29 Aug 2014

Splendid Isolation

This post is not about Québec separatism. At least, not about the traditional kind, i.e. Francophones and their lurid dreams of elevating the province to country-level. Recently, I have been introduced to another kind of separatism, one that brings the saying of the deux solitudes to life.

It was right there before my eyes, in Montréal. But for the first five years of my time on the island, I had no reason to spend time on its western tip, in the well-heeled suburbia collectively called the West Island. Even Francophones call it le West Island, and they might as well refer to a foreign country - one that has nothing in common with the rest of the province.

Thanks to her extended family, many parts of which live in any of the towns such as Beaconsfield, Dollard-des-Ormeaux ("DDO" for its residents), Dorval or even Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue (Ste-Anne-de-Banlieue, as my recent Swiss visitor immediately named it), I have at last discovered Planet West Island. 

What I found was a self-contained sphere, populated seemingly by 100% Anglophones, who are oblivious and immune to the multicultural metropolis that happens to share "their" island. Having visited on a few occasions this summer, I got the impression that West Islanders only leave their planet to head over the bridge to adjoining Ontario, or to hit the airport (located at the border between the West Island and the city) and fly away to the States.

Other than that, it's born in West Island, school in West Island, date in West Island, marry in West Island, live in West Island, work in West Island, shop in West Island, eat in West Island, party in West Island, retire in West Island (Florida, if you did well) and die in West Island. French is a completely foreign language, in which most residents are functionally illiterate at best. (To calm the language police: Yes, the loi 101 is formally respected in that signs and menus are in French first. Good luck finding somebody to help you in that language, though.)

Endless streets of houses, all-English schools, big box stores and malls, and a plethora of uninspired, pseudo-fancy restaurants (with big parking lots) define this lifestyle. West Islanders seem perfectly content, unaware (and somewhat afraid) of the diversity, excitement and cultural riches of downtown Montréal, a mere 30min drive away.

The disinterest is mutual, as evidenced by this snooty blog post. Very few Montréalais spend much time in the West Island, and when they do, they typically talk about it the same way they speak about dentist appointments - unpleasant, but inevitable. And even fewer people move between the two spheres.

She, fortunately, is an exception. Perhaps because she was originally from the countryside, she managed to ultimately escape the gravity of Planet West Island. Now firmly landed downtown, she has no interest of ever going back to live there. She does, however, get a kick out of returning to the West Island every now and then to see what she has left behind. And I was glad to be taken along: I had not been to a zoo in a long time.

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15 Aug 2014

Trail mix

A trail can be many things.

It can be a wide gravel road, comfortably accommodating hikers and strollers alike, alternating with wheelchair-friendly boardwalks to take you to spectacular viewpoints overlooking the ocean. In such cases, the abundant "Warning: bear in area" signs put up by Parks Canada rangers seem to serve more as a photo-op than an actual caution. And the mighty moose, which kindly elect to graze just off the trail and in plain sight, will merely look at you while chewing peacefully.

It can also be a bearly cleared, rugged path through the underbrush along a steep cliff. In this case, it is supposedly tended to by Nova Scotia's provincial parks, and treading it will mark your shins with scrapes and bruises - which you will go on to show off proudly after your return to civilization, professing that you had a close encounter with the ferocious squirrel-lizard of Cape Breton.

Or it can simply be a nicely maintained (hear this, Québec?), breathtakingly scenic 300km highway across a pristine highlands plateau. In this case, it is called the Cabot Trail, and best enjoyed on warm summer days from the comforts of a rental car with the windows down and the sunroof open (Byran Adams soundtrack optional). With the ocean on one and the green hills on the other side of the road, you will feel like driving through your very own car commercial.

Together, they make for an appetizing mix that nurtures body and soul. And all of them can be packed into a a five day escape to Canada's Ocean Playground. Fun it was indeed, as my best friend and trusty travel companion from Switzerland joined me for a jaunt out east to the Maritimes. We were enthralled not just by the sheer beauty of nature, but also the charming little fishing towns and coves, some of which have a distinctively Scottish, and others a firmly Acadian feel. The latter community's French accent made for a formidable challenge to both my friend's continental and my Québecois-trained ears. It added just a touch of extra spiciness to the mix, with the famous friendliness and hospitality of the Martimers nicely rounding things off.

This tantalizing combination of flavors has found many fans, not just in North America. More than once, we came across inns and shops that had five flags hoisted - presumably those of their most frequent visitors. And the flags were always the same: Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany.... and Switzerland.

The secret is out, then. The ingredients are plain to see, and overseas customers are starting to bite. But words don't do it justice. You'll have to try it for yourself. It's all in the mix.

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