The End of the Charest Era at Princess Margaret Rose

Man in overallsYou might think that I’m referring to the end of Jean Charest’s nine years of Liberal rule in Québec, but in fact I’m referring to the retirement of my building’s superintendent, who’s been in that position for more than 30 years.

Short, white-haired, chain-smoking Dee, as I’ll call her, has never been the picture of health, and her gruff manners make it difficult for me to describe her as an “old lady” even though, at 77, she should otherwise fit the epithet. In fact, La Chelita probably best described Dee in a comment on Facebook in response to my announcement of her retirement:

That old broad? Who always leaves the door open? With the most tacky Christmas decorations of all time? Who has a voice that pickles eggs?

Yup! That’s Dee. Her health has been declining fast since last year, meaning that she has had to rely on her offsprings to come in and do most of the work. I already wrote about her brood two years ago, but her one respectable daughter who has taken her in to live with her summarized it well to me last Monday: “I had a meeting with the old guy [who owned the building until his death last June] and his son [who now owns the building] and I convinced them not to hire anyone from the family when Mom would retire,” she confided. “I mean, two are on drugs, one drinks and one [sister] is a convicted thief, not to mention none of them can be relied on to be there and do the work.”

And that’s the thing about Dee: the minute a tenant had a problem, she was on it — sometimes too much so. She told me once that the “old guy” (i.e., the late owner) preferred having problems fixed immediately than letting them get out of hand. She also convinced him that it’s better to get good, reliable tenants and keep them by not increasing rents unless absolutely necessary. As such, there hasn’t been much turnover in the four-plus years I’ve lived here, during which time I haven’t had a single rent increase, and I suspect the “keepers” among us are models of always paying their rent on time.

It was during a conversation about 10 days ago that the Sane Daughter told me all I didn’t know yet: that the old guy had died in June; that his son had taken over the building; that Dee was retiring, but that she (i.e., Sane Daughter) was working on hiring a new janitor. However, a day or two later, I bumped into one of her brothers who was going around with a petition, claiming that the old guy’s son intended NOT to replace the janitor and only have someone come in once or twice a week to mop the hallways whether they needed it or not. Remembering the Friday night in the dead of winter a few years ago when a hot-water pipe burst above the ceiling in my bathroom, I agreed it was unacceptable not to have a live-in janitor, so I signed the petition to have him replace Dee. He might be an oddball and would never win a prize for workmanship, but at least things would get done in a timely manner.

Of course, that was BEFORE my talk with Sane Daughter last Monday when she told me about how she’d long ago made plans with the owners not to hire any of them.

“But I still don’t understand why all of you actually signed his petition,” Sane Daughter said to me on Monday.

I stepped up to her, my nose almost touching hers, and said, “You know how your brothers and sister are. They step right into your space like this and ask you for ‘a favour.’ And you know how each of you always says, ‘Don’t listen to him or her or your mother.’ We never know WHO to believe, and frankly, if it were true that there’s a plan not to replace the live-in janitor, I would be the first to protest with the son [the new owner].”

I then stepped away from her. I think she got my point. She might be used to the way they interact in her family, but most of us aren’t.

Enters the Exterminator Dude.

My first encounter with him dates back to July of last year when I reported having bed bugs. That was around the time Dee first landed in hospital and Sane Daughter had taken over for a few weeks. It turned out that the problem wasn’t specific to me but to a few floors at my end of the building, and the culprits were the dudes who’d finally been evicted after months of not paying their bills, including rent, and apparently keeping the place in a shocking mess.

I got a weird vibe from Exterminator Dude right from the start, but not in a bad way. He’s this solidly built brown dude about 5 feet 8, but it’s his dry sense of humour that really threw me off. He seemed to immediately pick up that I’m a Friend of Dorothy, but it was unclear if he was one, too, or simply one of those straight-but-not-narrow kind of guy. Anyway, he came for a few visits last summer, and I’m glad to report that the bed bugs are long gone.

This July, however, I spotted a mouse in my apartment and I immediately reported it to Dee. The very next morning, as I was working, the doorbell rang and Exterminator Dude was on the other side of the door.

— Oh my god, you again?” I said, remembering his sense of humour.
— Dee tells me you’ve got mice now,” he replied, as if we’d just spoken last week.

He set several peanut-butter-laced traps in the kitchen and the living room, advised that it would be better if the same traps were re-used if some were caught, and went on his way. When the first mouse was caught, I got one of Dee’s son to get rid of it for me, for even with plastic gloves or whatever, I start to dry-heave as soon as I get close to a loaded trap. But as a result of Dee’s overprotectiveness, Exterminator Guy was at my door the next morning even though I told her that wouldn’t be necessary since there were still a lot of traps left.

After weeks of summer when the temperature never went below 15 C, fall started arriving this week and overnight temperatures dipped into the single digits. These cooling temperatures must have given the mice world the signal that it’s time to bed down for the winter and seek warmer surroundings, for after three mice getting caught in two months, two got caught just in the last week.

That also brought back Exterminator Dude to my door, although no one told me they sent for him again. Luckily, although I was working, I wasn’t on the phone when he showed up. He reloaded and added more traps, and we chatted as usual as he was doing his work.

Of course, the main topic of our conversation was Dee’s departure and the antics of her crazy brood. While discussing the thief, he matter of factly dropped, “She won’t be able to smooch off her mother anymore, but maybe her new girlfriend will help her out.”

WHAT??!! Girlfriend? I didn’t know she swung both ways, but then, I try not to think about her in ANY sexual situation, be it cock sucking or bush whacking.

— She already flashed her tits at me once,” he said.
— Eeeww! That must have been a sight …as in, NOT!”
— Actually, the tits aren’t bad. But yeah, the rest is pretty gross. But you’re a looker. You must have shit like that happen all the time.”

This was all coming from the guy who, during his previous visit, had told me how he’s a compulsive provider and protective bulldog whenever it comes to his wife and kids. In response to having “shit like that” happening to me, I did tell him about Horny Miss Titties and concluded the tale with “Talk about barking at the wrong tree,” to which he just agreed with a “No kidding!”

But as our conversation evolved, things became clear …or clearer. Basically, he told me about how he only hung out with girls when he was younger, to the point where many assumed he was gay. Then, in response to how Dee’s brood overstep the line of other people’s personal space, he told me that’s how this certain guy was when he was dating his son, about whom he said, “I’m not saying this because he’s my son, but he really is a friggin’ gorgeous boy — light brown skin, olive eyes — so he’s always getting hit on by guys …nice ones but more often weird ones.”

Bingo! Now I got it! Exterminator Dude is and always has been straight-but-not-narrow. Although he didn’t say one way or the other, I’d bet you he’s never done it with a guy and has no interest in trying it, without the thought itself revolting him. And although I didn’t say it, I couldn’t help but think how lucky his son is to have him as dad.

I would rather not see Exterminator Dude at my door again, as his presence indicates that I’m having problems with pests. Besides, it’s unknown if the new janitor will call upon him or someone else if more pest problems arise. But I have to say that, after he left, I couldn’t help thinking how he’s such a quintessential Montrealer: live and let live, open-minded, and flirtatious just for the heck of it without intending anything but playful bantering and joie de vivre.

A Drive Up North

Autumn at Mont Tremblant

Although I’ve been living in Montréal for more than three years, I’ve never driven dew north from the city. I’ve been several time northeast in the Lanaudière region around Saint-Gabriel-de-Brandon, but never in the Laurentians. That all changed, though, last Sunday.

As I mentioned in my previous post, Indian Summer this year was beyond spectacular. I knew that many in this town choose to go to the Eastern Townships at the height of the autumn colours, but I thought I’d outsmart them and head north. Not my brighest idea.

It didn’t matter which direction, except possibly east on Autoroute 20 or west on either Autoroute 20 or 40; traffic was a slow accordion crawl for more than 60 kilometres outside the city in all directions. However, once out of ultra-ugly suburbia — as most suburbias are — the slowness of the traffic offered time to really look at the beautiful fall foliage. Under a cloudless sky and temperatures well into the 20s C, it was a real treat.

I think I long avoided going to Mont Tremblant because of the many pictures I’ve seen of the resort. While certainly attractive on the surface, it all seemed so cookie-cutter and unnatural. Also, since I’m no skier, I’ve never had much reason to go.

And indeed, the resort is as artificial and horrible as I expected. However, the cynic in me stayed home and I enjoyed watching everyone enjoy the extraordinary weather. I was even amused to see how all little children seem drawn to water fountains and unable to resist the urge to touch the water or climb into the pool. Some parents might have found it odd that I should be on the verge of laughing out loud as I sat there sipping on an espresso, but what they failed to realize is that their child’s antics had been repeated a dozen times in the previous few minutes by other people’s children. So much for their “oh, my child is so special” line!

The southbound drive back into the city was another accordion-like bumper-to-bumper adventure, but again I took it in stride since this was meant to be a “nowhere.” Still, I couldn’t help but notice how many assholes there are on the road — either those who try to go too fast when no one is getting anywhere very fast given the gridlock or those who cluelessly stick to the fast lane and hold back faster traffic for easily a kilometre or more. I believe both types are selfish but the latter even more so because they seem oblivious to anyone but themselves. I think I’d clue in if I saw half a kilometre of unobstructed space in front of me and an endless lineup of cars behind me, but that assumes such selfish people [a] look in their rear-view mirror and [b] give a fuck. I wouldn’t be surprised if some do A but don’t do B, either because of their selfishness or some kind of mental challenge when it comes to handling themselves on the road.

You might be thinking, “Oops, there’s that Angry Maurice again!” And maybe you’re right. People who think only of themselves piss me off. They always have and they probably always will. But the difference now compared to earlier this year is that, beyond the initial “being pissed off,” I don’t let a petty little thing like traffic behaviour augment my sense of outrage. Because in 50 years or so when we’ll be very dead and buried, it won’t matter, so why make it matter now?

Indian Summer 2011

It’s not quite at that stage yet in Montréal but close and oh so summer-like otherwise.

Montréal in Autumn

Apparently the autumn leaves are at their peak, as shown above, about an hour east of the city in the Eastern Townships plus, throughout northeastern North America, the temperatures are back to summertime values for the next few days. However, because it’s resolutely fall, the sun is lower on the horizon and the lighting is completely different — more golden, I would say. What luck for us that Indian Summer should fall on a long weekend this year!

Although I ventured outside for a bit to have brunch and run an errand, I’m going to take a little gamble and postpone outdoor amusement until tomorrow and Monday. Likely I will go for a “nowhere” drive to soak in the fall colours. I may go out this evening but I’ll see at the time how I feel about that. For the rest of the day, I’ll be doing tons of laundry and other stuff I feel like doing, all inside for now.

“Vous” Vs. “Tu” and Other Little Lessons

A funny thing happened to me through my journey to becoming a Montréalais. My spoken French has changed. I’m even more polite than I was before.

So no, I haven’t taken the Montréal accent and, truth be told, I’m glad I didn’t not only because I’m not terribly fond of it but also because it can be a little coarse and impolite. But I haven’t taken much of a Québecois accent, either — whatever that is, for there are audible differences in each part of Québec. And my accent is certainly not more Acadian — not that it ever was as deliciously Acadian as one of my sister-in-law’s or some of my nieces’ — although now whenever I hear it around Montréal, my heart swells …just as it did last week when I overheared at Soupe et Wok in the Village a lady originally from Bouctouche who hadn’t lost her accent despite years of living here. I even thanked her as she was leaving, upon which her Greek friend she was with said, “Yeah, she can never be in the closet about her roots, that one!”

Anyway, I think there are two main changes to the manner in which I speak. First, being aware of different accents, I try to choose a more neutral “international” vocabulary. And second, because of my work, I have come to totally embrace the pronoun vous, which represents the second person plural OR the second person singular when speaking formally.

Part of the charm and warmth of Acadians is how they interact easily with others and always invariably use the pronoun tu for the second person singular except in very extreme cases where they feel the need to be more formal or respectful. Even there, though, I suspect there’s a generational gap where the youngest generation of adults rarely think of using vous. Generally, Acadians would never use vous when addressing a store clerk or even a stranger on the sidewalk to ask for directions. They might (as they might not) use vous when addressing a senior. But the thing about Acadians is that it’s not meant as disrespectful nor does it come across as that.

However, in Québec today, the norm in business or even on the street among strangers is to address them with the pronoun vous. Few would be offended if addressed as tu instead of vous and, among colleagues, vous would sound just plain wrong. But while it may not be a cause for outright offense, the use of tu instead of vous does get noticed — a least among those who pay attention to their written and spoken language.

Acadians would find it odd to refer to someone by their first name and use vous in the same sentence, as in, “Comment allez-vous, Maurice?” However, in France and increasingly in Québec, such an address is normal. On the other hand, when speaking English in business in North America, calling someone by their first name rather than Mister This or Miz That is the norm, with the latter coming across as way too stuffy.

I surprised myself recently when I got a bit offended when a store clerk addressed himself to me by using the regular second singular — tu, ton… rather than vous, votre…. When speaking with clients at work, I simply cannot bring myself to say tu and ton. And I definitely pick up on clients who address me as tu despite the fact I use vous to address them and we didn’t agree to switch: “On se tutoie?” (“We can use tu?”). However, it would be impolite to ask them to use vous so I let it slide and, sometimes, they pick up on their own upon hearing me continuing to use vous.

Anglicisms and Canadianisms
I find it very amusing to witness how many Québécois prefer to dismiss other French speakers as “pretending not to understand them” than consider the fact that THEY are the ones using non-standard words or expressions, if not downright anglicisms or canadianisms. There are two syllables and two expressions that drive me particularly insane.

  • To swim = nager: The standard pronunciation is “na-” (as in the Spanish “nada”) “” (as in “Faber“). But in Québec, particularly in Montréal, people pronounce the A as if there was a circumflex on it: for anglos, it would be like “NAW-gé“.
  • Whale = baleine & Breath = haleine: For the first, the standard pronunciation is “ba-” (as in the Spanish “baja”) “lène” (as the short version of the name Leonard, namely “Len“). For the second, the standard pronunciation is “a-” (as in the Spanish “amigo”) “lène” (again as the English “Len“). But here the “Len” sounds a bit but not quite like the English word “lane.” I even hear that weird pronounciation by otherwise well-spoken TV personalities and it drives me nuts each time I hear it!
  • You’re welcome: In French, it’s correct to say, “Bienvenue dans ma maison” (Welcome to my home). However, if someone gives me something and I say “Thank you” (“Merci”), then it’s incorrect to reply with ““Bienvenue”. In that case, one should say “De rien” (as in the Spanish “de nada“) or, more formerly, “Je vous en prie,” which roughly translates to “I beg of you” but implies “Please don’t mention it.” Here in Montréal, though, I get “bienvenue” much more often than “de rien” and I cringe every single time.
  • It’s too bad / It’s unfortunate: In Canadian French, a very common way of saying “It’s too bad that…” or “It’s unfortunate that…” would be “C’est de valeur que…” However, for a non-Canadian French speaker, de valeur only means “of value,” as in “an object that is worth a great deal.” I remember having dinner with someone from France and a friend from Québec, and the latter said that some situation or another was de valeur. My friend repeated his sentence a few times but for the French guy, who wasn’t trying to play dumb or “I’m-the-superior-Parisian,” it just didn’t compute in his mind. I stepped in and said, “C’est dommage que…” and repeated the rest of the sentence as my friend has spoken it. The French guy immediately got it.

That’s just it: Not specificially with my friend but generally in Québec, when stuff like that happens, the people from Québec are more likely to assume that the listener from outside Québec is putting on an act of “I understand what you’re saying but I’m pretending I’m not so that you can correct yourself gracefully.” One time this summer, I witnessed at a bar one Québécois turn very belligerent toward a French guy of Maghrebi descent who lived most of his life in Paris. I don’t remember now what the Québécois was saying but I remember understanding why there was no way the Maghrebi French guy would ever be able to figure it out without an interpretor.

The Importance of Speaking the Language of the Land
You know, no matter where I am in Québec, even in a Metro supermarket in the heart of tony and anglo Westmount, I speak French. I make a point of it. I won’t play dumb, though, and I won’t fly off the handle if someone doesn’t understand my French on the first go.

At first, if a clerk responds in English, I’ll respond back in French …because we’re in Québec and I strongly believe that anyone working in a client/customer-facing position in Québec MUST speak French. It doesn’t have to be perfect and it can be heavily accented, but French must be to Québec what Spanish is to Mexico or Portuguese to Brazil. If there’s an ounce of hope I can get my point across to the clerk in French by simplifying a few words and speaking more slowly, I’ll stick to it before switching to English. However, I will express my disappointment if I do have to switch to English because there’s no doubt in my mind that it’s very disrespectful on the part of that clerk to force English whilst we’re in Québec. However, if you’re an anglophone visitor to Québec, that’s a totally different matter: while you shouldn’t expect to receive service in Québec’s minority language all of the time (and don’t bore me with the argument that “This is Canada, it’s supposed to be bilingual and Québec is part of Canada last time you checked”), you do have a right to be pissed off if you know that the clerk speaks some English but refuses to use it with you. That’s just as rude.

All that being said, it’s the effort that counts most. Spanish didn’t come easily to me and, unfortunately, in the last two years I’ve lost a lot of what I learned. Certainly my perfectionist streak didn’t help but I also felt a lot of pressure from NowEx who had a talent at making me feel stupid. However, I’ll never forget that time in Puerto Vallarta when, just seconds after finding out that the attendant at the hotel desk in fact could speak English, I still completed a whole transaction in Spanish. I did so because I was in Mexico and Spanish is that country’s language. She smiled through the whole transaction — not condescendingly or because I may have murdered a few words but because I went through with it despite knowing she spoke English and, dare I say it, because she was pleased I made the effort.

Not Everyone Is Selfish
On a totally different register…

I’m very fortunate to have a parking spot inside the garage of the building where I live. I was assigned a new spot a few months ago, namely one where another car can park to my right. To my left, however, there’s a concrete post and I have to edge in slowly in order not to rip off my side mirror. However, once past that post, I veer to the left in order to put considerable distance between my car and the car to my right.

The other day I had to run a quick errand in the middle of the afternoon. When I came back, another car was ahead of me entering the garage: it turned out it was my “neighbour.” He parked in his usual spot and I in mine after him, and we emerged from our cars at the same time.

He was an old gentleman who introduced himself as Claude and then said, in French: “I’m so glad to finally meet you because I’ve long wanted to thank you for how you park your car. You’re very considerate and it helps me so much coming in and out of my spot.”

I can’t tell you how much I appreciated his comment. As I’ve written before, I have grown to feel slighted because I know I pay attention to little things like that out of respect for my neighbours but feel that I’m often not the recipient of such simple acts of consideration. So to have someone notice and take the time to thank me for it: that was a truly priceless moment.

It’s interesting it came from an elderly man. What does that say about the state of civility today? And does it say that I was born in the wrong generation?

Disconnected Ideas

  • It’s a beautiful, mild, sunny late-summer day, just like it was 10 years ago.
  • This is also the last Sunday of Aires Libres, when Rue Sainte-Catherine from Rue Berri to Avenue Papineau through the Village is closed off to traffic. Some restaurants have already begun removing their terraces; traffic will resume on Tuesday. It would be nice if this would continue into early autumn, but with evenings like last night becoming quite cool already, I suppose it’s time to accept that it’s over for another year.
  • I had brunch at Lafayette early today. At a table not too far from me were three guys, two of whom were married to each other. Both were extremely handsome; both exuded quiet contentment. No, I wasn’t jealous; maybe I was a tiny bit envious. There was a kind of warmth and ease between them that I suspect never existed or was never so visible between NowEx and me, and that made me feel a tinge of sadness. At the same time, I’m torn because I don’t see myself settling with someone. It’s not that I think I couldn’t; it’s that I’m not convinced that it would make me happy.
  • Tomorrow I have an appointment with Gary in the morning and the one for Junior in the afternoon. Aside from an appointment with Lucy late Thursday afternoon, I have no other commitment this week — just a lot of stuff to get done.
  • I finally met up with Cleopatrick for coffee last night. I guess we’ve both been preoccupied with life.
  • I keep getting a thought over and over these days — more so than usual: Thank god I’m in Montréal! I am SO in the place I need to be right now! And I say this despite recognizing that I’m a bit lonely, that I don’t know very may people in this city after more than three years. But then, the first 15 months or so were one kind of fog, and the last nine to twelve months have been another kind of fog. I emerged from the first and I’m only now slowly emerging from the second. However, I’m not so sure I would be able to if I were not in this city.