Sunday, 25 May 2014

The little fish of shame

I've been musing that maybe one of the reasons I haven't written much here this year is because nothing ridiculous like this or this has happened to me lately. The incidence rate of the bizarre seems to have declined appreciably since I left the tropics—or maybe I just don't get out enough anymore. But a recent, seemingly innocent trip to our local cheap and cheerful Portuguese BBQ managed to restore the normal abnormality for an evening and I haven't been able to shake off the experience.

We generally have a great time when we go to this little restaurant so I shan't reveal its name, but we seem to have settled into a default order whenever we go there, which is piri piri chicken for Charles and char-grilled squid for me. This particular evening I decided to mix it up a bit and ordered the char-grilled sardines, figuring they would be a bit of a house speciality. When they arrived they were enormous—so much bigger than I was expecting—and I was really impressed. Our waiter did a dump-and-run with our order, as they were typically busy. But when another stalwart, older-generation, career waiter whizzed by, I couldn't help but gleefully comment on my dish in my mangled Franglais. He screeched to a halt, turned on his heel and proceeded to launch into a bitter tirade about the decline of the once-mighty Portuguese sardine fishing industry, made all the harder to keep up with by a passionate peppering of Portuguese in amongst his Franglais. Ah, Montréal!

His argument bordered on the outright racist and factually questionable at times, but the basic gist of it was true and this: the sardines run up the west coast of Africa before entering traditional Portuguese fishing territory. Overfishing of sardines off the African coast has resulted in a burgeoning plankton population since there are not enough of the predatorial small fish to keep the plankton numbers in check. In turn, the plankton have died in great number, basically of old age, and a toxic combination of hydrogen sulphide and methane is released from the rotting remains when they fall to the ocean floor. This noxious mix then literally explodes to the surface, poisoning all the other sea life, including any remnant sardines, resulting in a catastrophic, multi-species mass die-off. The delicate balance of the ecosystem has been damaged by humanity's greediness. Again.

Now, while the waiter blamed starving African hordes dredging the coastline with hand-held nets for this situation, the reality is it seems to have been overfishing by international commercial fleets from the 1970s onwards that has tipped the balance. But since the sardine is such an iconic part of Portuguese food culture, the absence of it is being felt quite personally. The rant lasted close to 10 minutes in all—in fact, the waiter came back for a round two on his explanation after attending to other patrons. And the whole time he was talking at me my handsome, gigantic, piping hot and beautifully cooked sardines were sitting on my plate in front of me going cold. By the time he had finished part of me didn't even want to eat them anymore, I felt so guilty for my contribution to the problem. Another part of me wanted to jump up and screech, "Well, why are they still on the bloody menu then if this is such an issue?" But in the end, my pragmatic (and polite) side won out and I resolved to enjoy every last mouthful of my delicious, already-dead-and-nothing-could-be-done-about-that sardines, since they were going to be the last ones I would ever eat in my life.

PS On a related topic, there's one seemingly insignificant news story that I have come across recently that has absolutely enormous ramifications. I am not quite sure why this story is languishing here in ABC Australia's rural news section instead of being plastered all over the front page of every news site on the planet. In a nutshell, CSIRO scientists have developed a commercial prawn food that does not require the use of any wild-caught fish. Currently, wild-caught fish make up 25 percent of commercial prawn feeds and 40–50 percent of commercial fin fish feeds. It can even take 2.5 kg of wild-caught fish to produce one kg of farmed salmon. Where is the sense in that, I ask you? Now that the CSIRO has cracked the formula for prawn feed (entering production as I write), they are starting work on developing a similar product for fin fish. Go you good things!

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Your regular programming will resume shortly (we hope!)


Let's just say that when my level 2 French teacher told me at the end of last year that the worst was over and the course would only get easier from then on, she lied!

However, because we just can't get enough change around here, it seems, I have drastically shifted my routine this week (now that we have just settled comfortably into domestic bliss) and I am determined to keep my weekends free from work from now on. I'm hoping that means I will be coming back to you shortly.

Image: Artist's impression of what spring is supposed to look like, since Québec has clearly forgotten this year.

Sunday, 26 January 2014

It's a long way to the shop if you want a sausage roll...

Australian ex-pat trying valiantly to uphold national pride in -20C. Photo: Charles Cardinal

The title of this post is something probably only Australians of a certain age would get. It's a schoolyard twist on the lyrics to AC/DC's It's a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock 'n' Roll); just try singing it and you'll see what I mean...

Today is Australia Day, and despite all the broader political ramifications and my personal uneasiness in recognition of Invasion Day, as it is also known, I am a little more nostalgic than usual for my home country. I celebrated by listening to '80s Oz Rock and making a batch of lamingtons to share with my classmates tomorrow. Surprisingly, there are two other Australians in my class, so I am not as much of an exotic creature as usual. I also made a batch of sausage rolls for Charles and I, which turned out to be the best I've ever tasted, perhaps because I've been so deprived. Like any good immigrant, I have soulful longings for the unique tastes of the Old Country.

It's a curious thing, being an expatriate. There is all the excitement and novelty of a new country, culture, and—frequently—language to explore, but it is so often clouded with a few greying drops of homesickness, as well as the involuntary comparisons. I can't even imagine what it must be like for immigrants who have had to leave their home against their will or for the preservation of their lives.

As always, I remind myself that the purpose of this blog is to enforce a positive view of change on myself so, like a happily tipsy father of the bride, I take the view that I am not losing my own culture, but gaining a second. (Gosh, I just remembered having a jumbonormous fight with a German boyfriend in 1998, when he claimed Australia didn't have a culture. Oh, my goodness!) As I sit here, I've been contemplating just what it is that I'm invoking when I think of that mythical beast that is "Australia." In essence it seems to be wide, open spaces, a freshness of both spirit and produce, and a lack of taking anything or anyone, including oneself, too seriously. But mostly it is the wide, open spaces. Oh, and warmth!

For years I have celebrated drives through those wide, open spaces with a stop at a country bakery for a sausage roll and a Farmers' Union Iced Coffee. It was a little tradition that I made for myself somewhere along the line, to the point now when a long car trip will induce sausage roll cravings. I've managed to find a suitable iced coffee substitute here, at the ubiquitously Canadian Tim Horton's chain, but it looks like I'll be doing a little pre-trip baking from now on because there really is no suitable alternative to the sausage roll here, and 16,000km is indubitably a long trip "down the shops."

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Back to school

"You sound like a French-from-France!"

To most English speakers this would be a compliment, right? Coming from my 11-year-old stepson it is a stab to my heart, a soul-crushing blow, the most scathing of put-downs. Around here the French-from-France don't speak the True French. They are fickle followers of fashion, blithe spirits who do not care for tradition, who do not know the Old Ways. Québécois is the True French. Except when it borrows from English. Or a First Nations language. Or it had to make up a word to describe something unique to the New World. Or it uses the informal "tu" form of address with wild abandon. But let's not get picky now!

To someone who has had exposure to French-from-France—moi, for example—it is also a terrifyingly daunting dialect. Similarly causing, I'm sure, the kind of fear that must strike an English learner when they encounter a Scots accent, a Deep Southern US accent, or a broader-than-broad, closed-mouth, Far North Queensland accent. But here I am in Montréal, having just braved the joual of Témiscamingue, and today I started niveau 3 (level 3) of my cours de francisation.

I'm now at the Centre Saint-Louis, much closer to home after three and a bit months at the Centre Lartigue. These classes are run and heavily subsidised by the Commission scolaire de Montréal, via the Ministry of Education. The Ministry of Immigration also offers classes, but after a spectacular fail at fulfilling their own KPIs, I wound up in the care of the Education Minister.

It's an incredible deal: a $70 administration fee per six months, plus $10 per level for the textbook. For that you get 20 hours per week of professional, immersion French classes. As I wrote: incredible!

I won't lie, I have found it very challenging going back to study almost full time. Twenty contact hours of foreign language learning by immersion leaves you pretty shattered for several extra hours on top of that per week. It's not the work per se; I'm doing very well. (Thank you home tutors!) But being a povvo student after years of full-time work is very challenging. My Aries moon is also always very impatient to just get on with things, and I want to master it all NOW, and I want to be back at work NOW! (I'm not saying these are attractive qualities I admire in myself, but it is a personality trait I am constantly battling to overcome.) I am continually taking stock and reminding myself that most of the known universe dreams of "taking a year off to learn French." Reason vs Wonder again!

So, now on my second institution, I am also on my fourth school venue. Some of the buildings have been beautiful—evocative and even anachronistic. Others have been coldly utilitarian. We've seen chalk dust and felt erasers, wall-mounted pencil sharpeners, wall charts and maps, linoleum, and even PCs running Windows XP.

It really feels like I am back at school.

Sunday, 29 December 2013

The First White Christmas

Charles and I are back up in Ville-Marie, Témiscamingue, for Christmas. And while it would be out of character for me to not admit that I prefer it here in summer, it is exceptionally beautiful in winter, too. This has been my first-ever White Christmas and—boy, oh, boy!—has it turned it on for me. So. Much. Snow!

On Christmas Eve, we went to Midnight Mass with Charles's parents. Miraculously the church didn't burst into flames for hosting me, but that's a story for another time. On the big day, we had the full-shebang of roast turkey and bûche de Noël, and then the child-cousins killed lots of things dead on the newly-gifted X-Box: some things are universal, I guess.

It felt weird to be so far away from my own family and friends, that's the penalty of so much change. Thankfully all my French lessons are beginning to pay off, though. While the northern Québec accent still has me stumped on some pretty stock phrases, I can now communicate with non-English-speaking members of my new family-in-law and don't feel as bewildered by the conversation as I did back in July.

Yesterday, Charles and I decided to go work off the Christmas stuffing by snowshoeing at Rivière-des-Quinze, about 40km north of Ville-Marie. Stunning! There were only a few other adventurous souls out there, and we had the delight of a fresh track. The little bays, the long vistas and the abundant evidence of an active beaver population ensure we will be back again for a picnic come summer. The track we chose was quite rugged, and as I stopped and stared up one last major climb I was surprised to find myself suddenly on the verge of totally losing my s**t. It was nothing that some water and a good handful of dates and dried figs couldn't fix; however, after two hours of walking, when we finally doubled back on our tracks at the very beginning of the circuit, we found we could barely see them due to the effects of wind and snowfall. Having recently lost one of our beloved cats to hypothermia during a cold snap in Montréal, it was a healthy reminder to not be blithe about a harsh environment simply because it's not the Australian desert.

As we headed back to Ville-Marie, we realised that yesterday, the 28th, was the six-month anniversary of my arrival in Montréal. That was quick! Almost instantaneously, I got a craving for poutine, so we headed to the local casse-croûte, whereupon I promptly demolished a medium heap of that particularly Québécois delicacy—a new world record for me and a most appropriate way to celebrate.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

On va vers hiver

It's here! For weeks the anticipation has been building. Will it or won't it snow tonight? This weekend? Before December?! And tonight here it is, the bright, white blanket putting all our childish fitfulness to rest. And again with the firsts—this is my first First Snow.

Two weeks ago as I walked home from class at lunchtime, the sky dusted down the tiniest of snowflakes that melted as they touched my jacket. This is it!, I thought. The next morning it tried again, and the more adventurous of my two black cats—tropically born and bred—came trotting into the kitchen after his morning garden survey with a sprinkle of white flakes across his back. Definitely it! And then...nothing.

Ice has slunk into the nooks and crannies, making my daily walk treacherous, with every puddle and pooling frozen on the footpaths and often hidden under piles of leaves. Between last Friday and today the lake in Parc La Fontaine has incrementally frozen, too. And now the late night revellers who want to challenge the ice have had to resort to bigger and bigger objects to throw at it to test their respective strengths. Drunken man vs ice. The ice has obviously remained resolute, and logs and rocks and garbage sit dejected on its surface.

In preparation for their trials ahead, the city's squirrels are as fat as they are going to get after early November's feast on Halloween's abandoned pumpkins. The sight of the mauled and maimed remains of jack-o'-lanterns strewn throughout the neighbourhood has been more gruesome and disturbing than most people's costumes!

But tonight I'm content to go to bed and dream of crisp, clean snow. And I hope to wake up tomorrow to a fresh new city that will charm me all over again. I will enjoy the novelty of my first First Snow while I can, at least until the relentless cold forces me inside and I begin to dream of summer.

Friday, 11 October 2013

Rediscovering the Forgotten

As predicted, I have managed to make myself pretty busy of late, but one of the things I am up to is 20 hours of French classes a week. My trip to class takes me through the beautiful Parc La Fontaine every morning and back again at lunchtime. I amuse myself with the squirrels' antics on the walk through the park, and I was quite amazed when I first saw the elusive champagne-coloured ones that live there. This morning as I wandered through, I realised that apart from a couple of days in Adelaide in May 2009, I haven't experienced an autumn for over a decade. A decade! Quel surprise! Maybe it's the novelty of it all, but I am finding this autumn in Montréal especially spectacular.

Last week, Amy, one of my oldest friends from my hometown, came to visit for five days. On her first day I took her for a walk up the Mont-Royal. It was yet another gloriously sunny day, and tiny yellow leaves were gently raining down through the sun's golden rays onto the wide, wide path. Oh, just stop it, you! We were both seriously impressed.

One of the great pleasures of a Northern autumn is harvest season, and the boys and I have been solid in our appreciation of that. The weekend before last we went apple picking at Vergers Philion, near Hemmingford, down by the U.S. border. Philion is an organic orchard and the air was filled with lady birds. I spent a busy five minutes trying to stop one or two from risking drowning in the port-a-loos on first arrival, only to realise there were 50 more banging on the door trying to get in. I just had to leave Mother Nature to deal with it in the end.

We picked about 7.5kg of apples and pears, and my great excitement of the day was Russet apples. I had never heard of them before: tough skinned, sweet and very firm in texture, they were once known as leatherjackets, and were hugely popular in Victorian times, though now fallen somewhat out of favour for anything other than cider production. What I was most fascinated to see were the 'cracked' ones on the first few trees we encountered. Cracking is technically a fault, caused by inconsistent water supply during the formation of the fruit, but it appealed to my Ugly can be beautiful too philosophy, and I picked a cheery armful, much to Lolo's bemusement. They were superb with cheese and bubbles the next day when we had visitors.

The other produce we couldn't help but see on our little road trip was pumpkin: totally ubiquitous around here at the moment! Strangely, though, Canadians don't eat that much pumpkin, certainly nothing like Australia's obsessive consumption from weaning to old folks' home. I'm having contraband thoughts of sneaking some seeds of my beloved Jap variety in from the Old Country to blow the minds of a few folks I know who think of them as only for making pie and as decorations. We've been busy eating pumpkin and peanut dip, pumpkin risotto, roast pumpkin, pumpkin in tagine, and roasted pumpkin seeds, peasants that we are! Interestingly, I encountered an article this week by a Paris-based writer, David Lebovitz, who noted that, despite the Légumes Oubliés movement in France, pumpkins still have too much of an association with war-time deprivation there to be commonly found in the markets. I also recall relatives of my former Italian bosses dismissing them as "pigs' food".

Autumn, pumpkins, Russets: forgotten, ignored or neglected all. When combined with a five-day visit from a beloved friend of over 20 years, it has been quite a pleasant couple of weeks of appreciating the Forgotten.

P.S. I've read no more of Proust than his infamous homage to the madeleine, but having been eating said cakelet for breakfast a bit lately, I can quite appreciate what all his fuss was about!

 Cracked Golden Russet apples:
hitting every branch on the way down as they fall out of the Ugly Tree!