mercredi 30 avril 2014

In the beginning...

Today marks the day that I left Canada 12 years ago. I can't believe I've been gone this long - where did all these years go? At times it feels as if that day was yesterday, but sometimes I am well aware of how much time has gone by. If I think back to the first few years after I left certain moments are foggy - I try to reach out to grasp certain memories and they just slip out of my fingers. Sometimes I feel that I remember the part of my life before I left Canada more vividly than my life just after moving abroad. There are some things, however, that I'll never forget.

I don't really celebrate my France anniversary. My transition to France was easier than what I experienced during my first two years abroad. At the time I moved to France permanently in September 2009, my French was pretty decent, I was moving to be with my now-husband, I knew the city (Bordeaux) that I was moving to having already lived here during my studies and I had the experience of living and moving to a few European countries under my belt.

My parents raised me to live in our Italian-Canadian community in Ottawa. I was supposed to marry an Italian-Canadian electrician, have a bunch of children, work in an government office as a secretary and live within a 10km radius of them. They taught me a lot about manners, generosity and hard work, but they did not teach me about the world. 

The Den Nation that left Canada in 2002 was a very different person to the one that arrived in France in 2009. I was young and naive, I wasn't in a stable relationship, I didn't have a degree and I didn't have any world and life experience. It was my first time on my own, working a full-time job, living completely independent of my parents.

I can now say that I learned more in my first two years abroad than in any other year afterwards. I basically spent the first few years of my life abroad just floating along. I wouldn't change anything, though, even though there were some moments that have marked my life forever.

It was my first day at work at a new job in Belfast, Northern Ireland. I worked as an audio typist way back then. I remember having a difficult time trying to understand everyone's accent. I would listen to those tapes over and over again, trying to grasp the words that I was hearing. It was around 2 PM on that day and I was typing away. All of a sudden, an alarm went off over the loudspeaker. Everyone got up without saying anything and shuffled into the hallway. "No, you are not allowed to take the lift, you must take the stairs," said my colleagues. "What's going on?" I asked. "Bomb scare," they said, without even a hint of fear in their voices. 

An anonymous caller had called into the police station to report a bomb that had been left in the open car park of the building next to ours. This was what normally happened, at least back then this was what happened. An anonymous caller would call in to report a bomb and the police would go in and blow up the bomb with their robots. At this point, 4 years after the peace agreement was concluded, terrorists usually planted their bombs with the intention of not killing anyone; they just wanted everyone to know that they were still there and that the fight was not over. Most of the calls coming in to report a bomb, however, were prank calls. In these cases, the police still had to respond and evacuate everyone from the neighbouring areas.

Only this time there actually was a bomb outside. The police blew it up as I was going down the stairs. I make it sound like it was a catastrophe, but thankfully the bomb was very small and the police knew what they were doing - the Northern Ireland police force is one of the most experienced police forces in the world when it comes to terrorism. They knew exactly what they were doing. 

Honestly, it wasn't the bomb that shocked me the most, it was the recording in the stairwell and everyone's reaction. People were laughing and joking like it was nothing, even after the bomb had been exploded by the police force. And then there was that recording. The entire time I was going down those stairs, I kept hearing a recording of a voice telling everyone that there was a bomb scare and that they had to evacuate the building using the stairwell. This is what really shocked me - there was actually a recording for bomb scares instead of a live voice! And that voice, it sounded like the man was smiling as he was making the recording, and I fully expected him to exclaim, "Have a nice day!" at any moment. 

I realised at that moment how blasé the local population had become about bomb warnings. I felt very sad for them. And I realised that things must have been very, very bad for them to react like this. It was at that moment that I started to lose some of my naivety and realised how messed up the world was sometimes. 

I was 19 years old.

A few weeks later I was shopping with my ex-boyfriend's mother. I saw some toy water guns on the supermarket shelves. I instantly thought back to my childhood in Canada: running in the park on hot summer days squirting each other with those plastic water guns. Hiding behind some bushes and then jumping out when your friend was close and squirting them in the face. "Gotcha!" Those were the days before internet...

This is the conversation I had with the mother: 

Me: Did your boys play with toy guns? (thinking that I would get an affirmative reply)
Mother: Oh, no, never. I never let my children play with any toy guns. Never. It was strictly forbidden. 
Me, dumbfounded: Why not? 
Mother: A soldier could have easily mistaken them for an aggressor and shot them. Sometimes when we ate dinner I would see the soldiers standing outside our kitchen window staring at us eating and pointing guns at us. There's no way I would let my children play with any toy guns.

What are you supposed to say in response to that?

At just past the two year mark I almost went back to Canada. I was living in London at that point and had just went though a breakup. That was the only time I ever seriously considered going back, for good. It was May and I was half-heartedly looking for a job, having just arrived in London. I spent a few weeks going over it, back and forth, again and again - Should I stay or should I go? I even looked at flights and one day I found a one way ticket direct to Ottawa for around 250 pounds. My hand hovered over the mouse, ready to hit the Purchase button. I pulled my hand away. I put it back on the mouse. My hand quivered. I thought:  

Just stay the summer and then see. Have some fun, this is London, for goodness sake! Find a temp job, meet some people and have some picnics. Come on, just pull your hand away. Enjoy summer in London and then reevaluate the situation.

I pulled my hand away and walked out of that internet café to greet a glorious London summer. I didn't leave at the end of that summer and here I am 12 years later, married to a great man, travelling and living the life that I dreamed of having when I was a teenager. Yes, I really am lucky - I am (almost) living the dream that I had for myself back when I arrived in 2002.

I am so thankful that I never hit Purchase and pulled my hand away.

Here's to the next couple of years!

lundi 21 avril 2014

When just speaking Italian is not enough

I originally wanted to talk about Easter in Italy, but this story has been on my mind for the past few hours.

I spent the summer of 2006 in my father's town in Sicily. It was a great summer: the beach was great, I hung out with Italians practicing my Italian all day, Italy won the World Cup, I ate some great food, etc., etc. One thing from that summer, more sinister than I could even imagine, will always live on in my mind.

The thing you should understand about this town is that there are some people that don't know how to speak Italian. No, that wasn't a typo, there are people here that really don't know how to speak Italian. This is one of those places in Italy where the local dialect is alive and well. Of course all of the young people can speak Italian, but there are a lot of older people that never learned to speak Italian. Back when they were young Italian children weren't required to finish primary school and they spoke in dialect at home. One of my mother's aunts never even finished the 2nd grade. They understand Italian, though, from watching TV, but they just can't speak it because everyone else around them speaks dialect so there was never any reason to learn how to speak Italian. Speaking in dialect, however, is not only limited to elderly people. My cousins are both university graduates, under 40 years old and they speak in dialect all the time.

So if you are a foreigner learning Italian and you go to one of these places it is a bit disappointing when you realise that you still have difficulties communicating even though your Italian is pretty good. I accept this difficulty as a challenge and usually just let everyone go on in Sicilian even though I can only understand half of what is being said. You feel proud when you realise that you have understood them and can respond. I just try to tell myself that the local dialect is part of their heritage and it would be awful if I made them speak in Italian (and besides, like I said, some of them don't know how to speak Italian).

One evening at the dinner table my cousin and her husband, who are both teachers, were talking about a student. This student's father came from Sicily, but the mother was from Bergamo up north near Milan (I didn't know this then, all I knew was that she was from the north). Even though all the conversation was in dialect, I understood that something terrible had happened to them. One day the student's brother was playing outside with another little boy (they were around 4 years old). They wandered off onto the neighbour's property where there was a well. The brother climbed onto the well and fell in. When the mother realised what was happening she jumped into the well to save her son. Unfortunately, she was too late to save him and she almost drowned herself. The paramedics had to resuscitate her when they arrived on the scene of the accident.

This is not the end of their horror. The family tried to prosecute the neighbour as not covering your well or filling it up is illegal. They were unable to do so, however. Why? The neighbour was one the leaders of the mafia. There was nothing they could do - he was completely protected and the family, unfortunately, was not.

This is the deepest, darkest side of Italy. (No, I am not saying that the mafia is in every nook and cranny of Sicily - there is so much more to Sicily than the mafia and I hate that everyone automatically thinks of the mafia when they think of Sicily because of all the American mafia movies.)

Lemon, olive and cactus trees framing such a beautiful setting. Author of photo: Den Nation.

A few days later my cousin and her husband talk about going to meet up with a student and her mother for ice cream after dinner. As usual, the conversation was in dialect and I completely missed that we would be meeting up with the same family that had lost their son in the well accident.

So there I am sitting in front of the mother, this person who had suffered so much in her lifetime, and I started to ask her questions about where she came from. It isn't too often that you come across someone from the north living in the south. I felt that she was almost as much a foreigner down there as I was. So I went on and on, asking her about her experiences in the south. I had no idea that this was the mother that had lost her son in the accident. I felt my cousin pressing hard on my foot and couldn't understand what the problem was. I went on, "So why do you say that you wish you had never moved down here?" My cousin started to hit me under the table. Ok, maybe I was getting a bit too personal, but the mother seemed so willing to talk to me that I thought that my questions weren't that invasive. I quickly rephrased my question, "I mean you must miss your family up there so much, that must be what you mean." I stopped asking her questions and encouraged her to ask me about Canada, which she was more than happy to do.

"What the hell is wrong with you?" my cousin said when we got in the car. "What, what did I say?" I responded. "You know that she lost her son in the well accident, why were you asking her all those insensitive questions?" Oh, no. I know it wasn't my fault and it wasn't my cousin's fault, but I still felt guilty. My cousin had forgotten that I did not completely understand everything when they spoke in dialect (she doesn't even realise she is speaking in dialect when she does) as I was usually able to put two and two together and I didn't want to bother my family at the dinner table by asking them to interpret what they had said into Italian.

This really reminded me that speaking Italian well is not always enough. In some communities, the local dialect is engrained into the local culture. You cannot really live and be integrated into these communities unless you can understand the local dialect. I met some foreigners down south who could speak the local dialect better than they could speak Italian.

I'll never forget the woman who lost her son in the well accident. Things have slowly been changing in Sicily, but I wonder if they have changed enough? The accident happened around 20 years ago. Does the neighbour have as much authority today as he had back then? I like to think that this is not the case, but things can't change that quickly. I hope the well can be closed one day.

jeudi 3 avril 2014

The French brunch, or rather, the provincial brunch

Over the past few years I've noticed that France has been embracing the idea of having brunch at the weekends. Well, they think they are.

One thing I should make clear from the get-go is that province is not Paris. In Paris brunch is everywhere and French people there seem to at least have some idea of what brunch is about (hint, this is what this post is about). One thing that bothers me about Paris, though, is that brunch can be really expensive there. It bothers me that brunch is something trendy there and the prices match this idea. I know that the quality of the brunches is probably better here, but I feel that it's almost as if Paris were trying to recreate a 'perfect' brunch. The brunches I know (Canada, UK, Denmark, Germany, etc.) don't care about appearance and are not trying to live up to an image. From my memory, the most expensive brunch platter at my favourite brunch restaurant in Ottawa costs 12 or 13 dollars plus tax. I've seen some brunches in Paris for 30 euros!

To give you an idea of what I consider brunch and what I eat when I have brunch in my home:
-crispy bacon
-baked beans (since living in the UK I am hooked on baked beans)
-I would love to have British-style sausages as well, but the only place in France that seems to have these sausages is Marks and Spencer in Paris so no sausages for me here in Bordeaux - any ideas, anybody?
-a fresh baguette
-viennoiseries (croissant, pain au chocolat, pain aux raisins, brioche)
-a plate of freshly-cut fruit (if it's not cut people won't eat it - my platter of fruit always disappears if it is cut)
-pancakes served with my stash of Canadian maple syrup
-tea of coffee (no red wine)

Here is my experience with what French people (well, my experiences are based on what I have seen in Bordeaux) call "the brunch".

A few years ago our friends invited us over for brunch in Bordeaux on a Sunday morning. We were told to come over for 11AM so I thought nothing was amiss. For me, 11AM is a normal time to eat brunch on Sunday.

My husband is French, but before meeting me he had never had a brunch before. His idea of what a brunch was about was developed in Canada, where I showed him what we had for brunch.

We asked our hosts what we should bring and they told us that we didn't need to bring anything. We said we would bring over fresh bread and croissants, thinking that they would take care of the savoury part of the brunch since that part of a brunch needs to be cooked (eggs, bacon, etc.). Our hosts response when we told them that we would bring croissants and bread: long pause and then, "Well, if you want to." I thought that was kind of strange of them to say that, but I was just so excited to be having brunch that I brushed it off.

We arrived at their place and were met by our friend at the door who told us that her boyfriend was in the shower. I thought, "OK, he must be finishing up, he'll come in a minute." We came in and sat down at the table and I thought it was strange that nothing was ready - the table wasn't set at all. We laid the croissants and bread down on the table and chatted for about 20 minutes until her boyfriend finally emerged. We kept on chatting (it was 11.35 at this point) and I started to feel really hungry. I wondered when they were going to pull the eggs and bacon out and start to cook them. Ten minutes later I asked them if I could make some eggs with bacon for everyone. Their response, "Well, sure, I can cook that for you." For me, not for them.

So my husband and I had ham (they didn't have any bacon) and eggs while our hosts watched us eat. I ate a croissant after I had finished my eggs with ham all the while my hosts were watching us eat. I just kept thinking, "What is going on, why aren't they eating?"

By the time I finished, it was just past midday. I had eaten enough. And this is when I heard a bell ringing and our hosts announced...

"OK, yes, the brunch is ready!"

I thought, "What the hell is going on?" I had just eaten the brunch!

That's when I saw our hosts get up and take a dish of roasted duck, potatoes and vegetables out of the oven (a tea towel hanging in front of the oven had masked the light of the oven so I had no idea something was baking in there). My mouth just hung open while they bought the huge steaming dish over and put it on the table. "Here's the brunch!", they announced with excitement. "What the...," was all I was thinking.

"So I was thinking that we would pair this up with this wine from the Languedoc region," said our hosts. The alcohol content in that bottle was nearly 15%!

It was then that I discovered the truth. Our hosts thought that a brunch was a normal lunch meal that people ate a bit earlier than usual on the weekends. In Bordeaux lunch is served at 1PM on Sunday or later (in the north of France people tend to eat earlier). Of course there is not that much difference between eating at 12.15 like what we were doing and 1PM. Our hosts, however, figured that since brunch didn't involve an apéro that 12.15 was a real brunch time (this is true as if we had had an apéro starting at 12.30 we wouldn't have been eating the meal before 1.30).

After that, I swore I had learnt my lesson. But guess what? I fell into the trap again...

A few months after that first brunch I was invited to another one by my neighbour. This brunch was to be held in a hall as it was a club that was holding the event. So there were at least 50 people there.

Just like with the first brunch, we asked our neighbour what we should bring. We offered to bring bread and croissants and our neighbour said, "Oh yes, nobody else has offered to bring that." That was my first warning. At this time, I has this feeling where this was heading, but I still believed that maybe my first experience was a one-off, that only our first hosts didn't really know what a brunch was.

We brought our German friends, who were visiting for a few days, to the brunch with us. When we got to the hall at 11AM, we were in for a shock: they were firing up the grills to cook meat and everyone had brought a dish to share (salads, rice, potatoes, vegetables - all the normal lunch sides). It was a barbeque! We put the viennoiseries on the table and people made remarks like, "Oh, that's interesting, they brought viennoiseries to the brunch!" I had been tricked again. The entire time we were there we kept hearing people say, "What a great brunch this is!" Our German friends were in just as much shock as we were.

Now I know the truth about brunch in Bordeaux and why people kept saying how wonderful they thought my brunches were when I invited them over. It's because they believed that an early lunch was a brunch. They don't understand that brunch involves light cooking and that dishes are not elaborate like the duck I ate with our friends. Do younger French people in Bordeaux have a better grasp of the concept of brunch? Our friends and most of the people at the club brunch have never lived in northern Europe so they haven't been exposed to the 'real brunch'. I still wonder, though, where these Bordelais get their ideas as to what constitutes a brunch? Any ideas?