I’m not accustomed to seeing people’s eyes light up when I tell them I’m from Canada, the general consensus being that, while nice, we’re also boring, we apologise too much, and we talk funny. In general, as I travelled through Europe this fall, my various interlocutors would offer some polite riff on, “Oh I hear it’s beautiful there!…Um…And cold!” And then either I’d get cosy and regale them at some length (“Ever been out in 40 below before? Your skin freezes in 5 minutes!”), or they would tactfully change the subject before I could really get going. This was not the case in Provence.
Remember how ebullient my Lamanon host was in the last post? So much so that I couldn’t understand a single darn word she said? A good part of her excitement, it turned out, was due to my nationality. “I was just talking about you last week!” she announced (I think; who could say, really) in greeting. “I met two other Canadians at a party!” Then she directed my attention to a special little centrepiece she’d arranged on my table, with two Canadian flag toothpicks leaning proudly against a no-smoking sign. Well, if that wasn’t the sweetest gesture.
So many of the people I spoke to in Provence had some sort of special relationship with Canada. Parents told me about their children and grandchildren living there. Young people told me about gap years spent there. Those who had never even been told me of their dreams of moving there. One eccentric millionaire (story to come; a little ways off yet) claimed that his relatives made up 90% of the population of a particular Saskatchewan town. Countless conversations like this emerged, nearly every day.
I even found France’s only hockey fan: One night, at a bar in Cassis, I had the entirely unexpected pleasure of bonding with a stranger over our shared appreciation of NHL left-winger Michael Cammalleri, of all people. Now, Cammalleri’s a very good player, but he’s no Wayne Gretzky. I’m not sure I would expect the average Canadian to have heard of him, come to that. But my new friend, having lived for a year in Montreal and acquired a taste for hockey, even admired Cammalleri enough to have bought a t-shirt that he treasures to this day. The guy liked that Cammalleri is half-Italian, like him. I like that Cammalleri is small and scrappy, like me, and also that his face is handsome (though running low on teeth, if we’re honest). I don’t think any experience was ever as unlikely as my lengthy, mutually enjoyable conversation about pint-sized, half-Italian greybeard Mike Cammalleri in a bar in Cassis, but this was exactly the sort of thing that kept happening, and that left me feeling quite a close connection with the people of Provence.
Once I had noticed the local affinity for Canada, I started to ask people what was drawing them there, of all places. It was neat to hear about how they perceive my home. For starters, the single biggest draw was opportunity. Jobs are scarce in France, and Canada is seen as a land of milk and honey – and what’s more, one that doesn’t mind if you speak only French (so long as you stick to Quebec, at any rate). I suppose this shouldn’t have come as a surprise – Canada is prosperous, of course – but I think I’m accustomed to being overshadowed by the capitalist black hole to our south.
Montreal particularly seemed to capture people’s imaginations, being a modern, bustling, (sort-of) quintessentially North American city. I think Canadians often prefer Quebec City, due to its quaint European charm, but it turns out that those who have grown up surrounded by quaint European charm, who have known only quaint European charm their whole lives, find Quebec City to be a poor facsimile. Well fair enough.
I also heard over and over that Canadians are nice and that Provençals are assholes.
I still don’t believe that latter bit, but incidentally, the Cammalleri fan told me that there was one reason why he would never be able to live in Canada permanently: Les femmes portent la culotte – The women wear the trousers.
I fail to see the problem.