Sunday, 22 March 2015

Réunion - France in the Indian Ocean

For one reason or another, I haven't managed to blog about any French regions until now and it's strangely apt that my learning about France should start in one of France's most far-flung regions, the island of Réunion, which lies about 600 miles east of Madagascar, in the southern part of the Indian Ocean.  

Réunion is one of France's many DOMs/TOMs, short for Départements (or territoires) d'outre-mers - i.e. overseas departments or territories.  France is currently divided into 27 regions, 22 of which are in 'Metropolitan' France (i.e. Europe) and the other 5 are 'outre-mer' - these include Martinique and Guadeloupe in the Caribbean, French Guiana on the South American mainland and Mayotte and Réunion in the Indian ocean.  

It's around 5,800 miles from Paris to St-Denis, the capital of Réunion, yet the people of Réunion island participate fully in the French state, sending deputies to the Assemblée nationale, receiving the same state benefits as people in metropolitan France and using the Euro, which is the official currency in France.  

Map of the French DOMs/TOMs
Apart from overseas regions, France also has many overseas territories as far apart as St Pierre et Miquelon off the coast of Canada, to Kerguelen near Antarctica and Tahiti in French Polynesia.  I've long been fascinated by the French DOMs/TOMs and I'd love to visit all of them some day, despite the fact that's prohibitively expensive to get to places like Nouvelle Caledonie or Wallis and Futuna!

As I've started learning about Réunion, I've begun to realise that I'm not just learning about France and a French overseas territory, but I'm also learning about other islands of the Indian ocean, known collectively as the Mascarenes.  

Unlike most other places I've previously blogged about, Réunion and the other Mascarene islands remained uninhabited until Europeans settled there in the 17th century.  Previous to that the islands were known to Arab and (no doubt) Chinese sailors, but they weren't considered to be particularly important, until the drive for European trade with India and the Far East made Réunion and other Indian islands strategic recuperation points for European ships, after their long voyage around the Cape of Good Hope. 

Not surprisingly, the Portuguese were first on the scene and the name 'Mascarene' comes from the Portuguese explorer, Pedro Mascarenhas, however, it was the French who eventually colonised the Mascarene islands, Ile Bourbon (Réunion), Ile de France (Mauritius) and Rodrigues.  

La Plaine des Palmistes by Jo Kerozen
Due to political wrangling during the French revolution and the Napoleonic wars, Ile Bourbon changed its name to Réunion, to honour the joint campaign of the Marseille revolutionaries and the National guard, then briefly became Ile Bonaparte, before reverting back to Réunion again, when Napoleon was defeated at the Battle of Waterloo.  

Seeing the chance of gains in the Indian ocean, the British took control of Ile de France, renaming it Mauritius, after an earlier Dutch colony.  They also took control of the much smaller island of Rodrigues, which is still administered from Mauritius.  As well as the Mascarene islands, the French had established a settlement on the Seychelles in the 18th century, but Britain also took over these islands after the fall of Napoleon.  

By all accounts, Réunion is quite different than the other Mascarene islands and the Seychelles. Whilst Mauritius and the Seychelles have some of the world's best beaches and have, therefore, massive tourist industries, Réunion has lurked quietly in the background, largely unknown to the English-speaking world and a hidden treasure of volcanoes, fantastic hiking trails and an interesting mixture of French, Indian, African and Chinese cultures.

I'm really looking forward to learning more about this little piece of France in the Indian ocean and I hope you'll join me on my learning journey as I read books, watch movies, listen to music and cook the food of Réunion.

Image credits:

All images were taken from the English language Wikipedia page on Réunion

Saturday, 28 February 2015

Quebec - The Final Word

The time has come to say au revoir to Quebec and it's been an amazing learning journey - as well as physically travelling to the place I've been blogging about, I've also had fun on my journey through Quebecois music, literature and cinema. I've seen Le Vent du Nord live in concert in Bury (near Manchester) and the Institut Francais in London is showing a retrospective of Xavier Dolan's movies - although I've now seen all of his movies, I'll looking forward to finishing my Quebecois experience with a few trips to the cinema in February and March.

I learned quite a bit about Canada, as well as Quebec and I learned about memory and Quebec's motto, Je me souviens. I learned about the other Titanic, The Empress of Ireland and about religious beliefs in Canada.  I learned how to make the traditional Quebecois dish, La Poutine and I learned about the significance of winter in Quebec and how it's become so unpopular, especially in a busy city like Montreal.  Finally, I learned about Quebec in other words, like joual, bougeotte, pure laine and tabernac.

The Canadian flag turned 50 this month
As usual, there were many areas of research I didn't have time to go into, so if you're interested in learning even more about Quebec, I would recommend the following topics:

The North American number plan for dialling codes
The Huron people and the origin of the country name, Canada
British-French relations
The French in North America
Hydroelectric power
Pepsi v Coke and the 'rock and roller cola wars'
US invasions of Canada
The snowy owl and the white lily, Quebec's symbols
Ann Coreo and Lily St Cyr, the exotic dancers of Montreal
The Jews of Montreal
Marc Lepine and the Montreal massacre
Moshe Safdie's Habitat 67 in Montreal
Mattieu de Costa, the freed African slave who was fluent in Mi'kmaq
The architecture of Moshe Safdie
Failed attempts at gaining independence from Canada
Quebecois soap operas
The Americanisation of Quebec
French-Canadian media and newspapers
The Desjardins group of artists
The Mohawks of Brooklyn
The Cirque du Soleil
The 1885 smallpox epidemic, which resulted in 3,000 deaths

Final word on the Mohawk nation

Flag of the Iroquois confederacy
I only managed to scratch the surface in terms of my learning about First Nations people who live in Quebec and I'd like to return to the First Nations some day and do more research on native American culture.  Around 1% of Quebec's population is native American and I'm quite interested in the First Nations people, who are distinct from the Inuits or Metis peoples.  First Nations in Quebec include people from the Algonquian and Iroquoian groups.

Contact with Europeans has rarely worked out in favour of the First Nation peoples and there is a still a lot of tension between First Nation communities and neighbouring 'white' communities.  I watched a really interesting documentary on YouTube called Acts of Defiance which documents events around the Oka Crisis, which began in July 1990, and the impact that this conflict had on the Mohawk people of Kahnawake.

Watching the documentary gives you a real understanding of the cultural gap that exists between First Nations people in Quebec and the dominant French/European culture.  Mohawk people belong to the Iroquois league or Haudenosaunee, which stretches from the St Lawrence River in Quebec, to southern Ontario and northern New York state.  Haudenosaunee has issued its own passports since the 1920's and attempted to send a delegation to the League of Nations, post World War 1.

As well as Mohawk reservations, Quebec has also granted a certain amount of sovereignty to the Cree people in Eeyou Istchee/Baie James and these communities are represented by the Grand Council of the Crees, which has embassies in Montreal and Quebec City.

Although I've called this my final word on the Mohawk nation, what I really mean is that my final word is that I would like to do some more research on the Mohawk nation and the other First Nations of Canada.  

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Quebec - In Other Words

The Quiet Revolution 

Time and again, as I've been researching Québécois culture, I've come across the expression The Quiet Revolution or la révolution tranquille. The Quiet Revolution is the Québécois equivalent of the social revolution that happened in the 1960's in the United States. During the 1960's, Quebec, like many parts of the world experienced a great deal of change in societal attitudes to all kinds of things, including politics, religion, art, sexuality. There was no great 'revolt' in Quebec but rather, quietly, a new generation began to abandon the conservative beliefs of their parents, move to the city and transform Québécois urban life.

The period of the Quiet Revolution also stands in contrast to the period before the 60's, known as Le Grand Noirceur or The Great Darkness, when Maurice Dupleissis was in charge. And it contrasts with the not-so-quiet 1970's, which kicked off with the October crisis, an extreme left-wing attempt to challenge the Québécois establishment.

I found this documentary on YouTube (only in French, sorry!) which describes the beginning of this period really well and has lots of great footage.

Tête carrée

This is a term I've come across several times and is slang for 'English-speaking Canadian'. It means 'square-head' and seems quite offensive and racist to me, as it focuses on an assumed physical characteristic, i.e. that non-French Canadians have more angular/square-shaped heads than the rounder heads of people who are of French/Gallic descent.

When it's used, it's not in a nice way and square-head also suggests 'thick' or 'stupid' based on the fact that someone can't speak French. Not surprisingly, there is a big cultural and linguistic divide in Quebec, particularly in Montreal and this leads to some animosity, as people resort to stereo-types and assumptions. 


Whether it was in the movies of Xavier Dolan, the music of Loco Locass or the literature of Michel Tremblay, I came across the word joual (pronounced zhoo-al) quite a few times during my research into Quebec. Joual is the name of the Montreal dialect of French, mostly looked down upon by those who speak 'standard' French and, in more recent times celebrated as the working-class dialect of Monteal, an authentic North American language, as opposed to standard French, a language that is so closely connected to Europe. North American French is a mish-mash of regional dialects, mostly from the north of France (places like Normandy and Picardy), so it was never really the same as the standard spoken in Paris. 

French speakers first came to North America before the French Revolution (1790's) and Québécois French retains some old-fashioned words that hark back to the age of aristocratic France. According to Taras Grescoe in his book Sacré Blues, the Québécois word Dépanneur, which means corner store, sounds more like a pirate's cove in the Caribbean, than a modern shop!

Québécois French also incorporated a lot of English expressions, for example the word enfirouâper which means to seduce or trick someone may come from the English 'to wrap in furs' 

Grescoe gives an interesting example to contrast the English-influenced French of Quebec with standard French. When a shop assistant wrote a note on Grescoe's defective CD player, he wrote:

Quand on presse sur 'open', ça fait un bruit weird
When you press 'open', it makes a weird sound

In standard French this should be:

Quand on appuie sur 'ouverture', ça fait un drole du bruit

Other common joual expressions are:

Astheur: now (a cet heure) 
Tsé?: you know? (tu sais?)
Coudon: listen here (écoute donc)

I found this documentary on YouTube (again, only in French) which explains the history of joual

La bougeotte

A Québécois tradition that I found it really hard to get my head around is the annual bougeotte, which takes place every year on the 1st of July. As incredible as it sounds, the majority of accommodation rentals in Quebec run on annual leases, which all finish on the last day of June so, unbelievably, on the 1st July, everyone who is moving to a new house or apartment moves on the same day! 

It's believed that the tradition might actually be a Scottish one, called 'Flitting day' and this used to the 1st of May until 1974, when the Québécois government decided change la bougeotte to the 1st of July, so it would coincide with Canada day - a time when everyone has a day off. 


In a place obsessed with language, it's not surprising to come across a term like allophone, which is the word that describes anyone in Quebec whose native language isn't French or English. The next biggest language in Quebec is Italian, followed by Arabic, Spanish and Greek.

As Quebec enters the 21st century with a greater emphasis on diversity, I'd imagine that the number of allophones can only increase as a percentage of the whole population. In 1971, allophones made up 6.6% of Quebec's population, by 2001 this was 10%. 

Pure Laine

In his book on Quebec, Taras Grescoe has a lot to say about the myth-making around pure laine or pure wool, a term which is used to describe French Canadians who are directly descended from French immigrants and don't have mixed blood. Apart from its obviously racist overtones, Grescoe argues that there is no such thing as pure laine and that even the most 'French' of Québécois families will have some Native American blood running through their veins, not to mention Irish, Scottish and any number of other European ancestries. 

In the early days of settlement in New France, opportunistic immigrants came from all over Europe, mostly men in the beginning, many of whom took native wives or mistresses. It surprised me to learn that an estimated 40% of French Canadians have some Irish ancestry, as this is not something I ever heard about growing up in Ireland. I guess it's got lost in the mists of time!

I found this little video on YouTube which looks at the Irish connection to Quebec and documents a visit made by an Irish group to the Irish memorial in Grosse Ile


When I was watching Xavier Dolan's movie Mommy, I couldn't help but notice the swearing of the main male character, played by Antoine Olivier Pilon, particularly his repeated use of the word tabarnac (meaning tabarnacle) and how this swear word would scandalise and occasionally infuriate the adults around him. As swear words go, tabarnac seems very innocent and certainly nowhere near as potent as English equivalents like the 'f' word or the 'c' word. 

Like English, modern French swear words tend to refer to forbidden parts of the (generally female) body. Swearing is all about sex, which has become the most offensive way of speaking in the modern age. Québécois swear words, on the other hand, come straight from the religious fanaticism of the 18th century, so words like tabarnac, calisse, ciboire and sacrament were shocking religious profanities and, bizarrely, their shock value has persisted into the modern age. 


One of the most magical terms I've learned during my research is chasse-galerie, a Québécois myth about a flying canoe that transports people across the vast distances of Quebec so they can visit loved ones. Taking the flying canoe means making a contract with the devil, however, and inevitably ends up with the souls of those in the canoe being damned because the canoe hits a church steeple on its return journey. What I loved about this myth is that it combines French lore brought over by the first European settlers and Native American legends about flying canoes.

I'll leave you with this animation of La Legende du canot d'ecorce, aka La Chasse-galerie by L'office national du film du Canada

Saturday, 14 February 2015

Quebec - Reading List

I was spoilt for choice when it came to reading materials about Quebec and I still feel as though I only scratched the surface in terms of what I actually managed to read.

Here is my list:

Lonely Planet Canada (12th edition - 2014)

I try to read different kinds of guide books when I'm researching for this blog but I must admit, when I'm looking for practical information (bus times, how to get from A to B), it's hard to beat the Lonely Planet series. Of course, this time I was buying it for the very practical reason that I was travelling to Quebec, so I got the latest version. 

The Lonely Planet series is quite good at giving you a simple overview of the history and culture of a place and I also like the fact that they very clearly signpost you towards books, movies and music that will bring your journey (whether real or virtual) to life

Canada - Culture Smart! (2008) Diane Lemieux

My Quebecois reading list
Reading online reviews of the Culture Smart! series, I can see that some people really don't like these books and find them over-simplistic. I really enjoy them however and, as I have limited time for my research, I find these books to be a very easy way of getting an overview of a country. I also find them good to read on the road and I now not only buy this for blog research, but I also use them when I'm actually travelling, for example, on my recent trips to Morocco and Georgia. 

The Culture Smart! guide to Canada really help give me a simple overview of the entire country, before I delved into the more specific culture of Quebec. Canada is a place that really interests me and I was surprised to learn about the extent of regional feeling in Canada and how complicated and unusual it is to move from one Canadian province to another. I'd also never really thought about the fact that Canada is so big and I got a glimpse into the challenges that face a united Canada where Paris is just as accessible to Montreal as Vancouver! 

Sacré Blues: An unsentimental Journey through Quebec (2000) Taras Grescoe

This is the book that took up most of my time and although it took me absolutely ages to read this, I'd highly recommend this book for anyone who wants to understand more about Quebec, as it's so packed full of interesting information. I could have written numerous blog posts based on this book and, indeed, it has informed much of my blogging about Quebec, but particularly the blog post I did on winter

Grescoe is originally from Ontario, so looks at Quebec, as I the reader did, with an outsider's point of view. Whilst I found it hard to see any logic behind the flow of themes in his book, it's an incredibly comprehensive text and he covers everything from the Quebecois obsession with ice-hockey to the Pepsi/Cola wars, the Quiet Revolution and a culture reared on téléromans! There isn't much about Quebec culture that Grescoe doesn't cover and I feel that this amazing book must have been a real labour of love. 

Barney's Version (1997) Mordechai Richler

I struggled through Richler's seminal novel Barney's Version, which also took me ages to read, but not for the right reasons this time. Don't get me wrong, the book was interesting enough and the themes of loss of love and loss of memory were very engaging, but I just couldn't relate to Barney the principle character and his self-obsessed view of the world. It might sound a bit harsh but, in the end, I was more interested in hearing McIver's version or Boogie's version.

It took me a long time to read this book because I was practising something I call 'intense reading'. In the interests of reading fluency, we mostly skip over words or expressions that are unfamiliar to us and accept them in the context of whatever it is we're reading, as they don't usually impede our general understanding of the text. 

For example, if I come across the phrase 'He put on his trusty Capezio's' - I have no idea what Capezio really means, but I can assume that it's something you might wear. Instead of skimming over this, as I might normally do, intense reading means doing my research, usually on Wikipedia, where I find out that Capezio was a Sicilian cobbler who emigrated to the United States in 1887 and opened a shoe repair shop near the Metropolitan Opera House, which became a meeting place for dancers and ultimately a fashionable place to buy shoes! 

Barney's version was peppered with references and name-dropping - much of it Canadian/North American and therefore unfamiliar to me, so I had a great time doing my research as I was reading this book and really learning about the world! 

The Middle of Everywhere (2009) Monique Polak

By contrast, I flew through this book in less than a week - perhaps not surprising as it was written for young adults and was very easy to read. I really enjoyed this book which tells the story of Noah Thorpe, a teenage boy from Montreal who travels to Kangiqsualujjuaq (George River) in Nunavik, the northern-most part of Quebec. 

It's a lovely story, beautifully written and well-paced, which I'm sure will leave a positive impression of Inuktitut culture on any young person reading the book. There is a real shadow hanging over Quebecois history in relation to the Inuit people and Polak bravely confronts this, particularly in her re-telling of the destruction of Inuit sled dogs between 1950 and 1970, by the Canadian Mounted Police. She somehow manages to apologise for non-native actions whilst maintaining a balance in terms of who was really to blame.  

L'Avalée des avalés (1966) Réjean Ducharme

This is a fascinating novel, although I didn't have time to read all of it, plus I was reading in French, so it was taking me ages.  To be honest, I don't know how the book would read in translation, as the language is so poetic and even the title L'Avalée des avalés is hard to translate into English and becomes something like, The Swallowing of the Swallowed.

L'Avalée des avalés is a modern Gothic tale, set in an abandoned Abbey, on an island in the middle of the St Laurence River. It tells the story of a young girl, Bérénice Einberg, whose father is Jewish and whose mother is Christian.  Enforced religious belief plays a big part in the early chapters of the novel and other themes include sibling love and envy, repression of girls/women and Bérénice's extraordinary 'disconnection' from the world around her.

La vie ne se passe sur la terre, mais dans ma tête. La vie est dans ma tête et ma tête est dans la vie. Je suis englobante et englobée. Je suis l'avalée de l'avalé. 

Life doesn't happen on the earth, but in my head. Life is in my head and my head is in life. I am encompassing and encompassed.  I am the swallowing of the swallowed.

La grosse Femme d'à côté est enceinte/The fat woman from next door is pregnant (1978) Michel Tremblay

I read even less of Michel Tremblay's famous novel, La grosse Femme d'à côté est enceinte. It's partly written in joual, the dialect of Montreal and I found myself floundering with sentences like this one:

Mercedes avait sorti son rouge à lèvres de sa sacoche.  Un billet de vingt dollars était tombe sur ses genoux. "Y'a ben de l'ouvrage dans c'que je fais, ces temps-citte, t'sais . . ."

Mecedes took her lipstick out of her little bag. A twenty-dollar bill fell on her knees. "It's hard work what I'm doing at the minute you know . . ."

The books I didn't read

As usual, I came across references to lots of books which I didn't have time to read - if I were to continue blogging about Quebec indefinitely, I'd put the following books on my reading list:

Self (1996) by Yann Martel (the author of Life of Pi)

Beautiful Losers (1966) by Leonard Cohen

A Yankee in Canada, with Anti-Slavery and Reform Papers (1866) by Henry David Thoreau

Je mange donc, je maigris - I eat therefore, I stay slim (1987) by Michel Montignac

Bonheur d'Occasion/The Tin Flute (1945) by Gabrielle Roy

L’homme rapaillé/The March to Love (1970) by Gaston Miron

Two Solitudes (1945) by Hugh McLennan

Herzog (1964) by Saul Bellow

L'ingratitude (1992) by Ying Chen

Le sexe des étoiles/The Sex of the Stars (1987) by Monique Proulx

Selling Illusions: The Cult of Multiculturalism in Canada (1994) by Neil Bissoondath

Et Dieu Crea Les Francais (1992) by Louis-Bernard Robitaille

Les Filles du Caleb/Caleb's daughters (1986) by Arlette Cousture

Le Cassé/The Broken (1964) by Jacques Renaud

The Shouting Signpainters (1972) by Malcolm Reid

Contes du pays incertain/Stories from an uncertain country (1962) by Jacques Ferron

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Quebec - Playlist

I've listened to lots of great music during the time I've been researching and blogging about Quebec, so here is my Quebecois playlist.

Reflektor (2013) by Arcade Fire

I've become quite a big fan of Arcade Fire, although I'd never really heard their music before I started researching for this blog.  I discovered them just before I went to Canada, in fact, so as I was listening to this song on repeat, as I was whizzing through Montreal, past the factories and over the Jacques Cartier bridge to Longueuil.  Arcade Fire are from Montreal and are very much part of Quebec's 'Anglo' culture, although some of the lyrics of Reflektor are also in French.  I love songs that work on different levels and, for that reason, Reflektor really does it for me!  I hope you like the song and the rather disturbing video!

On ne change pas (1999) by Celine Dion

I've never been a massive fan of Celine Dion. Whilst it's undeniable that she is one of the most popular singers the world has ever known, I've found her music a little cheesy and too 'pop-machine generated'. Having said that, she does have a fantastic voice and I quite like some of her French-language songs. I've come to particularly like this song, ever since I heard it on the soundtrack of Xavier Dolan's Mommy. The characters in the movie acknowledge that Dion's music is a bit cheesy, but they love her all the same, as she's such a symbol of Quebec. 

The song itself seems to make the assertion that we never change, even if we become more sophisticated and 'on met just les costumes d'autres sur soi' (we wear the costumes/habits of others). Dion symbolises modern Quebec in many ways, as she's a Francophone in an English-dominated world. Although many of her biggest hits were in English, two of her albums - D'eux and S'il suffisait d'aimer (where this song comes from) - rank as the best selling French-language albums of all time. Actually the songs on both album were written by the Parisian musician, Jean-Jacques Goldman, an influential song-writer in his own right.

Le But (2012) by Loco Locass

I really love this song by the Quebecois hip-hop group Loco Locass. My research into Quebec has led me to the conclusion that Quebecois people are a little bit of obsessed with ice-hockey (also Canadians, in general, perhaps?) I was surprised to learn that ice-hockey originated in Montreal, as I'd always thought of it more as a Slavic or Scandinavian import, more at home in places like Alberta or Manitoba. The Montreal ice-hockey team, Les Canadiens (aka Les Habs), are one of the biggest teams in the National Hockey league and a source of pride, honour and sometimes frustration for the people of Quebec. 

I've come across references to ice-hockey again and again in the books I've read and movies I've watched relating to Quebec. This song seems to encapsulate French-Canadian pride, their love of ice-hockey and the history of Quebec. Not to mention the fact that it's extremely catchy - I find myself humming 'Allez, Allez, Montreal' all day long after listening to this. This video from YouTube illustrates the song really well and has some cool images of Les Habs players and fans down the years. 

Au bord de la Fontaine (2003) by Le Vent du Nord

This is the first time I've been able to go and see one of the bands I'm blogging about live in concert, as part of my research. Out of all the Quebecois music I've listened to, Le Vent du Nord is the only band that I'd actually heard of before and I've been a fan of their music since their 2009 album Le Part de Feu. So when I found out they were touring the north of England in January, I couldn't resist and travelled up to Bury, just north of Manchester, to see them play.

There's nothing like live music to really help you understand the sounds involved and I loved the way Le Vent du Nord uses the hurdy-gurdy, accordions and mouth organs, but I also really love their voices - I'm a big fan of call and response singing and no-one does this better than Le Vent du Nord.

This song is from their first album, Maudite Moisson!

Les étoiles filantes (2004) by Les Cowboys Fringants 

This is a really catchy little tune that I couldn't help bobbing my head along to. The lyrics are in the Montreal dialect joual, so I couldn't quite understand the words until I saw them written down and translated into English. 

Les Cowboys Fringants are considered to be 'neo-folk', which is like folk re-interpreted for the modern age. They're fond of accordions and political lyrics, one of my favourite combinations and their music fits well into a long tradition of French chanson or secular, lyric-driven songs. 

I particularly loved this song from their 2004 album, La Grand-Messe. It's about growing old and all the things you lose in adult life, which would be a bit depressing if they didn't balance that with lyrics along the lines of 'just do your best'. Les étoiles filantes means 'Shooting stars' and is a good metaphor for the transitory nature of human existence. 

I've put some of the lyrics below so you can sing along with the YouTube video. 

La trentaine, la bedaine
Les morveux, l'hypothèque
Les bonheurs et les peines 
Les bon coups et les échecs

Travailler, faire d'son mieux
En arracher, s'en sortir 
Et ésperer être heureux
Un peu avant de mourir 

The thirties, the belly
The kids, the mortgage
The pleasures and the sorrows
The strokes of luck and the failures

Working, doing your best
And struggling and getting out
And hoping to be happy
A little before dying

Avalanche (1971) by Leonard Cohen

Leonard Cohen is a massive musical force and I know a few people who are a bit obsessed with him. He's a poet, as well as a songwriter and his lyrics are very poetic. I've never been a big fan of his music, although I do appreciate the uniqueness of his voice and lyrics. I've always loved Suzanne from his 1967 album, Songs of Leonard Cohen - there's something incredibly poignant and melancholic about that song but, at the same time, I really can't stand one of his other songs, Hallelujah and the popularity of Hallelujah really baffles me.

In the interests of learning more about the world, I made an effort to listen to Leonard Cohen songs that I'd never heard before and I particularly liked Avalanche from his third album, Songs of Love and Hate (1971).  Like many of his songs, Avalanche started off as a poem and the lyrics are ever-so-slightly disturbing, all hunchbacks and golden mountains, like a fairytale-turned-nightmare.  Most of all, I love the music and the way Cohen plays the classical guitar, a feature more prominent in his earlier music.  

Dites-lui (2013) by Ale Dee

In many ways, it's just a silly pop song, but I quite liked this track from Ale Dee's 2013 album, 2013. A.D.  I like the way he throws in a few English phrases in the middle of the French rap and I'm sure this song is really popular with young people in Quebec. It's urban and gritty, another side to Quebecois life and a new generation influenced by musical trends from south of the border.

Navvaatara (2010) by Elisapie Isaac

Like other people, I came across Elisapie Issac's music by watching the movie Cafe de Flore. Elisapie was born in Nunavik, Quebec's far-north region and she sings in French, English and Inuktitut, the language of the Inuit people.  Navvaatara means 'I've found it' and I love the gentleness of this song. I want to learn more about Elisapie Isaac and Inuit culture - perhaps if I end up blogging about Nunavik or Nunavut?

Of course, there were many other artists that I listened to as part of my research - Felix LeClerc, Luc Plamondon, Edith Butler, Lhasa de Sela, La Bottine Souriante - to name but a few!  I've restricted myself to just eight tracks for this play list, but feel free to continue your own research and discover even more Quebecois artists.

I'd be interested in hearing your playlist suggestions (with links, if possible) in the comments below this blog post.

Saturday, 31 January 2015

Quebec - On the Silver Screen

I've been really spoilt for choice this time, as some fantastic movies have come out of Quebec in recent years. I've been a big fan of Xavier Dolan since I saw Laurence Anyways and I can't believe he's only 25 years old, yet he's produced such brilliant films! I also really enjoyed discovering some of Quebec's most talented directors, so I've made a list of movies I would recommend.

Incendies (2010) dir. Denis Villeneuve

Watching Denis Villeneuve's Incendies was a good bridge between Quebec and the last place I blogged about, Palestine. Although the movie has its anchor in Quebec and centres around the story of Quebecois twins, Jeanne and Simon, the action mostly takes place in the Middle East, in Lebanon, where the twins travel to find out about their mother's past and the mysterious identities of their father and brother.

It's an incredibly powerful film and was put forward as Canada's entry for Best Foreign Language film during the 83rd Academy Awards. It's not a movie I'll forget in a hurry and I thought it was beautifully made, well structured and thought-provoking.

Monsieur Lazhar (2011) Philippe Falardeau

Like Villeneuve's Incendies, Falardeau's award-winning movie, Monsieur Lazhar was also put forward as the Canadian entry for Best Foreign Language film, this time for the 84th Academy Awards. The film also links to the Arab world, this time Algeria, as we find out that Monsieur Lazhar is a refugee in Canada, escaping death threats made against his wife, a well-known Algerian writer. Monsieur Lazhar takes up a post in a Canadian primary school where the teacher has committed suicide in the classroom, her body having been found by one of the pupils.

It's a very sad movie and deals with the impact of death and the inability of the adult world to explain death to children without the help of a psychologist. It also deals with the adults' fear of intimacy with the children - the teachers aren't allowed to touch the children or comfort them in any way and there is a definite conflict between the norms of a North American society versus the natural tactile culture of the French-Canadians. I thought this was an incredibly moving film and would highly recommend it.

Mommy (2014) dir. Xavier Dolan

I was lucky enough to see Xavier Dolan's latest movie whilst I was in Montreal, in the really cool Cinema du Parc. Mommy completely blew me away and has to be one of the best movies I've seen in recent years. The quality of the direction is superb and I'm absolutely in love with Anne Dorval, who plays the mother of a violent young man whose behaviour is out of control. I also loved the performances of Suzanne Clement and Antoine Olivier Pilon.

Having spent a few days in Montreal, I could relate to the setting of the movie, as well as the interesting mixture of joual (the French-Canadian dialect of Montreal) and the use of English, which seems to insert itself into every second sentence, often as swearwords! I can't recommend this movie enough. It doesn't seem to be in the cinemas in the UK just yet, so I'm patiently waiting for this movie's release on this side of the Atlantic!

As well as watching Mommy, I also watched the following movies by Xavier Dolan, all of which I loved:

I Killed my Mother (2009)

Heartbeats (2010)

Laurence Anyways (2012)

Tom at the Farm (2013)

Café de Flore (2011) dir. Jean-Marc Vallée

Interweaving two apparently different stories, Café de Flore brings together the lives of six main characters across several generations and links Quebec with its spiritual motherland, France. The contrast between modern-day Montreal and post-war Paris highlights the affluence of the modern age and the poverty of earlier generations - also the affluence of a North American society in contrast to the poverty of a European one.

Vanessa Paradis plays the main role in the French side of the story and the Quebecois actor, Kevin Parent, who is from Gaspé, counter-balances in the modern tale. It's a quirky story, a little bit weird and with a good deal of esotericism. Well worth watching and I loved the soundtrack!

Bon cop, Bad cop (2006) dir Eric Canuel

I don't normally watch 'cop' movies, but I really enjoyed Canuel's 2006 comedy, Bon Cop, Bad Cop. When a dead body is found on the Quebec/Ontario body, two police officers, one from the Sûreté de Quebec and the other from the Ontario police are forced to become partners. At first, they hate it, of course, but by the end of the movie they work as a team and appreciate each other's differences. There's quite a lot of stereotyping, the cautious, staid and 'uncool' officer from Toronto and the erratic, slightly crazy but handsome officer from Montreal.

It's all delivered in a really humorous way and pokes fun at the stereotypes, rather than taking them seriously. It's also a real joy for anyone who is bilingual in English and French, as the dialogue switches rapidly back and forth between the two languages. There is a lot of play on words and use of joual to add a few in-jokes. What was the plot and which crimes were they trying to solve? I can't remember, but it was a fun couple of hours and I laughed a lot!

Barney's Version (2010) dir. Richard J Lewis

Mordechai Richler passed away in 2001 and, I guess that this film version of his 1997 novel Barney's Version is a fitting tribute to one of Montreal's most famous writers. As I've so recently read the book, it was hard for me to look at the film as a stand-alone creation and I couldn't help comparing the details of the film version with the novel. In many ways, I think the film was better at getting the story across than the novel and, when I did manage to 'switch off' and just enjoy the movie, I could get a sense of how poignant the story is, if you concentrate on the theme of 'lost love' and how sad the ending is, when Barney finally meets his demise.

I think I was so impatient with Barney's character in the novel that I'd lost all sympathy for him by the end of the book - the movie didn't affect me in the same way. It had a great cast as well, big names like Paul Giametti, Rosamund Pike, Dustin Hoffman, Minnie Driver. Hoffman's son also starred in the movie and I didn't even know he had a son, or that his son is an actor!

One thing I didn't understand about the movie was the place changes - they swapped Paris for Rome and Toronto for New York. There's such a strong historical connection between Quebec and France and the fact that part of the novel takes place in Paris is significant, so I couldn't accept the change of location, as I think it interfered with the original plot.

Jesus of Montreal (1989) dir Denys Arcand

This movie took me by surprise and I was also completely blown away by it. I'm not at all religious, but I thought that Arcand portrayed a very sympathetic interpretation of the Passion of the Christ, which got beyond the need to be a Christian but, rather, explored the powerful message of peace, love and tolerance that Christ's life represents. The acting is superb and a fantastic performance by Lothaire Bluteau, the theatre director who also plays Christ in the passion play.

The movie represents Quebec at the height of it's materialist age in the 1980's. A time when many people no longer believe in God and more material values have taken over. Bluteau plays a theatre director who is asked to stage a performance of the passion of the Christ and does so with such intensity, that the public are genuinely moved and the real power of Christ's message to the world shines through. However, the reinterpretation of Christ's life is deemed blasphemous by the church and they decide to pull the performance. Although the movie is about a play, the movie itself mirrors the passion of the Christ and raises the interesting question of what Christ would think of a modern-day Montreal, obsessed with money, celebrity and exploitation.

C.R.A.Z.Y. (2005) dir. Jean-Marc Vallée

I absolutely loved this movie and can't believe that I hadn't seen it before. It's a great family drama about five brothers (Christian, Raymond, Antoine, Zachary and Yvan) and their relationship with their Patsy Cline-obsessed father, Gervais Beaulieu. The story centres around the fourth son Zac and the difficulty he has accepting his sexuality and being accepted by his father. Zac is doted on by his mother, who believes he has a special gift, as he should have been her seventh child (due to three miscarriages) and because he was born on Christmas Day and, therefore, shares a birthday with Jesus.

The soundtrack for the movie is excellent and we follow Zac's story as he grows up in the era of glam rock and then punk. Apparently the music rights for his movie cost CND$600,000, which was a sizeable chunk of the overall budget.

The movie I didn't see

Unfortunately I didn't manage to get my hands on Arcand's 1986 comedy-drama, The Decline of the American Empire.  By all accounts, it's a must-see for anyone who's interested in Quebecois cinema. Ah, well - perhaps I'll come across this movie another time.  In the meantime, I'll post a YouTube trailer for this movie, so you can get a sense of what it's about.

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 ne 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.