It’s nearly three full months since I landed in Montreal. For good, I think. I hope. There hasn’t been a lot of new writing yet, just scraps. But a lot of reading, and a lot of trying to listen, and trying to work a country out. More so than I probably ever did in Scotland, or England, or Northern Ireland, for that matter. It takes time. Not to be too quick to judge. Particularly when trying to live in French, not just as a matter of courtesy but as a matter of culture.
And this is in English. But it’s more of a letter home. Whereever that continues not to be.
Some of the reading, in the meantime, from Montrealler Heather O’Neill’s ‘The Girl Who Was Saturday Night’ (2014). Who probably knows more.
‘I took out a pen to jot down some notes. Why did Quebec want to separate this time? We were the original descendants of the losers of the war between England and France for Canada. We had been shit upon for generations. But we were proud and we had finally built our own culture in the sixties. We became urbanized, and in apartments we sat up late reading philosophy books. We got rid of the church, but we stuck to our nationalism. Many of us wanted to leave Canada.
In 1980, after the loss of the first referendum, our premier Rene Levesque had famously said ‘A la prochaine fois‘. Then Quebec didn’t sign the new constitution that was drafted in 1981. Rene Levesque had the Quebec flag flown at half mast.
Finally, a few years ago, Quebec made some propositions for constitutional amendments. We wanted it in writing that we were distinct, that there was something weird and special about us. Since we didn’t have our own country, at least we could have some sort of other protection. But Canada said no. They scoffed. We had asked for a consolation prize and they had laughed in our faces.
If they didn’t think we were going to react badly, they were mistaken. We were going to react badly…We were leaving this damn country that went around calling itself the greatest country in the world.
We would go off on our own. We just wanted to speak French in peace. We wanted to whisper dirty things to our loved ones in French. There was a certain kind of love that could only be expressed in this way.
There was no difference between the expression I like you and I love you in French. You could never declare love like that in English.
We loved in a self-destructive, over-the-top way. A way that was popular in sixties experimental theatre and certain Shakespeare plays. We loved like Napoleonic soliders in Russia, penning beautiful letters while seated on the corpses of our dead horses. We were like drunk detectives who carried around tiny notebooks full of clues and fell for our suspects. We were crazy about the objects of our affection the way that ex-criminals in Pentecostal churches were crazy about Jesus. We went after people who didn’t know we existed, like Captain Ahab did. We loved awkwardly and hopelessly, like a wolf ringing a doorbell while wearing a sheepskin coat that is way too small for him.
They didn’t want to hear these words from a young, silly girl, pregnant with her first child. They wanted to hear it from a man with a huge nose and wild hair. Who tossed women aside and went out into the fray. Everybody wanted Cyrano to show his ugly face and scream his beautiful words. We all knew what a revolutionary looked like, the same way that we knew what a lover was supposed to look like.’
‘Where does a mythology come from? Who are the mythological figures in Quebec culture? They were brand new. Whereas the Greeks had Zeus and Athena, we had people who still lived in Verdun. They had a lot to bear on their shoulders. They had to invent the whole world themselves. They were supposed to have supernatural powers and achieve sainthood. When really they just found themselves peering into the mirror above the bathroom sink, looking to see how they were aging. Sitting in the bathtub, smoking a cigarette, terrified of death like the rest of us.’
Heather O’Neill, ‘The Girl Who Was Saturday Night’ (2014)