On Good Days

“On Good Days” is the winner of the 2014 carte blanche/CNFC competition for creative nonfiction.

On good days I’m Gertrude Stein

On bad days I’m Mordecai Richler.

On good days it is the same sun that shone on Gertrude Stein that shines on me. On good days I fling open my shutters and shout, “Quelle belle journée!” and with my basket on my arm I wander as Alice B. Toklas did, from shop to shop in a delightful quartier.

In my delightful quartier I buy 200 grams of goat cheese from les Îles de la Madeleine. Artisanal cheese made from raw milk. Milk from goats who eat the grass that grows on the slopes of those northeastern shores. Grass cured by the Atlantic’s salty breezes. Cheese that tastes of the sea. This is what goes into my basket. On good days I hesitate between not one, not two, but four crusty white baguettes, all baked locally and according to the highest culinary standards. Just like on la rive gauche. Le pain, le pain, surtout le pain.

By Steven Lewis

Photo by Steven Lewis

In spring I select the first and freshest têtes de violon and wash them down with mason jars of eau d’érable. Autumn and I explore a full variety of champignons – golden chanterelle, black morel, pleurote – each one of them the edible fungal spawn of les fôrets boréales. In summer I choose the chocolate covered bleuets du lac Saint-Jean; plump and juicy purple monks enrobed in dark chocolate cassocks. Winter and I indulge my guilty pleasure. Gertrude would understand. She enjoyed Miss Toklas’s pot brownies, after all. I prefer a large poutine pour emporter. A greasy mass of fried potatoes, cheese curds and gravy. Le plat national. The only thing guaranteed to keep the snow and cold at bay, Mon pays ce n’est pas un pays, c’est l’hiver.

On bad days it is the same bitter wind blowing down St. Urbain Street that knocked poor  Mordecai around. On bad days I complain because I cannot find the olive oil, matzo-meal, licorice or organic orange juice I like. On bad days when I ask I’m told that the company does not comply with the language laws. When the packages were inspected it seems there was not an adequate percentage of French displayed. Or the French was inaccurate. Or the letters were not big enough. On bad days I can’t remember how to say cinnamon or ground meat or chocolate chips in French and no one understands. On bad days I am in a hurry and I’m frustrated and I just want everything to be easy like it is when you live in a place where asking when will it be available doesn’t require consulting a goddamn grammar book. On bad days I remember Mordecai and how he said it didn’t used to be this way.

On good days I laugh out loud because just saying, J’aimerais avoir sounds like music to my ears. On good days I can’t resist tapping my feet when I pass the man on the street in front of Ogilvy’s who plays wooden spoons and sings “V’là le bon vent,” and other old French Canadian tunes. On good days there is a Veillée and I can go and hold hands with strangers and spin and turn and dance to the music of les Québécois – songs that sing with resilience and faith and joy.

On bad days I want to hear poetry in the language I learned first and not the mangled functionality of what it is in this place. I crave three syllables, complete sentences and complex metaphoric allusions. On bad days I close the door of my classroom in the private language school where I teach and warn my students that if they really want to learn the language of kings they must escape to Ontario, British Columbia, anywhere else, before this city wraps itself around their throats and drags them down.

On good days my rez-de-chaussée shotgun apartment is a glittering salon just like it was  at Gertrude and Alice’s on rue de Fleuras. Artists of all kinds. Painters, poets, actors, musicians who’ve come like me to be a part of this. On good days we buy beer and wine at the dépanneur and drink it while we listen to a slide guitar that plays the music we love best: Blues, Country, Soul. We sing along to the words of Woody Guthrie and Ralph Stanley and Ray Charles. On good days we raise our glasses because this music has no history here but it has taken root nonetheless, in tiny bars, backrooms, church basements, and living rooms. Just like all the other exiles and dreamers. Just like us.

On bad days I talk about Bill 101 as though it is a bully with a bludgeon and not a collection of words democratically passed into law. On bad days I talk about the ones who’ve gone away like it is a litany of the dead. I remember Ann who went to Emily Carr in Vancouver, and Jonathan who got a job in Toronto, and Kathy who went to Alberta because yes, they make the dirty oil, but have you seen how much money they give writers? And isn’t it better to live to write, than not to write at all?

On good days, I marvel at my children and the way they effortlessly swim between two languages. There is no separation in their brains there is only a flowing river of words, as though la Seine and the mighty Thames are intertwined – – the way Lake Ontario intermingles with the fleuve Saint-Laurent. On good days I speak to my children in any language that comes to me, in every language where I have two words to rub together. Allons-y, Andiamo, Vamonos, Come on. And magically they obey. On good days I love the way this city’s languages pour into me, the way they poured into Gertrude,  consonants, diphthongs and liasons like sweet surprises exploding my mouth.

On bad days I worry because my children will never learn Shakespeare at school. They will never go every year in a bus to Stratford. They will never see the finest actors in the world howl and spit in velvet and brocade. They will never memorize a soliloquy in English. They will never find themselves before an open window in the spring and call out just because it seems so right, “Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?”

On bad days I wonder if it’s because she simultaneously learned two languages that my eight-year-old has not yet mastered the past participle. On bad days I believe my neighbours when they tell me that eventually my girls will feel closer to the culture of this place than to the culture of their mother’s tongue.

On good days I am so grateful to live in a city where everyone wants to learn English and they can’t do it for free.

On bad days I watch commercials on TV that proclaim, “Ici je travaille en français,’ and I am afraid. I worry that one day they will make teaching modals, and the past continuous, and phrasal verbs in English illegal. On bad days I remember the counselor at Emploi Québec who told me I should go back to Ontario where my university degrees would be worth something. On bad days I wonder if I’ll have to go to London like Mordecai did if I ever want anyone to pay me what I’m worth.

On good days I tell strangers how I birthed my children in French even though the midwife spoke fluent English. On good days I impress anyone who will listen with my extensive knowledge of French vocabulary related to female genitalia and pain. On good days I am just like Gertrude and Alice, with their lexicon of second language words powerful enough to navigate them through life and death.

On bad days my mother-in-law calls in tears because her husband is in the hospital and she doesn’t know how to tell the orderly to bring the bedpan. On bad days there is no one to translate and she prays that the night nurse speaks some English. On bad days I wake up hearing Mordecai telling me, “I told you so.”

On good days I sing, “Il y a longtemps que je t’aime, Jamais, jamais je ne t’oublierai,” as I walk my girls to school. On good days it doesn’t matter that I can’t remember what a rossignol is in English because the melody sounds right and we can all sing it together and we all know the words.

On bad days no one at my children’s school talks about any other holidays except the Christian ones and the posters that the ministry commissioned to promote diversity show Asian children with slits for eyes and Black children with big red lips and nappy hair. On bad days Jen tells me her daughter came home with two black dots on her hand and said her teacher did it to all the Anglophones when they got caught talking to each other in English and next time the teacher said she was going to put a black dot on their foreheads in indelible ink. On bad days it is against the law to have any religious icon in a school or on your head but it’s okay to have a six-foot Christmas tree and a baby Jesus on every floor. On bad days the word nationalism means we have to keep our mouths shut and do what they say.

On good days the students who wear red squares and take to the streets because they think that education should be free inspire me. On good days I believe that it is different here. On good days I think that it’s possible to build a nation that respects everyone. A nation that understands how it feels to be the other. A nation for me, and Gertrude, and Alice, and even Mordecai.

On bad days the man in the shoe repair shop asks, “Where are you from?” And when I say Montreal he shakes his head.

“No, where are you from?”

And I know he means that I do not belong here. That somehow my skin and hair and eyes and name have given me away. On bad days the man in the shoe repair won’t give up. He asks and asks until I reveal the truth. On bad days I see the word Jew reflected in his eyes and I see something there that my parents thought they could protect me from.

On good days this city is my desire.

On bad days this city is my despair.

On good days I’m Gertrude Stein

On bad days I’m Mordecai Richler.

You can find B.A. Markus's stories in literary journals and anthologies, she has written and performed her one act plays across Canada, and she teaches English and History to high school students in Montreal.