Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Learning to be different

The officially bilingual status of Canada results in a rather more entertaining education system than that in countries with more decisiveness. Outside Quebec, schools operate in English but offer a "French immersion" stream which apparently involves classes been taught in French, rather than the pupils being dipped in red wine and cheese. This is taken up by franco- and anglophone parents alike to allow their children the chance of being bilingual.

In Quebec, the situation is a little more complex, due to the mixed backgrounds of the population. The province has two publicly funded school boards that offer education in English and French. Originally, these were divided according to religion, with the English-speaking side being Protestant and the French, Catholic. However, this system was later renamed to better reflect the true nature of the split.

By default, a child in Quebec must attend a French-language public school but exceptions are made if you can prove your family has already defected to the dark side. For instance, you may go an English school board institute if you have previously attended an English-speaking school elsewhere in Canada, if you have a sibling being educated in English anywhere in Canada or if one parent did their elementary schooling in English.

When growing up in Montreal, my friend had a choice of school systems, since she had one officially francophone parent and one anglophone. Her school was selected based on academic merit and she joined the English school board stream.... and then promptly enrolled in French immersion.

"You decided not to go to a French-speaking school, but to go to an English school and be taught in French?" I asked, just to completely clarify the situation.

"Yes... but I had more classes in English than if I had gone to a French school," she attempted to justify this completely preposterous statement.

Apparently, the French immersion stream results in half the day being taught in French and half in English, giving a truly bilingual education. I admit, I was quite envious. Not that I think I would have enjoyed it at all at the time, but that is what adulthood is about: reaping the benefits of a tortured childhood.

While this system sounded highly beneficial to all and sundry, my friend warned of its pitfalls. The richer population of Quebec tend to be English speakers who have moved into the province. Because of this, the English school board is better supported by the parents which has resulted in the schools being generally of a higher standard than their French counterparts. Such a division increases the rift already present which is what caused this whole divide in the first place.

Catch 22: created by adults, maintained by 5 year olds.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

World of ice

May I just say that snow villages are cold?

Well, d'uh! --you might reply, if you were feeling rather mean-- water does have to freeze for this venture to be successful. Did you expect to saunter around huts made of ice in your bikini?

Like you wouldn't enjoy it too if that were possible.

Montreal's snow village is on the island of Sainte-Hélène, just off the edge of the Old Town harbour and easily reachable by metro. The winter had been so mild this year that initially we were concerned the snow village might not be still standing. Indeed, there were signs of deterioration with several of the rooms showing evidence of small roof renovations and a single large collapsed pile of snow at the edge of the village that stood as a prediction of the doom to come. That said, most of the buildings were in excellent shape and the breeze that peeled off their icy walls helped keep both constructions and visitors nicely chilled.

The main buildings in the village were a hotel, bar and church. Surrounding them were a number of little one-bedroom huts that were likely part of the hotel. It was possible to spend the night in one of these quarters but, with prices starting at $250 per person, we did not consider it. To be honest, I'm not totally sure I would have enjoyed the experience. An ice bed is all very well, but what about the bathrooms?!

As a visitor to the village, you could walk into the hotel and wander through the rooms. The standard set-up was a double bed --consisting of a normal mattress on a bed frame made of ice-- and an ice chair. Many of the rooms though, had a theme. There was one with a giant ice hockey player sculpture (naturally a team member of the 'Canadiens', Montreal's home team) with a replica of the Stanley cup at the foot of the bed. Another room had a solid ice racing car and a third, musical instruments frozen into panes of ice embedded in the walls. One room with two double beds had a trough of ice cubes between the mattresses and roses at the head. It was either a chaste way of spending the night together or the scene from a vampire horror movie. Either way, there was clearly no point in lingering.

The most beautiful building was the church. Ornately carved on the outside, the inside was full of transparent icy glass pews and a wide semi-circular alter with high backed ice chairs. The only non-ice features in any of these buildings were the mattresses in the hotel and the odd fur rug thrown across a chair. Without those, sitting was usually regretted and not easily reversed.

Naturally, as a group of four highly educated adults, we admired the skill and artistry of the craftsmanship.... and at the first opportunity, stole a wooden sled from a careless child.

The sleds, which were scattered around the village for visitors' use, resembled that of a dog sled. They had a single seat up front and a high back with long runners the person pushing could stand on once you got moving. Steering proved to be slightly challenging, but Canada has socialised health care so there was a limit to what (permanent) damage we could achieve.

When we returned to our Bed & Breakfast, I had a hot bath. The ice hotel might be impressive, but you can't do that....

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Lights, camera.... history

Notre Dame Basilica is set in the heart of Montreal's old town. With its twin bell towers, you could be forgiven for thinking that the name comes from its famous Parisian counter-part. You may even be right, but no one will admit to it; not wikipedia and not the Sound & Light show we attended on Saturday evening.

The flier for this event shows the church nave decked with triangular sails upon which artfully coloured blobs were projected. In a second image, the sails were gone and red and blue lights illuminated different parts of the ornately carved facades. I was therefore expecting the acoustical and elaborately designed interior of the church to be taken advantage of in an abstract interpretation of thundering music.

What I got was a history lesson. Which was somewhat of a surprise.

In 1657, the French settlement of 'Ville Marie' was founded in the new land and with it, a small chapel. The small colony faced difficult times along with their European compatriots up and down the coast but eventually it expanded enough to build a hospital and the chapel was re-housed inside it.

The colony continued to grow and finally in 1672, it got its own parish church which was given the name 'Notre Dame'. The population did not stop there and it reached the stage where thousands of the village worshippers were forced to gather outside the church's doors each Sunday. A new building was needed and an Irish architect by the name of James O'Donnell was brought in for the job. O'Donnell was residing in New York and was originally a Protestant, but converted to Catholicism on his deathbed, quite possibly so he could be buried in his own church. He lies in the crypt alone, so possibly no one else believed in his change of allegiance either. The show mentions that O'Donnell's remains lie beneath your feet, but does not mention his abrupt conversation; wikipedia being a far more reliable source for such juicy details.

O'Donnell lived to see his church open in 1829, but his death in 1830 came eleven years before the construction of its first bell tower. Until that time, the bell was rung from the old church building that was still situated in front of its replacement. While undoubtedly impressive, O'Donnell's design was flawed by his choice for lighting. Behind the alter, there was a large window whose light blinded the faithful who sat in the middle pews. The --undoubtedly more guilt ridden-- parishioners who had slunk to the side were shrouded in darkness. Feasibly no one in the congregation had a problem with this but nevertheless, the interior was redesigned between 1872-79 by Victor Bourgeau, who also designed the intricate pulpit which winds like spiral treehouse to the left of the alter. The front of the church is now covered by an elaborate wooden façade and light enters the church from stained glass side windows. From the outside, you can see an extension now backs onto that part of the church, so presumably the old window is completely bricked up. The interior is undoubtedly very impressive, even if one of my friends proclaimed the pillars to look like Christmas wrapping paper.

All of this was told to us through narration interspersed by --it must be said-- somewhat dubious and sycophantic actors. That aside, the content, which highlighted Notre Dame's history intertwined with that of Montreal's, was extremely interesting. Images of the early settlement were also shown on the sail screens and, when points about the church's architecture were discussed, lights lit the relevant part of the décor.

In 1982, Pope Jean Paul II visited Montreal and raised the status of Notre Dame to a basilica. It also was the location of Celine Dion's wedding in 1994. The show mentioned the former, but not the latter. No prizes for guessing where I got the second fact from.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Parlez-vous Japonais?

It transpires my brain only has a single language button. When 'off', I speak English and when 'on' I speak ... Foreign. For the majority of my life, 'Foreign' has corresponded to what French I managed to recall from school. Now --I discovered-- it produces Japanese. Given that I'm currently visiting Montreal, the largest city in the French-speaking Canadian province of Quebec, this is a trace unfortunate.

It is also rather surprising to the shop keepers who have been addressed in broken Japanese by a blond haired, blue eyed girl with a British accent.

Since the official languages of Canada are both English and French, it is the law that all government services must be conducted in both languages. In Ontario, this equates to everything being in English with the occasional nod to this rule in the form of a French stream in schools (largely taken up by English-speaking kids wishing to become bilingual), bilingual tourist information sheets and the odd sign post. In Montreal, it is totally different.

Shop fronts and road signs are in French, while the chatter on the streets is a mix of both languages, with French dominating over the English. Two of the city's major universities are split; the Université de Montreal operates predominantly in French while McGill University lectures in English. Wherever we travelled in the city, waiters and shop assistants greeted us first in French, before switching seamlessly into accented English.

Interestingly, Canadian French is substantially different from European French, although the latter is easily understood. The differences have been said to be greater than that between UK and USA English, but less than German and Swiss German. Somewhat ironically, Canadian French is closer to the early French language of the 15th - 17th century than European French, which has evolved away from the original pronunciations.

The reason for the francophone pocket of Canada is historical: In 1760, the French colony in Quebec was taken over by the British. This was about as popular as any visitor to Europe might expect and, in the resulting resistance, a compromise was reached with the 'Act of Quebec'. This recognised French Canadian distinctiveness and allowed them to keep their religion (Catholic), local laws and language.

This movement had an on/off success with the pressure for autonomy still present today in the form of the Quebec sovereignty movement. Supporters of Quebec's independence claim that the province's best interests cannot be recognised in the predominantly anglophone Canada. Associated with this is the concern that the French language will become overwhelmed, taking a major part of Quebec's identity and heritage with it. This has led to claims of discrimination against Anglo-Quebecers with the terms 'pure laine' (pure wool) used to denote Quebec residents of French descent.

After the initial excitement of "Wow! That sounds just like Harry Potter!" had worn off, I was a little concerned about our reception in Montreal. Would we have to manage with our limited French for fear of mortally offending the entire province every time we ordered a cup of tea? Would English be understood, but only with a particularly bad grace? Or would we be declared 'mudbloods' and banned from Hogwarts forever?!

It turned out we need not have worried. Montreal is a very friendly city and everyone I have met has been happy to converse in either French or English. Of course... this might have been born out of relief that I was no longer attempting to ask the location of the toilet in Japanese.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Chocolate and phones

So the Sunday before last I visited a sex shop. It was either that or church and --when you think about it-- they're near enough the same.

... you all thought about it, didn't you? You sick sick people.

I was after chocolate body paint. I'd explain, but frankly, you'd be disappointed. I only used it on my face during a brief iPhone photo shoot with another girl. Hockey jerseys were involved. Then we sent the photos to a minister.

See? The church connection again. He now has plans to leave the country. I'm denying any connection.

As it happened, the sex shop was unnecessary. I could have picked up the goods at a local Shoppers Drug Mart (equivalents to CVS, Walgreens or Boots depending on your aspirin buying location). Still, I think I could have been forgiven for not thinking of that location first.

Our body paints were in the tame section of the shop, along with more interesting versions of board games I played as a child. Other parts of the shop sold items that I'd never consider buying (or at least not blogging about buying) and harness swings which I totally would. I wondered if anyone other than me would believe I just wanted to hang out in one like a seven year old at a playground. I concluded no.

After the make-shift photo shoot, my friend and I went to the mall. We were watching the superbowl later than day and so figured face paints would not look out of place. Besides, it was surprisingly difficult to clean off. I wanted a prepaid sim card for my iPhone and headed for the appropriate store. As I did so, I passed a mirrored pillar and concluded an unfortunate fact:

There was really no mistaking that I was wearing chocolate body paint.

In the apartment, the paint hadn't looked any different from normal, non-consumable, face paints but in the bright mall lights the chocolatey goodness was revealed in all its edible glory. In five minutes time, I was to become pretty certain that the sales representative at Telus Mobility had noticed this as well.

I, however, needed a sim card and I wasn't going to be distracted. This guy would look me in the eye, keep a straight face and explain to me exactly how many picture messages I could get for their plan.

He managed. Just.

Any apprehension I might have had regarding returning to the store vanished while I watched the superbowl. A 31 year old with two streaks of body paint on her face can't really compete with Madonna and a host of centurion guards.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Japanese efficiency

It doesn't matter how much often you fly, to see a passenger near you repeatedly cross himself during the safety video is never reassuring. That said, I felt I already owed God one for making this flight at all.

For my trip back to Canada, I was connecting through Tokyo with a one hour change-over time. That was slightly on the tight side, but it was Japan so I had faith I would make it.

As we reached the northern half of the main island, our plane met a strong head wind. Towns below us had suffered a dramatic snowfall only a day before, with 3m of the white stuff dumped overnight. The resulting air currents made our plane bounce like a coffee bean in a grinder. It also made us 20 minutes late.

Our chosen landing spot appeared to be only vaguely connected to the airport. I mean, it was probably in the same prefecture. Just. We piled onto a bus for a ten minute ride across to the terminal. From there, I had to pass back through security and through the official country border to the international departures area. Then I had to get to the other side of the terminal, passing 30 gates to get to my own.

Any other country and I would have been asking about vacancies in the airport hotels and buying a toothbrush from the nearest shop. But... it was Japan... this might yet be possible.

I did all of the above in 15 minutes. The flight attendant didn't even look phased as she scanned my boarding pass and waved me through for an on-time departure.

The passenger crossing himself was also reading the safety leaflet, as per the instructions on the video. If anything, that was even more bizarre than the apparent desire for divine intervention. Upon take off, he ordered two (admittedly small, but still a containing a couple of glasses) bottles of wine. After that, negotiating the arm rest on his seat proved to be a more pressing problem than the need to pray.

Once in Toronto, I dubiously walked over to the baggage reclaim... to see my suitcase happily travelling round (at least, I would have enjoyed riding that belt). I'm not sure if there is any other airport in the world I could have connected through where that would have been possible.

This only left one final hurdle.

Canadian border guard: Wait, you were here two weeks ago?!

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Here is my pay stub... will you marry me?

"My supervisor thought it was too early for me to marry."

I was having dinner with a new friend; a PhD student at Hokkaido University who not only was from the UK, but had also grown up in my own home town of Oxford. Out here in Japan's snow laden northern island, it was a bit like finding a long lost twin. We had compared schools, discussed local shops and now had finally pushed the time line up to our current affairs.

While working at a summer camp for kids in Sapporo, my British twin had met her husband-to-be; a Japanese web designer who was starting his own company. Since it was still the early years for his business, his salary was not very large and it was this that was the source of concern for my friend's supervisor.

His advice to her was that she shouldn't consider marriage until her partner was making at least 5 million yen a year (about $65.5K or £41.5K, although it should be born in mind that the yen is a strong currency, so the equivalent spending power is probably less).

Growing up in a country where money was not seen as an object to marriage, I found this very surprising. Yet, apparently this view was fairly universal.

"Even my mother-in-law asked if I wouldn't rather wait until his income was higher," explained my friend.

Curious, I asked one of my Japanese friends at work whether money was always consideration in matrimony.

"It is probably one of the main concerns," she told me.

However, I was assured that women were not expected to give up their jobs when they married and when children came along, it seemed to be a matter of choice.

My British friend had obviously not stopped working after her wedding and once she graduates, she plans to join her husband in his business and provide English translations.

"What is your visa status now?" I asked curiously. "Do you have permanent residency through your husband?"

"Actually, a spouse visa is only for one year."

... Well, that was a whole new level of cynicism for you right there!

It turns out that it is very easy to get divorced in Japan. If both parties are in agreement, the whole procedure can be done in a day or less. This, combined with possible concerns over immigration, is probably one of the reasons for initially short-term spouse visas. After renewing your documents a few times you are deemed serious enough to get a longer term visa and after five years, permanent residency. Until then, you're considered about as married as Britney Spears.

[Note to self: Find smoking hot Japanese pop star fast. This visa business is going to take a while.]
[Note to self II: Make sure he earns over 5 million.]