The Year in Rooms

East Village, NYC
A traveller needs shelter for the night, a room at the inn, or wherever is available -- a stable, a couch. Frequently it involves a business transaction, but lucky travellers more often depend on the kindness of friends.

In Québec, a room with a sloping ceiling and a narrow view of the snowy Plaines d'Abraham. Then, later in the year, a charming old corner of New York's East Village, a superb vantage point on the near 24-hour basketball action at Tompkins Square Park.

Instant bedroom, Harlow/Parson home
Amid such variety, it's hard to choose favourites. Still, the hands-down most unique room of the year had to be the space thoughtfully created by artist-hosts, Steve Harlow and Ruth Parson, who transformed an open-plan domestic area into a private bedroom by erecting walls of their paintings.

Some rooms offer only the promise of a view, such as Bright Angel Lodge, where budget accommodations meant a whole-two minute stroll over flagstones to the lip of the Grand Canyon. Old-fashioned sash windows with screens. The smell of dry sage. And close enough to slip out at night for stargazing under the black, black sky, or to be among the first greeting Dawn as her rosy red fingers glanced on the rosy red rocks of Canyon sandstone and siltstone layers.

Harlow/Parson home
Modest but historic was the third floor room at the Weatherford, in Flagstaff, Arizona. Iron bedsteads, a tiny corner sink, literal floor to ceiling windows that looked on the theatre across the alley, and the veranda outside the bar down the hall where popcorn was free whether you ordered a drink or not.

A skeleton key opened the rattly wood door.  The gaslight-dim hallway led out to a broad, red-carpeted, two-flight stairway down to the lobby, the pre-dawn streets, and the Amtrak station, one block away.

Western style, Flagstaff, AZ
A rooster crowed half-heartedly next door to the casita in Santa Fe. Dry leaves skittered along the entry path between adobe houses. The temperature dropped to freezing. Dogs barked. A light shone on a shrine to the Virgin in the chain-link fenced yard across the street. Outside another casita, in sunnier Phoenix, the sound of water circulating from a small waterfall to a pool surrounded by a garden of palm trees and hibiscus, and sagauro cactus with its fat bristly arms. A rare and early morning conjunction of Venus, Jupiter and Mars shone in the eastern sky.

An overheated third-floor walk-up in Toronto, windows iced shut;  a blow-up bed behind a feed store; a niece's basement rec room, with a futon bed unfolded beside the wet bar. A not-such-high-Quality inn. Before, between and after, the smell of the forest out the window, familiar yellow walls hung with pictures of calla lilies and icebergs, and a long slept-on mattress that needs turning.

Toujours la langue

Since my first visit in 2010, Quebec City has become a kind of second home for me. Motivated by a desire to learn more and--especially--practice speaking French, I have returned at least once, sometimes twice a year and stayed for as long as six months at a time. Maintenant, la chassure est sur l'autre pied, the shoe is on the other foot. A Quebec friend has come west to British Columbia to visit me. We met during my first visit to la ville de Québec, when I was searching for a conversation exchange partner, and for more than four years I have been her main anglophone contact. She can understand English much of the time, and read it with the aid of a dictionary, but without regular practice chez elle, she rarely speaks it.

A Québecoise photographs the Terry Fox Memorial at B.C. Place
What's more, she is a die-hard separatist. A lifetime supporter of the Parti Québecois, whose main goal is the separation of Quebec from the rest of Canada. An independent Quebec. This has been a long-standing Canadian issue, always at least on the back burner, and one that sometimes boils over as raucous referendum campaigns in which Quebeckers are exhorted by les oui and no sides. In 1970, the separatist movement turned violent when the FLQ (Front de libération du Québec) kidnapped the British Trade Commissioner and murdered a Quebec politician, Pierre LaPorte. The Prime Minister of that époque, Pierre Trudeau, imposed martial law and made lifetime enemies of many Quebeckers, including mon ami Québecoise.

So I was interested to see how my friend's first trip to western Canada would unfold, particularly what evidence she would find of the fact that Canada is officially un pays bilingue, a bilingual country, from coast to coast. Of course it isn't really. In the province of Quebec, almost 7 and a half million people either have French as their mother tongue or can conduct a conversation in French. Outside that province, the number drops to 2.5 million, and most of those speakers live east of Alberta. At our first lunch, however, my friend discovered that the waiter could communicate in French, at least enough to carry on a short exchange about how he learned the language as a semi-pro volleyball player training at a facility in Gatineau, Quebec. She heard her mother tongue spoken at the Museum of Anthropology, the hotel where she stayed, and the Vancouver aquarium. Most of these speakers were young, and at least one had attended a French immersion school. Much as my visitor and other Quebec residents detested the late prime minister Trudeau for having imposed martial law and for other actions too complex to describe here, his government supported the establishment of French immersion schools across the country. They are now so popular in most provinces that parents must line up for hours, even days, to enroll their children.

It's good to see that mon ami feels comfortable in British Columbia, one of only two or three forays she has made outside her province. On a hike through the woods, she freely sang out "bonjour" to those we passed, and the other hikers, while perhaps surprised, answered in kind--some awkwardly, some with confidence. Nothing like seeing how the other half lives to reconsider one's views. With more and more young people in Quebec learning English for practical reasons (and because of the influence of pop culture), and more students outside Quebec demanding French immersion, the idea of creating a sovereign Quebec for the sake of preserving the French language may have lingered past its "best before" date.

In from the cold there was language

Sunday evening, twilight. Feet tramped on the wooden stairs that lead up to the wooden porch where a fibre map prevented slipping. Smiles spread rosy cheeks that carried the cold inside. Kiss the right cheek first, then the left. That's how it is done in Quebec. Brrr. The warmth began with the greetings while the guests removed gloves, coats, extra sweaters, scarves, fur hats, toques, and the host found room for it all in the armoire. Boots lined up on rubber trays covered with newspaper to absorb the melting snow. The smell of chicken baking with olives and prunes drifted out from the kitchen. Light from a lamp hanging over the table twinkled on the wine glasses.
Comme toujours in Quebec, maybe everywhere in Canada, we were a mixed group, with two native Quebecois, three long term residents, one visitor and one part time resident. One born in Chicago, one in British Columbia, one in Nova Scotia, one in Michoacan, one in Ontario, one in Havana and two right here in la belle ville de Quebéc. Most were at least bilingue, a few spoke three languages fluently, and - as earlier in the day when I visited with a Lebanese friend who is now studying German, having already become fluent in French, English and Italian - more than one language was the means and the subject of the conversation. It flowed in French, for the most part, but also in English, and most charmingly in my view, sometimes a mixture in the same sentence, i.e. "Yo pienso que l'hiver est the worst season to visit Quebec." The natives and long term residents, and this enthusiastic visitor disagreed. Winter is an endangered season and here people know how to appreciate its beauty. The blue shadows on the snow, the frozen waves on le fleuve St. Laurent. A family Penthalon that took place on a minus twenty degree (celsius) Sunday.

With the exception of a doctor and the metallurgist from Mexico, we were language-focussed people: a writer, four English- or French- as a second language professors and a linguist who has spent his life studying why English functions the way that it does; why, for example, one says "it is snowing" instead of "it snows". Simple, progressive. En français, the verb works both ways. To say, "Je cherche" means I am looking for as well as I look for. Context reveals whether the looking is general or is happening right now. This group appreciates (in general) the nuances of such questions.

At one end of the table,  people discussed the translation of the phrase, "manger de la vache enragée, literally to eat mad cow, but meaning poor or fallen on hard times. Such an image-rich language. At the other end of the table the talk was of the cinema, a universal topic, and one of the speakers used the French verb "pirater," to describe how his son showed him how to download films.

In The Mighty Dead, his wonderful book about Homer, Adam Nicholson writes: "Of about three thousand languages spoken today, seventy-eight have a written literature. The rest exist in the mind and the mouth. Language - man - is essentially oral."

We ate, we talked. The coldest February since at least 1889 was almost over.

How to Go With a Flow that Begins as a Dribble

Sure there is a schedule, but prospective passengers are advised that the company cannot promise to stick to it. Not with the unknowns the ship must cope with. So this seven day journey out to the mouth of the St. Lawrence and back starts as a trip that may begin tonight, though the boat was supposed to depart last night, and may return in a week, or maybe more. Hmm. Such uncertainty.  Even the bus from Quebec City to Rimouski is delayed, by a mechanical problem. Before we leave the city the bus driver pulls over to explain that we must wait for a replacement bus, which takes about a half an hour. But the seats are comfortable, the bus uncrowded, and it isn't as if I am afraid I am going to miss the boat. Along the route we encounter another bus with a similar problem. The bus driver stops, apologizes, and we wait for the arrival of the travellers who were stranded on the side of the highway, for how long I am not sure.

This is not a third world country but Eastern Quebec in its late spring glory. Hedges of lilacs and a tall white flower shrub that looks like oleander, but could it be? This far north? Many round capped silos rising from dairy farms on rolling green terrain. Some stone houses but most more modern, though even a few of these retain the classic metal roof in the mansard style. Nouvelle France, the rural part. Stones like resting sheep on the tidal flats of the fleuve St. Laurent. On the side of the road, a rock formation so perfectly striated it resembles a cross section of ribbon fudge. Cow replicas announce dairies. Here the fields are narrow, the same shape as the seignuries first granted in the 1600's. These are not the well worked fields of France, with the typical cluster of houses that make up small villages where farm families reside. Communes. Villages with perhaps a single boulangerie, a pharmacie, boucherie, epicerie. Along the highway here, the bus stops to pick up or let passengers off at Petrocan stations or malls with their SAQ's - government liquor stores - their Provigo's, maybe a Target store.

At last,  Rimouski.  With time to spare I meander along the sea front two miles across from St. Barnaby Island. A hermit lived there. Ironically, Toussaint Le Cartier's name lives because he was a hermit.  Afraid he would perish on the voyage from France to the new world, 286 years ago if records don't lie, he promised God that if he survived he would live alone, off the fruits of his own labour, the first place he could land. That turned out to Saint-Barnabé. The poor fellow was an epileptic, according to reports from those who knew of him. The disease caused one of his eyes to bulge out, and for comfort, he had his dog lick it. Ah, stories: what makes them last? Why has the tale of Toussaint persisted?

The night is warm, the air sweet, the river slowly rising up the long sandy shore as I walk from the bus station to la marina in the late dusk light. A man pruning his lilacs smiles his assent when I ask if I can I take a blossom from his pile. It is almost dark when I reach the quai where the Bella Desgagnes has at last arrived. Soon this one-year old vessel will accept passengers and all the containers the gleaming white crane is in the process of hoisting onto the deck, and we will head downstream, with stops at Sept-Iles, Anticosti Island, Havre St Pierre, Natashquan, Kegaska, La Romaine, Harrington Harbor, St. Augustin, La Tabatière and, just at the border of Labrador, Blanc Sablon. We are not flowing yet, though we rock gently in our comfortable beds as the tide lifts us into the night.

Who do we think we are?

It was no surprise that the discussion at The Travelling Book Café in Quebec wound round to language and how it affects our identities. Language enters conversations at every level here, and it is more complex than the simple divide between those who speak English and those who speak French. In this group of Anglophones, the majority of whom have lived in Quebec for decades, there were a few who claimed to be comfortable as minorities in this French-first province, but others still feel like outsiders. The sense of who they are has changed: since the society around them identifies them as Anglos, they have to consider what that implies, something that did not come up before they moved from Wisconsin or Saskatchewan, Poland, Maryland, Ontario.

As for French, having recently returned from the mother country that gave Quebec its langue maternelle, having learned that many of the first arrivals from France in the 1600's did not even speak French, but one of the regional languages of France at that time, such as Breton, Oc or Gallo, I saw how the French that has developed in Quebec could have been influenced by those languages, certainly was influenced by the classic French in novels that were required reading in school. It would be as if a group of Anglos were separated for generations from other English speakers, and clung to the diction of Shakespeare. Of course that changed with the influence of English-Canadian and American culture via mass media. Still, a grand controverse erupted over the comments, supposedly misinterpreted (but don't they always say that?), of the Montreal tennis star, Eugenie Bouchard, who said that while she fears she may have too much of an Anglo accent when she speaks French, at least she no longer sounds like a Québecoise. The newspaper columnist who responded to this young woman, whom he otherwise admires, was noticeably hurt. An accent reveals our origins, he wrote. We should never be ashamed of our origins, who we are, where we come from, even if some of the wonderful Quebec films that have been produced in the last few decades have to be subtitled for screening in cinemas en France.

Identity: a major theme in my novel You Again, and the topic that elicits such personal revelations at The Travelling Book Café. A man who comes from North Carolina began the discussion with an appropriately general comment about how our identity is influenced by a web of things, including family, country, religion. A couple of women insisted that they are who they were born to be and have never questioned it, but I wonder: have any of us been so confident, life long, that we could avoid asking questions that get to the heart of our being? One good reason for keeping the Book Café to less than 20, preferably 15 people, is that everyone has a chance to speak, and after awhile, the more intimate stories begin coming out. One woman defines herself as someone who is not like the rest of her birth family, who are just plain mean, she said. Another one confessed that the culture she moved into when she came to Quebec with her husband caused her to fall into a depression she thinks stemmed from a loss of connection with self. A 20 year old admitted that while she attends school in the U.S., and is a U.S. citizen, she does not feel like an American. She has lived in many parts of the world with her travelling parents and assimilated aspects of each culture. She is now some kind of hybrid, she feels, no matter what her passport says.

Close to the age of my character Mattie, who tries to rescue his own identity by escaping the identity theft ring he was part of, this young woman's story was particularly poignant. Outwardly lovely and poised, she is searching for stable footholds as she moves forward into a career, into adult life. That won't be the end of it, though, at least it is not for most people, as Mattie's mother, another character in You Again, demonstrates. Sense of self changes as life circumstances change. What happens when you learn that your mother has been lying to you about your true father? What image do you have of yourself when the world no longer reflects the beautiful woman/handsome man you used to be? How far down do you have to reach to find your essence? In what language do you talk to yourself?

Nancy Huston, Robert Le Page: images worth thousands of words

It would have been better to know the book Infrared, Infrarouge, before Nancy Huston's reading/concert last night. Instead, I read about the book beforehand, because, while I understand much of what I hear in French, I still miss a lot, and if I am missing too much, I drift. This brilliant writer, several of whose books I have read, including Cantique des plaines (en francais), knows how to deliver a performance that, for me, enhanced the text I only partially understood, cause de la langue. Pianist Édouard Ferlet augmented the rhythms of her phrases and the word play. Under his fingers, music rippled like water  that occasionally foamed exuberantly over the hard - sometimes literally hard - protuberances of the narrative. At points he abandoned the keys to play directly on the strings of the grand piano. A black piano. Édouard dressed in black, except for his feet, in red shoes. Nancy also in black, but with red sandals and a long red scarf that she arranged in various ways to differentiate characters.
During breaks in the reading, Édouard took over and Nancy moved close to listen, leaning on the piano like a jazz singer, or dancing around the sanctuary of the chapelle au musée de l'amèrique francophone, beneath the soaring, almost cylindrical, vault. In this season of yet another grand controverse in Quebec, about whether or not Quebec identity  might be compromised by government employees wearing ostentatious signs of religion, such as the hijab, it seemed that Nancy was directly challenging the full house of Quebeckers to notice that her head was wrapped in a red foulard here in this former Roman Catholic chapel.  The music, the varied inflections of her voice, as she moved from character to character, the red and black. Visual and aural images produced an effect similar to the infrared photography she uses as a metaphor.

Imagery, of course, is Robert Le Page's genius, and in the revival of Les Aguilles et Opium at Theatre Trident, he chose a revolving cube, (if that is not a contradiction) into and out of which moved his autobiographical character Robert, the literally airborne
Jean Cocteau, and a mute Miles Davis. Dizzying at moments, when it was hard to tell which was the floor, which the ceiling, the image nevertheless served the non-linear time scheme of the piece. Like thought, which is random and surprising, which collects and twins ideas and memories.

Confederates, faceless men, draft dodgers...old wars reconsidered

Reading a paper book, and  an ebook, both concerned with the lingering effect of old armed conflicts. Civil wars, if wars can ever be considered civil. Confederates in the Attic is the ebook, and I am reading it in preparation for my southern odyssey in November.  I finished the first few chapters on the train from Toronto back to Quebec City, between glances out the window at sumacs dripping scarlet alongside the tracks, and white birch trunks composing a warp behind the turning maples.
Tony Horwitz writes about his boyhood obsession with the the war between the states, as it was called, his experience as a hardcore reenactor of life as a confederate soldier, and the southern loyalists he met in Salisbury, North Carolina. As the Via train rolled east, after a switch at the Montreal train station, (where I picked up a felafel sandwich from my favorite Libainaise food kiosk) I learned of the commitments people make to keep memories alive. There is even a group called Children of the Confederacy. Horwitz examines the South through a lens ground to a single focus. My aim is to get a general first  impression. Instead of following the trail bloodied by combatants in the 1860's, a subject that never really compelled me, except when I was in school and I had to memorize the Gettysburg Address, I plan to make my first trip to the southern U.S. a bit of a literary pilgrimage. I want to visit Asheville and think of the wordy romanticism of Thomas Wolfe; You Can't Go Home Again waits on my ereader too.

But here, chez moi, it is a novel en français, L'ombre du vent, or The Shadow of the Wind, that absorbs me. Even though I am not yet, nor may ever be, fluent in French, I can read well enough to savour the language, the style of Zafon, the compelling voice of his narrator, who, as a child, is taken by his father to a cemetery for forgotten books. That sequence begins a story haunted both by a man with a face burned so that he has no features, and, more intrinsically, by the Spanish civil war. But a cemetery for forgotten books! How wonderful! All we authors must wish for a kind of Graveyard day (I remember the Bobby Ann Mason story), when people would come visit our neglected books

That has happened to some extent recently with my novel, Centre/Center (Talon, 1992) which, coincidentally, also concerns war, the Vietnam war in this case, and consequent migration to Canada of draft dodgers and war protestors. A few messages from readers who discovered the book (in the kind of cemetery that now exists on-line), and a book club discussion have convinced me that the divisions created by that war also still exist, here in Canada and in the United States. It was a different kind of civil, rather, uncivil war.

En francais

Quel domage! C'est fini. Deux semaines d'etudiant la langue avec dix autres. Notre enseignante Nathalie etait charmante et elle a prepare pour chaque classe. Je m'amusais essaie de parler. Pour la fin de le cours, nous a mange ensemble au restaurant, Les Salades des Fruits a Le Centre. Tres delicieux! Pendant ces semaines, j'ai vu aussi le film, Les Herbes Folles, et le piece de theatre, Henry V, concernant la bataille d'Agincourt et Henry's marriage avec Catherine de France. Maintenant, je dois continuer etudier parce que je vais aller a la Ville de Quebec cet Septembre. Peut etre, par cet fois, je connaisserai comment faire les accents dans le texte! Il y a trop de trop apprendre, mais je veux comprendre la langue meilleur, et Quebec et les Quebecois.