La différence

It used to be like going home. Still is, in many ways. But now Canada is a place I visit, a trip down memory lane. The décor is oddly familiar, yet increasingly foreign. And I am like someone recovering from amnesia.

“I remember that!” I’ll think. Quickly followed by “That’s new!” and “What will they think of next?”

Arriving in Vancouver for the very first time, we noticed a great many things big and small. A forest of tall buildings, some of them of questionable architectural taste.

Used to Toronto’s intensely diverse ethnic population, we found Van City to be especially Asian. But like everywhere in Canada, an interesting cultural mix.

Food-wise, Sushi abounds, as does Indian. Coffee culture is on every corner. Not just Starbucks but also independent coffee shops where you can get a truly great cup of java. Not to mention mouth-watering Nanaimo bars and sourdough donuts!

The coffee is also mobile. On the street, everyone seems to be carrying a drink of some kind. But when it comes to alcohol, there is a holdover of historic British rules. At one bar, last call came at 10:45 pm!

Vancouver is a city in constant motion. In the air, sea planes take off and land along the sea wall. On the water, boat traffic of every description, including these sweet little water buses.

Everywhere, people run, ride, cycle, skate, walk dogs. We joined them and cycled around Stanley Park, one of the highlights of our week.

At intersections, the cheeping of birds tells visually impaired pedestrians when to cross. It took me a minute to figure out it wasn’t just a loud bird following us around.

Around town, crows have replaced our domestic flying rats, aka pigeons. We awoke each morning to their raucous cawing; in the streets we observed the constant scavenging of these big black birds.

Abiding impressions? People seem happy. They are friendly. They ask us how we are, where we’re from. I don’t really mind this; in fact, I quite like it. But at first, my reaction is entirely French: do I know you? Why are you talking to me?

The service is attentive, if perhaps overly intrusive. Once the introductions are over, I prefer wait staff to keep a low profile. Instead, we are continually asked how things are going, did we enjoy our entrées? (French confusion – they mean main courses), would we like another drink…? Husband becomes irritated with the freezing A/C everywhere and all the ice in drinks.

We begin to feel foreign. At home. Again.

After 30 years in France, I’ve been trained to speak French in public places. In Montreal, it’s natural. In Toronto, slightly weird. In Vancouver, definitely not the norm.

And then there’s the entirely un-French custom of the tip. In Canada, 15% is standard. Anything less is insulting. One place suggested 22% as the norm. The amounts are conveniently added when you pay by card, which virtually everyone does. But it does make the service culture seem a little excessive. Perhaps, compared to the good old French insouciance, a tiny bit fake.

It was time to go home. First, to Toronto, where both the time change (3 hours forward) and the bilingual road signs are a little more familiar. Then, after the Canada Day celebrations, and a good dose of family and friends, we flew back across the ocean to France.

I do love a good holiday. Almost as much as coming home.

How about you?

Chez moi

Chez moi

No sooner do I set foot outside in Toronto than I stumble upon this sweet café and boutique, making me feel almost at home. Chez moi is France now, I remind myself, and I am only a visitor in this impossibly big, booming city I used to call home.

I’ll leave you with this postcard for now. Holidays are made for being fully present. More on my adventures as a foreigner in Canada when I return home next week!

A suivre…

Outre-mer

Salish Sea

This week, we leave our usual ramblings and observations about life in France for a holiday outre-mer, across the pond to Canada. A postcard from the Salish Sea where this blogger has crossed not just the pond but the entire country to discover Canada’s western sea wall.

We’re just back from a catamaran tour with the Prince of Whales — a cool and breezy way to discover the beautiful Salish Sea, so named after the Coast Salish peoples who traditionally populate the coastal waters along British Columbia and the Gulf Islands to the northwestern United States.

They promised whales and whales they delivered! A pod of Orcas kept us entertained for an hour or more near the San Juan islands on the US side.

I did not know when we stopped in Victoria that the killer whales had in fact just made an unusual appearance in the harbour. I can understand how their presence next to all this water traffic might be disconcerting, but after all, they were here first! The place was hopping with sea planes, ferry boats and little water taxis. I wonder why we don’t have these in Geneva?

Then again, we also don’t have the seals, water lions or the cormorants that have completely taken over this little island.

These seals were so much a part of the scenery that at first I thought they were rocks.

All in all it was a remarkable day. We were glad of the blankets on board as the wind was brisk and the air quite chilly.

 

Also glad to have these just in case. Still, with whales nearby no one wanted to see a man overboard.

I’ll share more on Vancouver and Whistler before we go to Toronto to celebrate Canada Day next week. A plus! x

L’école buissonière

I played hooky last week. Skipped off school and went AWOL. Or, as we say in French, went to ‘bush’ school.

That’s not really true but it is how it felt. I signed up for a week’s retreat on the remote Sicilian island of Pantelleria with a group called Wide Open Writing (WOW).

It was a chance to go off the path and enjoy a holiday break while devoting time to myself — and to writing. Not the PR work I do for a living, or the blogging I do here, but in pursuit of the storytelling muse that lives inside us all.

For a week our group enjoyed the rugged beauty of this volcanic island that is actually closer to Tunisia than Italy. That did not mean warmer, however, as it was windswept and chilly a good part of the week. But when the sun came out it was wonderful!

All week long we met twice daily to think, write, read our work and share thoughts. The idea wasn’t to critique each other’s writing so much as to give positive feedback. It was an experience at times intense, hilarious, emotional, beautiful and moving. I found a sense of kinship with this group of writers from all walks of life and at different stages of finding their voice. There was also yoga and meditation for those so inclined.

I stayed in a dammuso, the thick-walled stone cottages unique to Pantelleria. They are designed with domed roofs to capture the rain water.

Water so essential for irrigating the capers, olive trees and vines that grow here…and these days also for more leisurely pursuits.

Walled gardens are also part of Pantelleria’s unique heritage. This one in a vineyard was built to protect the precious lime tree growing within.

On our last day we visited the Donna Fugata vineyard where a variety of the ancient Muscat grape called Zibibbo is grown to make the island’s famous Passito, a sweeter apperitif wine, among others.

Throughout the week, we also ate and drank copious amounts of Sicilian food and wine.

This dessert is called bacio pantesco. It’s a kind of waffle pastry filled with delicately perfumed ricotta.

One of the things I love most about living in France is how close we are to so many amazing places. It wasn’t easy to get to Pantelleria, as it involved three flights via Rome and Palermo. The last one on this Air Mistral plane operated by the Italian Post.

You can learn a lot when you skip school, or ‘faire l’école buisonnière’, as the French call it. It was a bit of a splurge, but well worth it. Besides, getting away is good for the soul.

Do you remember skipping school?

Nos meilleurs délais

‘Nos meilleurs délais’ is one of those very French expressions I struggle with. In theory it means ‘at our earliest convenience’, ‘in a timely manner’ or simply as soon as possible. In practice, soon is not possible. I find that in France instead of ASAP, ‘delay’ is the operative word.

We are in the midst of a month of delays due to various strikes and it is surely only right and normal that things slow down. But there has been no mail in my box this week and yesterday the internet went down for the better part of the day. Without a word of warning, or explanation.

I tried to be zen. “Work on something that doesn’t require the internet,” my reasonable self told less patient me. Okay. I took a crack at writing the new business proposal I’d been thinking of sending out. But I wanted to check on a quote to include. Then on a company I was planning on contacting. So I tried again. With a different browser. Still no ignition.

I called Orange. That’s the recently rebranded name for the phone service, what most French people still think of as France Telecom. I did not get a human being, bien sûr. After pressing various numbers, including my full, 10-digit land line, I was directed to the right voice box. It informed me that, due to an ‘incident’ in my area, they were unable to help me further. However, if I so wished, I could punch in my mobile number and they would text me when it was resolved. In went my mobile number.

I hung up and promptly received an SMS on my clunky old French cell, the one I keep for essential messages with service providers who only want to send info to a mobile. My smart phone is for work, and that’s a Swiss number. Orange had kindly sent a link to a website where I could get further updates on the internet breakdown. Argh!

Unable to access the link from my (dumb, unconnected) French phone, it occurred to me I could use my iPhone. In fact, it occurred to me that I could connect my computer to my phone’s hotspot via my Swiss provider and get an internet connection. Ignition! It was too slow to be very convenient (as I’m on the edge of network coverage) but it was a start.

Unfortunately Orange wanted my log-in details, which didn’t have. After farting around with that for a while, I finally got a new password and accessed my account. When, after scrolling through various sections, I got to the part about internet service, it said: “We are experiencing a larger than normal request for support and will respond to your request as soon as possible.”

Nos meilleurs délais? I gave up.

Macron has committed to getting all of France wired for ultra-high-speed internet by 2022. But it seems that in order to meet this commitment in a timely manner  not everyone will get fibre but 4G. Fast, but not super fast. Still, our current so-called high speed service here in the boonies is so slow that I’ll take that with pleasure.

The main reason for all of the strikes at the moment is the reform of the ‘cheminots’ or national rail company employees. This has been in the works for some time and has to do with a European directive on opening up the train lines to competition. Although the current SNCF employees have been promised that they will keep all of their rights and salary, they are striking for the future. They want all new hires to also keep their status as public workers, with perks and premiums and the opportunity of a full pension at 52.

Clearly this is not going to happen. But for the unions, and a majority of French, it’s the thin end of the wedge. If the cheminots go down, it’s the end of life as we know it. Automated cashiers and driverless cars and soon we’ll all be force-fed ready meals from MacDo.

In the meantime, five hours later, the internet came back on. I googled to find out whether Orange had been on strike but there was no mention in the news. I have concluded that it was a stealth operation by disgruntled workers in a show of sympathy.

But everybody else and his uncle is on strike this spring: Air France (they want a 6% pay increase), garbage collectors, energy workers, university students. The latter are worrying as they are the ones credited for bringing the country to its knees in May 1968. More on that later.

Have you been affected by any strikes lately?