Category Archives: Blog

Travelling While Canadian

In the autumn of 2016 I was studying at a university in central Italy. The morning after the American election, my grammar professor walked into class muttering “incubo, e un incubo!” A nightmare! It’s a nightmare. We all knew to what he was referring. Italian universities lean the same way politically as those in Toronto, New York or Middlebury, Vermont.

He kept shaking his head in horror, and asked my one American classmate, a woman from Texas, “Come ti senti?” How do you feel? I felt sorry for her, put on the spot like that, but she handled it with aplomb, admitting surprise at the result and nothing more. If our professor was hoping for an argument or confirmation of his own views, she wasn’t going to help him.

How great to travel while Canadian, I have often said, because no one knows or cares whom you elect as leader, just as no one seems to know much about your country. I was working in Japan during a Canadian federal election years ago, and not one of my highly-educated colleagues knew or cared Canada was having an election, much less who won.

What people do “know” about Canada is often inaccurate: it’s always cold everywhere (no); Canadians all have moose in their backyards (if only!); Canadians are nice (“harmless” might be a better word); English and French Canadians hate each other (those days are gone – now it’s all about indifference); Canadians are boring (“sanctimonious” might be a better word).

But things are changing, and not for the better, as I discovered on a recent trip to Ireland.

Ireland is a glorious place – my trip was in the middle of this year’s hot, bright green summer — and I travelled primarily in the counties of Cork and Kerry along the southern Atlantic coast. It was as wild and elegant and stunning as I imagined, and as friendly. People speak English in Ireland, but occasionally they use expressions one cannot decipher, even if one has read or sung “Finnegans Wake.” (I have attempted the former and accomplished the latter.) Couple that with the chattiness of nearly everyone I approached, and the simple act of asking “do you have decaf Irish coffee” or “what breed of sheep are those” could lead to confusion, which could lead to extended conversations, which often led to my being asked my nationality.

And whenever the great Canadian reveal happened, I would be met with a variation on the following: “Justin Trudeau is so cute! He’s a feminist! He’s so clever!” The power of social media added to an energetic, left-of-centre politician with Tiger Beat looks – the son of the other globally famous Canadian politician –has brought the bliss of being a Canadian abroad to a halt.

When my standard reply was, “Yes, he is cute.” Sometimes I would go out on a limb with, “Yes, he’s super cute!” I couldn’t bear to risk the crestfallen look on people’s faces if I admitted that I think his main strength is virtue-signalling or that while I feel lucky to be Canadian, I don’t share what appears to be the glowing international consensus on Canada’s leader.

And it is international – during my trip I met people from all over the world who made similar comments. A French woman got the truth out of me, though – or perhaps it was my heavy sighing, eye-rolling and nose-crinkling when Trudeau’s name was uttered that gave it away — and told me how tired she was of hearing similar praise of Emmanuel Macron. She singled out his posturing as the “gender equality” president as something that drove her particularly mad.

I too recoil at men who make a public display of caring about “women’s issues” – it reeks of condescension and protesting too much. I was in Ireland shortly after the referendum which liberalized that country’s abortion laws, and about which there was still much talk. Trudeau, woke fellow that he is, tweeted enthusiastic praise for the results – “what a moment for democracy and women’s rights!” I am pro-choice, but I found the cheering unseemly.

Fortunately, I did get some respite during my trip. It happened at a beautiful spot in Kerry – a redundancy if ever there were one – when I began chatting with a man from Kansas about our respective itineraries. We were joined by some friendly German tourists far more interested in expressing their mystification at Donald Trump than in discussing the wonders of Canada’s prime minister, or of Ireland. As in Italy, I felt bad for my midwestern acquaintance – who remained affable under bombardment – and it occurred to me that I could derail the conversation by, say, mentioning the war.

I was so relieved, though, to not be hearing odes to Justin Trudeau, that I stayed mum. Because I’m a Canadian and we’re not that nice.

V.S. Naipaul, RIP

He wrote four masterpieces: A House for Mr. Biswas; Among the Believers; Guerrillas; Miguel Street. That is many more masterpieces than many of us will write. He was, apparently, a cantankerous fellow, but what I loved most about him was this interview he gave about his kitty (oddly, the kitty is not mentioned in the headline). He understood the love of a cat. His feelings about Augustus are the feelings I had (and have) for all the cats of my life.

Thank God for the Atom Bomb

Every year at this time, I re-read Paul Fussell’s magnificent “Thank God for the atom bomb.” If you haven’t read it, you must, and if you have read it, you must read it again and again. I am so tired of the sophomoric posturing that goes on at the mention of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Harry Truman’s difficult, necessary and, yes, courageous decision.

I love this quote – it makes me think of my uncle who died at Falaise gap. 

Experience whispers that the pity is not that we used the bomb to end the Japanese war but that it wasn’t ready in time to end the German one. If only it could have been rushed into production faster and dropped at the -11- right moment on the Reich Chancellery or Berchtesgaden or Hitler’s military headquarters in East Prussia (where Colonel Stauffenberg’s July 20 bomb didn’t do the job because it wasn’t big enough), much of the Nazi hierarchy could have been pulverized immediately, saving not just the embarrassment of the Nuremberg trials but the lives of around four million Jews, Poles, Slavs, and gypsies, not to mention the lives and limbs of millions of Allied and German soldiers. If the bomb had only been ready in time, the young men of my infantry platoon would not have been so cruelly killed and wounded.

If you don’t know history (and most people don’t), learn it – a good place to start is by reading the aforelinked essay.

Die Trapp Familie

My dear regular readers know how I love The Sound of Music. Well, through the wonders of the internets I discovered another version of the true story, a German film made in 1956. If is quite good, though it lacks the magic of little Gretl and Julie Andrews and, of course, the glory that is our Canadian icon of handsomeness, Christopher Plummer. It also lacks the perfect score, though having listed many “lacks,” I still recommend it. A different tone, of course, being German, but very good nonetheless. First part below – following parts should show up in the sidebar.

Claude Lanzmann

If you haven’t seen “Shoah,” you really must. May Lanzmann rest in peace. He was harsh – he had to be.

One of the most harrowing interviews Lanzmann did was also among the briefest in Shoah — Yitzhak Zuckerman, a leader of the Jewish resistance in Warsaw, who survived Treblinka and saw untold numbers of friends and comrades die. He told Lanzmann bitterly, “if you could lick my heart, it would poison you.”

At the film’s premier, the French journalist Jean Daniel told Lanzmann: “This justifies a life.”

The emphasis is mine, and I utterly agree with Jean Daniel’s comment.

Update: please read Paul Berman’s tribute and also BHL’s.

Bernard Lewis

I’m late to post about the great scholar of the Middle East, Bernard Lewis, who passed away in May. This is a fine tribute (though there are certainly others) and in particular, Nordlinger points out that Lewis was a great friend of the Arabs. I love this:

A book by Lewis was translated into Hebrew and published by the Israeli defense ministry. The same book was translated into Arabic and published by the Muslim Brotherhood (unauthorized). In his preface to the Arabic version, the translator said, “I don’t know who this author is, but one thing about him is clear: He is either a candid friend or an honorable enemy, and in either case is one who has disdained to falsify the truth.”

I believe Lewis was one of the only academics who truly understood modern Turkey and the woes of Islam’s (and Islamism’s) relationship (such as it is) with modernity. Full disclosure: he was a friend of my Significant Other, who had him up to Toronto as a speaker on many occasions. I’ve been trying to convince him to write about Lewis, but so far, to no avail. Should that change, will let you know here.