Saturday, April 28, 2007

Mars attacks II - Kleingrünvolksflugzeug*

This photo would have gone so well with my previous posting, had I only thought of it. This is located on the German side of the Jardin de deux rives, which is the park that straddles both sides of the Rhine, intended to symbolize the peace and amity of all Europe. Because nothing says peace and amity like a mock-up UFO.

PS - the title, which I'm fairly certain is not a real word, means "little green people aircraft"

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Mars attacks!

Me: Hey, did you hear they've discovered an Earth like planet that might have water?

Amynah: Uh oh.

(As long as I'm doing the self-indulgent blogger thing, I may as well embrace it fully. This belongs in the category of blog posts of "conversations that are far more funny to the people holding them than those poor souls forced to read them on the Internet").

Oh jeez, one of these

All right, I have nothing intelligent or interesting to write about right now, plus I should be working. Therefore I will indulge Julie, who “tagged” me to fill this out. I am not doing it in good humour, as it is 28 degrees here, forcing us to sleep with our windows open. This, in turn, means that I was woken up several times over the course of the night, the last time at 3:45 AM by a drunken Neanderthal who was yelling at the top of his lungs while walking up our street. Not yelling anything in particular, mind you, just hollering like a six-month-old that just discovered they can make loud noises with that big hole in the front of their face. So, I’m under slept and thinking unkind thoughts about humanity right now.

Three Names You Go By:
1. Mark
2. Marc
3. Mr Reynolds

Three Parts of Your Heritage:
This makes me cranky. At what point do you get to just say “Canadian?” How many Brits point to their Norman heritage and say they’re part French? Anyway, if “Canadian” isn’t acceptable:
1. Irish
2. Scottish
3. German/Austrian

Three Things That Scare You:
1. Failure
2. Internet message boards
3. Canned peas

Three of Your Everyday Essentials:
1. Air
2. Food.
3. Water.

Three Things You Are Wearing Right Now:
1. A moccasin on my left foot.
2. A matching moccasin on my right foot.
3. My watch

Three of Your Favourite Songs Right Now:
(These are all Johnny-come-lately’s, - I’m not putting perpetual favorites up here, because what’s the point?)
1. Bleeding Heart Show, New Pornographers
2. Mes Emmerdes, Charles Aznvour
3. The Crane Wife, Decemberists

Three Things You Want in a Relationship (other than Love):
1. Sense of humour
2. Patience
3. Intelligence

Two Truths and a Lie (in any order):
1. I love doing Internet quizzes
2. I hate doing Internet quizzes
3. The first one was the lie.

Three PHYSICAL Things About the Opposite Sex that Appeal to You:
1) The parts between the top of the head and the bottom of the feet
2) The parts between the back and the front
3) The parts between the left and the right.

Three of Your Favourite Hobbies:
1. Making up answers to lists like this to make me seem more interesting and well rounded
2. Banjo construction
3. Helper-monkey training

Three Things You Want to Do Really Badly Right Now (But Can't):

1. Shoot an accordionist
2. Fairmount bagels. Cream cheese. My stomach. Now.
3. Stop that damn helper monkey from playing my banjo before the glue has set.

Three Places You Want To Go:
1. A world where I’d get the last five minutes back
2. Japan
3. Congo

Three Things You Want to Do Before You Die:
1. Make sure I’m wearing clean underwear. I’d hate to disappoint my Mom.
2. Remember that my last words have to be clever and/or mysterious. I’m thinking “Shmidt! You bastard!”
3. Umm… clean my desk? No one deserves that burden.

Three Ways That You Are Stereotypically a Girl/Guy:
What’s a girl/guy? My cross dressing days are long behind me, thank you very much.

Three People I Would Like to See Take This Quiz:
Nelson Mandela, Charles Manson, Ringo Starr

Monday, April 23, 2007

Further to the driving permit

Interestingly, Amynah's permit has my name on it as her husband. Mine has no space whatsoever for a spouse. The fact that she's the scientist and I'm here on a spousal visa doesn't matter. She's MY woman, because France says so.

Also, French drivers permits are the cheapest things I've ever seen - it's a pink piece of paper with my photo taped on and a crappy lamination job. My university was making harder-to-counterfeit I.D. cards than that a decade ago.


Well, I called it. That is, I called my inability to call anything. With a record turnout (40-odd million, or roughly 75 percent) France chose right-leaning candidate Nicholas Sarkozy (31.1 percent) and Socialist Segolene Royal (25.8)to be their candidates for president.

It was ultra-nationalist Le Pen that tanked, coming in with ten percent while centrist François Bayrou came in with 18.5 percent. None of the other fringe candidates even managed the five percent they require to be reimbursed for their expenses.

In Alsace Sego’s near local-girl credentials got her nowhere: she pulled in 17 percent to Sarkozy’s 36 percent here. Both Bayrou and LePen also did better here than in France overall, with 21 and 13 percent, respectively.

Both the Dernier Nouvelles d’Alsace (DNA) and Le Monde attributed these results to the Le Pen effect: No one wanted a “humiliating” repeat of the 2002 election, where he made it into the second round and voters were confronted with a choice between the right-leaning and ineffectual Chirac and the ultra-right Le Pen.

The right-leaning DNA put a positive spin on it: under an editorial titled “Au revoir le XXieme siecle!” (Goodbye, twentieth century!” they hailed the development as historic for France. The Socialists, they wrote, have never been weaker, Le Pen repudiated and the centrist Bayrou who claimed to beyond the old left-right divide (and who has, as yet, endorsed no one) “though eliminated, will be at the heart” of the second round of campaigning.

His endorsement will be key: one can presume Le Pen boosters, will go to Sarkozy, even as the latter tacks more to the centre in the second round. Segolene has picked up the endorsement of all the leftist candidates, though their combined tally of ten percent of the vote isn’t enough on its own. It’s a measure of how disliked Sarkozy is, as a person, that no party to the right of him (including Le Pen) has endorsed him.

As usual when elections approach, I am in the “a pox on both their houses” category. In addition to a general fuzziness on policy, several foreign policy mis-steps (including endorsing Quebec separatism, not that it did the PQ any good) Royal has called for mandatory singing of le Marseillaises for immigrants and giving a French tricolour to every household. What is this, 1848? Sarkozy, for his part, has chased after LePen’s cadre of troglodytes with unseemly enthusiasm, saying things to immigrants along the lines of “If you don’t like it here, you can just leave.”

Unbowed, I will post another prediction here as we get closer to May 6, the second polling day. I fully expect said prediction to be wrong. However, you’re welcome to throw brickbats my way, or post speculation of your own here.

Friday, April 20, 2007

La presidentielle

Boards specially erected for elections posters in front of Strasbourg's city hall. I photographed these in particular because they're just across the street from where La Marseillaise was performed for the first time. Yay historic resonance!

Today, I became a little more French. I am now the proud owner of a French driver’s permit.* I did so for a few reasons – first, because it is a straight exchange when you have a Quebec license and it will save me from needing to bring my passport every time I want to rent a car. It should also relieve me from having to pay the two parking tickets and accumulated court fines that are attached to my Canadian license. Mark Reynolds – fugitive from justice!

In honour of this auspicious occasion, I bring you my thoughts on the French election.

Several years ago, a combination of youthful idealism, free time and desperate need for money led me to work for a certain political party for a few provincial and federal elections in Halifax.

I was pretty much at the bottom of the chain – my job, along with several dozen other mercenaries and idealists was to do what is called “push polling” on the phone. We’d read a script that would associate our candidate** with grandmothers, apple pie, puppies AND kittens (unless you’re allergic, in which our candidate really likes teddy bears).

Then we’d ask something along the lines of “do you agree with ______ that puppies, apple pie, blue skies and grandmothers are good things?” Then we’d rank them on a scale of 1 to 5 of support. A ranking of 1 meant you were with us, and would then be pestered to take a sign, a ranking of 5 meant you were confirmed for another candidate in which case we’d ask the Sisters of Mercy to pray for your soul.

The poor suckers who said they were undecided were worst off – they’d get called again and again until they gave an answer. This was not a good idea, because half the time in NS when people say they don’t know it really means “no” and they’re just being polite.

The point of all this nostalgia is that even though I was doing mindless, repetitive work, there was a feeling of energy. People talked about the campaign, the “boiler room” was always high energy, even when we all hated the work, and many of us volunteered on other parts of the campaign – putting up signs, doing door to door work, stuffing envelopes and the like. The city – especially in competitive ridings – were plastered with signs. Whole neighbourhoods would go orange, or blue or red.

This is in sharp contrast to France. Electoral rules here are extremely strict. For instance, the media is required to give every candidate – even those running with no organization and unlikely to get 2 percent of the vote – equal time. Given that there are 12 candidates running for president, that means if Sarkozy, (currently leading with 27 percent of the vote) says something worth two minutes of air time, every one of his opponents need to be given two minutes of air time in the same program.

Needless to say, that means that most of the coverage of the election tends to stay away from the specifics of any one candidates platform and focus more on generalities, like poll numbers. For instance, Radio France International’s Presidentielle coverage this morning – two days before the first round of voting - consisted of a statement from a professor who complained that no one was talking enough, or honestly about the economy. Even then, there was nothing about what any candidate was saying about the economy, just that it was insufficient and wrong anyway.

I’m not sure if election signs are covered by these rules or not, but I am blown away that there are so few. The only ones I’ve seen are on central billboards mounted for the purpose, meaning that Sarkozy, Royal (26 percent) get exactly as much space as the Trotskyites and single-issue “tear down the EU” type candidates. I’ve yet to see a single bumper sticker or sign in a private dwelling. Politics seems to be something that is practiced and regulated by the state - the people have very little to do with it.

The political discourse – and the view of politics – is also very different. In the U.S. the word “liberal” is a political slur, implying a left-ish total lack of morality. In France, “liberalisme is also a slur, but implying a right-ish embrace of free markets, globalization and big business. That all of those thing or evil is taken on face value, even by the right. Both interpretations are a bit bizarre for a Canadian who takes small “l” liberal as a compliment and equates (usually) big “L” Liberal with “government.”

Here the left is very left. Segolene Royal, the Socialist candidate, is an actual red-blooded socialist – not the domesticated NDP or British Labour version. Remarkably, she has a half dozen candidates even further to the left of her to worry about.

On the right you have Sarkozy, who in North American terms is about as right leaning as Paul Martin or Hilary Clinton. Further right than him you have Jean-Marie Le Pen, a man generally seen as a crypto-fascist, and yet polls at about 12 percent.

For anyone following the election might have heard of François Bayrou, the “centrist” candidate. He’s doing well – just shy of 20 percent of the vote right now, but no one likes him. Why? Well, someone in Amynah’s lab (echoed by an editorial in today’s le Monde said that it is important to have “a clear vision of society.” In other words, it’s the ideology, not the ideas, that matter. Bayrou, in promising to take the best ideas from the left and right, isn’t playing by the rules. Again, very odd for someone who comes from a country where that is exactly how any government gets in power.

In any case, predicting this one is driving the pundits nuts. Lots of people are ashamed to admit they are voting for LePen (Alsace apparently likes him, though all of his posters are heavily vandalized) and therefore claim they’re voting for Sarkozy, so his numbers might be lower than they look and LePen’s higher.

In turn, Royal has impressed no one during this campaign (she suggested France create a "Sixth Republic" - why not? Why stop at five? And how else are you going to get to the lucky seven?) , but people may abandon Bayrou for her at the last minute rather than risk the embarrassment of having LePen reach the second round again, as he did in 2002. Similarly, the other leftist candidates might bleed support to her for the same reason.

The general feeling seems to be that no one particularly feels that Royal is very impressive, or even competent, but no one likes Sarkozy either, especially as he’s been pandering to the right in order to scoop LePen’s votes (he's also considered a fiscal conservative, even though his spending pledges are, at €72 billion, only €2 billion less than the "free spending" Royal's). That’ll drive off the moderates. There is a huge number of undecideds, and no one has any idea where they’re going to go.

Despite the futitlity inherent in analyzing these numbers, I’m going to indulge in some punditry, based entirely on what I’ve read in the local papers, Amynah's lab gossip, and a random number I found here in the rear area of my pants.

Royal will win it with just over 30 percent. Sarkozy will come in second, also with about thirty. LePen will score less than 20. Bayrou will drop to about 15.

I fully expect to be completely wrong in all of that – I’ve never predicted an election accurately in my life, and being a semi-hermit hasn’t given me any particular insight. However, I’m posting my opinions here if only so people can come back here on Monday and mock me. Enjoy!

*We applied Monday. French bureaucracy is frustrating, but holy heck is it quick. When we went in on Monday, the woman at the kiosk immediately told us to come back with the proper paperwork. When we told her we had the proper paperwork, she almost fell off her ergonomically correct chair. No etranger had ever before accomplished this feat.

**and we called for candidates all over mainland Nova Scotia. Cape Breton had its own phone centre, presumably on the theory that voters there would be put off by mainlander accents trying to tell them what to do.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Rock climbing

It has been a while since I updated, but I have a very good excuse. I have been completely unable to move my arms.

No, I haven’t been attacked by Argentinian water rodents again (that’s a great story, for those who don’t already know it). Rather, I went rock climbing.

We had been invited a couple of weeks ago by Audrey and her boyfriend Greg. Both have been doing it for quite some time – over a decade each. I had idly been asking Greg about it over the aperitifs and he said “You seem really interested. You should come out with us!”

Now, there were two kinds of miscommunication going on here. I was doing what we in the English speaking world call “making conversation.” That’s clearly different from expressing interest.

However, either because Greg misinterpreted my questions or because he is insane (events bear out the latter hypothesis) he told us to come out with him and his rock climbing buddies.

He then pulled out a black and white photo of the cliff to which he wanted to take us. As he handed it over, he assured me that this rock face had all sorts of easy “lines” on it, suitable for a beginner.

“Besides” he said “I’m a fully certified instructor.”

The photo looked innocuous enough – a long line, several different routes, some of which looked like steep hills. How hard could it be? It’s been a while since I did anything manly like this so I said, sure! Let’s do it!
Greg in action

Now, half of me fully expected that nothing would come of this – why would these guys want to go out of their way to drag a couple of newbies up the bunny slopes when they could be doing their Spiderman routines on a hard wall? On the other hand, I started to get kind of excited: it was something new, we’d get out into the country and get some exercise.

Well, two weeks after that dinner (the wine fondue, for those who are interested) the invitation came through. Saturday morning we were to put on those clothes to which we were least emotionally attached and meet a man described to Amynah as “a tall guy with a green Opel” in the Auchon parking lot (Auchon being a steroid-taking result of a WalMart breeding with a Superstore. It’s big, is what I’m trying to say).

So warned, I dragged my camping pants from the bottom of clothes where they’d been hibernating, Amynah put on some crappy capris she hadn’t worn in a year and we were off.

We managed to find the large man and his small car with no problem, oddly enough. WE piled in and introduced ourselves. Phillipe, it turns out, had been doing this rock-climbing (escalade, en Francais) thing for five years. His friend Karim had been at it for six months, and this was to be his first outdoor climb. Niether spoke a word of English.

As we set off, Phillippe turned around and looked at our clothes, ratty and wrinkled as they were.

“Do you have something to change into? Because those will get ruined,” he said.

Otherwise, the drive to Ottrott, where we were to meet Audrey and Greg, was pretty quiet. During the half hour I had time to contemplate things, like, if Karim has been climbing for six months, and this is the first time he’s done so outdoors, is it really a good idea to do this? Also, both Karim and Philippe looked to be in pretty good shape. I type for a living. Am I really ready for this?

Actually, that’s a lie. I didn’t think any of that until we arrived at the quarry. The cliff was a huge drooling beast, way bigger than the picture, in which it was a mere two inches. In reality it was thirty metres, straight up. Thirty metres, for anyone who is counting, is precisely thirty metres more cliff than I’d ever climbed in my life.

We all got harnessed up and Greg found an “easy” run to set the ropes up on. Now, Greg is an ordinary human being, to a casual observer. Get him on the bottom of a cliff, however, and you will very soon have him on the top of the cliff. That’s it. He climbs like Gretzky scores points, like the Habs miss playoffs, like Newfoundlanders club seals – like he was born doing it.

So, after seeing Greg scoot up a vertical face like he was fetching the mail, Audrey turned to me.

“Ok – it’s your turn!”

What? No lesson? Nope. Greg threw down a rope, they attached me to it and told me to climb a wall. So I stepped up to the cliff. I look up – no handhold there. I look down. No foothold there. I look to the side. No elevator button there.

“Now what?”

Well, I managed to get up about three metres on my own. On the first “line” I got up about four metres before Phillippe had to climb up and bodily haul me over a rock face. It got easier after that – if by easier you can ignore the banged knees, abraded arms, strained muscles, bruised abdomen and lumpy head.
Me - I'm the little speck in blue pants. Phillippe's in red. Greg is in white, way up there.

Once I got to the top I was rewarded with a view of the Ottrott castle on the hill facing us. Pretty cool. However, I barely had time to catch my breath before Greg turned to me and said “Now for the fun part. You get to rappel down.”

Everyone has seen rappelling in the movies, and it does look fun – SWAT team members aand rescue personall bounding down walls and sliding down ropes. Like at an amusement park ride. Except you forget something – it involves the biggest “D’ya trust me? of all – you have to deliberately fall backwards off a rock hard cliff into a nothingness that only ends 100 feet below with the stone hard ground. You have a rope, of course, but who the heck believes in ropes?

Nonetheless, I did it. After I finished, I was told that in fact, they had put the never-been-in-a-harness-before beginners on a run that was classified as intermediate. Thanks!
Amynah's turn. I won't describe how she did, because it's my blog, and I am determined to rescue a semblance of male pride here

We all did a few lines and over the course of the day, I noticed that everyone had their own swearing style. I tend to mention Jesus a lot. Karim, meanwhile tended to yell about “professional ladies.” Greg, being trilingual, would – on the rare occasions when he had difficulty – unleash a stream of syllables that must be fairly commonly heard in EU meetings when they’re not going well.

His multilingualism wasn’t a help with his instructions however, most of which boiled down to “C’est facile! Just do it!” I was understanding the French well enough to get instructions: “Votre main gauche en haute… NON! L’autre gauche!” However, asking for directions was a little harder, since my brain absolutely refuses to think in French when it’s a life or death situation (“Now, is ‘I can’t see what to do next’ present tense, future or conditional? And how does one conjugate ‘get me down, now!’?”)

On my second run, which I did without Phillipe’s aid, I made an interesting discovery. I was on a section of cliff, my left leg extended ninety degrees to my body, the sole of my shoe barely making contact with a half-centimetre ridge, my right foot wedged in a crevasse and both hands gripping with all my might to a dead tree stump when I had an epiphany: I’m not having very much fun.

Phillippe yelled at me to move my right foot to another crevasse and then I had a second epiphany: I might be not entirely comfortable with heights. I realized this because although my brain was entirely calm, because I knew I was attached to a rope, my right foot was not moving. It was perfectly comfortable where it was and it was going to stay there – along with the rest of my body, clinging to the rock like lichen – until the fire department arrived to peel me off.

At this point, Audrey helped matters immeasurably by whipping out her cellphone/MP3 player and putting on “I will survive.” I think it was supposed to be encouraging, but off course the first lines hit a little too close to home: “At first I was afraid, I was petrified…”

That helped. I managed to loosen my grip just enough to give her the finger.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Movie review - Sunshine: not so hot

Nothing but spoilers
We saw a film called Sunshine last night, drawn in by the movie posters plastering every bus stop and tram station in Strasbourg.

Going by the posters, it looked like it was going to be a good old fashioned summer blockbuster/disaster flick – something obviously involving a space ship and getting far closer than could possibly be healthy to the sun. Neither of us had heard of it before, which is odd as we both keep up on the entertainment news from home but we went anywhere.

As loyal readers of this here blog know, I generally only review movies here that I hate and I am delighted to report that Sunshine qualifies eminently. I feel bad ripping it apart here – as far as I could tell it was actually a small budget movie, possibly British or Australian, a noble attempt to compete with Hollywood in the dumb-as-a-sack-of-hammers blockbuster department. Criticizing it makes me feel slightly like I’m kicking a puppy.

On the other hand, there is a risk, however tiny, that someone reading this might be tempted to see it and feel I will have failed in my duty were I not to do my utmost to prevent that from happening.

The plot, such as it was, was established in a portentous voice over from the Captain of the Icarus II: “The sun is dying,” he says. His craft, the Icarus II has been sent to kick start our home star by dropping the mother of all atomic bombs into the centre of it before the earth turns into a giant snow cone.

You know it’s serious because he speaks really slowly. You know its dangerous because of a passing reference to Icarus I – the first mission, which went to the sun and was never heard of again. Anyone want to predict what happens next?

The movie stars the guy who played the flaming dude from the Fantastic Four movie, and the guy who played the Scarecrow from Batman Begins plus a lot of what are known in sci-fi movies as Ensign Cannon Fodders: filler characters that will need to be killed off one by one.

Movies set on long-term space missions all tend to fall into two categories: Alien, where sweaty actors do battle with each other, claustrophobic sets and a strange beastie lurking in the air ducts. Or they fall into the Solaris mode, where strange space phenomena make us realize that the Final Frontier is, in fact, our own souls.

Sunshine had no idea whatsoever which kind of movie it was and appeared to fail at both, like Event Horizon but without the budget.

After some brief (and poorly edited) establishing scenes wherein we learn which character is the wise captain, the philosopher/doctor, the arrogant cowboy, the tormented scientist, the love interest and the level-headed female character who takes down the men with her wise cracks, the cowardly yet ambitious second officer).

Suddenly, a fight on the bridge occurs between the cowboy and tormented scientist, handily establishing them as rivals and the main characters. What they were fighting about was never established but never mind! We’re picking up a distress signal!

From whom? Why, the seven-years gone Icarus I! No one could possibly be alive after all this time, could they?

Through a shoddy use of statistics that my scientist readers will appreciate, they decide that if they can pick up the bomb on the Icarus I they will have two bombs and therefore double their chances to jump-start the sun. The fact that something obviously went horribly wrong on the first ship did not enter into their calculations at all. Not surprising – this is presumably only the second best crew earth had to offer, the best one having been on the Icarus I.

So they change course, except they forget to readjust their giant sun shield (damned B-Team!), which is then damaged. Now, call me crazy, but if they have developed the technology to remind us to turn our headlights off when we park our cars, do you think they might have come up with a similar warning system for a space ship that is supposed to save all mankind? A little “beep” or a flashing light or something?

In the process of fixing the shield, wise old captain dies. One down! Why’d you get him to do the introductory voice over if we weren’t going to get to know him?

Problem solved the merry Icarus II continues on to the Icarus I. Arriving, they find that it had been deliberately sabotaged, all the crew are dead. Or are they? No one did a head count and faster than you can say “Alien” the two ships are somehow separated. Leaving the boarding crew stranded. Two more crew die! (take a bow, philosopher doctor! Aurevoir cowardly second officer! You didn’t get to be acting captain long!)

It was at this point that the movie really showed its budgetary restrictions. It was clearly shot in an abandoned factory. Surgeon’s scalpels were X-acto blades attached to electric toothbrushes. The crew zipped along in their ship with those mini-scooters that were such a hit with the kids 10 years ago.

The bad guy – basically a Jesus freak with a really bad sunburn – shows up a starts killing people for about ten minutes (Ensign Fodders – we hardly knew ye! Smarter-than-all-the-guys girl, say goodbye!).

At this point I realized that the Fantastic Four guy must have been terrified of being typecast as a “guy who burns.” I can imagine his meeting with the producers now: “Yeah, I’ll appear in your traveling to the sun movie, but I must insist that when my character bites it, I am frozen to death. In water! Yeah… that’ll teach ‘em to think I’m a one note actor!”

Anyway, lacking the funds for good prosthetics or make up the bad-guy/monster/Born Again Christian was only shown with the super cheesy “wavy screen” technology pioneered on "Dr Who" so that you could never focus on him properly.

In any case, we can all rest easy, because they do end up saving the world and we get to see the new sun being born – apparently the bending of space and time that happens in the heart of the sun makes normal flesh impervious to the force of a nuclear explosions, at least temporarily.

And I learned something. Never, ever go to a movie based on the poster alone.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Oh yeah, visitors

Rebecca and Milan were visiting over the weekend, thus the lack of posts. We took them to Mont St Odile and Kaysersberg as well as around town. WEather was nice enough that we were able to have a five-cheese picnic in Kaysersberg, followed by espressos in an outdoor cafe. Photo is of the very Euro-looking duo there. On the other side of the camera, meanwhile, I am in the process of getting a lovely sunburn, which I mention largely to be a jerk to my shivering Canadian readers.

Now I'm off to French class...

Vimy rant

edit - note added at bottom
I am going to take a break from France posting for a while to post about something that happened in France. Namely the Battle of Vimy Ridge.

I have nothing to add to the sap-clogged rivers of ink that have been spilled on this topic in Canada in terms of the battle’s importance, or its meaning, or heart-rending recollections torn from diaries that were never intended to be plastered all over the front pages of our newspapers. To the best of my knowledge, I have no direct ancestors that served in either of the World Wars, let alone at Vimy.

Nonethless, I’m going to rant. Specifically, about Rudyard Griffiths of the Dominion Institute. You might not of heard of them, but if you’re from Canada you will know their work. Every year, at least twice a year (Canada Day and November 11) they publish a poll which will get heavy, and undeserved coverage in the media, that will purport to demonstrate Canadians woeful lack of knowledge about their history in general and military history in particular.

When there’s a special anniversary, they inevitably pop up again, as they did this year on the commemorations of Vimy Ridge Whenever they do, there is much hand wringing that we are losing our heritage and therefore our sense of national identity and forgetting the sacrifices of bleah bleah bleah.

No one who knows my writing can accuse me of being indifferent to history (Canadian history in particular) but I’m going to go out on a limb here and say something radical: Vimy does not matter. Remembering Vimy does not matter. It is completely inconsequential to understanding Canada, war, or history. Even for students of military history its importance is largely one of improved tactics and the effect the win had on Allied morale– Vimy Ridge itself was strategically insignificant.

I would argue that the deep attachment neo-Tories like Griffiths have for Vimy is of much more historic interest than the battle itself. It mattered once, to a Canada that was young and finding its way in a world that still measured national worth by the length of its muskets. No more. We have new symbols, new beliefs. It is no more natural to worship the dead at Vimy – over and above those at, say, Ypres, who were equally brave and just as dead – than it is to have a once-in-a-decade conniption over the Battle of Stoney Creek (1813).

Interestingly, those countries that participated in the Great War with less of an obsessive need to have a capital “I” identity all pick losses as their “national” battle: Passchendaele for the Brits, Verdun for the French, Gallipoli for the Australians. The tremendous loss of life for little geo-political gain in a war of which the major consequence was to set up another war is not something that can be appropriately remembered by a “glorious victory.” Canada’s fetishization of Vimy is a throwback to an era we have outgrown.

I am not suggesting that we forget the Great War or the men who fought in it, but simply remembering it as “Vimy” or even remembering Vimy divorced from the context of the propaganda that has swirled around it since 1917 is serving Canada’s history and identity just as poorly as forgetting it entirely.

Edit Just to clarify, I fully intend to visit the Vimy Memorial later this year (see comments). My beef is with the idea that knowledge of a single battle should - or even could - be considered a key part of Canada's national heritage and identity after ninety years, over and above hundreds of other equally important events and developments.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

For your reading appetite

By popular demand* a post on food.

First, a disclaimer. I am not what food-obsessed people would call a “foodie” (a word I find irritating all out of proportion to how often I encounter it on a daily basis. I’m not an “airy” despite my fondness for that life sustaining collection of gases) and so I might not do so well describing the gastronomic delights I have endured whilst en France. I generally prefer to apply my limited store of adjectives elsewhere. That said, I make no claims that everything described here is spelled correctly, or even described all that accurately - once an ingredient is combined with a larger dish, I cease to care about its individual identity: therefore something is "spicy" not "flavoured with scotch peppers."

My lack of food sense aside, dining at people's homes is probably one of my favourite things about living in France, not least because my being thoroughly smashed on fine wine by the end of the meal is a reliable part of the experience.

It would be hard to know where to start. One of the first meals we had here was with our friends Julie and Sebastien. We had been out exploring the Alsatian countryside, a trip that devolved into a mushroom picking expedition.

On our return, Julie and Sebastien invited in for dinner. Now, it is important to note that this was a completely spontaneous invitation, the equivalent of “Hey, it’s pretty late – you want to come in for a bite to eat?” that would be followed by pasta or pizza in North America.

Not here. First, they pulled out a bottle of wine and a “martini” (which is a type of liqueur here, rather than the mixed drink) offering us a choice of either. While I sipped my wine, Julie busied herself preparing fresh picked mushrooms and magrette de canard in the kitchen. This was followed by a cheese plate with three separate artisinal cheeses (reflecting the improvised nature of the meal – had this been planned there would have been at least four cheeses and possibly six). Needless to say, each course was accompanied by its own wine.

Planned meals are yet more elaborate still. Soon after our arrival here, Amynah’s boss invited all the newbies and their spouses to her place for a traditional Alsatian dinner. Her home at the time was a converted farmhouse about twenty kilometers from town.

On entering, we were confronted with a table full of “bretzels” – giant pretzels, which locals claim are an Alsatian invention. Once everyone was gathered they pulled out the cremant - Alsace’s answer to champagne. Another common apertif is a mix of Reisling and Kir, a cherry black currant liqueur.

Traditional Alsatian cuisine, such as it is, consists of pig in all its multifarious forms. In this case, the main course was a “choucroutte.” This is basically an enormous pile shredded cabbage cooked in wine, atop which are piled a joint of ham, cooked to be so juicy that it dissolved on contact with a fork, sausages, pork ribs and some other swine part I can never identify. All of the local restaurants serve this – though none has measured up to the homemade version we had, largely because restaurant “chou” is generally way too acidic.

This, in turn was followed by a cheese plate which featured (among many other cheeses) munster. Munster is not unlike brie in texture and originates from a town in Alsace not far from Switzerland. Munster is what aficionados would term a “stinky” cheese. I made the mistake of buying some during the heat wave when we moved here and then not eating it immediately. Our fridge inadequate to the 35-degree heat, soon smelled like a locker room. A locker room filled with stinky cheese. It is tasty though – more tart than brie.

Cheeses, like wines and most other foodstuffs, be eaten in a certain order. Just as one does not have a Pinot gris before a reisling, one would not eat brie after munster, nor munster after emmental. I've learned that the convention in restaurants seems to be to present the cheeses clockwise - you start at 12 and make your way around the plate. Remarkably, people will cut off giant pie-sized hunks of cheese at this stage of the meal, as if they hadn't just downed three courses, four glasses of wine and were preparing for a giant dessert.

Dessert was a tarte aux quetches (a quetch is a type of plum) served with Gewurztraminer wine, a very sweet dessert wine which is the pride of the Alsatian vineyards. It’s too sweet for my tastes, but as I am rapidly discovering, the right wine served with the right dish really does improve both considerably. Sadly, I can never remember which wine is supposed to go with which dish, so my nascent wine snobbery is unlikely to develop into an insufferable pretension.

Afterwards, we had the digestif which in this case was schnapps. I had never had schnapps before, associating it with old men and Nazis for some reason, but they too are supposed to be a local specialty (I would not be in the least bit surprised if some Alsatian were to one day serve me pancakes and claim that maple syrup was an Alsatian invention). Shnapps come in many varieties – peach, quetches, myrtle (a local berry), cherry, blackberry and Gewurztraminer, made from grape skins left over from winemaking. Learning that I had not had schnapps before, a fellow guest insisted at a subsequent dinner, on plying me with shots drawn from his considerable collection (this on a day that had started with a wine tasting and moved on to pre-apertif aperitifs before the various wines served with dinner. That I was still upright by the end of the evening was a miracle).

Dining culture is considerably different from North America. If you are invited as early as 7:30, chances are you won’t sit down before nine and will be likely finishing dessert at around 11 PM. On Saturday, when we were invited to a fondue (turkey and veal cooked in wine and boulliaise) we finished at about 1 AM.

Potlucks are almost unheard of, and it is considered by some to be offensive to send people home with leftovers. Amynah is still trying to adapt her tradition of putting all the food on the table at once, buffet-style, with the more rigid local protocols for serving food one course at a time.

Alsatian restaurants are another mystery. One local delicacy that I am rather fond of is the flammekuechen which is a flat bread with sour cream and “lardons” – what we in Canada might call back bacon.** It's light, yet filling and would appear to be an ideal lunch food. So one would think, except most restaurants, especially those in the smaller villages, never serve it for lunch. Lunch is for the huge pile of pork meals. Dinner is for the light meals. Of course, schnapps was traditionally for breakfast as well.

Local restaurants are extremely local. When Zack came to visit a while ago we took him to our favourite Alsatian place, called the Mairie for it’s proximity to city hall. It’s a comfortable place, cozy inside with very friendly servers. The owner, we soon realized, was on a first name basis with every customer who came in. No exceptions (well, us, of course). Everyone who walked in was greeted with a two-cheek kiss, small talk, and seated immediately. Some were never shown a menu – their order was brought to them in minutes, obviously prepared beforehand for their arrival. It felt vaguely like we were intruding on a giant family reunion.

There’s no shortage of other oddities on the local menus – I’ve had both roe deer and wild boar. I’ve developed a real fondness for “spaetzel” which is a kind of spongy, cheese-like pasta. When the Christmas market was on I was feeling munchy so I picked up a piece of garlic bread covered with an escargot butter from a market stall, like one might get a hot dog from a street vendor in Toronto. On the other hand, it's fairly difficult to find chicken. Go figure.

The local produce is excellent as well. There are farmer’s markets almost every day in various parts of the city. Our favourite is the organic farmer’s market, where we get our apples and potatoes and whatever other necessities are in season. One week they had live geese in a pen – for what purpose I’m afraid to ask.

Amynah gets her honey there, which she usually uses for her tea. The honey guy has a vast selection of honeys on display, varying in hue from translucent amber to mud-brown. Last time we went, Amynah asked him his recommendations as to what sort of honey is best with tea. His reply? “Well, there are two schools on this question…” Only in France would there be schools of thought on the niceties of honey-tea combinations.

Food is remarkably fresh here – our green beans are always incredibly firm and Amynah’s raspberries actually look like raspberries, rather than those watery red balloons that come from California. I buy fresh baked bread nearly every day, simply because I have no choice: the big, preservative laden loaves I grew up on don’t exist here, and so I make do with fresh, tiny little things that looked like they were made for Barbie Dolls. I am also pleased to announce that after five straight months of partronizing the same bread shop every morning, they’ve finally deigned to acknowledge that they might have seen me before. This was a big step for me. I feel like a local.

Allright, I’m done. I’m sure no one made it this far, since I was unable to break it up with many photos, as I am generally to busy eating to take pictures of my food, unlike several other bloggers I could name.

*That would be one person, Tara, who made a request on Facebook, of which I am now a member. See what powers you readers wield over me!

** Montreal readers: Both the Trois Brassuers locations serve this, along with many of the innovations that have been inflicted upon it over the years to make it more pizza-like. Resist! Get the “traditional” if you can.