Thursday, February 22, 2007

Zack attack.

Our tall, blonde and reasonably attractive friend Zack arrives for a three day visit in about three hours. We're heading to his Grandfather's home town across the border on the weekend. With us will be our other houseguest, a young woman by the name of Flat Laura, a friend of my niece who is absorbing the nuances of French culture, with Amynah and I as her guide. We've taken her all over Strasbourg, where she showed remarkable forebearance listening to my boring stories. Here she is, visiting the European Parliament.

I really hope Laura's class learns something from those photos, because let me tell you, you get a lot of funny looks clambering over the Cathedral with a laminated crayon girl.

Monday, February 19, 2007


Amynah on why she doesn’t like ex-Dharma and Greg star Jenna Elfman:

“Her hands are too big. She has these big ‘man hands’ and they’re always waving around.”

Me: “You don’t like Jenna Elfman because of her hands?”

Amynah: “Yeah! They get in the way. Plus, she’s not a very good actor.”

Thursday, February 15, 2007


If Toronto's National Newspaper is to be believed, Canada is gearing up for another election (it has, after all, only been a year since the last one).

This should be interesting - I of course miss all the commercials whereby people accuse the Tories of occupying our cities with gun toting troops and the Liberals of rolling around in Olympic sized swimming pools of stolen money with gangsters. Quick trivia question - have either the Liberals or the Tories ever done an attack ad on the NDP? Because that would make them so chuffed, I'm sure.

For any of you reading this who have/are living overseas, do you know how absentee ballots work? Presumably I'll need to contact the embassy or Elections Canada to get a ballot, but which riding do I vote in? The last one I lived in, is my guess, but that isn't the same place where the Quebec Government is sending increasingly threatening letters to me about my unpaid parking tickets (a friend's address in Montreal I'm using to keep my driver's license there, which I'm going to change for a French one soon anyway) or where the rest of my mail is going now.

Moving along to questions of the sound producing capabilities of tumbling conifers in arboretums owned by Schools for the Hearing Impaired, if I receive a ballot and choose to eat it in protest, do I need to take pictures of me enjoying my meal, or should I just send back remnants of the masticated bits? The former obviates the concept of a secret ballot and the latter doesn't seem very hygenic. Thoughts, anyone?

Sunday, February 11, 2007

La presidentielle

My silence on matters political over here must be disquieting, for you, my imaginary audience. Yet I know that as France gears up for what promises to be a knock-down presidential election you are wondering, "what does Mark think of the cadidates?"

I, of course, will endorse the candidate that looks most lie someone else I've seen on tv. My choice?

Here's a picture of Nicholas Sarkozy:

Here's a picture of under-appreciated "Kids in the Hall" cast member Kevin McDonald:

Ladies and gentlemen, we have a winner.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Montreal dreamin'

Image Archives Canada via Université Sherbrooke

I’m in a particularly Montreal state of mind at the moment. My now-favourite former colleague Tara sent me a CD of new tunes, many from Montreal bands. I have it on as I write this. Thanks Tara! You rock!

On the topic of things Montrealais, I am happy to see that they won’t be renaming Avenue de Parc for former Premier Robert Bourassa.

In theory, I’m all for naming things for people of historic significance. The fact that the Halifax school board decided to name all new schools after the road they’re on, thus abdicating its power to suburban land developers and leading to school names like “Astral Drive Junior High” caused me no end of rage (as an aside, one school board member from Sackville defended the policy by pointing to C.P. Allen High School and saying “No one knew who he was anyway.” Well, no, they don’t. But that is what they used to call a “teachable moment” back when the education system still cared about such things).

On the other hand, my Mom works at a school named after a long forgotten schools commissioner. It serves one of Nova Scotia’s historic Black communities. At one point a teacher suggested to a community meeting that the school be renamed for someone with more meaning to the community.

The members of the committee representing parents killed the idea, basically on the grounds of “This is the school we went to and it’s always been called that. It's our school. Why would we want to change it?”

Park Ave is a bit of different case. As MacLean's columnist Paul Wells points out, the street is named for its geography, not any particular historic person (though not equivalent to “The Dirt Trail Near Hector's Garage” as he says, since that would be a name that would matter a lot to Hector and people needing his services).

I’m not sure how much that matters. First of all, Park is one of Montreal’s “personality” streets, like St Laurent, St Catherine and Sherbrooke. Irving Layton didn’t write about bouncing hockey pucks “Off the tits of justice” jutting out from the Cartier memorial on some other street. The "happy smoke" emanating from the weekly Tam Tams doesn’t drift over Robert Bourassa, though I don’t know that he would complain if it did. An entire neighbourhood is named for Park; remnants of immigrant communities that settled there to open businesses and raise their children there remain still.

I will confess a bias, of course. To me, Park – the upper reaches of it anyway – was my Main, only better because it never mattered how I dressed there. I knew the organ playing homeless guy the grocery store would let in on cold days, I knew the Harji’s that ran the small grocery store up the street. My favourite Vietnamese restaurant was just off it on Laurier, I’d walk it every day for years to get to and from work.

Technically, none of that changes if the street is suddenly called “Robert Bourassa,” but somehow it does. Park is homey, it’s unpretentious, it is one of the few things in Montreal untainted by the language wars (hell – it’s even pronounced the same in both languages!) To foist the name of a politician –any politician - would be an intrusion.

But of course, it’s not just any politician, it’s a federalist politician, and this is where Wells makes perhaps the only dumb argument I’ve ever heard him make: namely, that naming Park after Robert Bourassa would be some sort of cosmic balancing for renaming Dorchester for Rene Lesvesque.

Now, admittedly renaming Dorchester – a British Lord who advised union of Upper and Lower Canada largely as way to ensure French assimilation – was a calculated act of spite aimed directly at the heart of Anglophone Westmount (trivia: even after the city amalgamation the stub of Rene Lesvesque within Westmount’s limits is still called Dorchester).

However, renaming Park doesn’t redress that particular situation. I have no doubt that Montrealers would be happy to rename something after Bourassa – the French, both in Canada and here, are champions of situational honours of this sort (ask me, sometime, about the names Strasbourg’s Place Kleber has borne over the years).

The big problem with Well’s concept of tit-for-tat toponymy is that it has to be proportional: the separatist got a major downtown street, therefore Bourassa can get no less. Problem is, there’s only so many of them to go around. Fifty years from now, when people are searching for a way to honour the titan of politics who finally broke Quebec out of its perpetual will-we-or-won't-we politics, are we going to have to learn to call St Laurent "Blvd Mario Dumont?"

In short, what I can’t figure in all of this is why it had to be Park, and not say, Édouard-Montpetit who already has a CEGEP named after him and goes has the added benefit of being the address of Université de Montréal, where Bourassa studied and taught.

Besides, naming the soulless canyon that was Dorchester after Lesvesque was insulting enough - wouldn't giving Park to a federalist be rather rubbing their faces in it?

Friday, February 02, 2007

The walls come crumblin' down

In order to honour a request that I not sound so cheery in my postings here, a vent.

I found out today that the book on Fortress Louisbourg my publishers had requested I do back in July and I only got started on now has been "put on hold" due to their financial difficulties (My financial difficulties being of no concern to them whatsoever). Though I wasn't too keen on the project, I was looking forward to having something large scale to sink my teeth into. On the bright side, it saves me from having, in the course of my research, to untangle a bookfull of sentences like this: "The chief official of the colony was the Governor, and next to him in rank was, in Isle Royale, the Commissaire-Ordonnatuer discharging the functions which, in more important colonies, as Canada, in the provinces of France, and in quasi-independant states such as Lorraine during the reign there of Stanislas of Poland, were those of the Intendant." Wait a minute - Stanislas of Poland was in charge of Louisbourg? What?

Anyway, this was more of a blow than I was expecting. My mood has not been helped by the fact that Strasbourg is suffering under the effects of a near total UN-sanctioned embargo on sun and blue skies, niether of which have been seen around these parts in many moons. The Moon is still visible, as the flotilla of clouds enforcing the boycott disperse at night, when there is no danger of sunlight seeping through, only to resume blockade duty before dawn.

In an effort to escape my funk, we did go out to see "The Illusionist" last night. I realize it's not playing in North America anymore, so a review of it will have little relevance to anyone other than my overseas readers (both on 'em!). It was really only ok. Amynah and I saw "The Prestige" a few months ago, which was far superior, so it's what you want if you have a limited budget for obsessive magician-themed period flicks.

The Illusionist had Edward Norton (the titular magician), who I generally like, Paul Giamatti (a policeman), who is pretty awesome as a rule and Jessica Biel (Norton's love interest, engaged to the Crown Prince played by Rufus Sewell), whose job was, like a magician's assistant, to stand around a look pretty.

I won't give the plot away more than the basic set up: Boy from wrong side of the cart-tracks falls in love with a Duchess. They're torn apart. He goes away and learns magic, returns years later with a new identity when she's about to be married to a high born, but thoroughly bad man. What will happen? Who will care? The ending was telegraphed from the start and when the "twist" is revealed it's done so in a way that leaves you yawning rather than gasping. Basically, it was free of any realy tension at all.

To summarize: it's set in Vienna - Vienna's pretty. It had magic - magic is neat. There was a bad guy, suitably villainous. Giamatti grunted a lot. Norton affected an accent that might charitably be described as "distracting." As I'm not feeling particularly charitable I will describe it as the result as everyone associated with the filming of this movie having done so with cotton balls in their ears. This had to be. Otherwise someone - if not the director, then the gaffer or the coffee wrangler - would have told him to stop, for the love of God, and just do the tried and true faux-British accent American actors are supposed to do whilst striving to convey European.

Norton's accent did manage the neat trick of distracting from the dialogue, for which I am grateful. However, no amount of prestidigitation could hide gems like when a post-coital Norton, describing his Oriental wanderings to Biel spoke thusly: "I saw a lot of amazing things, but I never learned a true mystery - the mystery of why my heart could not let you go."

Unfortunately, the movie was not quite bad enough to really supply me with the joy really shredding a film can do: Norton (despite his accent) is sympathetic, Rufus Sewell nearly stole the show without being a scenery chewing cartoon and Giamatti was wierdly charismatic as usual. The magic tricks were fun to watch, though the whole proccess didn't have the whole "insider" feel that made "The Prestige" so enjoyable. Biel was there, on screen, performing her function of looking good while remembering her few lines. It's hard to criticize her for not bringing anything to what was really a cipher of a role. Phillip Glass' score was ok, though one did notice it, which is probably not a good sign.

In short: Not a bad rental, if part of a three-for-the-price-of-one special.

(NB: Lest anyone think that I only see bad movies here, I have seen both "The Departed" and "Stranger than Fiction" recently and enjoyed them both immensely. But where's the fun in writing about that?)

Thursday, February 01, 2007


I picked up a copy of Le Monde today, part of my ongoing efforts to Frenchify myself. I had forgotten that today marked the coming-into-effect of the new anti-smoking laws, which ban smoking in public places like restaurants.

To mark the occasion, Le Monde has a very witty front page opinion piece mourning the end of an era:"With a cigarette, one was partaking of a metaphor and an idea. Smoke to be. Smoke under all circumstances, and with no reticence for the feelings of non-smokers. Those were good times."

It concludes with the line that should other pleasures be eradicated with the same efficiency as smoking than "Beaufisme {vulgarity, I believe} triumphs."

I cannot, in my wildest imaginings, picture a similar article on the front of, say, the New York Times or the Globe and Mail. This, my friends, is the spirit of the mob in 1789, the taxis of Paris bringing serious faced troops to the Somme in 1914 to fight the larger German Army to a standstill. It is the Resistance fighting their lonely battle against the Nazis in 1942 and hirsute students arguing in the cafés before taking to the streets in 1968.

Light up, mes amis. Light up the darkness! Breath the carcinogenic air of freedom!