On Ottawa (and Canada)

June 24th, 2011

Ottawa is a city shrouded in myth, but for me two stand out in particular.

The first is that it is no fun. When I said to some friends and acquaintances in Montreal that I was heading two hours east to Canada’s capital city, they sniggered. ‘Ottawa?’ they said, ‘why would you go to Ottawa?’ It was as if we were ten years old and I had just told them that I do ballet or have a stamp collection. If Ottawa could speak, she might well say ‘my reputation precedes me.’ So why did I go? Because I had never been; and that, believe it or not, is as good a reason as any to go anywhere.

While Toronto and Montreal have agitated to become Canada’s cultural capital, economic capital, sporting capital, musical capital, media capital and, not to forget, actual capital, Ottawa has straddled the two metropolises with humble glee. While Toronto and Montreal argued like two school kids over whose Dad has a bigger car, Ottawa and her citizens got along just fine.

In that respect, the city is quintessentially Canadian, performing in a domestic context the role that Canada has traditionally played internationally. Anglo-Irish journalist and provocateur-in-chief Kevin Myers once wrote of Canada’s role in world affairs as ‘the perpetual wallflower that stands on the edge of the hall, waiting for someone to come and ask her for a dance.’ Ottawa’s role within Canada is much the same; the capital is a slight detour to the north from the main Toronto-Montreal route, just as Canada is a slight detour to the north from the main US-Europe routes. Both easily missed, both blithely dismissed.

Ottawa is fun, as much fun for the political anorak as for fans of hip hop or electro nightclubs. Much of the city’s nightlife is contained within the refreshingly low-rise Byward Market area, situated beside the Rideau Canal. On Tuesday evening, I watched the sun set over Gatineau, Quebec from a bridge connecting Rideau St and Wellington St (possibly soon to be Sir John A. Macdonald Boulevard). Below the bridge were the final seven or eight locks of the canal as it prepared to enter the river. I have always considered the construction of canals among the more underrated achievements of humanity, and the merging of sheer natural beauty with human triumph and endevour became a sort of microcosm of Canada itself.

A couple of minutes up the road stands Parliament Hill, and it is on that Hill, where Canada’s federal House of Commons and Senate meet, that the second of the myths mentioned in the opening gambits of this piece resides. As mentioned before on this page, the idea that Queen Victoria herself chose Ottawa as the nation’s capital in 1857 is one that rankles, mainly because it is almost completely untrue. I say ‘almost’ because the monarch did rubber stamp the arrangement, so to speak, but it was Macdonald, Cartier and other fathers of Confederation who decided that the small lumber town would become home to the government of Canada.

Shawni is a tour guide from New Brunswick. Towards the end of our tour, we entered a hall where portraits hang of all monarchs who have reigned from Victoria forth. Shawni mentioned the Victoria-Ottawa myth as historical fact, much to the salient satisfaction of two women from Liverpool who became instantly proud over what they believed to be true. In deference to Shawni, she is likely to know far more about Canadian history than me, but this is one thing that most historians now accept as a sort of quasi-myth. I did not want to spoil the Liverpudlians’ fun or embarrass Shawni, so I bit my bitter Irish tongue. She later told me in private that she is told from above what to say.

My brief trip was rounded off by attending Question Period in the public gallery of the House of Commons. The Prime Minister and his front bench faced the Speaker always while speaking – a strange, quirky tactic – while opposition MPs directed their vexed irritations directly at their intended targets. The main topic of discussion was the continuing Canada Post lockout, with the NDP predictably backing Canada Post workers and the Conservatives the small- and medium-sized businesses they say make Canada’s economy tick. French and English mixed, sometimes in mid-flow, from those comfortable in both official national languages. This, apparently, is what goes on in Canada’s Parliament.

Ottawa, a city that constantly seems to have to justify its own existence, offers much more than what its reputation suggests. If Canada is the country the world forgot, then Ottawa is the city the country forgets. The slight northern detour is well worth it, and the same goes for Canada at large.

The Vancouver Riots

June 17th, 2011

Last night witnessed rioting in downtown Vancouver — admittedly, a city far away from where I write — following that city’s hockey team’s loss to Boston in the final game of the Stanley Cup final. The last time that Vancouver lost the final game of the Stanley Cup series was in 1994, whereupon the city centre was also ravaged with rioting. In the interim, the city has successfully hosted a winter Olympic games in peace. So, a few questions:

The Mayor and Police force have blamed “hooligans and hoodlums” for the events. Why?

The predictable answer might well be that this is because hooligans and hoodlums — whatever, whoever and whoever they may be — are to blame. The advantage of this for the municipal administration is that it absolves them of almost all blame, and the hidden premise is that it was not hockey fans who engaged in rioting, but rather people masquerading (where would these people have been for 17 years then?). Thus, the city and its team cannot be to blame in any way. Today’s powerful and bold Globe and Mail editorial, however, smashes that myth to pieces. It is extremely obvious that there were more than a handful of people rioting, looting and committing arson, and many of those who were not were glad to goad them on. Would “hooligans and hoodlums” break into a verse of O Canada while rioting? Many if not most of those responsible seem to have been Vancouver Canucks fans — real ones, with an emotional connection to the team. If municipal authorities want to pretend this is not the case, they become part of the problem, not part of the solution.

If the event was a “disgrace”, then whose disgrace was it?

Describing an event as a “disgrace”, as, for example, interim Liberal leader Bob Rae has done, gives it a certain human root. One cannot describe an earthquake or tsunami, for example, as a disgrace because they don’t have a human root. So, if it was a disgrace, then who was disgraceful? The rioters? The city of Vancouver? The people of Vancouver? The police? The Mayor? The sport of hockey? The great nation of Canada? All of the above? None of the above?

Conditions were created, or were allowed to create themselves, for this event to happen. The fact that Vancouver lost 4-0 on the night did not help. The deployment of a police force in the three figures to manage a group of people in the six figures may not have helped. So, who is the disgrace? It is too easy for people like Rae to assign blame in a monolithic, linear fashion solely upon those who committed the acts of violence. The reality is surely more nuanced than that.

Why are media outlets tripping over themselves to compare this with soccer?

Most Canadian newspapers have mentioned soccer at least once in their editorial coverage today, the underlying theme of which is that the beautiful game is a malign influence upon hockey and Canada. However, taking into consideration the amount of professional soccer played throughout the globe — which dwarfs the amount played of any other field sport — is attending a soccer game really than dangerous? Is this comparison not a bit cheap and beside the point?

Lastly, is this not a wonderful photograph?

This photo (story here) has gone viral today, and well it should.

Montreal Four Months In; Ireland Four Months Out

May 5th, 2011

This is a list of 10 things I like about Montreal, Quebec and Canada and 10 things I miss about Dublin and Ireland. They are discussed alternately, beginning with something I like about this place. Let’s go…

 

Montreal/Canada: Pubs open ‘til 3am, even on a Sunday

“Have you no homes to go to… Can you finish up there please?” The usual GTFO call of barmen at about midnight where I grew up. When my cousin visited here, she left Toronto at about 6pm on a Sunday and set out on the six-hour drive. We still had time to meet up after midnight and get merry. With nobody forced to concentrate their drinking and socialising into narrower time periods, fewer people throw a load of alcohol into their bodies very quickly.

 

Dublin/Ireland: The Sea

Look, just look! Where I grew up, if I kicked a football from my garden gate it would – after a few hops and a little help from our friend gravity – end up in the salty goodness otherwise known as the sea. Obviously I never did kick a ball into the sea, at least not on purpose. Rivers are a poor substitute, especially when they’re frozen five months of the year. I miss the smell, the sounds and the visual beauty of the sea. And I miss swimming in it. The last time I enjoyed swimming in a river was in Ghana, almost two years ago.

 

Montreal/Canada: Integrated public transport at less than $3 a day

You have a card that cost $6, once off. You pay $72 per month or $22 per week to use four metro lines and all public municipal buses. That’s under $3 per day or around €2, cheaper than a single journey ticket from Dun Laoghaire to Dublin city on the DART. The LUAS lines in Dublin do not even meet up and you can’t buy integrated bus-rail tickets. The Montreal metro comes every five minutes or so except for the wee hours when it’s about every ten minutes. Did I mention it runs into the wee hours?

 

Dublin/Ireland: Living in a place where people like football

At the pub in which I work at weekends, the kitchen staff finish their preparation work at around 10.30am, leaving a good hour for us to sit and watch the football from England on the TV in the bar before opening. They don’t have much of a clue though. Say, for example, it’s Bolton versus West Brom, they might ask: “Is this Champions League?” Or maybe it’s Man Utd against some other lot: “So does Rooney score all the goals for Manchester?” I suppose I’m the same when I watch (Ice) Hockey, but I miss watching football with people who know what is going on.

 

Montreal/Canada: A walk in the country in the city

Montreal, as the name suggests, has a mountain (more like a large hill) smack bang in the middle of the city. My former housemate used to bring her skis on the walk to school in winter, and the walk up the south slope through the snow is a lot of fun. I can’t vouch for summer yet, but it seems like a perfect short hike to walk off a hangover. Few cities have such a wonderful natural amenity in their city centre.

 

Dublin/Ireland: Taking the piss out of each other

If one stereotype is true about Canada, it’s that people are nice. Frustratingly so. Let me make my point by way of anecdote. About two months ago I went to Quebec City with a friend that I had met for the first time three days previously. We had got along well but we both knew that there was a giant elephant in the room – neither of us actually knew each other much at all. When we got out of the car – a rideshare – my new friend went searching for his money in his bag. A slight panic set in when he could not find the $200 he swore he put in there before leaving. It was a large enough bag packed with loads of things and I had seen him put the money in there earlier, so I was sure he would ultimately find it. “Ha! Man, you are useless!” I said. What I was suggesting here by saying this was that I now felt comfortable enough in his presence to be able to take the micky out of him. It was me saying ‘we’re friends now’. Unfortunately, he took it as me being frustrated and nasty, meaning that I had to explain that in Ireland, friends spend their whole lives telling each other they are useless or fuckin’ eejits. Canadians do not do this.

 

Montreal/Canada: Respect for cyclists

450km of cycle paths. A public bike system with over 300 stations. Cyclists generally rule to roost here and, as a reluctant driver and four-time driving test failure, I think this is great. Now that the snow has disappeared I can get out and cycle to work and around the mountain.

 

Dublin/Ireland: Proportional representation

Ireland should not be held up as a beacon of leadership in how to compose a just electoral system, but this first-past-the-post thing over here is slightly ridiculous. Take for example this week’s federal election; a slight national shift to the left has resulted in a more solid right-wing government. How does this happen? The centrist Liberals lost ground to the centre-left NDP as well as some votes moving to the centre-right Tories. With vote splitting occurring between the Liberals and NDP, the Tories won more seats and a majority government without significantly increasing their vote. Counter intuitively, the Tories were delighted with a surge in support for their ideological opposite, and that’s just wrong. In Ireland the makeup of Parliament is proportionally closer to the will of the people.

 

Montreal/Canada: Classified ads

North America has realised before any part of the world that classified ads are now free to post and offer a new way of getting stuff done. If I need a lift (“ride”) to another city, it’s cheaper at short notice to get a rideshare from someone on craigslist than to get a bus from a bus company. And you can also buy THINGS. So far I have bought a lamp, a microwave and a teapot through classified ads, at a much reduced cost.

Dublin/Ireland: Playing football on grass, outdoors

With snow guaranteed to cover the ground for five or six months of the year (I just watched the weather forecast and there were snow warnings. In May.), football is played on synthetic surfaces, usually indoors. There seem to be no grass fields for football anywhere near the city. I suppose that, with land value being higher, having a piece of land redundant for half the year makes no sense. That said, I really do miss playing on soggy grass fields in Ireland. And old habits are dying hard; I’ve got cuts on my legs from slide tackling on synthetic grass. Indeed, going in for a slide tackle – one of my favourite things to do during a game – is seen as a bold move here that instantly gives the tackler a degree of respect among other players. ‘Watch out lads, this fella is prepared to bleed to get the ball back.’

 

Montreal/Canada: Tense political atmosphere being played out without violence

In case you did not know, about 40% of Quebecers want to separate from Canada. This is naturally a sensitive area and, unless invited into a conversation on the subject, I generally avoid the issue while in social settings. Comparisons with Ireland are made, and I have been asked how I can explain the perceived double standard of supporting an independent Ireland as well as Quebec’s continued role within Canada. Whatever the case, I’m just glad – if not a little impressed – that this tension is carried out on a political level through democratic means. The number of dead during “The Troubles” in Ireland is measured in the thousands. The last time that a politically-motivated death was directly due to Quebec’s constitutional status was in October, 1970, when a provincial cabinet minister was kidnapped and murdered by the FLQ. I find it amazing that extreme violence has not resurfaced since then.

 

Dublin/Ireland: Dairy products

The butter here is tasteless and white-ish and the fat content of milk is measured in low percentage points, the highest being 3.25%. I miss fatty churned goodness.

 

Montreal/Canada: Choice of beer in bars

When it comes to booze, the Irish are probably the most unwaveringly loyal and conservative bunch in the world. Walk into a pub and you see Guinness, Smithwick’s, three or four very similar lagers and maybe, if you’re lucky, one other choice. The pub I work in here has something like 22 different beers on draught and the bottles we keep in the fridge are different to those available at the taps, making about 30 in all. This is standard. Most pubs will also stock some local beers as well as imports, and there is a healthy respect for micro-brewing that sadly does not exist back home.

 

Dublin/Ireland: Being able to use Irishisms with impunity

Ireland is more like a big family, more so than its inhabitants realise. Like the best friends or siblings that have in-jokes that nobody else gets (“we see things they’ll never see” /Live Forever – Noel Gallagher), Ireland is full of euphemisms and lines that cheer us all up from time to time. Towards the end of the winter here I trained with a local rugby team, ostensibly to keep fit, but really to try and make some friends. (The latter mission failed and, after going to a wedding in March, any fitness benefit was soon lost.) The men’s team trained after the women and, as is normal with a group of men, conversation came around to which (if any) of the ladies were attractive. “She has a nice ass,” said one of the Canadian lads and, like an unconscious reflex, I said “they all have lovely bottoms”. Perhaps they hadn’t seen Father Ted, and perhaps it’s no surprise I didn’t make great friends there. Another phrase I use more consistently is to ‘give out’ to someone, meaning to reprimand them. Here, among certain people to ‘give out’ means to pleasure someone orally. Oops.

 

Montreal/Canada: Gay marriage

I’m not going to get into my argument for gay marriage here because that’s an essay in itself. Suffice to say I support it, and passionately so. It’s not an issue here, because it exists. When I was born, homosexuality was still a criminal offence in Ireland. Take note, however, that this is not a Canada-wide thing. Same-sex marriage is only legal in Yukon, B.C., Ontario and Quebec. Vive le Quebec.

 

Dublin/Ireland: Spring

It just arrives far too late here. Snow all through March and, as I said above, snow warnings for tonight. At least summer is meant to be longer, warmer and more reliable than Ireland.

Montreal/Canada: Music, shows, gigs

Young people go to gigs here en masse. And not to Justin Bieber or Coldplay, but to small gigs in dingy little places. People take each other’s recommendations and check stuff out. And it’s cheap. A lot of the stuff here at the moment seems to be electro and dubstep, a genre I can’t get into despite my best efforts, but there’s other stuff going on too. And lots of it.

 

Dublin/Ireland: Knowing where to go to get stuff

A haircut, for example. Anyone who has ever hung out with me knows that I like to take care of my hair. It’s my not-so-secret succumbing to vanity. A week before I went to my brother’s wedding in March, I went to get a haircut. Not knowing where to go, I went to a local barber. I asked him to use scissors and he ran a razor over me. I asked him to leave my sideburns and he cut them to the top of my ear. Then he ran a straight line across the back of my neck at the hairline with a raw blade. The cut was all wrong and, when I got home, one of my friends said ‘you need to find yourself a new barber.’ Two things came out of the ordeal: I took to wearing a hat and it was the only time I have not tipped for service since I got here. A few hours before returning to North America, I went to a barber in Limerick and asked for a rescue mission, which was successful (note: Johnny’s in Annacotty). I’m due a haircut very soon and am trying to find a place that won’t fuck it up. (Note #2: the place that DID fuck it up was ‘Athens’ on St Laurent, photo below.)

 

Montreal/Canada: Proper debate over healthcare

We’re too passive back home about the state of our health system. Canadians and Quebecers demand more and, with healthcare ultimately being a political issue, they usually get it. Fair play to them.

 

Dublin/Ireland: Tea, being offered tea, and being served tea in an appropriate fashion

I drink a lot of tea because it’s delicious. When you go into someone’s house in Ireland, you’re offered tea. This is one of our strongest and most brilliant national traits, and long may it continue. When I enter a home here, I might be offered juice or water. I want tea! Restaurants and pubs are worse; they serve you a vessel – sometimes a glass – of non-boiling water with a tea bag on the side. Two things: the water should be boiling and it should hit bag, not the other way around. Otherwise you have to squeeze the bag to within an inch of its life (figure of speech, people) for five minutes in order to get a weak cup of tea. When I was in Quebec City, I asked for tea in a cafe and was served green tea. ‘Do you have any black tea?’ I asked in French. ‘Earl Grey? Breakfast? Anything?’ Nope.

Here comes the Sun King. Everybody’s laughing. Everybody’s happy.

April 21st, 2011

A CTV news segment this evening focused on ‘The Royal Wedding’. “How to get those extra style points on the perfect hat,” said the newsreader before the report. The previous item on the news was an exclusive interview with Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff, two weeks before a federal election. The wedding segment was longer than the interview.

Wake up Canada. You have been doing this for over 150 years now. You are more important and more intelligent than this.

Let’s go back to mid-1800s. If you ask Canadians today how Ottawa became the national capital, they would likely say that Queen Victoria chose it. The fact that she did not seems to be irrelevant. There is a part of Canadians — an otherwise largely bright and creative bunch — that is happily wrapped up in these falsehoods. In reality, Ottawa had been chosen as capital as much as a decade before Confederation. Montreal, Quebec, Kingston and Toronto were either too Protestant, too Catholic, too geographically peripheral or too fractious, respectively. Ottawa, on the cusp of anglo- and francophone Canada, seemed a good compromise. Macdonald and Cartier had settled on it and, after some domestic political dancing in the early 1860s, advised Queen Victoria to pick Ottawa in what was essentially a rigged competition. For advised, read instructed.

But Canadian history prefers the benign, servile version. Artificial nations — and by that I mean nations that are not formed out of a long-standing resident ethnicity in the area but rather by people (or rather peoples) from all over the place — seem to need a creation myth in order to justify their own existence. Rome had Aeneas. Much of the population of Israel believes itself to be God’s chosen people. The Tea Party, among other groups, in the United States is trying to accentuate the creation myth that that country was founded as a Judeo-Christian refuge or utopia. Canada’s creation myth, with the emphasis on mythical here, is a Royal one. But it needn’t be. As is often the case, the truth — the story of a democracy defining itself upon a series of compromises — is far more interesting.

And of course the wedding of William and Kate Middleton is being pre-packaged as a “fairy tale”. They really do love each other, we are constantly being told. This is stated over and over in order to banish the monarchists’ great fear: another Royal wedding where the words ‘love’ and ‘respect’ for the bride seem to be an afterthought on the part of the Prince. Actually no, Charles didn’t seem to give any thought at all to those supposed prerequisities for marriage.

I hope that the upcoming wedding is indeed based on love and respect, but that would make it the exception rather than the rule. The Royal/Windsor family detests marriage in any loving sense of the word. Remember that it was the reigning monarch, Elizabeth II — a woman to whom even convinced republicans seem determined to fawn over — who forced her younger sister to give up the man she loved because he happened to be divorced, even though he was a war hero. “Mindful of the Church’s teaching that Christian marriage is indissoluble, and conscious of my duty to the Commonwealth, I have resolved to put these considerations before any others,” she stated. If you believe the following statement that she “reached this decision entirely alone,” you will believe anything. In fact, it’s a contradiction of the preceeding statement because, as she says, she reached the decision via religious edict.

And so Canada, beautiful Canada, you can do better than this. You can start by amending the story of the birth of your nation and its capital as a story of democracy, intelligence, leadership and compromise, or you can stick with servitude and the colonial mindset. Then you can arrange your newscasts in a way that gives more airtime to exclusive interviews with potential prime ministers and not to segments about hats. Aptly, the subject of Ignatieff’s interview was the potential of him and his party to compromise with others. It could have been fifteen decades ago and a discussion about potential capital cities. Alas, the story of the next couple of weeks will probably be the wedding, much like the myth-history of a Royal choice of capital.

For some reason, Canada is embarrassed by its democratic process. Canada can do better.

Let me take you down, ’cause we’re going to the Plateau

March 28th, 2011

It’s about time this page showed some of the delights of Plateau-Mont-Royal, mon quartier. There’s some pretty amazing street art and a lot of the cafés and shops have delightful paintwork outside.

The above two photographs are from Patati Patata, a sort of fast food joint with a twist on the corner of Rachel and St Laurent. Apparently it only has 13 seats.

These ones are from Avenue Duluth Est near the corner with St Laurent.

I like this one a lot. It’s from a shop called Utopia on Duluth. The whiff of weed inside is very strong!

A Montreal dépanneur, Plateau style.

I love this one from the corner of Duluth and Ave l’Hotel de Ville. Her hair is like fire flicking around the corner.

This is Chez José, a café on Duluth and l’Hotel de Ville. It does a fine breakfast. I was in here once, reading a book about Canada with a mug of tea, when the young man who worked there ranted at me for a good five minutes about how much he hated Canada. He’s an anglo Montrealer.

Home sweet home.

Couldn’t agree more fella.

“Komm Gib Mir Deine Hand”

February 28th, 2011

It’s been over a week since my last Gaddafi-related post, and things have moved on since then; largely in the right direction in the eyes of most people. A large proportion of news reports over the past week have naturally dealt with the effort to evacuate non-Libyans, among them Canadians and Irish, from what appears to be a rather epic endgame. Operation G.T.F.O. is well underway.

One of the stories coming out of Ireland is the case of a German pilot taking a group of Irish teachers from the horror of Tripoli airport (and having been there, I can vouch for its dreadfulness) to relative sanctuary in Istanbul. Every news report seems to lead with his nationality as if his very Germanness led him to indulge in these wonderful acts like a latter-day Moses. Whatever the case, the story reminded me of when I was three years hold and lost on a packed Killiney Beach in South County Dublin on one of those hot mid-summer days where everyone within two hours’ drive of the coast (i.e. everyone in the country) seems to load up the car and hit the sea. I walked, crying and semi-naked, up and down the beach searching for my Dad’s unique gait or the distinctive pitch of my Mother’s voice.

The Germans rescued me. Two of them, female and goddess-like. I have been told since that they were teenagers but to me at the time – in the way that when you’re three everyone over the age of six is ancient – they were grown ups. One of them put me on her shoulders and we strolled around between rock and sand searching for my family. We found them in the end.

Germans, I salute you.

Come together right now over me

February 22nd, 2011

After reading a dainty (if not a bit passive agressive) little blog post on midnightpoutine, I have decided to vent slightly here. You see, I come from Ireland, and in Ireland if a boy likes a girl or a girl likes a boy then the girl asks the boy or the boy asks the girl to join him or her for a few drinks. It’s not like in many North American cities where people actually have to drive to get anywhere, so we meet in pubs.

Irish people don’t “date”, they “go for a drink”. They treat the two as meaning the same thing, and there is your problem. Meeting up at a cafe, park or exhibition with the mutual intention of ultimately ending up in bed together (or maybe just holding hands) would be plain weird to most people from the homeland. It can be frustrating for outdoorsy, artsy or sporty types who, though they may enjoy chatting and drinking in a decent pub, are not necessarily addicted to it. It creates a uniform format for going from attraction to doing the bold thing, usually beginning with meeting in a pub and ending with awkward drunken intercourse, if you’re (un?)lucky. I’m only going on second-hand accounts because to be honest I’ve never gone out with an Irish lady.

The midnightpoutine post is refreshing. Assuming that dating sites are at least 99 per cent populated by potential rapists, scam artists and the highly desperate and unattractive, that’s not really an option for most civilised people. Unlike ‘Luc’ who wrote that post, I have not left a trail of wannabe MILFS in my wake as a result of creating some wacky profile on PlentyofFish. But he also recommends St. Denis Street as a good place for single folk to cast an eye around. He has a point; people definitely saunter rather than march along its pretty face. And even for the most feeble-armed of the companionless, it’s a stone’s throw from my apartment where I am writing this post. As Mr. Burns would say, “excellent“.

“I feel fine”

February 17th, 2011

The French language has an emotional intensity far beyond that of English. When you accidentally bump into someone in a supermarket you are not sorry, but desolated. The play you went to last night was not good or great, but formidable. French ploughs the emotional extremes, as shown by the love affair with the subjunctive mood that French people seem to have. They would never use such a benign word as ‘nice’ to describe anything.

But that’s the French, as in those for whom France is called home. In the last couple of weeks in Quebec I have heard a response to the question ‘ça va?’ (‘how are you?’) that one would never hear in France; I know this because a couple of Parisian friends have told me so. Whereas French people usually define how they feel in the most expressive terms, Quebecers often define themselves by what they are not. ‘Pas si pire’, they say. ‘Not so bad’. Defining how you are by how you are not is not very French and sounds odd and quirky when done in the French language. If anything, it’s a very Irish thing to do – a relic of a time when the closest thing to going to a mental health therapist was confession.

So why would Quebecers respond to ‘how are you?’ by saying ‘not so bad’? I have a theory.

Like the Irish, Canadians are defined internationally and, to a lesser extent, domestically by what they are not. Canadians are not Americans, and the Irish (well, most of them) are not British. As if to prove the point, a good chunk of Canadians sow a little maple leaf flag onto their luggage when travelling. ‘Yank I ain’t!’, screams the square inch of cotton (and probably with good reason). Canadians and Americans might share a continent, but they don’t necessarily share a mindset.

Zooming in a little more, Quebecers don’t necessarily share a mindset with either Americans or fellow Canadians or even with themselves. Emotions? They’re for wrapping up with lashings of tape and stuffing somewhere between your heart and your mouth, never to be heard. And you know that famous ‘gift of the gab’ that Irish people are so famous for? It’s only there to avoid talking about actual feelings. Emotions? Lock ‘em up and throw away the key while you tell us another story about your uncle. Defining what you are by what you are not is not exclusive to identity – it can also influence the use of language.

As many as 40% of French-speaking Quebecers have Irish ancestry on at least one side of the family. So here is my theory: ‘pas si pire’ is a direct translation of ‘not so bad’ that began with the Irish in Quebec using an intensely outwardly emotional language with a way of thinking that was introverted and secretive. Thoughts? Perhaps you’re too secretive to comment . . .

A beginning

February 3rd, 2011

There is probably a fine line between being bold and being naive, and I don’t quite know on which side of that line I now stand. An application for an online sports writing job has been sent, by me, to some email address hidden under a craigslist-given pseudonym. There is nothing to lose, I tell myself, even though I know that it would be a great and welcome surprise – “a miracle”, if I believed in such things – if I hear back from them, let alone actually get the job. Additionally, I just fired off three feature story ideas to the features, foreign and diary editors from The Irish Times. Fighting for the crumbs off the table.

And then there is my CV (a resume here is called a CV – “say vay” – by French speakers), which has an element of the Marge Simpsons about it.. When she asked Smithers what to do with a machine after getting a job in the nuclear power plant, Mr Burns’ camp sycophant says ‘Mrs Simpson, according to your resume you invented this machine.’ Now, I have not told fibs like that, but my stated trilingualism now demands that I bring my solid posh conversational French up (down?) to fluent Québécois French and that potential employers might be mildly impressed with the fact that I can speak Irish. Well, I could a few years ago anyway.

This is the blog of a 24 year-old Irish emigrant to Montréal, Québec, Canada. It’s going to be a blog about a writer-journalist-sub looking for work, hopefully finding some, and what he thinks about it all. Oh it’s all so terribly self-important, you say. Yes, this first post is, and for that I offer an apology couched in the language of well-it-couldn’t-be-any-other-way. This blog, though, is about an industry – the words industry. You won’t find it as a career category on job search sites, but it exists and has existed for millennia. Robert Harris, the brilliant English journalist-come-author, has in recent years published two novels written in the first person through the moniker of Tiro, Cicero’s servant and scribe. This was over 2,000 years ago, and Tiro’s main job was to research, write and express. His game was words, as is mine today.

Lots of people will tell you that this industry is dying, and they are right, but only if we think of the words and journalism industries as synonyms and only if we think of journalism as meaning newspapers. Are newspapers dying? Probably. Any young journalist should expect their undeniably rapid decline to be terminal and take any future change to this process as some sort of bonus. It’s a sort of dour yet Monty Python-esque always-look-on-the-bright-side-of-life mélange of attitudes. Most people in the business don’t seem to know for how long news and comment will continue to be produced and consumed via chemicals placed on dead trees; they may guess, but they don’t know.

Furthermore, journalism is moving and moving fast. If newspapers are on a permanent downward curve, it is primarily because of THE invention of our times, the Internet. News comes within minutes of the event, in some cases being consumed live like a Chinaman eating fish. Let’s play a little game. I’ll list some words that have been newsworthy recently and you count how many of them you first heard about in a newspaper: Egypt, Thierry Henry handball, Haiti, Chilean Miners, Michael Jackson, Icelandic volcano, flooding, Gulf oil spill. Get it? Most of us can understand the emotional sadness at the demise of some wonderful titles in recent years, but only the most conservative writers could call the move towards online journalism a bad thing in itself.

While one can’t really say that the words industry is in better health than ever, I propose that we don’t see the decline of newspapers as a decline in the industry itself. Think of it as a Venn diagram. We have all the jobs there are where one of the major responsibilities is to write and write well. Journalism is a subset, and within that subset is another called print, and within that is another called newspapers. While newspapers sell fewer copies and take in far less revenue through advertising than before, sales of iPads and Androids go up. As my late granddad used to say, “easy come, easy go.” And as the case of Tiro shows, the words industry gives writers the chance to work in areas that are not necessarily journalism. If Tiro was around today, we might think of him as a spokesperson for a political party; a sort of Alastair Campbell of the ancient world, but without the spite. Politics and online copywriting are just two of the many areas inside the words subset but outside the journalism subset.

This blog is more than just the musings of a young man who can’t quite figure out what he’s doing with his career, however. You, dear reader, will have to put up with me trying to figure out what this place is and what it means. In recent years I have developed an odd fascination with Canada, despite having spent only four days and three nights in the country. And that was in Vancouver, a couple of thousand miles away. I did my postgraduate dissertation on how federal politics is reported in two Québécois newspapers, La Presse and Le Devoir. I regularly stayed up until 3am in Dublin watching ice hockey on satellite television. I have only ever met one nasty Canadian, a rather loathsome girl from British Columbia who treated a good friend of mine terribly, and thus far she is the exception that has proved a rule – Canadians are fantastic people.