12 Feb 2011

Bonhomme

It's freezing cold. The days are short. And our main attraction is a wind-swept plain covered in meters of snow. Care to come visit?

It was a bit of a hard sell for the gestionnaires of Tourisme Québec to promote trips to their medieval jewel of a city in the cold season. Although doted with an excellent infrastructure to cope with the hoards of tourists (including many Americans looking for a taste of Europe) storming the town during the summer months, Québec traditionally hibernated in winter.

Enter Bonhomme. The jolly snowman with his beautiful ceinture fléchée and his red tuque was conceived in 1955, and has since been the mascot for Québec's winter carnaval, a series of family-oriented activities spanning two weeks at the end of January. From ice-sculpting to parades, snow castles to dogsled rides, and from giant ice slides to a festive ball, the schedule defies the low temperatures. For the very brave, there's even an opportunity to take a dip in the ice-cold waters of the St. Laurence river under the cheers of the fur-clad bystanders - and then warm up again in a sauna, and with a liquor affectionately known as Caribou.

And it works. Bonhomme laughs almost as hard as the local businesses, with visitor numbers climbing from 260'000 in 1964 to around a million today - including two Americans, two Ontarians and yours truly in 2011. Most of them choke up money not just for food, drink and accommodation, but also for the little Bonhomme effigy, which gives access to the inside of the major attractions. It's become big business, and today Bonhomme stands not just for the winter carnaval, but for Québec at large - and its business practices.

Maybe it was just my European high-mindedness, for my companions from this side of the Atlantic did not seem to mind the degree of commercialization associated with the event - every booth, attraction, parade, even sculpture was branded and sponsored by one company or another. Whereas comparable events in Europe, or even the Charivari in Montréal last year, seem to be community-organized and driven, this very clearly was a business venture. That being said, once I set my expectations straight, I had a fabulous time strolling between the Metro tent, the WestJet zipline, the Christies Kraft kids' village and of course the Bistro SAQ. The periods outside were just long enough to test the usefulness of all my heavy duty thermal clothing layers. After all, no need to become a snowman myself!

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2 Feb 2011

UdM

When I first spent time in Montréal, many moons ago, it was under the pretext of a French immersion. To lend credibility to this claim, I attended classes at the Faculté de l'éducation permanente at Université de Montréal, the largest of Montréal's four universities. The month-long course gave me not just a handy degree and a student ID valid for three years (!), but also provided free access to CEPSUM, the university's sports complex. When I returned to Montréal to live here, I was happy to learn that CEPSUM's pool had just been renovated, and have been a regular user since.

Whenever I come to CEPSUM, I feel a bit out of place (even more so than yours truly should at any fitness facility). Straight from the office, dressed in shirt and slacks and looking ever so slightly older than the 60'000 university students who get free access to the complex, I don't quite blend in with the others.

Not that those kids would all look the same. Today, CEPSUM hosted the annual open day for prospective students, and after doing my laps I was lured into the big forum by a charming girl handing me a documentation kit in a nice gift bag (whether she thought that I was a future student or the parent of one will remain her secret). As I roamed among the different stands presenting the various programs offered, it dawned upon me just how big the university really is. From Anthropologie to Urbanisme, virtually every subject can be studied. And as if to confirm every conceivable stereotype, each booth drew its typical crowd:

Black shirts and slim jackets for Architecture, broad shoulders for Kinésiologie, colorful scarves and the latest couture for Littératures de langue française, rugged jeans and flannel shirts for Géographie, turtlenecks and horn-rimmed glasses for Cinéma, and of course the inevitable poor shaves and red eyes for Informatique - I could not hide a smirk, given the scene.

No less interesting than what they wore was which stands the students decided to visit. Long lines formed for Criminologie and Médecine, both offering excellent job perspectives thanks to the Italian mafia in town. A good number of youngsters talked to the representatives for Histoire and Communication - this was the group I would probably best have fitted in with a few years ago, even their sense of fashion seemed palatable. A fistful of particularly daring candidates ventured out to the stalls for Etudes allemandes and that fascinating program with the catchy name Mathématiques, statistique et actuariat. And one lost soul even made it to Théologie et sciences des réligions. Among the abundance of options, which extended to social services, the university radio station and the elite sports team, there was only one booth which remained completely abandoned, both by staff and students. The lone banner for this exotic and entirely revolting subject read: Etudes anglaises.

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