Saturday, June 6th, 2009

Hazards of corporate travel

Filed under: corporate life,music,travelling — alison @ 02:12

Elevator music in hotels.

I’m home now, but “Let your love flow” is still coursing through my brain.

Monday, March 30th, 2009

Maybe Vancouver is small?

Filed under: corporate life,cross-Canada,travelling — alison @ 10:58

Vancouver is supposed to be smaller than Montreal (2M vs 3M) but looking over the very dense skyline it just didn’t seem so.

I happened to accidentally wander past my employer’s front door though, a coincidence suggesting that perhaps Vancouver is smaller than it looks.

Monday, February 16th, 2009

scandalous words

Filed under: corporate life,culture,language,Québec — alison @ 07:41

Um, heard about this on the radio last night. It’s over a week old; I really need to keep up with the news better.

Titter. Snerk.

Our diligent but bland premier, Jean Charest, went to France so that Nicolas Sarkozy could award him the Legion of Honour. According to the CBC, all Québec is abuzz over what Sarkozy said to him. “In this case, it is all about how a few words spoken by Nicolas Sarkozy this week has touched off yet another trans-Atlantic tizzy, though this time it is Quebec sovereigntists who are upset with what the French president said.” Apparently, while presenting the Legion of Honour, Sarkozy said “Do you really believe that the world, with the unprecedented crisis that it is going through, needs division, needs hatred?”

Ha. Quebecers really do not care. It’s true, a few words spoken by a French politician have, in fact, touched off a trans-Atlantic tizzy. Different politician, different words.

The diligent but bland french deputy Pierre Lasbordes was assigned to greet Charest as he entered the Senate. He thought he would welcome his distinguished guest with a demonstration of interest in his origins, so he asked his parliamentary aide and his wife to come up with a typically québécois expression to enquire after M. Charest’s state of fatigue. They went to a belgian travel site, found an expression and e-mailed someone in Rimouski who confirmed it. Which is how M. Lasbordes greeted M. Charest with, «J’espère que vous n’avez pas trop la plotte à terre, comme on le dit au Québec.» In English, I’m not sure whether that would be better understood as “I hope you haven’t worn out your cunt,” or “I hope your cunt isn’t dragging on the ground.”

*** *** ***
The québécois word «plotte» comes from the french word «pelote», meaning sheepskin. Something furry. Like a vulva… or a head, which is the imagery that came quite naturally to the parliamentary aide: head on the ground, upside down. While «plotte» is just vulgar when used as vocabulary, it’s kind of silly and cute when used in «plotte à terre», suggesting that “head on the ground” probably is actually the origin of the expression in Québec, though that meaning has been lost. Today, cunt just means cunt.

*** *** ***
Which brings me, however circuitously, to the point, however insignificant, of this post. You know how anglophones think it’s so funny that québécois swear with religious words: “tabernacle” is at least as strong a word as “fuck.” Similarly, “sacristy,” “chalice” and “baptism” are all strong swear words.

What we comment on less frequently are how body words are sprinkled through the language so casually. Windshield washer fluid? «Pipi». Grime under your fingernails? «Caca». Snow? «Merde». Compensating? «Grosse corvette, petite quéquette». Tired? «Avoir la plotte à terre». While this isn’t language I would use to talk to my boss at my corporate job, it would be fine for talking to my neighbour over the fence.

That’s all!

Thursday, February 12th, 2009

messy (evolution of)

I remember when I was about four or five and my father was trying to get me to put my things away, I finally told him that I didn’t care. If he cared, he should put them away. He called me a princess. I was confused because in the books I read, princesses were always virtuous heroines but by his tone of voice my father didn’t seem to be praising me. I tried to get him to explain but he had lost patience by then.

When I was about ten or eleven I was sitting at the dining room table working on a craft and dropped something on the floor. I was about to lean over and pick it up, when I realised that I didn’t have to. I didn’t need it right away and it was perfectly fine sitting on the floor until I did need it. All I had to do was remember where it was. This epiphany was accompanied by a worried suspicion that I was going to regret my insight.

Anyone I have lived with has, with a single exception, complained about my messiness. With that single exception, none has cheerfully accepted my other contributions to the household as adequate compensation for needing to pick up after me.

When living with that single exception, who did not, after all, pick up after me, rather the opposite, the house was so filthy that when a pregnant friend we were chatting with on the sidewalk needed to pee, we lied and said the toilet didn’t work. I think that was when I faced the fact that there was something seriously wrong. We never discussed it.

In Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride, there’s a scene where a pathetic, dependent character breaks something and there’s glass on the floor. This is one more contribution to a discouraging sequence of events, not because she attached value to the broken thing but because “now she would have to remember.” As in, it doesn’t occur to her to sweep up the shards; instead she will need to spend the rest of her life trying not to cut her feet by not walking in that spot. I was shocked to discover that I was a type.

For a couple of years one of my annual objectives at work in my performance review was to clean up my desk. I never really got around to doing a complete job. My boss eventually gave up. For the past four years or so my bosses have been elsewhere — Winnipeg or Mississauga or Toronto — and have not seen my desk.

It’s not that I like being messy. I don’t even like ordinary cheerful clutter; I love a stark, open, spare space. One of the first things I did upon getting a regular job was to hire a cleaning lady. It’s more that it seems too complicated. I like doing laundry, and do it diligently even if it means hauling it to a laundromat, even if it takes all weekend. Laundry is self-limiting. There is not an infinite amount of stuff that could theoretically be put into a washing machine. Once it has been washed, it needs to be folded and put away. Very simple. Not only that, I know where laundered things go. Clothes have drawers and shelves and hangers; sheets and towels have closets; dog blankets go back on dog beds; soft furnishings go back where they came from. If I start to clean a house I never know when to stop: there’s always something I didn’t get to and feel guilty about, always a decision that I don’t know how to make.

Mark determined that part of my problem is that not everything has a place to go. I feel bad when stuff is lying around in heaps, but it’s not as though changing the situation is always a simple matter of putting it in its place. There often is no place for it, so more radical intervention is called for. When he moved in he put a lot more storage in. It helps. 

Still, the other day someone said that if I were an employee, she’d fire me; that if I were a roommate, I would be out on my ass in two days. She doesn’t even know me that well. It’s just that obvious.

My boss is in town for a day. I cleaned off my desk this morning in preparation, which mostly consisted of stashing papers and the binders into which they are some day to be filed, into drawers and bins where they will be invisible to the casual visitor. Still, I feel better.

Mark has been stomping around crossly for the past few weeks, issuing dark warnings that we both need to change if we value the relationship. I’m not sure I can change, exactly. But perhaps I can put “cleaning off the dining room table every Saturday” into the same doable category as “laundry.”

Sunday, January 11th, 2009


I often have interesting conversations with taxi drivers, but it’s usually me who starts them.

Yesterday I gave my destination and we discussed the route. Then the driver cautiously asked me if I were Québécoise pure-laine? Well, I said, I’m anglophone but I’m born here.

Because, rushed on my driver, he had read a story in the newspaper that morning* and couldn’t stop thinking about two countries, on two continents, separated by history and religion but united in their misery. La Guinée, in Africa, and Haïti, where he was born.

He was satisfied with his life in Canada, he wanted me to know that. His children didn’t eat steak every day, but they could have meat every week. Canada is a good country, built by people who were not his parents, and he was grateful for the welcome he had been offered, the opportunity to make a life here. But he couldn’t stop looking back to his people in Haïti, feeling for their suffering.

Yes, I said, and feeling responsible but helpless and not knowing what to do. I told him I’d lived in Nigeria in the seventies when people were doing very well, that I knew a little about how people lived who didn’t have a lot of stuff, and even a little about what children looked like who didn’t have enough to eat. That I felt a bond with people in other countries and circumstances that I had no idea how to act on.

Yes, he said. One doesn’t need to have a lot of stuff to be able to care for a family. His father had been a cultivator and he had worked with him. They rotated crops with the seasons, rice and yams and vegetables. In between crops, his father fished. There was always something to do. His father had also been a judge. This was in the time of Papa Duvalier. He had disappeared one day. Both his father and his mother. The children had all found their way out of the country. It had been hard, but the children were now all over the world and managing fine. Even their cousins had left.

But now, he said, Haitian rice farmers can’t make a living any more. They can’t compete with the price of rice imported from the US, where agriculture is heavily subsidised. When rice can be bought so cheaply, people would rather buy it than grow it themselves, so they leave the farms and go to the city. But of course there is no work in the city. People struggle, women prostitute themselves.

Yes, I said, and you and I look on from our comfortable spots and don’t know what to do. I told him my father had recently returned from Bangladesh and was struggling trying to help a woman he had made friends with there. He was helping her, but it was hard. It’s hard for one person to help another person, for a country to help another country. And for one person, like him or me, to help a country – it’s very hard to know what to do.

The kind of work my parents do makes some difference directly. The kind of work I do does not. I can only donate to local and international aid organisations, but it doesn’t feel right, or like enough.

Yes, my taxi driver said, he gives to aid organisations too. To Centraide and Jeunesse au Soleil. But they’re all local.

Yes, I said, to support international aid means donating to different organisations. And then it can be hard to know if the help being offered is really useful; for instance, free american-grown rice is even worse for farmers than cheap american-grown rice. I contribute to one that gives agricultural animals. The people who receive them must commit to breeding the animals and sharing the offspring. It sounds like a good program, though I can’t be sure of its impact in practice.

My taxi driver got very excited at the thought of country people receiving such a useful and community-minded gift as breeding animals, but pointed out that it takes so much more. There has to be water, for instance. And transportation. And fertiliser. And there has to be a market.

You know, I said, we aren’t going to solve the world’s problems parked here in your taxi. But I will shake your hand and wish you a good and happy new year, and know that your frustrations are shared.

He shook my hand, and thanked me for telling him about people who work in international aid, who travel and care. He feels better now, knowing that he isn’t alone in caring.

I feel better too, knowing that I’m not alone in my lack of direction.

Happy new year to all, and may we continue to shake hands with our neighbours and share our challenges!


* That would have been these articles:

Tuesday, July 24th, 2007

Surprise treats

Filed under: corporate life,surprises — alison @ 11:45

I was in Mississauga Monday when I discovered that I was working in Toronto Tuesday and possibly Wednesday. I sighed (ok, I fussed) and reserved a room at a good downtown Toronto hotel for Tuesday night.

To avoid traffic, and to be able to meet my counterparts before my day started to get an idea of what exactly I was expected to be doing in the Toronto office, I took my taxi in from Mississauga at 6h30 and was at my hotel before seven. They had a clean room for me right away, so I took my key and went upstairs to leave my bag.

Hotel doors have heavy springs to make sure they shut behind you every time. To get in you need to arrange your bags right behind you, unlock the door, open it and immediately turn around to hold it open with your bum, then back into the room dragging your bags. As I was backing in I heard the radio, which I thought was not quite right for this particular hotel: usually they have the television on softly – an in-house channel with wildlife – for a little light and a little company for business travellers hauling themselves in late at night. Backing past the bathroom, I noticed a towel on the floor. Turning around, I saw a naked man holding his pants in front of him. He suggested that perhaps I had the wrong room? I agreed that perhaps I did and went down to the front desk to tell them that I needed a different room and that the gentleman I had just disturbed probably needed a phone call.

For the shock and consternation they caused me, I got a free upgrade to a junior suite with a complimentary fruit basket and mini-bottle of maple syrup. I don’t know what the poor naked man got: I hope a free room next time he stays at the hotel.

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