Wednesday, April 27, 2005

The pernicious influence of the CBC

As all of Canada knows and maybe 6 Americans, we are in the midst of a decent-sized corruption scandal at the leve of the federal government here. The Liberal Party, whose politicians have been running the country for a long time now, gave away a couple hundred million dollars to Quebec advertising and PR firms, a chunk of which was funnelled back to the party so that it would have funds to run it's election. Pretty sleazy, infuriating stuff, without a doubt.

Everybody is angry about it, because it's basically taxpayers money that went to the two of the worst places you'd ever want your money to go, advertising executives and political parties (though now that I think about it, the places where I don't want my money to go make up a very long list and most of my money seems to go there, but that's another topic altogether).

What has surprised me, though, is how quickly the media have started pushing this idea that this sponsorship scandal is now going to ignite another, and this time possibly successful, separatist movement. Every day in the news, it's about how this is the last straw for Quebeckers, how they are so sick of the federal government that this time they are definitely going to vote for separation. Yesterday, Alfonso Galliano, the straight-up lying, sleaziest-mafia-thug-wannabe, who actually was the one handing out the money put forth this notion. And the CBC ran it as their headline! The story was crafted around Galliano's quote (who, by the way, should be in jail in about a year or two) and then all the politicians reactions to it. Every separatist politician responded neutrally, basically implying that anything Galliano said wasn't worth listening to.

I listen almost entirely to the CBC. Watching or listening to any commercial news outlet is not conducive to domestic tranquility chez moi. However, even the CBC is pissing me off these days with this bullshit. They portray Quebeckers as these imbeciles with hair-temper reactions, as if they were all tranquilly happy being part of Canada until all of a sudden! the sponsorship scandal has made them all decide to change their mind! No wonder the rest of Canada considers them to be such a bunch of babies.

I can't speak about the rest of Quebec, but here in Montreal, the reaction is exactly the same as it is in B.C. and I'm sure in the rest of the country. People are disgusted by the corruption, but not surprised. They want good stuff done with their money and they want politicians to address them honestly and directly. I'm sure the die-hard separatists are using this to spur their movement, but I really doubt it's changed anyone's mind.

One of the reasons I left the U.S. was because of the power and pervasiveness of the media and how its citizens clung to their teats, sucking desperately for their daily opinions and personalities. I don't consider Canada to be that much better, but I had hoped at least for some distance and not the kind of fear-mongering and yellow journalism that keeps CNN et al. rich. I grow discouraged.

There is a certain class of Canadians who just keep the CBC on all day. I'm one of those. My friend Ken, also of that class, pointed out when he came to visit how you forget that it's on, until it just becomes a dull buzz in the back of your head. After our third bottle of wine that night, I realized that the radio was on and it was getting in the way of the conversation. I turned it off and Ken reminded me of what he'd pointed out earlier. "What is that noise?" he said, hitting his forehead with the heel of his hand. And then when it's off, "ah yes, quiet. Now we can talk."

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Métropolis Bleu

The Blue Metropolis or Métropolis Bleu is an annual literary event in Montreal and another cool thing I got to attend for free thanks to my school. They arranged a workshop with Naim Kattan and groups of advanced students in various french programs. Naim Kattan, whom I did not know before, is a very well-respected Canadian author. He lives in Québec and writes in French, but his books get translated into many languages and he has all kinds of awards and is on a bunch of boards and committees.

He was chosen to lead this workshop because he himself has made the transition to the french language and milieu. He was born Jewish in Baghdad. He moved to Paris when he was a young man, where he mastered his french and then moved to Québec where he's lived for something like 30 years. He spoke to us about his experiences writing in a second language and transforming himself in his new worlds, issues all relevant to his audience, clearly.

He said that he still often gets asked two question here in Québec, questions that he has grown very tired of. The first is "where do you come from?" and the second is "How do you like it here?" Understand that, though once an immigrant, this is a man who has lived here for decades, has a french-canadian wife, children and grand-children. He has published numerous books in french.

In his view, we have many identities. More, identity is always changing. "L'identité est un mouvement, parce que l'identité fixe est la morte." [Identity is movement, because the fixed identity is death.] He explained how he considered himself to have three distinct births: the first as an Iraqi Jew in Baghdad, which encompassed his family and his childhood; the second as a young man in Paris where he learned about les jeunes filles (big laugh from the audience) and the third as a husband, father, grandfather, writer and part of the community of Québec.

If found this concept to be a very helpful one, as I've been thinking about this a lot. It seems sort of arbitrary and artificial to start choosing expressions, phrases and swear words to use in a second language. I feel like I'm acting or something and it makes me hesitate. When I think about it as growing up like a child into a new identity, it makes me feel less self-conscious about these things. It also makes me feel less defensive about what the hell I'm doing here in the first place! Although, generally, except for those two questions (which I also get all the time), the Québécois haven't given me too much reason to feel defensive.

I did have an interesting conversation with my next-door neighbour later in the week. She is completely bilingual, growing up to a french mom and an english dad in a french part of town. Her pet peeve is constantly being asked by Montrealers where she's from. As I said above, I get this a lot as well. I'm thinking it's the Québec equivalent of the New York "what do you do?" There, work is your source of legitimacy, here it's ethnic background. Québec was a very closed province until the revolution, but the attitude clearly persists. I'm sure it's changing, but I think they need to accelerate the pace a bit.

M. Kattan also told us a very funny little anecdote that was one of the things that made him realize how he was really a different person than he had been. His book Adieu, Babylon, which is about his childhood in Baghdad and his first big success was translated into arabic. When he read it in Arabic, he found that it was way better written than he could have ever done in his mother tongue. He certainly credited the translator, but he also realized that his ability to write in french had outpaced his arabic. He spoke than of the "dangers de déplacement" [the dangers or traps of moving], about how you can get stuck in nostalgia for home, when it is a home that can't possibly exist (see my last post). A good lesson, indeed!

M. Kattan was a cool, old dude, looking really writerly and calm, making the audience laugh a few times. At the end, he hung around and was very friendly. He put on a sweet burgundy beret that could only be pulled off by a french writer of his stature.

Friday, April 22, 2005

The Negativity

Something I'm proud of myself about is that I seem to have mostly overcome the negativity that learning a new language seems to bring up in others. I think a lot of it is because we first started learning this stuff in high school when everything is "stupid" and "gay" and French, being illogical and frustrating, as well as seeming kind of fruity, falls hard into both categories.

I still have brief flashes of frustration, such as today when I said "beaucoup des erreurs" and was corrected mid-sentence by the teacher. Beaucoup is always, always followed only by de, never des and this mistake really seems to drive the teachers wild. It is a simple and consistent rule, except that it's buried in a bazillion other exceptions with de that I still can't figure out. For instance:

Le groupe des étudiants

Une group d'étudiants

Why? Who can say.

Once you've had a few honest french teachers who admit that the language makes no sense, it makes it easier for you to accept it and just get along with learning, memorizing and practicing so you can use the language, which is what you want to do. However, there is a certain group of people, even at this advanced stage of their learning who really can't seem to accept the way things are. And they have been really bugging me.

So I am going to indulge in a bit of negativity myself, just to get it off my chest. These are the arrivants to Canada who spend most of their time complaining about Canada and how poorly it compares to their original country. Please understand that this is a very small minority and most people are quietly grateful for their opportunity and just working hard to take advantage of it. Surprisingly, the ones who complain are almost consistently eastern European. It's bizarre. I've never been there, but from the way they talk, their part of the world is some kind of paradise.

It often seems that practically every other sentence out of their mouth is some kind of complaint. Here are some classics:

"There are no clothing stores for women in Montréal. There's really nobody stylish here. The woman don't know how to dress. In Romania, the women are much more stylish." (this from a woman in a denim pantsuit).

"I see the wiring coming out of the houses and I'm shocked. In Slovakia, they would never allow wiring like that. Don't they have inspectors here?"

"The architecture in Montreal is all the same. Everything looks very cheap and shoddy."

"The parents here are very different than in my country. They let their kids do anything. All the children here do drugs and drink all the time. Even in the schools."

"The day cares here are terrible. The other children are dirty and sick all the time. And they feed bad food to my children."

It goes on and on and in the case of parents, you can see a lot of it comes out of anxiety for their children who are growing up in a very different way than they did. But most of them seem to come from some kind of feeling of superiority. It's good to be proud of your upbringing, but have they no sense of cultural relativism? There are many responses to these kinds of statements, the obvious being "so why don't you go back?" Usually, the answer to that is reality and it's often quite sad, so I just stay quiet and nod, occassionaly tring to clear up misconceptions.

I used to go to high school with a guy from Austria who was always crowing about how clean and pastoral Austria was. We used to goad him by saying how the sheep in the fields were androids and the clouds were pollution until he got red in the face and had a spas out. Perhaps it's just a European thing, thinking that everything is better where you're from. I don't know, but it certainly is not a helpful mindset to have when you've emigrated to a new country.

Most of the people in my class are much more reasonable. The comparisons they make between their country of origin and Canada are just that, comparisons, and usually interesting. When they complain, it's usually the same things that Canadians complain about, like the government. And once you hear that, you know they've finally arrived and should consider themselves true citizens.