Friday, December 05, 2008

In the land of the Puppetmaster

Harper's fear-based anti-Bloc strategy and the reaction of many Canadians living outside Quebec (and especially in the west) has demonstrated to me that I've been living in a bit of an over-optimistic bubble for a while now. I had forgotten how stupid, ill-informed and prejudicial some of my fellow anglophones can be. During a national staff meeting at my job, a guy from the Toronto office expressed his concerns about Duceppe being the "Puppetmaster, pulling the strings from behind the scenes." I work for a very lefty organization, with everyone supporting the coalition. I can tell you the people here in the Montreal office were flipping out when they heard that. I was pretty shocked as well.

Let me be clear on my own position first. I am a federalist and a proud Canadian. I believe in a strong central government that actively communicates and responds to the regions. I am also proud of my anglophone culture and heritage and enjoy many aspects of it. I don't really truly feel at home anywhere, but the closest I come to feeling that way is when I'm in a small B.C. town like Golden (and that may strike those of you who know from way back as pretty ironic).

But when I hear the kind of idiotic comments coming from western politicians, media commentators and the public in the west that talk about the Bloc the same way George Bush talks about Al-Qaeda, it makes me furious.

First, let's argue against the position. Yes the Bloc's baseline policy is to separate Québec from the rest of Canada. (Note: this is not the same thing as "tearing apart the federation" as the Conservatives would have it; we would still be a nation, just a smaller one.) However, that is a small part of an overall political platform, one that represents the social, economic and health needs of Quebecers. It is no different from that of any other federal party, except that it is regionalized. Furthermore, with the question of sovereignty of the table for quite a while now, the Bloc has basically ignored questions of separation since the Liberals lost power.

I will give you a concrete example. My office is in Bernard Bigras' riding. He is a Bloc MP. We received his quarterly Parliamentary report yesterday. It is six pages long and the entire thing is dedicated to the Bloc's strategy for a green economic initiative. There are some really interesting ideas there, including strategies for further minimizing Québec's dependence on fossil fuels, abolishing tax incentives for industries that produce them and replacing those incentives with ones to new enterprises promoting new energy technology (I heard some guy called Obama was pursuing policies like this down south). Now you may be stupid enough to not support these kinds of environmental initiatives, but my main point is that nowhere in any of this propaganda is there a single mention of sovereignty or separation. Take a look at the list of issues on the front page of his website. It's not even on the table.

This is what most Quebecers see when they think of their Bloc MP. It's someone who is pushing values they are concerned about in the Parliament. Most of these people consider themselves Quebecers first, whether or not they believe strongly in independence. So when you have perverted (I went to high school with this guy) scumbags like Jason Kenney treating the Bloc as if their only goal in life is to destroy the country, you are basically telling monsieur et madame tout le monde in Québec that their voice is not valid in the Federal government.

And then when that kind of rhetoric whips up the naturally angry (either the stupid poor in the rural areas or the stupid or evil rich in the urban areas) in the west, then you get, from the Quebec perspective, a wave of hate coming from the west. Which does exactly what you'd expect: makes Quebecers feel more isolated and separate from Canada and thus more inclined to want to support a separatist cause.

Which in turn demonstrates exactly how much priority Harper and his neo-con cronies put on national unity versus their social and economic agenda.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

In your face, Obama!

We've just one-upped the U.S. in terms of progressive politics. They may have elected a black man as president, but we currently have a black woman in charge of the future of our nation!

And she is hot!

Sure it won't last long, but since we've lost almost everything else that made our country cooler than the U.S., let's bask in it while it lasts!

Now the big question is will she side with the Cons in their attempt to prorogue the government or will she allow the coalition to take the reins of power?

On the one hand, she has to protect her own future and reputation and she has demonstrated thoughtfulness for most of her career and definitely as Governor-General, so I don't see her doing anything radical. On the other hand, she is a Quebecer (despite the disrespect and even hate with which she is treated here by much of the media and many of the people) and comes from the arts community. I can't imagine she supports much of Harper's neo-con ideology.

The wild card, I think, as usual, is sex. Power is attractive and there has always been some kind of frisson going on between Jean and Harper. Is it possible he has used his Satanic powers to burrow deep into her soul (and her bed chamber) just enough to influence her to side with him?

We'll be watching! Excellent material for a CBC mini-series already.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Why don't you want Quebec to separate?

This question was posed to me by one of my francophone friends: why do anglophones, who seem so angry at Quebec and Bloc, want her to stay in Canada?

It's really an excellent question. Now, she specifically excluded anglophones who live in Quebec and those who appreciate the culture of Quebec (a larger group than one might realize) from the question. In those cases, the answers are clear.

In light of today's coalition of the NDP, Liberals and Bloc to (we hope) bring down Harper's government and the freaked-out comments of the right over on the cbc website (it's amazing, the comments there sound like they came from Fox News; I mean I know we had some right-wing people living here, but I didn't realize they were as paranoid and stupid as their brethren down south), this question kept popping up in my head. A lot of those people are ranting about how this coalition is basically selling out to the Bloc and going to cause the disintegration of Canada.

Let's see. You are completely ignorant of the culture of Quebec. You hate the Bloc with the passion of a thousand suns (a party that represents the wishes of the majority of Quebecers) and everything they stand for. You consider separatists to be traitors. But you want them to stay. Why? Is it because of some vague, nationalistic idea of Canada as a nation? Geographic size? (This one is important to me; if only Russia had truly fallen to pieces, we would be the biggest!) Domination of a people we sort of defeated in a war? Fear for the economy?

I mean why does some guy in the suburbs of Calgary care if Quebec becomes an independent nation?

I'm honestly curious.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Alarm bells and what sets them off

There is another element in the distinction between Quebec and the rest of Canada and that is the general public approach to the involvement of government in our daily lives. There is a lot more of it here and it seems generally accepted. I'm not the best person to make this kind of analysis, because I rally against all bureaucracy, be it government, corporate or personal. Also, I lived half my life in the States where there is a much greater tendency to complain as a citizen and consumer.

Nevertheless, it seems that in Quebec the government asks a lot more of its citizens. And there are laws ensuring that you do what is asked. These laws seem, in principle, to be in direct violation of the individual freedoms I hold precious as a member of a free society. When I question the laws, the people act like I'm a little crazy.

Here is an example. I recently got a notice to renew my health card. Everyone in Quebec has to have a health card. It's probably more important as an identifier of who you are than your driver's license. The requirements for proving your residency are much harder for the health card than the driver's license, for instance.

With the notice was a flyer explaining the Quebec prescription drug plan. Everyone in Quebec must be covered by a prescription drug plan. If your employer doesn't provide you with one, you must indicate this and pay it in your taxes. If you are below a certain income level, you don't have to pay the taxes. Now personally, I think this is a good thing and this isn't the violation of freedom I am going to talk about.

When I called to renew my health card, I also said that I had a prescription drug plan provided by my employer. She started asking me all these questions. Exactly when did I get it? Why do you want to know? I asked. Am I going to be reimbursed for the money I unnecessarily paid in the last two years? She seemed miffed that I would ask such a question. Her answer was that it was the law. Then she started asking me about my conjointe's medical plan. I told her that I am not privy to that information. She said that it was also the law that I reveal how long my conjointe has had a prescription plan. When I kept pushing back on her with more questions, she did say that all of this info was held in the strictest confidence and that other branches of the government did not have access to it.

These kinds of questions struck me as being invasive of my privacy. I know they aren't a big deal and I ended up giving them the data they wanted. It's probably just to get their databases up to date, a motivation with which I am familiar and sympathetic.

It's the tone of the discourse that sets my alarm bells off. The way she just assumed that I would know to give her this info and the way any questions about it are brushed off with "it's the law." This sets my anglophone alarm bells ringing and I think it's the same for the old school anglophone minority here in Quebec. They see the kind of laws that came out of Bill 101, laws that restrict how you can express yourself, laws that go across private property (albeit commercial property) and they get alarmed.

And why do we get alarmed? I think you can take this all the way back to the Protestant/Catholic divide. The British are the champions of the kind of mercantilist liberty, whereas the French, though strong believers in liberty as well, have always been more comfortable with a healthy dose of government intervention. We North American anglophones moved even farther away from the British and the idea of things like nationwide school exams would be unthinkable here.

It's also important to remember that a strong portion of the anglophone minority in Quebec are Jewish. They are a people who will never forget where a few slightly invasive laws can lead.

So once again, trying to bridge the divide, I think it's important for francophones to understand some of the culture behind the aggressive reactions to the Quebec government's attempts to shore up the french culture and language here. It's not just that it's french and different and not ours. It's also the way it is applied. Personally, I am very supportive of the work that has been done in the last 40 years to keep the culture of Quebec strong, but when I hear some of Pauline Marois measures, such as forcing immigrants to sign a paper declaring they will follow the values here, I react strongly. My reaction is one of anger, which comes from fear (which leads to hate, and we all know where that leads). Yes, teach the language and the culture. Spend tons of state money on encouraging immigrants to embrace all that Quebec has to offer and to help it proliferate. But never let it not be a choice for me.

On the other hand, I think us anglophones must understand that there is also a lot of fear in the francophone community. The commercial power of english is so pervasive and subtle. Things in the majority always are. More and more in downtown Montreal one is approached by store employees in english. That sets off alarm bells in many francophones and it is natural for them to look to laws to prevent such a phenomenon from spreading. It seems like the only solution in the short term. As an anglophone here, though locally we are in the minority, we are, strangely, a minority, inside another minority, surrounded by our majority. You shouldn't forget that.

In general, we should all drop our reactive, defensive stances and work positively to encourage the adoption of french among immigrants and the acceptance of all minority groups here in Quebec.

Monday, November 17, 2008


5eme saison pictureOne of the guys was listening to Harmonium on Friday in the office. I had heard about them (they are mentioned in Michel Rabagliati's Paul Has a Summer Job) but never actually listened to them. He lent me the CD. It was the second of their entire three-album oeuvre (plus a fourth live album) called Si on avait besoin d'une cinquième saison ("If we needed a fifth season") and was released in 1975.

I don't fully comprehend the significance of Harmonium in Quebec culture, but it is huge. They were the first band in Quebec to have songs that were longer than 3 minutes and really the only prog rock band to come out of the province. They had a huge following and grew steadily more popular, culminating their career with a world wide tour backing up SuperTramp. They were also closely aligned with the political movements of the René Lévesque era and la Revolution tranquille. I didn't find this confirmed anywhere, but the guy who lent me the CD told me that they were offered big bucks to sing in english and refused.

It's not just that these guys were big in Quebec in the '70s. They are still big! I think most Quebec kids go through a Harmonium phase. The webmaster in our office, who is in her early '20s and is always singing with her headphones on, told me which was her favourite album and sang tunes from some of the songs. She said she listened to it all the time when she was younger. I think Harmonium may be a bit akin to Jim Hendrix or the Doors or other '60s bands that young people keep rediscovering. The difference is that here in Quebec, most of the kids probably discover this stuff at home (although come to think of it, that's where I first heard Reggae music).

So I listened to the album and I apologize to my Quebec friends, but I didn't much enjoy it. I did appreciate it, and I especially appreciated the psychedelic album inside cover art. This album was like really pleasant, layered and professionaly played folk rock. If you are a fan of The Grateful Dead and Fish (or is it Phish?) then you probably will like this album. Personally, I've never understood the connection between LSD and folk music. The first time I heard the Dead, I was contemptuously disappointed. It sounded like bad country to me and I could not understand how so many of my college friends found their music to be psychedelic and mind-blowing. I think the same disconnect is happening here for me with Harmonium.

The difference, though, is that Quebec is a very musical culture. Everybody here sings and they love lyrics and melody and the intertwining of those things. So music that sounds poppy and banal to me can still be fun if you know all the lyrics and can sing it. It's even more powerful if those lyrics and the singing of the song are wrapped up in your childhood and cultural identity.

The third Harmonium album, L'Heptade is about the seven stages of a human life and is supposed to be a lot heavier and darker. I'll give it a whirl and let you know my feelings.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Some good gaffes

I'm no stranger to verbal and social gaffes in english. They are hazards of the opinionated, loudmouth extrovert trade. But they tend to not be due to grammatical or vocabulary errors. In french, however, I'm probably averaging 1.5 errors per sentence. Most are just simple mistakes, probably making the listener unconsciously wince at worst (sometimes bad enough to earn a much-appreciated correction). But every now and then I make a real howler. Here is a good one:

My office is on the third floor and we have a buzzer and intercom phone for people on the front door below to contact us. It's some left over attempt at doing things Toronto style long since abandoned since the front door is never locked. We use it mainly to yell stuff at people smoking on the front porch. However, the handle on the front door sticks and the physically and mentally weak who lack initiative often stand out at the front door and buzz the buzzer. This is annoying to me as anyone with any chi would just push the freaking button on the handle down harder. So one day the buzzer goes off. I pick up the phone (which is in the hallway; where half the organization happened to be having impromptu hallway discussions at the time) and say in a really loud voice:

"La parte est ouverte! Il faut baiser la poignée!"

Now if you know french, you'll be laughing already. In french two s's sounds like the letter s in english. One sounds like the letter z. "Baisser" with an s sound means to lower. "Baiser" with a z sound means to make love to.

Enough said.

The hallway exploded in laughter. It took a long time to die down and this incident is still brought up from time to time.

For the record, I really should have said something like "il faut pousser la poignée". Baisser is like lowering as in volume or from high to low. Everything is so specific in french.

Monday, November 10, 2008

The disappearing cats of the Plateau

There is a story going around the Plateau and Mile End area that somebody is stealing people's cats. It started with signs (in french and english) posted on telephone poles around town saying that cats have been disappearing and a mysterious van has been spotted prowling around the alleys late at night. Last week, the Journal de Montreal had an article on it, saying that the police had opened up a case. There were more details. Someone had spotted a white van with two white males in their 20s and that they operate between midnight and 5 in the morning. There was no actual substantiation of any of this. Recently, a new sign went up, going into the same amount of detail as the article.

Now I own two cats, and I let them out and if you'll let me indulge briefly in some revenge porn, I can tell you that if this thing is actually happening, I would make a significant effort to catch the perpetrators. And if I caught them, I would not waste time with our legal system (which would probably be useless in this case, concerning our pathetically weak animal cruelty laws, especially here in Québec).

But let's leave aside such pleasant fantasies for the time being. I am very skeptical of these reports for several reasons. The whole thing reeks of an urban myth. My main contention is what is the motivation for someone to steal cats? The theory put forth in the Journal article (a tabloid and not too well respected here for its journalistic intregity) is that the perpetrators are drug addicts who are selling the cats to laboratories.

I am quite sure there are laboratories that experiment on cats. But are they in the market for stray cats brought in from a couple of junkies? Perhaps there is some evil middleman who is gathering them throughout the region, but even then, what kind of a control group is that? There are mail order companies that supply animals in bulk to laboratories (kittens included, think about that for a moment; thanks cosmetics industry!). Even if there were labs accepting stray cats, can they be paying enough that it would be worth it for these guys to drive all over the place? How many cats would they have to sell to fill a tank of gas, for instance? And as my lovely fiancée pointed out, wouldn't it be much more productive to just breed cats? You'd probably get a lot more, a lot quicker and a lot less riskier than trying to catch cats in the back alleys of Montreal (though if these are junkies, basic logic doesn't necessarily apply here).

The only other theory we have come up with is Satan worshippers. It's possible that with the resurgence in '80s style, Satanism is now trendy. Mile End is the horrific epicenter of this cultural wave and it is possible some charismatic minion of evil is holding sway over a harder core group of skinny, scarf-wearing hipsters. I can see those idiots getting sucked into something like this because of some intense conversation they had with a dude at a Drawn & Quarterly vernissage. But they are so physically frail (skinny wrists and drooping shoulders, like ironic moustaches, seem to be what is considered attractive masculine features among this set) that I can't see them actually doing the work. Though now that I think about it, driving around the Mile End alleys trying to catch cats might be just within their reach.

I will say that, though there are always a lot of missing cat signs around, they seem to really be on the rise these last couple months. If anyone does have some solid information, I'd love to hear about it. I am serious that if this is really going on, I will act to put a stop to it. Webcams can be set up in the alleys, all the labs that experiment on cats could be investigated and the local junkey population (which starts to disappear as the weather gets cold) interrogated. There are steps to take but they should be based on reality and not alarmist paranoia.

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.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

When it's small, Nationalism can be kind of cool

(note: image from here.)

This post is not very timely, as it was inspired by the fête de St. Jean Baptiste almost two months ago. But I need to get back and track and my thoughts are still relevant.

If you don't know this already, St. Jean Baptiste is a major holiday here, probably the biggest one (though how you measure holiday size, I don't know). It's a provincial (or national, depending on your perspective) that is strongly enforced by the government. There are ads in the paper explaining how your employer must give you the day off. The day not falling on or directly after the weekend caused major consternation this year, with all kinds of scheming to try and get Monday off as well. There are massive concerts in Montreal and especially Quebec City and smaller ones in towns all over the province. It's origin is in an obscure Catholic holiday that they barely even celebrate in France anymore, but it became significant to the colonists of Nouvelle France and grew over time to eventually become the celebration of Québec as a culture and a nation.

Everybody dresses up in blue and the fleur de lys. What struck me was a gang of girls on Mont-Royal wearing sexy, revealing outfits all themed around the Québec flag. They also had little Québec flags painted on their cheeks and arms. What they reminded me of were European football fans during the world cup. I imagine for them, they are proud to be Québécoise, but it's also just fun for them to dress up and celebrate. When a jaded old anglophone (with a Y chromosome) like myself sees that, it suddenly makes me think that nationalism is kind of cool and fun. And this led to a train of thought that gave me an insight as to a point of difference between Quebeckers and the rest of Canada.

In Canada, we tend to grow up with a pretty cynical and skeptical education, especially towards politics. A lot of this comes from the British political tradition as well as from living north of the United States. We pride ourselves on not being all rah-rah patriotic. That kind of behaviour, in our lessons, leads to, at best, the kind of annoying cultural ignorance that marks the worst stereotypical American tourist, or at worst, Nazi Germany. Behind that is a general Protestant resistance to any kind of celebration or pleasure. So for a lot of us, when we see someone vaunting their national pride, our reaction is one of distaste. It puts us off and makes us suspicious.

The Québécois, on the other hand, are brought up being taught a lot of pride in their history and culture. Moreover, as children, their day-to-day culture is full of both popular and social elements that they consume in a natural way (like singing songs at camp or watching TV shows with their friends). Just to give a concrete example, any group of Quebeckers sitting around a campfire will share a large body of songs that they all know the words to and will sing together. During St. Jean Baptiste, entire stadiums will sing along with the group on stage to some favorite classic from the '60s or '70s or even much older. Many of these songs are about Quebec or being Québécois.

So their nationalism is natural to them and mixed up with their normal cultural expressions. What we may see as a potentially frightening political expression is usually much more cultural. A lot of people who celebrate their identity with such enthusiasm couldn't give a shit about whether Québec should be an independent nation or not. They just love who they are and where they come from. And they like to celebrate it.

So when they take a look at anglophone Canada, they see a kind of cultural void. They don't see the quiet pride, the sometimes vehement (and sometimes prejudicial) dislike for the U.S., the small shared things that make us Canadian, the ability to instantly name any Canadian who has made his or her name in the U.S. Sure, we don't have much. But it's important to us and we are aware of it. Those Québécois who have spent time in the west recognize this, just as those anglophones who spend time in Québec recognize that celebrating Québec pride is valuable and important.

The solution is, again, that we need to spend more time together.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

You've got to be @#$% crazy!

I was in Siegel's on Canada Day, picking up some stuff to take to my Aunt's cabin in cottage country in Ontario. Siegel's is an independent grocery store on St. Laurent that has the best deals. It's always a bit chaotic and crowded, but never boring. It caters to the Portuguese community, but everyone shops there.

The manager there is a guy called Murphy (or Murray, it depends) who knows where everything is and its price. He manages the lines (go to him if you aren't sure which one is the fastest) and greets everyone who is coming in. He's an anglophone, old-school Montrealer. He's also a big sports fan, so I've passed a night or two with him in the nearby sports bars. I'd consider him an aquaintance and we always have a brief chat when I go there.

This summer, due to work, family and vacation commitments, I am going to be out of Montreal for over half of the time. Though most of these trips are going to be enjoyable or good for my career, I am missing a ton of good stuff. I had to sacrifice the Rza show, which was part of jazz fest and I've cut my Fantasia participation down to 10 movies (from 30 last year) and am really steamed to be missing what could be the only theatrical screening of Special Magnum (a '70s Canadian/Italian crime flick filmed entirely in Montreal). I also just found out that Gordon Liu himself was present at the screening of Disciples of the 36th Chamber, which I also had to miss.

Even if there wasn't so much actual stuff going on (and I'm not even discussing Quebec City, which is celebrating its 400th anniversary and supposed to be just insane), I still would like to spend the summer here. I've got a little garden plot to tend, a basketball court right behind my place, all kinds of cool friends with whom I could be hanging out and getting to know better. My new street is one of those great neighbourhoods where everyone sits out on there porch and I could spend hours doing that, watching the kids play, chatting with neighbours, watching the various people go by. I'm within walking distance of Parc Mont-Royal, towards which hundreds of people stream all weekend. The Sunday tam-tam is crazy scene to check out and the medieval battles go on all day behind that. And now that we've hit 30º, Montreal has once again demonstrated that it contains the greatest per capita density of beautiful and stylish women in the world.

So I'm in Siegel's, chatting with Murphy. He's a proud Canadian (a minority here) and responded positively when I wished him a happy Canada Day. There really isn't too much of a celebration in Montreal (or so I thought), at least in comparison to St. Jean Baptiste, but Murphy told me there was a big party down in the old port. "It's really nice, mostly for families and stuff in the day, but at night, they have an outdoor concert. I'll probably head down there after work, have a couple beers and watch the show. Then I'll head back up through downtown and Jazzfest and catch some of the free shows which'll be going late. It's gonna be perfect."

Me (in a slightly lamenting tone): "Man, there's so much going on here! There really isn't much of a reason to leave Montreal in the summer."

Murphy (with some vehemence): "You gotta be fucking crazy to leave Montreal in the summer!"

He's right.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Conan in Vancouver

"I've but come from the last wineshop open—Ishtar's curse on those white-livered reformers who close the grog-houses! 'Let me sleep rather than guzzle,' they say—aye, so they can work and fight better for their masters! Soft-gutted eunuchs, I call them. When I served with the mercenaries of Corinthia, we swilled and wenched all night and fought all day—aye, blood ran down the channels of our swords. But what of you my girl? Take off that cursed mask—"

—Conan the Barbarian speaking in Robert E. Howard's Black Colossus

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Two Weeks in Vancouver part I - The Drop

I had the good fortune to be sent out to Vancouver for two weeks by my job. It came at around the best possible time of the year for me, because I had nothing extra-curricular going on at the home front and we're in the doldrums of a clinging winter here. As it turned out, the trip went really well, both professionally and personally. Most importantly for this blog, it also gave me a real chance to compare my homeland with my adopted land. I've been out to the west coast many times since I moved to Montreal, but it's always been on vacation. In this case, I was actually "living" and "working" in Vancouver for two weeks. Though still a brief period of time, it gave me a better chance to get a feel for what it would really be like to live in Vancouver and how that compares to Montreal. I have many thoughts and they will probably take a few posts. Today, I would just like to talk about my immediate impressions of returning to Montreal at this time of year. Depressing!

Have no worries, folks, Montreal still wins hands down. But I had a profound shock dropping out of the clouds yesterday evening. Now during my two weeks in Vancouver, I literally had about 5 hours of sunshine. I love the rain and the grey, so I enjoyed it for the most part. When it rains in Vancouver, it's steady but much lighter than rain on the east coast. You can often get away with no umbrella and riding your bike does not require complete impermeability to have any semblance of comfort. But basically, it was a very cold and wet spring in Vancouver. It actually snowed twice, once on Vancouver Island and once on Vancouver itself. We had a good 3 or 4 centimetres of slush on the ground one evening. The mountains had a beautiful and fresh white glow on them. Fortunately for me, the 5 hours of sunshine that I did get took place when I had a chance to take a walk on the beaches, once in Lantzville and once at Jericho beach in Vancouver. Both were breathtakingly beautiful.

Despite the weather, it is spring time in Vancouver. There are no leaves on the deciduous trees, but they are just starting to bud and blossom. There are flowers in people's gardens and window boxes and the lawns are green. I didn't really consciously realize this. The whole time I was there, I was getting snow melt reports from my girlfriend, but I didn't really get the basic gist of what she was saying: nothing has really changed here. So when the plane dropped out of the very low clouds over Dorval and PET airport, it was a profound shock and I have to admit a bit depressing. The city was a colourless grid of bleak low buildings, outlined in grimy snow. It really was like leaving the land of colour and arriving in one of black & white. I felt like I was returning to communist Moscow, circa 1972. I know this isn't really Montreal's fault. The weather is the weather and the east coast is just shabby in general (you can make the same comparison to a February trip from San Francisco to New York).

But the airport doesn't help. The new international section is quite nice and so far very efficient. But the domestic side of PET extends the communist Russia metaphor. The luggage takes around 25 minutes to get to the carousel (far and away the worst luggage time in North America in my experience), the signs for ground transportation are confusing and inconsistent and there is nobody around to help. In an attempt to create a more efficient taxi line, they have entirely blocked off the middle of the outside sidewalk, so if you aren't getting a cab, you have to walk back inside and go around to get to the bus section. And hey, how about a city bus that goes directly to and from the airport? Why is that so freaking hard for this city? Vancouver has an express bus that costs $3.00, makes constant express trips to the airport from a central location and takews about 25 minutes. And they are building a train.

And the taxis here are so bootleg. In Vancouver, they are all almost entirely new hybrid vehicles and they have a sophisticated, computer-driven dispatching system. The driver has a console in his vehicle with which he sees trips as they become available. And they are silent. The screaming and squawking radios in Montreal are so third world at this point and make for an extremely unpleasant trip.

I really do love this city and as you will see, these complaints pale in comparison to my very real concerns about Vancouver. But there are elements of infrastructure and fundamental comfort and ease in Montreal that are really terrible and I can understand why people who have spent their whole lives here and have never really known the culture and society of another Canadian or American city can become so mesmerized by the sun, cleanliness and modern sophistication of a retirement village in Florida or suburban Vancouver.

And despite my stumbling around the Montreal airport in a frustrated daze, swearing aloud and feeling like smashing something, no security personnel ran up and killed me with a taser, so that is a big plus for Montreal.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Snow Rage!

This winter is kicking ass! We have been getting so much snow, it's just awesome. I have to admit that I got caught up in being a bit down last week, but now I see that it was just the flu attacking my morale. Because today I'm psyched! The sidewalk in front of my house is a windy snow trail and you have to climb up over big banks to get to the intersection. I cross a small park diagonally on my way to work and yesterday on the way home, I noticed these boards lying flat in the snow. Upon closer inspection, I realized they were the tops of the park's picnic tables!

So officially, we are at 317 cm total for this winter. The record in Montreal is 383 cm in 1970-71. I just read that generally about 25% of the snow falls in March, so we have a good chance of breaking the record. I'm keeping my fingers crossed! Last week was a huge boost as we had a big storm of 25 cm on Wednesday and then another one right after it on the weekend that dropped 35 cm easy. It was most excellent.

So the news now is about the increase of snow rage in the province. Some guy outside Quebec city went into his house and got a rifle to threaten a neighbour who was blowing snow into his yard. And yesterday two dudes in Montreal got into an altercation over a parking spot. One guy pulled out a gun. The cops came. Turned out the gun was fake, but fake or real, the crime is the same here so he got collared. Awesome. The quotes from the authorities say that these kinds of things tend to happen but that they are on the increase because everyone is so fed up with the quantity and duration.

What they fail to mention is the real reason for all the anger and frustration. Cars. Every single problem with the snow, every ounce of frustration is because people can't easily get into their precious cars and easily push the buttons that take them to where they have to go. For people who don't drive, the snow is a minor hassle at worse and generally a good thing. A few minutes of shoveling out your walkway and sweeping your stairs compared to all the losers on the block spending hours digging out their cars on Sunday night so they can drive to work. To get a car out takes way more work than clearing a driveway or walkway because there is so much detail work to do.

The municipalities are all way past their budget for snow removal for the year. The Cols Bleus' union has granted them the right to work double their normal shifts, but we are already seeing accidents due to exhaustion. A woman pedestrian was killed the other night by a dump truck making an illegal left on a red. All this effort? So the cars can drive.

I did see one ray of hope in the news media. Almost all of the coverage is about the problems and how fed up everyone is. Happened to catch an on-the-street interview with a guy from Charlottetown (are the Maritimers the last true Canadians?) who was shovelling his driveway. He said "I'm really enjoying it actually. After you get warmed up, you get kind of exhilarated. You look back and see how much you've cleared and you really get a sense of accomplishment. We're Canadian, right? This is what we should be doing!" Hell yes! That's the spirit!

Bring it on, weather gods. My shovel is ready!

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Luge contre Diable (sled vs. handtruck)

Just an update to let everyone know that the hand-powered move is complete. I can no longer call it carbon neutral, though, as I hired a truck and some guys to do all the big stuff. There really were some things that I could not have done on my own. They took 3 hours, cost $250 and did a kickass job. If anybody in Montreal needs a recommendation for a good mover, and one that you can book with a phone call and not a lot of bullshit (some of the bigger moving companies are very bureaucratic), let me know and I'll give you his phone number. I was very happy with the work and I am a very picky mover.

Still, the hand-hauling was a lot of work. To summarize for those who may not have read my previous post on this move, we moved one block north and I attempted (and mostly succeeded) to do the job with a handtruck. I got two good snowstorms during the weeks of back and forth. I had to do a lot of rolling in the street where the car tracks had made flat trails through the snow. But when I went to clear out our little storage space in the basement, I found our sled. It's a cheap plastic job, big enough for two people and it turns out to be perfect for hauling boxes and furniture in the snow. I was able to get close to 400 lbs on that thing and when the snow was good it was quite easy to drag. It was always a little hairy crossing Mont-Royal (the single street I had to cross, but a busy one), because that was sometimes down to the tar and I was worried about spilling everything on some of the more precarious loads.

Overall, the sled really kicked ass. A very impressive tool for hauling stuff over snow-covered terrain. The diable was still not bad, but it is much more limited to the shape of things you can carry. The sled can take a wider range of weird shaped items. I recommend having both for your next winter hand-move.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

La Nuit Blanche

My god does Montreal rock!

I'm pushing 40 and my days of really going out are getting fewer and farther between, so I haven't really been paying attention to the night life scene as much as I used to. Plus, we were in the middle of moving. But a featured event in The Hour mentioned an organ performance downtown in an anglican church that would feature some improvisations on classic horror themes like The Exorcist, Jaws and Halloween. It ran from 10pm to 3am and I'm familiar with the outside of the church because they just tore down this horrific shopping mall that had been built in front of it to allow passers by to see the beautiful front.

So surrounded by boxes, we decided to go and check out the organ show. Montreal downtown on a Saturday night is usually somewhat busy, but I was taken aback by how many people were out. It was packed! And there was a long stream of people filing into the church. I'm talking like hundreds. It turns out (and everybody in Quebec probably knew this but me) that La Nuit Blanche is a major party and it has gotten bigger and bigger. There are all kinds of performances, all the art galleries are open until 5 am and free and just general partying. It was fantastic. The organ show was really cool, but we also checked out the Musée d'Art Contemporaine, the Belgo building and a really amazing installation in the hallway of the Place Des Arts, basically the fuddy-duddy tour. We skipped all the dance clubs and dj shows and got home before 3. But it was really cool to be checking out the museum at 2 in the morning with a huge crowd and drinks.

Some details:

The Organ Show

Gary Gygax picture

Gary Gygax picture

The organ show was called Orgue et Couleurs and it took place in the St. James United Church right downtown on St. Catherines. It's just a beautiful building, with a curved balcony and pews that match the curves. It also has these crazy hanging arches (I don't know the architectural term) that look impossible, but I suspect play a crucial support role. It lacks the detail and iconography that dominates the catholic churchs in Quebec and I sort of preferred that (most of my church time as a youth took place in an anglican chapel).

The show was awesome! The organ really gets me in a hynotic state. I felt like I was capable of turning around and insanely strangling the person to my left (who happened to be my girlfriend so thank goodness 39 years of social conditioning held me in check). The horror movie themes were improvisations, so they would start off with the theme and then go off into all kinds of crazy directions. It must be a very specific path in life to become a master organist and it must be a weird existence, controlling such a clearly satanic instrument (and being a little insane yourself) while always doing it in holy places. I watched the entire performance of Mélanie Barney who did Jaws and Psycho (the great Bernard Herrmann). But what really kicked ass was her rendition of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in Ré mineur (I think that means R minor, I have no idea). That's the classic horror movie sound (you know when you see the castle on the hill in lightning silhouette) but it was the really Bachian parts where there is such a complex rhythm and interchanging of melodies that blew my mind. I'd definitely pay to see her perform. My only regret was that I didn't get to hear Halloween.

The Belgo
This is a large, old industrial building right downtown that is filled with art galleries from top to bottom. It's fun for a visit because you can just pop into one art gallery after another and often see some engaging stuff. But on the night of Nuit Blanche, this place was clearly young hipster artist scene central. It made Mile End look like a quaint old portuguese neighborhood and brought out the fascist in me (when I see all those kids running around in their little outfits and scarves, forced public service Mao-style starts to seem like a very good idea to me). We saw something that was cool, which I can't remember, and we got out fast. Some guy was writing bad poetry on the wall with chocolate sauce.

Musée d'Art Contemporain

Gary Gygax picture

This place is a favorite of ours anyways. They had a dj at the central point between the galleries on the 2nd floor with dry ice making a cool atmosphere. There was a québécois artist who did amazing things with antique chairs. There was a tape boundary around the giant round chair that everyone was ignoring. You just had to lean over to see inside and the poor, beleagured security guard who had to keep asking people to "respetez les lignes, s'il vous plait!" must have had the worst Nuit Blanche of anyone. There also was a really cool world of tiny cut out pictures from magazines, really large and detailed. I bumped into the tallest tower (like 11') and it wobbled and almost fell! It would have been a serious disaster. Man, that was a close one. My girlfriend saw me come out from behind it, looking guiltily and nervously at it as it wobbled back and forth and knew immediately that it was my clumsy ass that had bumped it.

Place des Arts, Hall des Pas Perdus

Gary Gygax picture

Finally, in the extensive guidebook, I saw this piece which intrigued me, a sculpture installation in the hallway of the Place des Arts. I'm so glad I made the effort to find it because it was the coolest piece of art I have seen in a long time. It's called All You Can Eat by Karine Giboulo. It's an interlocking series of pillars with windows looking into a little world where little people in jumpsuits live and raise pigs, which are then used in the production of fake chicken foods which are then consumed by these obese squirrels, the whole thing overseen by wealthy people receiving plate loads of cash. It was inspired by her visit to one of those massive factories in China where the workers live. I found it an amazingly detailed little world, where everything is connected. You get lost trying to put it all together and then too late you realize what a powerful message about consumption and our modern industrial capitalist society it is delivering. Absolutely fantastic. She's a local artist and I guess just starting out on her career (she's working on her bachelor's!?). Keep an eye out for Karine Giboulo because she kicks ass.

For those of you who live in Montreal, I strongly recommend you check it out. I heard it was there on Tuesday but I don't know how long it will last. It's in the Place des Arts, just outside the entrance to the concert hall.

One final thought about Montreal
As we came out of the church the first time, I passed a group of young people (probably high school, maybe CEGEP) sharing a bottle of wine. No bag, no effort at hiding it, drinking from the bottle and being a bit party-hardy. There were families all around. It surprised me pleasantly to see that because you would never see that in Vancouver. Not just the choice of libation, but young people drinking publicly without the cops showing up with a righteous attitude. We in the west really need to take a lesson from Quebec. Having fun is good!

I'm putting the rest of the All You Can Eat photos here, but you really do have to see it in person:

Gary Gygax picture

Gary Gygax picture

Gary Gygax picture

Gary Gygax picture

Gary Gygax picture

Gary Gygax picture

Gary Gygax picture

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

le presbytère où je travaille

When you learn a new language in the land of that language, you also learn a lot of other stuff. For instance, the building where I work is the presbytère of the catholic church next door. I now know that a presbytère is the place where the nuns and priests live. I don't know what the word is in english and I think the protestant faith probably has a different system (don't they have a "close" or something? All I know about that is what I learned in passing from certain Michael Gilbert books).

With the decline of the importance of the catholic church in social affairs in Quebec also comes an economic decline. The churches, whose pews are nearly empty these days, also lack funding and personnel. There are fewer priests and nuns entering the fold and less demand for the ones already there. At some point, the paroisse (the parish?), which I guess is the organizing body for each specific church, decided to use their presbytère for profit and they now rent it to several environment non-governmental organizations (NGO's). I guess they still wanted to be community-minded, which is cool.

So that is how I ended up working in a presbytère. Since one of the previous comments had mentioned that it must be nice to work in such an environment, I thought I would share it with you. Because it is nice. The interior of this building has certainly seen more glorious days. It went through some minor periods of renovation, leaving the hideous stamp of the 70s (though compared to the cheapshit renos that are done today, even the tackiest of the 70s looks kind of well-built) and has some general disrepair. The insulation sucks and the roof is barely hanging on (we had a nice inundation last spring). But it retains high ceilings, lots of tall windows, beautiful wood floors, solid oak doors and a very non-corporate feel that makes it very much a joy to come to work (it also helps to have a good job for an organization that is trying to do good in the world).

My personal favorite architectural touches here are the built-in closets (all but one of which are unfortunately painted white) made up of I believe solid oak, though it could be maple and the radiators. The large radiator in the hall really kicks ass.

I'll post some pictures below with captions. Enjoy!

presbytere from outside picture

Here's the building from the outside. Quite the stone block!

whole church from outside picture

This is the whole "compound." It looks like the presbytère is attached, because of the tree, but they are separate buildings, though pretty close. The church itself is worth a separate post at least, because there is a lot of cool stuff going on there. One day, I'll get around to photographing the interior and the gold jesus on the front lawn.


The closet in a side hallway that is dedicated to closet space. Needs to be better organized!


The bannisters. Look at that wood glow! Is this all oak? Any ebenistes out there?


The stairs to the attic. Scary! (the attic is actually awesome, with a little trap door that keeps getting blown off. It's just way too cluttered to be able to take a picture.)


My pride and joy, the radiator. It reads "Safford Patent" and underneath "RD 1898". That thing is 110 years old!


Finally, one of the hideous lamps. It's that unholy alliance between organized religion and the 70s that left such frightening images in my young psyche. I sure would love to have seen the lamps that were here originally.

I've been working here for just under 2 years and in the first 6 months, there was one priest living in the building. I never saw him. His apartment was accessed by a separate entrance and though there was an adjoining door between our hallway and his place, it was never opened. I didn't see the space until after he had left and they rented the space out to another organization. It had a very '70s lonely old man look to it.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

le givre

my window at work

the window down the hall

the icicles you can see through the window

Quite beautiful, eh? They look like light little feathers dancing in two dimensions on the glass. They melt away when the sun hits them. All this icey beauty is the result of poor insulation, unfortunately.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Carbon Neutral Move

So we're moving. We are part of the horde of yuppies turning Mile End from an old working class portuguese neighbourhood to the new SOHO of Montreal (I've already seen two new baby stores opening up, a sure sign of the apocalypse). I speak partly in jest, as we are literally moving one block north, across the border of avenue Mont-Royal, which puts us at the very bottom of Mile End. The difference is that we are now owners rather than renters.

Among the many positive aspects of this Step to Maturity, the one I am most excited about is the possible opportunity to make this move entirely by hand. I am a bit obsessive about moving and quite good at it and I have found that hiring people can be very hit or miss. Our rent is so cheap that we can afford to keep our current place for a month and take the time to move slowly. I don't have the kind of competent friends here that I would have in the West Coast (the kind of men who synchronize their watches with the CBC time signal when they hear it), so I am kind of on my own. Not that my friends here aren't competent, but I haven't known them long enough to feel comfortable to ask them to help me move. Though one couple already offered to help with painting or borrowing a car, demonstrating the natural generosity and hospitality of the Québécois.

So I've borrowed a hand truck from work and we are slowly going about boxing non-essential things. I spent this weekend rolling them up the block, through blowing snow, carrying them up the stairs, unpacking everything and then taking the empty boxes back home. I was feeling a bit like a crazy person and suffering from the deeply-ingrained bourgeoisie instincts of guilt when not spending money and doing things like everybody else.

On Sunday morning, on my first run, as I was dragging the heavily-laden handtruck over the small mountains of snow between the sidewalk and the street (it's easier to push the handtruck along the cars' wheel tracks which tend to be clear of snow), I encountered a red-cheeked, older man in an old coat and toque with earflaps. He immediately recognized what I was doing and told me that he had once moved with only a hand truck. The distance between his old place and new one was a lot longer than mine and required 10 trips. We walked up the street together, discussing moving and what a privilege it was to be able to take your time when you move. "C'est une grande luxe de démenager tranquillement. Une grande luxe!" When we parted ways, he gave me a pat on the back and I felt like I had received both social acceptance for my behaviour and a small blessing. The guy was old school Montreal and looked a bit like a friendly gnome and I wondered if he hadn't been sent by the city itself as a reminder that despite the yuppies that swarm the Provigo in their new cars, this is still a working man's town at the core and doing things by hand the cheap way is accepted and approved.