Sunday, 25 January 2015

Quebec - My Country is Winter

It's hard to blog about Quebec at this time of the year and not notice how cold the temperature there is right now. I always have quite a few cities around the world displayed on the weather apps on my phone. (What, weather obsessed? No, not me!) With a low today of -19 Celsius (-2.2 Fahrenheit) Montreal is the second-coldest place on my list and only Ulan Bator in Mongolia has a lower temperature (-21 C/-5.8 F)

With an average 141 days of snow per year, Schefferville, on the border with Newfoundland and Labrador, is the snowiest place in Quebec and Quebec itself is one of the snowiest places in the world, its main rivals being Kamchatka and northern Japan. 

Quebec City hosts a winter carnival every year, this year's carnival is starting next week, on the 30th of January 2015. As well as events, workshops and bemused tourists, the carnival also has a mascot, Le Bonhomme - a kind of gigantic snowman - and was first held in 1894. It attracts around a million visitors a year and is one of the world's biggest winter festivals. 

Rue Pontiac in Montreal by Jonathan Malboeuf
Winter plays a very important role in Quebecois culture and, traditionally, it was a time when people would retreat to their log cabins and live off fruits they'd preserved after one of the world's shortest harvests. In a modern age, where year-long productivity is the norm, it's hard to imagine a whole society going into hibernation in this way and, indeed, one of the things that shocked me most about Quebec was the fact that people only get around 10 days paid holiday every year!

In his book, Sacré Blues: An unsentimental journey through Quebec (2000) Taras Grescoe talks about this period of retreat and how it quite possibly led to the creation of great art - people in Quebec love their actors, poets and musicians. He also claims that people in modern-day Quebec have declared war on winter. Montreal has one of the world's most aggressive snow-removal policies and it costs the city around $54 million dollars a year to keep the streets snow-free. 

Un appel etrange by Jonathan Malboeuf
Grescoe provides even more evidence than Quebec is at war with winter, for example, he highlights the fact that modern movies about Quebec tend to be set in summer and winter is no longer celebrated. Thinking of the movies I've watched as part of my research, this is definitely true and I can think of very few winter scenes and, even when winter scenes are included, they represent a low-point, psychologically, in the narrative. 

Grescoe also points out that around 10% of the Quebec's population heads south during the winter months, mostly to resorts in Florida like Hallandale and Hollywood Beach. Winter costs a lot of money; people have to buy medicine and winter clothes, cars deteriorate quicker in Quebec than in other parts of Canada and roads need constant repair after the winter season.  

But winter encourages a sense of community life over individualism and, surely, this is a very Quebecois characteristic, at odds with other North American cultures, which seem to put the needs of the individual above all else? 

In one of his most famous and popular songs, the singer Gilles Vigneault proclaims:

Mon pays c'est pas un pays, c'est l'hiver
(My country is not a country, it's winter)

And it makes one wonder what ever happened to the love of winter in Quebec? 

Given the evidence of global warming and the fact that we modern generations have been experiencing much milder winters than our predecessors experienced (even in places like Canada!), winter is fast becoming an 'endangered season'. 

I know it's easy to say for me to say this, sitting in the pleasant and relatively balmy winter of southern England, but I kind of wish we could all appreciate winter a bit more. Okay, it causes inconveniences, meetings need to be cancelled, business grinds to a halt, but why not throw another log on the fire, start reading a good book and just enjoy the break from constant activity?

Image credits:

For this blog post, I wanted to highlight the photography of Flickr member. Mr Urbain, aka Jonathan Malboeuf. You can see more of Jonathan's pictures on his photo stream. Thanks Jonathan for sharing these with us, using the Creative Commons license.  

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Quebec - How I made Poutine

It's surprising in many ways that poutine has become the dish that's most associated with Quebec. Indeed, when I was looking at the different options of things I could make to represent Quebec, I kept coming across poutine again and again.

Despite its historical connections to France, food in Quebec seems to be fairly 'down-to-earth' and, in many ways, poutine encapsulates the different traditions of Quebec. It's also versatile enough to lend itself to other culinary traditions and these days you can get all kinds of poutines with Greek, Italian and TexMex flavours. I actually tried a real poutine when I was in Quebec, at Rimouski bus station - my poutine was Italian-style with a Bolognaise sauce.
My first experience of poutine at Rimouski bus station

With dubious origins as a 1950's late-night snack to accompany beer, poutine is now gaining a reputation as good hangover food and, if this Guardian article is to believed, Quebecois poutine is poised to take over the world!

Posh chips and gravy?  Perhaps.  All I know is that it's one of the least healthiest dishes I've made for this blog and I can only describe it as a real carb attack.  Tasty though, in a guilty pleasure kind of way. Not to mention, easy-to-make.

The ingredients

I looked at lots of different recipes when researching for this blog post, then made up my own recipe based on what I could remember and what I could get my hands on. The hardest ingredient to find was cheese curds and, unfortunately, I couldn't get my hands on any, but substituted with paneer, an Indian cheese which has a similar consistancy.  Anyway, here are the ingredients I used to make my poutine.

Ingredients for Quebecois poutine
5/6 baking potatoes
Unsalted butter
1 onion
1 garlic clove
Worcestershire sauce
Cider vinegar
1 cup beef stock
1 cup vegetable stock
1/2 cup flour
Pork lardons

How I made Poutine

Preparation of poutine started with the potatoes, which I peeled, then sliced into chips and immersed in a bowl full of water. I then put these in the fridge for a couple of hours before coming back to finish the preparations for this dish.

I usually prepare all of the ingredients before starting to cook

The next step I took was to fry the pork lardons. To be honest, I could have done this at the end, but I thought I would be too busy with the chips and gravy, so it would be good to have one less thing to worry about.

The main challenge with poutine is timing it, so the all of the ingredients, except the cheese, are hot when they arrive on the plate.

Most traditional poutine recipes are vegetarian, but I decided to add some meat, as I wanted to have something in there that wasn't purely carbs! In a way, lardons are quite French, so I guess I was gallicising this otherwise very North American dish.

Fry the pork lardons

My next step was to prepare the gravy, which I did by first frying the onion and garlic, then adding Worcestershire sauce and Cider vinegar. I went a bit mad on the old vinegar which I wouldn't recommend as it influences the taste of the gravy. Once the onions had softened a bit, I added the beef and vegetable stock and let whole thing come to the boil.

Fry the onion and garlic in Worcestershire sauce and cider vinegar

Once the mixture had cooked for a bit (about fifteen minutes), I took them off the heat and strained the liquid into a bowl, discarding the onions. I'm not a great believer in discarding food, but I wanted to stick to the original idea of poutine. If I were making it again, however, I'd probably keep the onions and garlic in the gravy.

Strain the mixture, discarding the onions and garlic

Using the same pot, I added the butter, letting it melt before stirring in the flour. This made a kind of batter, known as a roux. Before the roux fried too much, I started stirring in the rest of the gravy mixture and whisk it, until the roux dissolved completely, thickening the gravy/sauce.

Melt the butter

Add flour to the melted butter

Mix the flour and butter to make a roux

Stir in the onion/stock mixture and whisk to make a yummy grave which looks like butterscotch

Next I deep-fat fried the potato chips, by heating half a pot of vegetable oil and putting the chips into the oil in batches. I've always wondered how to get crispy chips and now I know - you need to deep-fat fry them, drain the oil off on paper, let them cool and then fry them a second time. It's the first time I've done this and the second frying made my chips really crispy!

I was a bit disorganised in general and had no kitchen paper to drain the chips, so I resorted to good old newspaper, which is actually great at soaking up the oil - I'd recommend it, better than paper towels!

'White' chips after first deep-fat fry

Greasy spoon on newspaper

Brown chips after second deep-fat fry

Once the chips had browned, I transferred them to a plate, adding the pork lardons (cold by now, but that didn't really matter). I then took the squares of paneer out of the fridge and sprinkled these on top, before pouring over the gravy. The key to a good poutine, I guess is thin gravy, so it seeps down through the cheese and chips and also chilled cheese, so it doesn't melt immediately, but retains a rubbery consistency when the gravy is poured over the top.


Chips + lardons

Chips + lardons + cheese

Chips + lardons + cheese + gravy = poutine

The gravy was yummy - I was a bit worried about the colour, but more than one recipe stated that it should look like butterscotch, so I guess my gravy was fine. It certainly tasted good - a warm and filling dish on a cold winter's day!

Quebecois poutine

Image credits:

All images were taken by me on my trusty Canon EOS 1100D.  Feel free to re-use these images with the Creative commons license:

- Attribution (especially to this blog post)
- Non-commercial
- Share alike

Saturday, 10 January 2015

Quebec - Putting the God in Gaspé

It surprised me to learn that Canada is a predominantly Catholic country.  According to the 2001 census, approximately 44% of Canada's population is Catholic, whereas only 30% of the population is Protestant.  As with Germany, when I was researching religion in Nordrhein-Westfalen for my blog post earlier this year, I've grown up assuming that Canada was a predominantly Protestant country, because of its role in the British Empire and strong place Protestantism holds in the country's political sphere.

As with the research I did into religion in Germany, the figures are skewed somewhat by those whose parents (or grandparents) would have professed the protestant faith, but who now have no religious belief. The situation in Canada confirms my belief that the development of Protestantism over previous centuries has, in many ways, led to 21st-century secularism.

Religion in Quebec

Cathedral Christ-Roi in Gaspe
Much less surprising, due to its French and Irish heritage, is the fact that Quebec is predominantly Catholic, in fact, according to the 2001 census, Quebec is 83% Catholic and only 5% Protestant, having the lowest percentage of Protestants in any province or territory of Canada. With around 24% of Canada's population, Quebec certainly influences the statistics in favour of Catholicism and around 46% of Canada's Catholics live in Quebec.

Canadian Protestants

If you take Quebec out of the equation, then the overall stats for Canada would look slightly different, with Canada-minus-Quebec being 37% Protestant and 31% Catholic.  Of course, the ratio of Catholic to Protestants varies from one Canadian province/territory to the next. The other predominantly Catholic provinces/territories are New Brunswick (which also has a large French Catholic population), Northwest Territories and Prince Edward Island (although only marginally so).

Ontario is split 50/50 with around 35% of people professing each faith - the provinces/territories with the highest number of Protestants are Nunavut and Newfoundland/Labrador. Nova Scotia, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, British Columbia and Yukon all have predominantly Protestant populations.

The Jews of Montreal

Moe Wilensky's in Mile End, Montreal by Patrick Donovan
As I've been researching about Quebec and, particularly as I've been reading Mordecai Richler's novel Barney's Version, I've become very aware of Montreal's prominent Jewish population and the place Montreal has had in the history of Jewish emigration to North America.

Montreal has several predominantly Jewish suburbs, like Cote-St-Luc and Hampstead. Richler would argue that the oppressive nationalism of French-Canadians in Quebec in the 1990's has convinced many Jewish people to leave the province and move, either to the United States, Israel or neighbouring Ontario.

The 2001 stats would seem to bear this out, as it showed that 58% of Canada's Jews live in Ontario, compared to the 27% of Canadian Jews who call Quebec home. Interestingly, British Columbia has the highest percentage of Jewish people, with 5.5% of people in British Columbia professing the Jewish faith.  British Columbia seems to be the most religiously diverse part of Canada, as it also has the nation's highest percentages of Buddhists, Sikhs and people professing no religious beliefs (around 36% of British Columbians fall into this latter category).

Religious diversity in Canada

Detail of Montreal's Basilique Notre-Dame
I was surprised to learn that Alberta has the highest percentage of Muslims (16.7%) in Canada, although it's hard to compare Alberta's population with Ontario's, which is four times bigger and this doesn't change the fact that 60% of Canada's Muslims live in Ontario.  Ontario is also home to 55% of Canada's Orthodox Christians and 73% of Canadian Hindus.

Newfoundland/Labrador and Nunavut seem to be the places with the least religious diversity and Newfoundland/Labrador has the most religious/Christian population with 97% of people professing either Protestant or Catholic faith.

The home of Raëlism

One of the most unusual 'religions' I've come across whilst I've been researching Quebec is Raëlism, a quasi-religious belief in UFOs and extraterrestrials that was founded in 1974 by a Frenchman called Claude Vorilhon, aka RaëlRaël now lives in Quebec, although his movement has around 90,000 followers in 90 countries world-wide. Raëlians use the swastika as a symbol of peace and believe in sexual liberation, cloning, intelligent design and the idea that aliens (the Alohim) will one day return to Earth, which they created.  They're due to arrive in Jerusalem in 2025!

Quebec has one of the highest concentrations of Raëlians in the world and it was interesting to read about Taras Grascoe's encounter with the Raëlian movement, which he recounts in his book, Sacre Blues: An Unsentimental Journey through Quebec.

Image credits:

The image of Moe Wilensky's in Mile End, Montreal was taken by Flickr member Patrick Donovan, who is from Quebec City.  You can see more of Patrick's photos on his flickr account. Thanks Patrick for sharing this image using the Creative Commons license.

The images of the cathedrals in Gaspe and Montreal were taken by me - feel free to re-use these images with the Creative Commons license: Attribution, Share-alike, non-commercial.  

Sunday, 4 January 2015

Quebec - The Empress of Ireland

I first read about the sinking of the RMS Empress of Ireland when I was travelling through Rimouski last October. The RMS Empress of Ireland sank in the early hours of the 29th of May 1914 and last year saw the centenary of this maritime disaster on the St Lawrence River. I was surprised to learn about it, as it's not something I'd ever heard of before, although it was Canada's most serious peace-time shipping accident.

Of course, we're all familiar with the RMS Titanic which sank two years before the Empress of Ireland.  Celine Dion, perhaps Quebec's most famous daughter, famously sang the title song for the 1997 movie starring Leonardo Di Caprio and Kate Winslett

As I've researched more about these maritime disasters, I've begun to wonder what was it that made the sinking of the Titanic so famous, whereas the sinking of the Empress of Ireland has been more or less forgotten? I've come up with a few possible reasons:


Although both disasters saw the loss of large numbers of lives (over 1,500 for the Titanic and over 1,000 for the Empress of Ireland), the sinking of the Titanic happened first and, in 1912 it was the biggest maritime disaster in living memory. There were quite a few maritime disasters in the early 20th century (e.g. the loss of the Camorta in the Bay of Bengal in 1902 claimed more than 700 lives and the loss of the General Slocum in New York, claimed more than 1,000 lives in 1904), however, the sheer number of people who died in the Titanic sinking shocked the general public and meant that the event really stuck in people's minds.


Whilst both ships sunk during peace-time, the sinking of the Empress of Ireland happened only a few months before the outbreak of World War 1. Although the sinking of this ship was a great tragedy, the loss of life soon paled into insignificance when compared to the many millions who died in Europe and elsewhere during the First World War.  Whilst the sinking of the Titanic had several years to influence public opinion, the sinking of the Empress of Ireland was obscured by the outbreak of war.

The unsinkable maiden

Even before the Titanic set sail, her builders and promoters had pronounced her unsinkable.  All the more tragic then, when the Titanic sank on her maiden voyage.  The Empress of Ireland, by contrast, had been plying the North Atlantic since 1906 and had made the trip between Liverpool and Quebec quite a few times before she sank.

Dramatic retelling

Although much of the 1997 movie Titanic may be fabricated or exaggerated, we all enjoyed the re-imagining of the passengers' experience aboard this ship.  More than 700 people survived the sinking of the Titanic and the three hours that it took the ship to sink left some leeway for dramatic retelling of the disaster.  The Empress of Ireland also had survivors, but the ship sank in just 14 minutes which, I guess would be more difficult to build a drama/story around.


Rimouski on the St Lawrence River
As sea-travel was the most important way of getting around in the early 20th century (and indeed the centuries before that), I'd imagine that maritime disasters really captured the public imagination at that time.  Having said that, the location of the disaster would have played an important role in terms of how interested people in Europe and North America were in disasters of this kind.

For example, a Japanese ship, the Kiche Maru sank during a typhoon in the Pacific, just four months after the Titanic disaster, with a loss of more than 1,000 lives, but it was too remote for most Europeans and Americans to relate to. Similarly, The Empress of Ireland sank in a slightly obscure corner of Canada, rather than the more dramatic location of the icebergs in the North Atlantic and this may have influenced the public imagination and re-telling of these stories.


It's interesting to note some similarities in terms of the numbers involved in both disasters. Bizarrely, in both tragedies 68% of passengers lost their lives and 32% of passengers survived.  This is a weird coincidence and I wonder if anyone has ever done a study into average survival rates in shipping disasters?

Less surprising is the fact that, in both cases, the survival rate was much higher amongst first-class passengers (41% on the Empress and 62% on the Titanic) than amongst third-class passengers (18.5% on the Empress and 25% on the Titanic).

Out of the 138 children aboard the Empress of Ireland, only 4 survived.  By comparison, 56 children survived the sinking of the Titanic out of a total number of 109.  All of the children who died in the Titanic disaster were third-class passengers, except one.

The Empress of Ireland story

I'm sure there must be some interesting stories from the Empress of Ireland disaster which have yet to be dramatised.  The St Lawrence River is wide at the point where the Empress sank and you can't really see the far shore, as the river is already opening out to become the sea.

To this date, there is a lot of controversy around the cause of the disaster and I watched a documentary called Last Voyage of the Empress of Ireland (available on YouTube) which questions the original verdict that the Empress of Ireland sank because she was rammed by another boat. The documentary calls into question the actions taken by the Empress' captain, Henry Kendall, and hints that there was an element of big business v small business during the original enquiry into the sinking of this ship.

Disasters today

In case you think large-scale maritime disasters are a thing of a past, it's worth noting more recent events like the Le Joola ferry disaster off the coast of Gambia in 2002 (1,864 lives lost) or the Doña Paz ferry disaster in the Philippines in 1987, the biggest peacetime maritime disaster ever, with the loss of 4,386 lives!

In the past few weeks, we've had our fair share of travel disasters, with the loss of AirAsia flight QZ8501 in Indonesia and the Norman Atlantic ferry fire off the coast of southern Italy. Air and maritime disasters seem to be a constant theme in the 21st century, where our seas and skies are full of boats and planes. Given the large number of ferries and planes that are travelling every day compared to the relatively low number of accidents that happen, I can't help but hope that these bigger disasters will continue to be few and far between.

Image credits:

The image of RMS Empress of Ireland is from the Library and Archives Canada and is in the public domain.

The image of Rimouski was taken by me, feel free to re-use this with the Creative Commons license: Attribution, Share alike, non-commercial.  

Friday, 26 December 2014

Quebec - Je me souviens

Quebec's motto is Je me souviens or I remember and this has prompted me to do some research into memory and how our memories work, not a topic that's specific to Quebec, of course, but something which is of universal interest to the human experience.

It's not entirely clear how Quebec's motto came about, however, it seems to have been first written in stone in 1883 by the architect, Eugène-Étienne Taché, who designed the provincial parliament building in Quebec city.  It's funny how writing the motto in stone has literally kept it in human memory, so it persists as Quebec's motto until modern times.

Remember what, exactly?

Coat of Arms of Quebec
There are several possibilities for the source of this motto - it could have been adapted from the Latin phrase Ne obliviscaris (Do not forget) which is on the arms of the British Marquess de Lorne (a.k.a. the 9th Duke of Argyll) who was the fourth Governor General of Canada, including the period when the parliament was being built.  Or, as others point out, it could mean I remember the founders of Quebec (Jacques Cartier, Samuel de Champlain etc) who were also honoured with statues on the parliament building.

Whichever way you look at it, Quebec's motto seems to encapsulate an idealogical struggle between the British rulers of Canada and their French subjects in Quebec - whereas the British are saying Don't forget (who is in charge around here), the French-Canadians are responding, I remember (who the founders of Canada actually were).

Personally, I think Taché's motto was a quiet act of rebellion on behalf of French-Canadians, superficially paying respect to the British Governor-General, but with a hidden message that would inspire fellow Canadiens.

What I don't remember

I've always thought of myself as having a bad memory - I think it's because I'm easily distracted and don't fully process things when they're happening, so I have bad 'recall' of events afterwards.  It amazes me when I look over the past blog posts and how many things I've understood and 'known' at one point, but no longer really remember.  Perhaps this blog should be called Learning (and then forgetting) about the World! 

Of course, it's impossible to remember everything and what I'm left with, after all of my learning and research, is a deeper understanding of the place I'm blogging about and a general impression that stays with me, even if I don't remember the detail of everything I've learnt! The joy of the Internet and the digital revolution, in a way, is that we no longer really need to remember things - information is constantly just a few clicks away, but I wonder how this will impact on future generations' ability to remember things?

Why do we need to remember things?

To help with my research, I read Memory: A very short introduction by Jonathan K Foster, part of the Oxford University Press's VSI series.  It's an interesting book which outlines our understanding of memory, how we memorise things, the difference between short- and long-term memory and major developments in human understanding of memory, such as Ebbinghaus' Learning curve, Bartlett's The War of the Ghosts story and Schacter's Seven sins of memory.

I was really impressed by the evidence of how unreliable memory is. A lot of the time, our memories are either completely made up or influenced by how we were feeling when the memory was being created.  Of course, there is a strong connection between memory and learning and, to answer the question above, the reason we need to remember things is because memory is key to our survival.

Without memory, we wouldn't be able to use the tools that have made us so successful as a species - not just physical tools, such as hammers and knives, but also tools like language, the ability to write and to think rationally, learning how to drive or operate machinery or technology - these are all dependent on our ability to consign thoughts and processes to memory.

How reliable are our memories?

What is a little bit worrying, however, is that we trust our memories as much as we do. If you ever talk to your parents, siblings or friends about events that happened a long time ago, you'll often find that you each have your own version of events.  Precisely because we can't remember the detail of things that we experience, our minds tend to summarise and leave us with an impression that becomes our total understanding of the past.

It's quite scary that, given what we know about the unreliability of memories, eyewitness accounts of crimes still play a large part in the evidence given in trials. I'm not sure what the solution is, but I do wonder whether or not eyewitness testimony is really that valid?

Change blindness

Another interesting phenomenon mentioned in the VSI book is the fact that most of us are blind to minor changes taking place in our immediate environment. As we're busy processing the world around us, our brains filter out information that doesn't seem to be that relevant.

As you can see in the video below, there is a well-tested experiment on change blindness that shows how you get Person A to ask Person B for directions on the street, but when you interrupt the conversation and replace the Person A with Person C, Person B will continue giving the directions without noticing that the person they're talking to is someone else.

Really interesting and I'm pretty sure I would fall for this one!

Another perspective on Je me souviens

The Quebecois motto Je me souviens has become a mantra for nationalists in Quebec, however Eric R Scott, a documentary film director based in Montreal has turned the motto on its head, by using it as the title for his documentary on anti-semitism in Quebec in the 1930's.  You can watch the whole documentary on YouTube and it's a topic that has caused a lot of controversy and inspired debate in modern Quebec (but also in Canada and other parts of the world).

I guess Je me souviens could be used as a rallying cry for any minority or subjugated population that has been written out of the history books. It is important to remember the past and learn from the mistakes of previous generations, particularly around issues such as the Holocaust.  I suspect, however, that reaching public consensus on how the past is remembered, is something that will continue to cause controversy and inspire debate for many years to come!

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Quebec - La belle province

I generally decide the places I'm going to blog about months in advance and, with Quebec, I was hoping that it would be the first time I would actually visit the place whilst I was blogging about it.  I visited Quebec in early October this year but, as you can see from today's date, my armchair travelling took a lot longer than my real-life travelling and I was busy reading and blogging about Palestine, when I was physically travelling across Canada!

Nevertheless, it was great to visit Quebec before approaching it as a blogging topic and I did a lot of reading about Quebec and Canada when I was there in October.  I've also come back with lots of photos (like the ones illustrating this post) that I can use for my blog but, more importantly, I have context for Quebec, which is really important to me.  When I see Montreal or Canada on the news or depicted in movies, I now have a sense of what it's like there and that puts everything into context for me.

Montreal skyline
I'd been to North America once before, on a visit to Cuba in 2010, but this was my first time to set foot on the mainland of North America and, in many ways, Quebec was a fantastic starting point, as some of the first European settlements were in New France - Newfoundland, Nova Scotia and Quebec. It was also great to start my North American adventures in a French-speaking environment and in a city like Montreal which, to me, just looked like the New York I've seen in the movies.

I was fascinated by the steps leading up to the front doors above street level, the weird hydrant pipes sticking out of buildings and the dull brown brickwork of Montreal - I arrived in the midst of a heavy rain storm and the city looked quite grim in the dark afternoon, with an occasional glint of glass or steel from one of Montreal's many high-rise buildings.  I really loved Montreal though - the city has a certain edgy feel to it and it's incredibly vibrant and pulsating with an artistic energy that appealed to me.

Quebec city rooftops
As I only had a week in Canada, I decided to limit myself to Quebec and visit the two main cities, Montreal and Quebec city, as well as somewhere more off the beaten track.  Quebec city was gorgeous, very touristy, pretty cobblestone streets and the autumnal sun was beating down on me, as I set off on a walk around the city walls.  It's in a fantastic location, overlooking the St Lawrence river and it reminded me of Edinburgh, with its Chateau Frontenac perched on top of a hill in the ville haute.

My 'off the beaten track' experience was a very long bus journey to La Gaspesie - one of Quebec's most interesting sub-regions, a peninsula extending eastwards towards the Atlantic ocean and Europe. I saw some of the places where the explorer Jacques Cartier landed during his first voyage to Canada, which he claimed for the French crown.  La Gaspesie is a wonderful place and a world unto itself in many ways - all three experiences; multicultural Montreal, quintessential Quebec city and faraway Gaspesie, gave me a sense of Quebec's variety, as well as its rich history and fascinating cultures.

La Gaspesie
I'm really looking forward to blogging about Quebec over the coming weeks - I've already started reading, listening to music and watching movies.  I hope you'll join me, so we can learn about Quebec together!

Image credits:

All of the photos used on this blog post where taken by me and you are free to re-use them using the Creative Commons license:

- Attribution (particularly to this blog)
- Share alike
- Non-commercial

I've created a set of photos for Quebec which you can see on my Flickr account.  

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Palestine - The Final Word

It's been more than two months since I started blogging about Palestine and I've been quite busy with 'real life' travel during that period, having visited Canada and Morocco for the first time, so these trips slowed my armchair travelling down a bit!

Blogging about Palestine

It's been interesting telling people 'I'm blogging about Palestine' and how different that feels to when I told people 'I'm blogging about Oaxaca' or 'I'm blogging about Nordrhein-Westfalen'.  The very word Palestine immediately evokes the political situation and, despite trying to see beyond the politics for this blog, it's been impossible to learn about Palestinian culture, without understanding the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, the psychological impact of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank and the increasing sense of imprisonment that people in the Palestinian territories feel.

What have I learned?

I've learned a lot about Palestine during the past few months - of course, about the history of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the reasons why Palestine looks the way it does in the 21st century. I've learned about orientalism and how it continues to influence European and 'Western' ideas about the rest of the world. I learned how to cook a traditional Palestinian dish, Musakhan. I learned about the Palestinians-in-Israel who make up 20% of Israel's population. I spent countless hours discovering Palestinian music, I watched four Palestinian movies and read six books (and two recipe books) related to Palestine.

The London connection

Tatreez cafe in Stoke Newington
I was also lucky enough to find a real Palestinian restaurant in London, the wonderful Tatreez cafe in Stoke Newington (Hackney).  We enjoyed a delicious home-made feast and the cafe gets a lot of its ingredients from a Palestinian fair-trade food supplier called Zaytoun CIC. Not only did we have a great meal in Tatreez, but we left with a shopping bag full of Palestinian couscous and za'atar.

Things I'd like to learn more about

As usual, I didn't have time to explore every topic that I encountered during my research - I would recommend the following areas, if you want to learn even more about Palestine:

The disappearance of the Dead Sea
The Palestinians of Chile
The Samaritans
The history of suicide bombing
The work of Eretz Acheret and the Israeli Jews who support aspects of the Palestinian cause
The Palestinian tourist industry
The Maccabean Revolt
The Massacre of Hebron's Jewish community in 1929
The glass-blowers of Hebron and their connections with Venice
The olive tree and the olive harvest
The Australian fundamentalist Christian, Denis Michael Rohan, who tried to burn down the Al-Aqsa mosque in 1969
The African-Palestinian population of Jerusalem and their contribution to the Palestinian resistance movement
Sitt Tunshuq, the mysterious female leader of 14th century Palestine
Cities below sea-level
The rock hyrax

The Final word on St George

Byzantine icon of St George
It's all too easy, in the 21st century, to cut Palestine off from the rest of the world - it's an Israeli problem, somewhere far away, with no real connection to the world we live in, a bizarre hangover from 20th century colonialism and wars, so I thought it would be worth highlighting a piece of Palestinian history and culture that will be more familiar to readers of this blog.

Not many people know that St George was born in Palestine (actually in Lydda or modern-day Lod/al-Ludd, currently in Israel). It's estimated that 6% of Palestinians are Christian and I'm sure most Christians are very aware of the fact that Jerusalem/Palestine was the birthplace of Christianity, the world's largest religion.

St George's Cross has become a potent symbol of the spread of Christianity that still resonates around the world today, not least as the flag of England (therefore also on the Union Jack) and in the international name for the country, Sakartvelo a.k.a. Georgia.  St George has been adopted as the patron saint of many places around the world, including Moscow, Malta/Gozo and Catalonia - usually outposts of Christianity.  The George's cross also crops up in places as far apart as Milan, Melbourne and Montreal.

Flag of St George
We've just recently had a scandal in England regarding St George's Cross and a tweet by Labour MP for Islington, Emily Thornberry. The scandal revolved around Thornberry's supposed 'snobbery' in her comments about people in Rochester flying the flag of England outside their homes.  It's interesting to think of this in the context of George of Palestine, whose Greek name means 'worker of the land'.

I can't help thinking there is something very working-class about St George and I want to cast him in the light of a revolutionary (like Jesus Christ?), whose thinking has echoed down the years.  I wonder what St George of Lydda would make of the Palestinian situation today?

Image credits:

The image of Tratreez cafe is linked by URL to their Facebook page.

The Byzantine icon of St George is linked by URL to its page on Wikimedia commons.  The flag of St George is also from Wikimedia commons, but I created my own version, adding a red border.