Wednesday, May 28, 2003


Having lived in Montreal for six years and holding a bilingual high school diploma after completing several long years of immersion you'd think I'd be fluent by now. Maybe we can liken it to the same phenomenon that has illiterates graduating from universities. There's always a way.

I actually knew more French before I moved from my anglophone province. At least there, I was forced to speak French with my teachers in order to pass my chemistry and math classes. Oh yes, I can talk about math in French and am royally lost when it comes to deciphering any chemistry in English (though to be fair, chemistry baffles me in any language). The university I attended in Quebec catered to the anglo population, and after six years of studying "grammaire" and "verbes" and "sexes" in high school, I was more than happy to shun my second language and concentrate on Spanish instead. I continued with the trend of half-assed studying, so I now succeed in confusing people in two languages other than English. Does that count as trilingual?

I thought moving to Vancouver would lift the burden of for my mostly unilingual self, until I saw that Cantonese was an asset. Thinking French is undoubtedly easier, I drove thousands of miles back to it. Today, however, really demonstrated what I've gotten myself into, and how much left there is to learn. I am afraid I can't just brush up on my French. I have a heckuva lot to learn. Does my Nova Scotian dialect count as a second language? "Eh, you gowanna uptah dah wahrft fer a smook is ya? Ayma comin with. I'll be rate oahva. Aya latah." Surely it counts.

My afternoon was spent planting flowers in front of my building in this mixed language neighborhood I call home. It just so happens that my friend and neighbour is actually trilingual, the kind of trilingual I would like to be. The kind that doesn't confuse people. In fact, she can carry a friendly conversation with almost anyone, and she can tell people not to "faire pee-pee" in the park regardless of their mother tongue. I am hugely impressed with this power. Next to her, I am rendered impotent, flacid when it comes to multilingual intercourse.

Now the annoying part is that I understand most of what people say in French, but I can't respond in a way that will make them want to stay and talk to me. While we planted our flowers, passers-by who live in the neighborhood would stop to comment on our admirable efforts to beautify the urban landscape. People apologized for their enormous dogs running through the newly planted flowers. Elderly women educated us on the names and needs of the flowers we'd chosen. All I did was listen and smile. My friend was able to actually speak easily with them, so I turned on my lazy-language mode and let her do all the talking. This, is precisely how I've managed living here over the past six years. You just have to know the right people.

I was getting cozy with this idea until I went grocery shopping a few hours later. A very, very overweight and very, very short exclusively French-speaking woman commented on my having chosen butter instead of margarine. She suggested that margarine was better for me and then asked me if I would mind getting her a tub of it from the top shelf because she wasn't able to reach it. I listened, smiled, passed her the margarine and expected to continue my shopping. The woman had other plans for me.

Perhaps she felt she had to justify her choice of spread. Perhaps she was crazy. She stepped closer to me and told me that I can eat butter if I want because I am obviously active, but that she prefers to watch TV so she must choose the healthier option. I smiled. Her husband is very good-looking. I know this because she told me several times, (each of which I smiled regardless of the statement's apparent irrelevancy). I don't know if I would trust her taste in men though, considering that her taste in clothes left her looking like a Polish grandmother. It was also at this point that I realized she was missing several of her teeth. Immediately afterward, I began to suspect that the teeth in question were actually floating around in her mouth, the partial plate having become dislodged. You can imagine what this did for her pronunciation.

The rest of the story became a sort of "Choose Your Own Adventure", as I could only understand half of what she was saying and had obviously missed some important details. What was disturbing for me was not only her spittle, but the fact that what I was understanding was the sort of story you ethically must report to the police.

Apparently, her husband has a new girlfriend. I smiled because she smiled. She was supposedly very pretty and the woman didn't mind that he has this girlfriend. She's seventeen and he's about fifty. I didn't smile. What was really crazy, suggested the lady, was that she got pregnant and didn't even tell him! I'm not so sure that's really the craziest part, though. She became more animated and began talking louder and with more spittle and I completely missed the next thing she said, so, feeling the need to clarify the situation I said, "pardon?" and was completely ignored. She began talking faster and faster; her tongue working full-time to keep the dislodged teeth in her mouth.

Then, she said something about an affair and a fourteen-year-old.

Now, the conversation might have been completely misunderstood by me, but when I asked for clarification she wouldn't acknowledge that I'd spoken. She simply continued to spew out this crazy story and I didn't know what to do. I was scared she was talking about what I thought she was talking about, so I did what a person is supposed to do when faced with a mammal that's frothing at the mouth. I backed away slowly.

As I increased the space between us, she over-compensated by talking louder. Step-by-backward-step I rounded the corner of the aisle, slipping out of her view. Only when she could no longer see me did she pause in her story and call out, "OK, bye-bye." She stayed there between the margarine and butter, surely awaiting her next victim. I think the "I-can't-reach-the-margarine" routine was a trap.

I rushed to the cash, afraid she'd decide to follow. While nervously pushing my goods through the checkout, I thought about how if I could only speak French fluently I would be able to cut off conversations more quickly. I mean, I can't just run away from francophones, even if they're nuts. I have to tell them I am going to first.

Wednesday, May 21, 2003

Educational games

I love playing games. I learned most of my math skills while sitting on my Dad's lap during cribbage games as a little girl. When I was old enough to remember all the rules, I got to play against him. It was my chance to prove myself to him, I had to be able to not only count my own points, but to double check his...just in case he tested me, to see if I was playing *seriously*. I am 25 now, and just last year he finally did it. I had been nervously checking his points for 15 years before the time had come. He takes his time.

Games are obviously associated with good times, but there are very special memories attached to them for me. I played different games with different people. My grandmother taught me how to play Rummy. This always seemed a little out of character for her as the pacifist, naturalist sage she was, but then again, over the years a lot about my grandmother surprised me. I enjoyed every tidbit. Scrabble was always a big event at her house. I would try my best to get as many points as possible, but being the most highly educated person in our family (both formally and informally), it was just understood that no one would ever beat her. When I started winning, it was very distressing.

My mother's side of the family is Polish and proud of it (in a very self-deprecating fashion). It was always hard for me to understand their penchant for Polish jokes, but I suppose the older third generation Canadian, I'm really quite removed from all that (except for what my family subjects me to). Most of my extended family lives a 25-hour drive from where I grew up, so when we all get together, it's a very special event. They're all very witty and cheerful and all-in-all the gatherings are refreshing reunions where alcoholism is thinly veiled under the guise of "Polish tradition". We're talking about people who'll drink Cæsers for breakfast because they're healthy. Na zdrowie!

This ubiquitous alcoholism makes for entertaining game playing. Usually we play cards for money. Any game will do really, as long as it's for money. I have fond memories of being very young and winning my first bowl full of dimes. I proudly hoarded my loot for a day or two and then lost it all playing Thirty-one. One rule that applies to all card games is: no mercy for anyone over the age of five. I think it was a valuable learning experience.

I hear that in Poland, when a guest arrives the house bottle of vodka is brought out and consecutive shots are poured for everyone present until the bottle is emptied. And then the drinking begins. That's just the toast. Again, na zdrowie!

But now that I am grown and living in a province sandwiched between my immediate and extended family, there seems to be a shortage of people willing to play card games with me. No one wants to lose their money, and no one wants to put up with the heckling involved in a rowdy game. Every now and then I can convince my boyfriend to play Shithead with me. While there is no betting involved, the amount of possible heckling makes up for it. But more often than not, I am left to play my own games. Today I developed a new one.

My home is positioned in one of those city areas where men sense a quiet corner and immediately get the urge to mark their territory. This drives my neighbor crazy and several times she's called the police to ward off the extremely common species we've come to call: The Urinators. There are different kinds: a) the high rollers who will whip down their drawers in the middle of the park because they just don't give a damn b) the elderly c) raving drunkards who've already been warned.

Today, I witnessed a "C" type approaching the quiet corner. He looked over his shoulder to see if anyone was behind him. He looked toward my neighbor's house to see if she was watching. He took the pre-pee stance (legs apart and ready to unzip)...and at precisely this moment I banged on my window really loudly. I saw him panic and try to determine where the noise was coming from. Then he ran away. He was gone for a full hour before he came back to the park to pass out.

One point for me, zero for The Urinators.
I'm in the lead.

Friday, May 16, 2003

Let's get physical, physical!

I've recently learned how to go to the gym. All my life I have avoided physical activity, going so far as to be a real pain in the ass about it in elementary school. My poor teachers must've cursed my parents for telling me not to let adults make me do anything I didn't want to do. I reinterpreted that lesson to work in my favour during Phys Ed. When forced to play soccer at the tender age of nine, I protested by running away from the ball. I'm not sure if I was upset because I was picked last for the team, or if the team picked me last because of that. In any case, I found the whole matter to be entirely unfair. Again, I pity the underpaid teachers.

I did try intramural soccer once more in high school, but I snapped my wrist during the first game and ended up in a cast, forbidden to play again by my doctor. I would have a cast for 8 weeks...and it was exactly 8 weeks until the prom. I took that as a sign from the PE powers that be. I wouldn't tempt them again.

While growing up, I was told over and over (by chubby people and chubby people's mothers) that I was "too skinny." By the time I reached junior high, I developed a complex. I started eating twice as much and most of that would be just before bedtime, partly in fear that I'd accidentally burn some calories if I stayed awake and partly to taunt my metabolically challenged friends. I was convinced that if I could just gain a little weight, my breasts would grow. I was wrong. I'm still playing for the A-Team.

I did reach a whomping 125 lbs. My all-time high. And when I got there, I realized I didn't want to be there. Now it's not that I think 125 lbs is a lot...but it looks weird when it is only on your belly and you *still* have skinny arms and legs. I didn't want to be a chicken lady. I just wanted some boobs.

In any case, at some point during university, I decided that maybe...since boobs aren't in the stars for me, I might as well get other cooler body stuff, like muscles!!! Then I realized that would involved physical activity. I thought maybe I could start slow...maybe I would join a contemporary dance class. I thought that was a great idea! It wasn't.

After the first class of "freeing my body" and "letting it speak" and "being a tree" and "walking without bones" I felt too degraded to go on. If *that* was what physical activity was all about I wanted none of it! I decided the muscle idea could get nice and comfy on the back burner.

A few *years* later a combination of things motivated me to actually commit to "training", but mostly it was instinctive know, survival of the fittest. Buying the $600 membership was the clamp on the dumbell. But after weeks of doing 50 minutes of cardio and an hour of weights...I still find that my self perception is totally screwy. It all depends on my mood. I have no idea what I *really* look like. I don't even own a scale...and after visiting someone who *does* own a scale, I'm happy not to. I learned something about myself by stepping on it several times in a 24 hour period: I weigh 115 lbs pre-buffet and 120 lbs post-buffet. I am not joking. No really.

Sunday, May 11, 2003

Raight out (of character)

To say it in my native Maritime dialect, last night I "got raight out uff 'er". This translates into: ripped, wasted and trashed. Not just one of those states of being, all of them together. So, it's something like being inebriated to the power of three. It's been a long time since I've allowed this to happen. Since Halloween to be specific, when I met a fellow Maritimer at a house party in Vancouver and practiced this self-defeating ritual. While I am certain it poisons my body, it has a way of clearing my mind. It's as though all the stress is expelled in one enormous obnoxious outburst. Be warned my friends, such an outburst can last for hours and it might not be pretty.

I bought two tickets to a rock show and I was really looking forward to going. All week I had been feeling pretty serious and cynical. It was a bit of a hangover from the war that I really needed to get out of my system. I also hadn't been spending any quality time with my live-in buddy, so I thought a Saturday night on the town together might do the trick. As the sun started to go down we wandered to a restaurant that opens out onto the sidewalk so we could enjoy the last bit of the almost-as-nice-as-summer day. We opted for the moules et frites (a popular combo here) and an ostrich burger with jalapeno sauce. It was delicious, but sitting in the hot sun, the beer was better. We started out with imported beer but soon moved on to a local beer which really can hold its own anyway. The salty and spicy and exotic food made us thirsty; we needed to be refreshed. You see then, how innocently it all started.

We realized that the doors were opening for the show and we still had a fifteen minute walk ahead of us, so we paid our bill and giddily started off in pursuit of entertainment. When we arrived, however, I realized I had grossly overestimated the popularity of the bands. There wouldn't be a line up, in fact the door man joked with us that people like to be fashionably late. There we were unfashionably eager. We decided maybe instead of waiting inside the venue with the estimated 10 other Unfashionables, that we'd go grab a drink at a local watering hole known as Fouf. This is actually more of a punk venue after dark, and recently Vanilla Ice made an appearance there.

It just so happens that it was also Happy Hour, or as we say in Quebec "le 5 à 7". It wasn't my fault bottles of Boréale were only $2. We felt it was our duty to stock up before we reached the concert venue where the drinks would surely cost at least twice that! We thought this was being responsible. An hour passed and the show was supposedly starting, so we giggled our way back to Club Soda. I had forgotten it was an all ages show and upon seeing the youngsters, became nostalgic about gigs I attended while in high school. We'd sit on the floor in front of the stage and wait for the no-talent bands to emerge and scream into the microphones and eventually spit on the crowd (us) so we could feel "rock 'n' roll".

We casually sipped another drink and waited for the bands to appear. Once the first band appeared, I began hoping that each would be better than the last. Now, I understand we are all influenced and inspired by others, but for each song they played, I could name either a U2, Blind Melon or Doors version to match. It didn't help that there were only about 25 people in the audience. The next band was met with a larger crowd. People started filling the empty spaces and soon there were people dancing. The Tangiers, being young, pretty and bouncy, livened things up in such a way that made me feel bad for the previous band. It didn't help that the lead singer left to mope in the doorway to men's washroom.

By the time the Constantines took to the stage, the crowd was ready to party, dancing and screaming and pushing each other and taking their clothes off, as it should be. I really didn't think they could be topped. Well, not at a $15 show anyway. Then came Trans Am.

Now you see how I totally forgot about the drinking? And I got all excited about the music? Well that is what happened there, too. Except I was still drinking because I was thirsty. I just wasn't noticing that I was. My date, who can't handle alcohol at the best of times, was buying me the beer. He bought so much that I often had two bottles in my hand, eager to give them away to any taker. Well, it just so happens that he was pacing his intake according to the amount I was consuming. Since I seemed to be drinking it all, he figured he must be in the clear. It became apparent that I would have to chaperone him when he started buying drinks for his sworn enemy (a friend and flirt). When he is nice to this guy, I know I'm going to have my hands full.

The night went on until it exhausted itself, to the psychotic joy of the audience, and me.

While I was saying good-bye to a friend, she suggested I take my date home. "Why?" I asked, thinking the answer would be: "Because he is wasted." Instead she simply said, because he just did a cartwheel and now he's laying on the floor. "Oh..."

When I finally got him to leave, I thought maybe it would be fun to visit the transsexual bar across the street, Cafe Cléopatre. My date was a little nervous about it, but I insisted, it would be fun. We arrived just as the stage performance ended and the MC wished us all a good night. Perhaps we should have taken the hint. We didn't. Instead, the disco ball lights started up and some men-to-women who were in the show came back out to dance. I, of course, got up on stage to dance with them. Only today did I question whether or not the show was over, or if I might have made myself a part of the encore.

At some point, walking back to our neighbourhood, I started talking about how I would like to take self defense lessons. Somehow this lead to my date saying: "Punch me." Lacking any rational thought, especially forethought, I punched my date in the arm. It reminded me of living with my sisters, just a cheap jab, to hear the other person say, "Ow!" But I don't think he expected me to hit him that hard, or maybe I didn't know how hard I was jabbing. In any case, he retaliated with a jab to mine. So I retaliated. So he retaliated again. And so on. Somewhere in all the laughter and cheap shots I decided to do a sideways elbow jab. I didn't really direct it. I didn't plan it. I didn't actually think about it, but I got him good. It was at that point my date vomited.

I would have apologized, but I was pretty sure he would have vomited anyway. Right? In its truest sense, this is what "raight out uff 'er" means. The beauty of the occasional "raight out uff 'er" night in traditional Maritime style is that you can still be friends in the morning.

Sunday, May 04, 2003

Trust me

My parents always told me I shouldn't trust people who can't look me in the eye. This came along with other useful tips like: "Never trust someone with a weak/cold/clammy or complicated handshake" and "Never trust someone who has to tell you you can trust them." You'd think there were trust issues when I was growing up, but we all trusted each other so much in my house, that even as a teenager I didn't bother to hide my diary. I didn't even question how my sister might know of the secret-illegal things I'd done. I thought maybe we were just really *close* and we'd developed some sort of sisterly ESP.

I've kept diaries ever since I ran out of metaphors for teen-angst poetry, so I have excellent documentation of the most embarassing period of my life. I love rereading entries describing break-ups, make-outs and substance abuse. I am appalled by my terrible handwriting. I am fascinated I survived those years and amused by every painful second of them.

I made the mistake of thinking it would amuse my friends, too. I decided to make my diary (given to me by my older, drug-using, fast driving, cigarette smoking, son-of-a-lawyer boyfriend) recounting my sweet sixteenth year, public. I placed it on the coffee table and made it known that everyone was welcome to read it. I had even returned torn out 'pages-of-shame' to their rightful place inside the book again. I couldn't wait to sit around and joke about the person I was. I thought it would be hilarious for my ex-boyfriend to read about how madly in love I claimed to be. I thought my best friend would laugh when she read how I really felt when she kissed my boyfriend during a mononucleosis outbreak in our high school. Not so.

The book was left untouched in my presence and they eventually asked me to put it away because it was making them uncomfortable. I suppose we are always tied so intimately to our past that, in other people's eyes, it's hard for them to recognize that we've undergone complete cerebral overhauls. I simply am not capable of doing or saying or thinking most of the things I'd written about almost a decade earlier. It then occurred to me that maybe when people can't look you straight in the eye, it's because they don't trust you.

This all came to mind when my ex-boyfriend, the one that provided much of the drama in the diary in question, emailed me asking if he could spend the night at my house on his way through the city. I mentioned it to my current live-in love and we supposed we wouldn't mind. I said, "Well it won't be that bad. It's not like he'd steal anything from us or anything." As the words left my mouth, I began questioning whether he really might, if only just for kicks.

We'll see if I'll be able to look him in the eye when he gets here. I might have to keep my eyes on my stuff instead.