides a bunch of condos from the railroad tracks. There is certainly a lot of low-level antagonism towards the government, but one (at least one in the west) doesn't tend to think of Canada as this evil oppressor for whom one wishes death. I think the typical english canadian response to seeing this might be "oh well that might be taking things a bit far there, eh?"

Even crazier, in the Rosemount district this spring, around the time of the federal election, someone had put a large sheet outside the front of their house with the words "I'd rather be under the rule of the United States than subject to the Canadian Government" or words to that effect. For many Canadians, that would be a fate worse than death! I seriously considered knocking on their door and trying to explain to them how good they had it. My french was definitely not up to it at the time and I didn't want to get locked into the trunk of a car. But I stood outside the house for a few minutes, marvelling at the sentiment. What combination of ignorance and bad experience caused such a level of resentment in someone who had a beautiful house in a beautiful neighbourhood in one of the wealthiest and most comfortable countries in the world?

People will reveal their political positions, though they are rarely aggressive or offensive. My landlord was doing some repairs in the backyard. I went back there to ask him a french question. He happened to be talking to our neigbour to the north (not the one getting smoked out, but another yuppie). My question was "on dit j'habite à Canada ou au Canada?" [Do you say I live in Canada using à or au?]. We had a brief discussion about this (it's "au Canada"), using other examples, like "J'habite à Montréal." Then my neighbour said, "Premier, on habite au Québec alors au Canada" and gave a firm little smile. This translates to "First you live in Quebec, then in Canada" which I took to mean that in her mind the primary political and cultural entity that she inhabited was Québec, that basically she was Queboise before Canadian. And she was suggesting that since I am here in Quebec, I should also think the same way.

I didn't get her gist until I was back in the house because I was still trying to keep all the prepositions straight in my head. But I actually don't agree with her position at all. I'm glad I didn't figure it out quickly enough to say anything because my french is not good enough that I could have done it in a diplomatic way. I do sympathize with her position, but I think it is based on the same emotions that drive someone in Surrey or Windsor to think that French-Canadians get all kinds of special treatment. I think we should be Canadian first, with our regional cultures a very, very close second. They should be important and recognized, but they should not rise above our national consciousness as united Canadians.

Thursday, October 21, 2004

"Le Conducteur qui ne peut pas conduire!"

The title of this post is a reference to the time I first saw the full banality of the french sense of humour. My old bedroom in Berkeley was on the second floor in the back. Our next door neighbors had an apartment building in their backyard. There was a french woman who lived there and one weekend she had her whole family visiting. They came out of the apartment building and the youngest boy, who was maybe 13 or 14 got into the driver's seat of the car. The family patriarch said, "Regardez! Le conducteur qui ne peut pas conduire!" [Look! The driver who doesn't know how to drive!] And the whole family just started busting up. My sister and I were upstairs and saw and heard the whole thing. I mean they really thought that was hilarious. They couldn't get into the car for like 2 minutes they were all laughing so hard.

Anyways, this post isn't about french humour, but about drivers in Montréal. They are insane! It's funny, because today in class the teacher asked us how we found the people of Québec. She's from Haiti originally, and said how she found them so nice. Almost everybody had a story about how nice and hospitable the people here were. And then one guy told a story about how he volunteered to man a blockade during Le Tour de L'ile (a bike ride all around the city they have each summer) and two different drivers tried to drive right through it and another got out and yelled at him while even another tried to move the barricade. Then the teacher said "Sauf quand ils sont en voiture!" [Except when they are in a car]. And then everybody had stories about how nasty and aggressive people were when they were driving.

And it's true. I ride my bike alot, and I'm fairly aggressive myself (actually on a mission to destroy all cars). I had my share of encounters in New York, but New Yorkers are downright mellow compared to the montrealaise. I can't tell you how many enraged birds I've gotten from housewives in SUVs. Yesterday somebody spit at me and hit my back fender because I was too far out into the road. And when you're driving it's pretty competitive. They all think they are in the Grand Prix. People just run red lights. Quite regularily. My friend had her brother and wife come in from Calgary. They were an hour late because nobody would let them off the exit ramp! It's really dangerous to be a pedestrian here. I had a guy make a left turn into me on Mt. Royal when I was crossing on a walk sign. He actually came so close that I had to hit his hood with both my hands and bounce back. I was getting ready to whip open his door and slam his head into it when he raised both hands and pointed to his head with a look of "I'm so crazed I didn't even see you." I really look both ways when I cross the street. On the positive side, when you get in a cab, they race. That can be quite fun. Not like those neutered labradors they call taxis in New York.

So as an amendment to my last post on the gentle nature of the Québecois people, please note that they are the opposite behind the wheel of their car. I have no explanation for this except that maybe it has something to do with France. I should note, however, that this aggressive behaviour seems to cross language barriers; the anglos are just as bad.

Les Québecois sont vraiment gentils!

French-Canadians are really nice. I know that some people consider that to be not such a compliment, but I don't mean it in a "damning with faint praise" way. Niceness is a fundamental part of their bearing and it permeates every level of society. My mom's cousin, who is a jewish anglo born and raised in Montréal likes to point out that they "had a ten-year revolution and only two people were killed!"

I saw two things when I first came here that demonstrated the caring and gentle nature of the Quebecois. The first was when my girlfriend and I were walking up St. Laurent, just above René-levesque. This is a sort of seedy section of town, on the way to the corner of St. Laurent and St. Catherines, where there are prostitutes, drug-dealers, punkers squeegy kids, etc. I mean this isn't Hastings and Main or anything, but it's definitely got the lower side of Canadian society.

There was a homeless guy (sans-abri) passed out on the sidewalk. He was old, with a white beard, the mahogany-tanned ankles and neck of someone who has been outside for a long time. He also had a kind of nice backpack with lots of little acoutrements hanging off it, including a plastic mug, and a nice penknife. He was fairly well equipped. As I was approaching him, two teenage boys came towards him from the other side of the street. They were grinning and pointing at him. They looked to be about 14 or 15, dressed moderately street. I was getting all geared up for a confrontation, worried about protecting some passed out guy with my girlfriend there. I was coming from NYC where interacting with anyone poor is generally avoided.

The kid said in french, "look at that nice knife" and then leaned torwards the guy. "Monsieur? Monsieur?" He gently shook the old man on the shoulder. "Ca va? Monsieur?" He had a look of genuine concern on his face. We kept moving and the two boys were still hovering over the old man, peering into his face and leaving his stuff alone.

A couple weeks later, we were on the bus. There was a woman seated behind the bus driver where he couldn't see her. She was clearly in a bad way. Her hair was a tangled mess, her clothes were filthy and she was mumbling and shouting incomprehensibly every now and then. She revealed an almost empty big bottle of Black Label (that's a cheap beer that makes a powerful 40 ouncer). I was watching her antics with the bemused and cynical air of the long-time city dweller, feeling a bit superior to the nervous people around her.

We took the bus to the end of the line. There's a metro station there, with people waiting for other buses. There was also a gang of hip-hop'd out teenagers, with bikes and skateboards. Everybody started to get off the bus except the woman. The bus driver gruffly ordered her off the bus, but she wouldn't go. A young man who'd been on the bus walked up to her. He was dressed in normal jeans and a yellow rain shell. He looked like a Canadian university student. He crouched by the woman and spoke with her gently. He then stepped outside the bus and called someone on his cell phone. He came back on the bus and helped her off, putting her on one of the benches at the bus stop.

Soon, an ambulance pulled up and two EMT workers came, sat and talked with the woman and took her away. While this all went on, the group of kids were watching and commenting. After, and I don't know how this happened, the kids all ended up gathering around the guy in the yellow jacket while he explained to them that she clearly had an addiction to alchohol and who could say what terrible things had happened to her to put her in this position but that it was best that she could go somewhere where she could remain safe and maybe get some help. I couldn't believe it. But I swear to god this really happened. I thought I had been pretty tough on that bus, not being worried about the woman, but that guy in the yellow jacket was truly the coolest. I felt pretty proud being Canadian at that moment. And felt that maybe one day I could have the balls and the selflessness and the sympathy to really give someone a hand in public.

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

La Système Scolaire Québecoise

A couple of weeks ago, the Conseillière de la formation scolaire came to our class to give us a talk about the education system in Québec. I don't know what that fancy title translates into, but she is the person who advises students on their education and training: which schools to apply for, what materials and prerequisites are needed, things like that. She's quite knowledgeable and helpful. I had already met with her and she helped me with my C.V. and cover letter as well as giving me a long list of community centres where I might be able to apply for work.

A lot of immigrants come to Canada with certain levels of education and training. They usually need to augment their training with some official Canadian education. In many cases, this is just a case of snobbery, fear and greed. Many of the immigrants come from rigorous education and backgrounds in their fields. Our professional organizations just refuse to recognize them. That's why you have a lot of Indian architects driving cabs and venezuelan engineers working in restaurants. Fortunately, in Québec at least, a great deal of their education is subsidized. It still costs them in time to "update" their training (and lost wages during that time), but they at least have access and won't go into debt. I tell you this to explain why the Conseillière came to talk to our class.

Here's how the school system works, according to the Conseillière:

Primary school is the first 6 years of school. I don't know if they have kindgarten.

Secondary is the next 5 years. Students in Québec stay in high school a year less than students in the States or Western Canada. When you graduate, you receive a DES (Diplome des études secondaire)

After Secondary school, is where it gets interesting. If you are inclined to go to work right away, you can go to un école de formation professionelle. This is a trades school, as we know it. There is an extensive network of these schools here, with studies from computer repair to baking to woodworking and everything in between. The programs usually last from 6 months to a year with a period of apprenticeship afterwards. Employment is quite controlled here and you usually need a diploma from a trade school in order to get a job in one of those fields. The courses are quite cheap, ranging from $100 to $400 for the entire thing and judging by the competence and skill of at least the construction workers I've seen here I'd say fairly well taught.

If you want to continue your education, you go on to a CEGEP. These are sort of like junior colleges, except that they are required if you want to go to university and they offer a range of different degrees, depending on what you want to do. The most common degrees are the DEC's. There is a two year DEC which is what you take if you want to go on to university. You take a lot of general humanities and science courses, leaning towards whatever you may major in in university. The three-year DEC is more of a professiona degree, usually leading to a job upon graduation. Police officers, computer programmers, lab technicians, nurses all take the 3-year degree.

Finally, there is a shorter AEC which lasts from 6 months to 1 year and is used to specialize in something particular from another field or is often the accelerated courses for immigrants who already have a degreee in a given field. A lot of professionals get AEC's in a particular aspect of their job as continuing education.

At the higher levels, the university system is the same as we know it in the west and the states, with bachelor's, master's, phd's and all the elitism and atavistic hierarchies that go along with those things.

What I found exciting about this system is the number of options that are open to young people. They are quite uptight about certification and training here, so it's tough to get a job in a field without getting the proper training. On the other hand, the training is readily available and encouraged. There are numerous government organizations and NGO's that work just to guide students and help them find what they want. There are many schools as well. There also doesn't seem to be the same snobbery around education or the same divide. Part of it is that people are better educated generally, so you find well-read, politically astute people at every profession. But it also seems that the culture and the government associates a level of pride with any kind of work. The government employees who do all the manual labor, garbage workers, parks employees, street cleaners, etc. are literally called blue collars (les cols bleus) and they wear shirts exclaiming their pride in what they do. There is also a rich tradition of artisanship and crafts here. Many artists come from a trades background and use those skills in their work. There is a sculptor who lives down the block from me who used to be a carpenter and now works with a lot of concrete and wood. Craftsmen are treated with a lot of respect.

It's not heaven here, however, and there are certainly unhappy and unemployed people. But again, you get a sense that the government and the society as a whole, is basically in agreement that educational opportunity is crucial to life and they really push it. I find it incredibly inspiring. I was very fortunate in my own education. I went to a very rigorous private high school and I was taught well. But when I got out, my only options seemed to me at the time to be continuing on in college or just get a job. Among my friends, it seemed that those of the middle class and above went to college and those below didn't. And of those who didn't, few of them got any other kind of education. They either went into the service industry or some kind of resource work, like tree-planting, logging or construction. It basically reinforced and continued existing class divisions. What would they have done if they had many options of 1-3 year programs where the training was really practical and they had a good chance of finding work when they were done? I myself may have not gone on to my history degree had I been presented with those kinds of options.

Action de Grâce

For you Americans out there, Thanksgiving in Canada takes place in early October. In Western Canada (and I always assumed the rest of the country), it's not as huge a deal as in the states, but it's definitely a real holiday. It's a bank and work holiday, people travel for the long weekend and families get together and have a big meal with turkey or sometimes goose.

Here in Québec, it's still an official holiday (Le jour d'action de grâce, but the French-Canadians don't really seem to celebrate it. My first sense of this was when my roommate went up and down Mont-Royal, which has several large supermarkets, unable to find either pumpkin pie or canned pumpkin. He thought he was in an episode of the twilight zone ("I think that may be an indication of culture shock," I said). It's weird, because there are pumpkins everywhere. They are for sale in all the supermarkets, they have giant ones in the massive outdoor Marchée Jean-Talon and people put them on their porches, along with ears of dried corn, mini straw bales and other seasonal decorations.

I asked around after that, just about the pumpkin pie. Some people had never even heard of pumpkin pie. My priest-in-training friend, who comes from outside Ottawa said "Tarte de croustille? Ca ce n'est pas bon. On a servi tare au sucre, bien sur!" [pumpkin pie? That doesn't sound good. We had sugar pie, of course.] Those who had heard of it said, and this I find really interesting, that it was probably an American tradition. I heard this from three different people. I can tell you that Western Canadians do not think of the way they celebrate Thanksgiving as american at all. I got the same response when asking about Halloween. They celebrate it here and the kids come around, but they don't say "Trick or Treat" in french. They just ask for a little gift or offerings, very politely of course. When I said that in the west, we say Trick or Treat, I got the same response, that it was probably borrowed from traditions in the U.S.

I don't know where pumpkin pie or trick or treat came from. It could well have originated in the States, or at least elements of those cultural behaviours made their way through the U.S. before coming to Western Canada. But I think most Canadians consider them a fundamental part of their own culture. It's interesting that French-Canadians should see them as being fundamentally American and therefore non-Canadian. I think it's an example of their cultural ignorance (that sounds much more negative than I mean it) towards Western Canada. But it fits in with their general sense of being surrounded by a relentless wave of generic english culture. I'm sure that those French-Canadians who've lived in the west long enough to celebrate some Thanksgivings would see that though very similar to the American holiday, it is also a holiday that is very Canadian.

For one, it is significantly less commercial. All the pilgrims and indians and all that historical stuff, comes through American television, which we barely got in the days before cable and still most Canadians watch at a remove. The watching of a pro football game happens much more rarely and nobody watches the college games, which is a big deal in the states. And the size of gatherings are much smaller, tending to be immediate family with a few grandparents or an aunt and uncle with a couple cousins. In the US, it's a big deal, with quite large parties and often lots of friends as well. I know it doesn't sound like much, but when you're a Canadian and you come to an American thanksgiving party, it seems pretty exciting and important but it also lacks the calm intimacy the ones you're used to.

Monday, October 18, 2004

Mont-Royal Hot Dog

I spotted this place the first time I walked by it. It had the right look, but after years of disapointing diners in New York, I didn't get my hopes up. When my Significant Other found an apartment three blocks from it, I thought that I'd at least have to check it out.

It's an old school diner on Mont-Royal and Boyer. It has a counter with a grill behind it when you first walk in. I think the guys who run it are anglo. They definitely speak both english and french but they tend to speak english more. All the waitstaff are french, mostly women, representing the best range of diner service. There's the ones who aren't middle-aged yet, but already have a warm, matronly air who make you feel really good about your order. There's the young, kind of hot ones that you seriously contemplate hitting on, but you know that Johnny their badass boyfriend with the car would probably stomp you and then there's the really old ones who are gruff and tough but you still feel a teeny bit of love there. And of course the guys at the counter. I've never been very good at being cool, so I don't try to often. But with these guys, man, I feel compelled to play it real tough and straight. You can't fool around, but you've still got to show respect for their craft. There's the one little dude with his shirt opened to the third button and his salt and pepper chest hairs showing. He's like 5' 2" and you know he's pleased a lot of ladies. And then the darker, joking guy who gets frustrated really quickly if you're not sure about your order. He holds the spatula like he's ready to chop off your fingers with it. I definitely rehearse before going to the counter.

Their burger kicks ass. The meat is good and the bun is big and flat. You should get it "all-dressed" which means chopped lettuce pickles and some other stuff. I think that "all-dressed" is a french word. You pronounce it like it was french. The fries are good, but not my favorite. They are a bit too potatoe-y and soft for my liking, but the flavor is great (I prefer crispy). You get a trio, which is a sandwich, fries and a breuvage for 5-7 bucks depending on the sandwich. The burger trio is $4.85 before tax. But I still remember the day I went in there and only ordered a burger and the bill came back and it was $3.20. I almost wept.

The other thing is that their smoked meat sandwich is really good. I don't know where they get their meat, but it competes with Schwartz's as far as I'm concerned. I love Schwartz's. If I ever get the desire to commit suicide, I may just go to Schwartz's and eat sandwich after sandwich until I explode. But the Mont-Royal Hot Dog smoked meat sandwich is no joke. They use the right bread, slap some mustard on there and pile the meat on real thick.

My new logement is even closer to Mont-Royal Hot Dog than my girlfriend's! It's almost too close. I went a bit crazy for the first week, so now I've pulled back and am rationing visits for when the time is right. There is a small counter (different from the pick-up counter) of five seats in the smoking section that I like to sit at and read the paper. They always have copies of the Journal (the Montréal tabloid) there. Once, my girlfriends next door neighbour, un pure laine (pure wool, true Québecois), who rides a giant touring bike on the weekends and works repairing high-tension lines, saw me there and shook my hand. He's a bit of a regular (well I've seen him there two other times) so I think that got me some props among the staff.

It's awesome for people-watching as well. A classic Québec couple, the big-bellied, overly-tanned guy with the pink acapulco tank top and gold chains and his overly-skinny girlfriend, both smoking. Right next to them, an elegant older woman, hair pulled back in a tight bun spoon poised over the crown of whip cream on a bowl of green jello. Oh man, I'm starting to get hungry. Too bad my girlfriend and I got two trios from there last night!

The Mellow/Uptight Contradiction

One of the first things I noticed about Montréal is how mellow everything is when it comes to trespassing. There is a wide train line that is the border between the Plateau and Rosemount. On the north (Rosemount) side of it, there is a bike path that's quite cool. It runs behind some factories and the dump and old incinerator. The train tracks are next to you on the other side of a chain link fence. There are signs on the fence that say private property, trespass forbidden and punishable by law blah blah all the crap that train yards and tracks always have. But right after that there is a huge hole in the fence and someone had put down a pallett as makeshift steps. I really wanted to go in but thought I'd wait until I cased out the area a bit more, got a lay of the land and a sense of how things were done here.

Well I got a sense pretty quickly when I passed a woman walking her dog along the train tracks. And then a little later an older guy with his two dogs. And I saw numerous other people go through the holes in the fence just to get to the other side. It turns out these tracks are a vital part of the community here! I found a short cut that allows me to get off the bike path and to a park, allowing me to avoid three busy intersections. For a bonus, I get to pass the Belle Geuele brewery (much more on the beer here later) and sometimes smell the fresh hops a-brewing!

It's the same down at the old grain silos in Vieux Montréal. They are all fenced off, but if you just go around the outside, you can get into these really cool areas where there are ladders leading up to the high walkways. I'm too scared to go up there, but it looks possible. And nobody comes barking or yelling at you (or arresting you), all freaked out that you're on private property. It's incredibly refreshing. It gives you a sense that people and the powers that be here recognize when something is practical and useful that there is no need to apply all kinds of arbitrary rules restricting it's access. I have seen this with many things in Quebec.

On the other hand, there is also a great deal of bizarre and arbitrary formality. The biggest one I've encountered is that you have to have an appointment to open a bank account! There is some officious secretary at the entrance to the bank. I tried at 3 different banks. Don't they want me to open an account? Do I have to bring my resume next time? Needless to say, I'm keeping my BC credit union account and probably going to go to Royal Bank or something. Maybe there is some reason for this that I don't know about, but it seems more an inheritance from France, Europe where status is still really important to people.

And signing up for anything is always a big hassle with so much excessive paperwork and waiting. I appreciate that the government does a lot for the people here, but do they have to keep such detailed track of it! My french course (which is incredible) requires that I sign 5 different pieces of paper for each two month session. I don't even know what any of them are, but I feel like I'm selling my property to the railway or something. But everyone is generally so nice about the whole process, that it doesn't make me as insane as the same kind of thing in the states or the west does.

It's just weird how mellow they are about some things and so totally uptight about others.

La Poêle et la Bois de foyer

I live in the Plateau. This is the hip french residential neighbourhood a little ways northeast of downtown. I'm told that it once was a lower-middle class place and even a bit down and out in parts, with pawn shops and things like that. It is clearly in the middle (or maybe the end) of a real estate boom. There has been tons of interior renovation and still more going on every day in the blocks around my house. Fortunately, they are not actually tearing the homes down, so the streets, which are beautiful and tree-lined, are keeping their character, even if the insides of the homes are losing theirs.

My housemate (colocataire) is an anglophone from Ontario. A good guy and a good coloc, but I wish he only spoke french. It would be such good practice! He lives in a converted garage in the back. It's quite nice and has a really nice little wood stove (une poêle). He's got electric heat, too, but his insulation isn't that great and he found that he had to keep it cranked all winter. He didn't use the woodstove (he's from Ontario) and seemed a bit reluctant to do so. After some convincing, we fired it up and it works great. There is also a fireplace in the front which I've always wanted and is one of those nice new ones that put out a decent amount of heat. So we split on two cords of wood (two "face" cords, it turns out and now I'm not sure if we got taken, but that's another story) and stacked them up on the back porch.

My coloc had the woodstove going for a couple of days. It's not really that cold yet, but he was drying clothes in his room because the dryer was broken. There was a knock on the door and I answered it. It was our next door neighbor to the south. They are a young couple who just bought the place from the older woman and her three yappy dogs. They did a lot of renovation. They were very friendly when they first moved in, but the guy seemed a bit stand-offish. Anyways, the wife was at our door and asked if she could speak to my colocataire. It was a bit strange, and I was tripping on my french trying to ask her what she wanted. I ended up taking her to the garage where she introduced herself to my coloc who was plastering the hallway.

She asked if he was planning on using his fireplace all winter and if he had another form of heat. It turns out that the smoke was blowing into her upstairs window. The chimney is only 3' high and the garage one story and there is kind of a dead spot so the wind doesn't pick the smoke up. Also, she's pregnant (of which we made a point). We wanted to be accommodating, but we also wanted to run the woodstove. I suggested that we could see if we could get the chimney raised. My roommate said he'd stop using the chimney until then. He did ask her if she'd be keeping the window open in the winter and she said she would. This seems to be either insane or not true because it gets cold here. But the thing that really bothered me was that she really seemed to be thinking we were just going to not use the stove. And then she said, "We don't really need any more air pollution here in the city."

It all ended on a cordial note and she was very polite and apologetic. The landlord (more about him later) came by with the chimney inspectors a couple days later and he's supposed to be coming back in a week or so to put up a higher chimney. It's a bit of a job, actually, because he has to run a supporting cable across to the house. But what annoyed me was my neighbour's appeal to the environment. Chopping down trees and burning them in a stove is definitely bad for the environment, but it's not any worse than the devastation caused by all the dams that create the electric heat that everyone has in their house. But I don't think she really cares about the environment. I think she cares that her new little house in the Plateau have a quaint, hip look and neighbours that are chopping wood and smoking cigarettes on the back porch don't fit in with that image.

I guess what I learned is that even in Quebec there are annoying yuppies.

An Introduction

I got this idea about 6 months too late. I should have been chronicling my experiences here from the first day. I was hoping to organize this journal as the events and thoughts came to me, but because I've already been here for 6 months, I'm going to be catching up on things. So please excuse me if I'm bouncing around a bit at first.

As you can read in my Description, I have some strong and unrealistic ideals about being Canadian. Please note that I believe people should attempt to do these things. Obviously, there are many reasons why people can't learn the other language or don't have a chance to learn what it's like to be in an Inuit in Nunavik. But I think that the attempt and the desire to keep contact with the many worlds within Canada should be the spirit of this country.

I also recognize that having only two official languages does not do justice to the many other cultures that are now as fundamental and important to Canada as the French and English. To be a good Canadian citizen, one must have some understanding of the culture, history and even the language of the Chinese, Punjabi, Italian, Jewish, West Indian, Portuguese, Iranian, Greek, Vietnamese (to name just a few) as well as the many First Nations civilizations and the black communities who've been here for generations.

As you have probably gathered, I like a society that is a mix of cultures. I am lucky to have been born a citizen of a country that has done a pretty good job (relatively speaking) of creating a multicultural society. I think the existence of a culture as large, vibrant and independent as Quebec, and the existence of a second language, supported by the marketplace and the government are incredible, wonderful things. I think we should treat them as precious and important, fundamental to Canada as a nation.

That is a very broad overview of my position. I'll get into these arguments and my positions in more detail in the body of this journal. But I hope to spend more time and energy on the quotidian, practical side of coming to Montréal with high school French and trying to become a part of the community here. I hope you enjoy it!