Lying abed one Saturday morning scanning the travel section of the Globe and Mail, I spotted a story about people going to Paris to study French. That’s something I’d always wanted to do, and so I went on the web to see what I might find. Alliance Francaise looked like my best bet. Its offerings included a one-month “intensif” French course. Its seductive invitation: “Vous apprendez le francase a Paris.” How could I turn that down?
A little background. I’ve studied French on and off for years, but never with much discipline, nor with the opportunity to use what little I’d learned. Deborah speaks French from having worked there on leaving school, but there was no way I could keep up with her. The fact I want to write a book with a French setting – one I’ve been researching for years – gives me added motivation. So I made the decision to go to Paris. With Deb’s enthusiastic support, I’m delighted to add.
I signed up for the course and for the housing arrangement that Alliance Francaise offers. It’s a great deal – a month of classes five afternoons a week, plus breakfast and dinner with a French host. All for less than $100 a day Canadian. My hosts, in an interesting neighborhood on the right bank, are Michel, a security engineer, and Violette, un avocat.
Apprehensions? I had plenty. Would I be able to keep up with the bright young kids that I’d undoubtedly be thrown in with? Can an old guy like me learn something new? Did I have the energy to make it to school every day – plus enjoy at least a few of the delights Paris has to offer?
Now that I’m about to start my fourth and final week, I can answer “oui” to all of the above. My class is largely mid-30s to 40s adults, with just a few youngsters added in. Many are immigrants to France – from Turkey, Poland, Bulgaria and other European countries. Cleber, a Brazilian bar tender. Liliani, a pretty Cuban dancer. Tjouba, a Turkish book editor. Robert Blake, an American writer-illustrator whose wife has been posted to Paris by Nissan. He’s sold over four million of his children’s books. Our youngest student, an 18-year-old Australian girl. And a bright young Italian man who is studying science po, speaks pretty good English, wants to be a politician. At break, he grabs our professor’s computer and throws up You Tube videos of soccer games and Latin rock. That’s what set Liliani and Yolande to dancing, as you see here. We have fun, and we learn.
And our teacher? Mademoiselle la professeur, Sarah. Bright, vibrant, tres francaise! Also, pregnant, and wants the world to know it.
Of course, one of the delights of being in Paris is the food. And no more expensive than back home — sometimes less so. Amusing sight: Standing outside a restaurant at noon, waiting for it to open (along with a half dozen others) I saw a motorcyclist arrive, park on the sidewalk, and go to the door. Producing a key, he opened it, took off his helmet, and became the matrie ‘d! A gracious one, too, and host of un bon restaurant grec.
How’m I getting along? Conjugations, nouns masculine et feminine, verbes falling out of my Bescherelle, pluriel and singular, dance in my head all night long. I think I’m doing okay, better on written French than aural. That’s fine, as my main interest is in reading French for research. But it’s great to travel around Paris and be mistaken for a native!
When I visited Paris with Deborah last year we had a very pleasant dinner at La Ferme Saint-Simon, on a little street just off blvd. St-Germain, of course on the Left bank. So naturally, I went back there Saturday night, having first reserved online. La Ferme is one of those stand-by French restaurant, not great, not horribly expensive, but a place that very much gives you the feel of the country. I chose Souris d’agneau brisee. What can one say? braised lamb is braised lamb. The glass of Chablis was a reward for being there. (I happen to think that dish for dish, Lyon and Brussels serve better food than Paris.)
When one dines alone, one must try to compensate by closing observing the neighboring diners. Two men at nearby tables with their ladies intrigued me. One, a balding, bespectacled fellow wearing a jacket, sweater, shirt and tie, stood out from the rest of the men in the room, most of them dressed ultra-casually. This man did something I’ve not seen in years. He drew from his pocket a cloth handkerchief and dabbed at his face. I didn’t know they made those things anymore! I put him down for a retired insurance company adjuster, perhaps a throwback to the ancien bourgeoisie. The other gentlemen looked precisely like a Quebec politician, now dead, who I once knew. Genes do tell.
Forgive me if I sound touristy, but all travelers have to walk, eat, sleep and see the sights. I did my gawking in the morning when, true to my research needs, I wandered along Quai d’Orsay to a stark five-story sandstone building on rue Saint-Dominique that now houses the Ministry of Defense. It is where Gen. Charles de Gaulle had his office before the German occupation, and to which he returned on Liberation Day to find not a thing out of place. On the way, I encountered one of those delights for which Paris is so famous – a tiny square called Place Samuel Rousseau (I think this Rousseau was a composer), behind which stands the Basilica of Saint Clotilde. Enjoy the picture!
Two touristy encounters: A new dodge is for street people (Algerians, apparently) to bend over a few feet from you and feign picking up a gold ring. It happened twice to me. The first time, the woman pretended it would not fit her, then offered it to me. Next, she asked for coffee money. I gave her a few coins but declined the ring, which she quickly pocketed. A little later, a young man tried the same thing.
Alliance Francaise handled my registration with dispatch, and I soon possessed a “student” card which will give me entry to a month of French classes starting Monday (Oct. 1). This is the real reason for my trip to Paris – to fulfill a long denied ambition to better speak and read French as an aid to my tesearch for various projects.
Also on Monday, I’ll be buying my month’s pass on the Metro for 62 Euros ($80), compared to the $115 the TTC charges Toronto commuters. Before that, I’ll find my way to the 12th Arrondisement where I’ll be staying with a French couple, the Lefis, for the extent of my visit. More later.
Watching the drama unfold over the protests of Quebec students against higher tuition fees, I’ve come to the conclusion they’re wrong on only one count: they should be demanding not just a freeze on fees. They should be demanding the abolition of university tuition entirely, On top of that, students should get paid to go to university. The benefits to society of an educated populace are so great that the cost of educating our young people is insignificant in comparison.
Before you conclude that I’ve gone over the top, consider these facts:
Excluding the random acts of violence that have occurred (never acceptable in a law-abiding society), Quebec students have been resolute and proper in their resistance to their government’s intention to raise tuition. Their opposition is based, in part, on a historic decision made by the Jean Lesage government during the 1960s Quiet Revolution. Quebec had just come off a repressive, church-ridden regime where barely half the population had achieved even Grade 6. To advance beyond third world status, Quebec realized it had to rear a generation of educated, competent, and productive young people able to compete in every aspect of business, science, and the arts.
While Quebec’s decision to hike tuition fees by $254 a year over seven years seems reasonable — especially when compared to the higher fees of other provinces — such a decision represents a backward step.
The argument against the students is that they must give up their “entitlement” to low-cost post-secondary education. I would argue that rather than young people having an entitlement to an affordable education, they actually bear an obligation to educate themselves for tomorrow’s increasingly technical and complex world. Doesn’t every politician praise the benefits of education, putting an “educated work force” among the top priorities of Canada or any other country? And if that’s so, isn’t it to society’s advantage to see that every individual is educated to the extent of their capabilities?
Quebec has funded its modest — up to now — university tuition fees with a tax structure that is the heaviest in Canada. People have been paying for the benefits they’ve enjoyed. That’s the way it should be.
While doing research for my forthcoming book on Joey Smallwood, the first premier of Newfoundland and Canada’s last “Father of Confederation,” (Joey Smallwood, Schemer and Dreamer) I found out more about how he had not only abolished tuition in the 1960s, but for a time actually paid students to go to university. Both schemes had to be abandoned in the face of financial pressures Newfoundland faced as a “have-not” province. But ever since, Newfoundland has managed to keep its tuition fees the second-lowest in the country, next to Quebec.
Only North America and Australia force their young people to pay a king’s ransom for an education. It puts them in debt for at least the first ten years of their working life. Today, these debt-burdened students begin their work careers facing uncertain job prospects, sky-high housing costs, and devastating government cutbacks in social benefits. They’ll have to work longer to retire on less. What a horrible legacy we’re handing them, all for the sake of a conservative economic agenda calculated to benefit the rich with tax reductions and reward corporations (owned mostly by higher income Canadians) with larger subsidies and lower taxes.
Most European countries charge only modest enrollment fees for university registration: 165 euros in France ($214); 500 euros ($650) in Belgium, 1,000 euros ($1300) in Germany, about the same in Holland and Italy. Britain maxes out tuition at 3,145 pounds ($5032). EU countries must limit their deficits to 3 per cent of GDP — the failure of Greece to do so is what’s behind the current euro crisis. It will be overcome, but that’s another story.
While Canadians bemoan the advantages Quebec students enjoy, they should look to their own provincial governments and ask why they haven’t done better in facing up to the task of preparing the country for the future. Today, the booming resource revenues of the West primarily involve the transfer of public wealth to private hands as a result of absurdly low exploration fees and royalties. The proceeds of these non-renewable resources should be directed more to the public good and less to private gain. Why did the last but one Conservative premier of Alberta have to back off from his efforts to charge higher royalties to the oil industry, an attempt that played a big part in Ed Stelmach’s having to resign as Premier?
Equally damning is the counter-productive tactic adopted by the Charest government to try to quiet the student protest. Opening the way to cost-cutting in universities by having students share in budget decisions means only one thing: that money will be pried out of essential budgets like research to fund tuition costs. This approach ducks the really important issue — that of adequate funding for all university operations.
Ontario is equally culpable for having forced universities to raise tuition, followed in turn by reductions in provincial support. In my days as a trustee of a Toronto School Board, I learned that the prospect of being able to go to university is one of the strongest motivations for students to stay in school.
Canada has the capability to maintain one of the world’s best educational systems. It is one that should be open to all who can meet a demanding standard of academic quality. Abolishing tuition and paying students to educate themselves may seem like a utopian fantasy, but the countries that pursue this goal are the ones that will lead the world tomorrow.
The verdict, when it came on a quiet Sunday afternoon, was not unexpected; Guilty of first degree murder. Mohammad Shafia, his second wife, Tooba Mohammad Yahya, and their son, Hamed Shafia, guilty on all four counts in the deaths of the three Shafia girls and Mohammad’s first wife of a polygamous marriage, Rona Amir Mohammad.
I had passed by the Frontenac County Court house in Kingston, Ontario, many times during the trial. Tempted as I was to observe part of the trial, I did not. The thought of seeing the accused in their glass enclosed dock, and hearing the evidence of the horrific killing of the four victims, left me chilled. I had no professional need to observe their demeanor or to hear the evidence first-hand.
The verdict brings to a close a tragic and troubling three-month trial that has no precedent in Canadian judicial history. That a mother, father and a brother, in Canada by virtue of this country’s open acceptance of people from around the world, would act on cultural/religious concepts that are reprehensible to Canadians, is a betrayal of the very principles under which they were allowed to come among us.
The concept of “honour killing” to avenge the immodest or unchaste behavior of female family members — and thereby clear the “honour” of the male heads of the family — is an entrenched fact among certain Muslim societies. That the Shafia family came from Afghanistan (via Australia and Dubai) is especially ironic when set against the sacrifice of Canadian and other Western soldiers in support of equality and human rights in their home country.
Mr. Justice Maranger, in imposing the mandatory sentence of 25 years without eligibility for parole, commented powerfully on their acts:
“It is difficult to conceive of a more despicable, more heinous crime…the apparent reason behind these cold-blooded, shameful murders was that the four completely innocent victims offended your completely twisted concept of honour … that has absolutely no place in any civilized society.”
There is every indication that the vast majority of Muslims in Canada would support the verdict. Yet there remains a refusal, among certain Canadian elements as well as some strands of the Muslim community, to accept the unique nature of the acts that led to the deaths of four innocent females.
Their reasoning goes something like this; The crimes, while appalling, are really no different from any other acts of violence against women. “Don’t call them honour killings,” goes this refrain.
The words of Mohammad Shafia put the lie to this specious reasoning.
“They betrayed us immensely,” the police tapes of a conversation between Shafia and his wife show him saying. “They violated us immensely. There can be no betrayal, no treachery, no violation more than this. They betrayed Islam, they betrayed our religion and creed, they betrayed everything. They brought about their rightful deaths.”
Shafia must have been thinking of Verse 4-34 of the Koran:
“Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because Allah has given the one more strength than the other, and because they support them from their means … As to those women on whose part you fear disloyalty and ill-conduct, admonish them (first), (next) refuse to share their beds (and last) beat them (lightly.)”
Knowing how the Christian Bible can be interpreted in so may different and often conflicting ways, it is not surprising that these words would be taken by some to justify murderous acts against female family members.
Yet there is hope in this horror.
Once again, we see evidence of the powerful effect of freedom on people brought from oppressive societies. Zainab, who was 19, Sahar at 17, and especially the rebellious Geeti, just 13, had all been exposed to Western values, and all had eagerly embraced the universal desire for freedom and self-expression. Even “sad, doomed, betrayed Rona,” at 52, sought the protection of Western values.
The hope is that the yearning for freedom among girls and women all over the world will someday put an end to the evil distortions of culture and tradition that bring about such crimes as honour killings. We hope the deaths of Zainab, Sahar, Geeti and Rona, have not been entirely in vain.
The ability to foresee an age before it unfolds is a rare insight given to few mortals. One such person was Marshall McLuhan, and Thursday, July 19th, marks the 100th anniversary of his birth. A day to stop and measure the man.
Michael Valpy has done so in this excellent article in the Globe and Mail. He observes that the communications oracle, renowned during the 1960s when few understood what he was talking about, is seldom thought of today when we can all appreciate, with hindsight, what he meant when he spoke of the “global village” and “the medium is the message.”
I feel privileged to have known Marshall McLuhan, who died on Dec. 31, 1980, at the early age of 69. He’d suffered from a brain tumor for nearly twenty years, something that often led him to eccentric statements that undermined the reputation he had built up with his early works, such as The Mechanical Bride, The Gutenberg Galaxy, and Understanding Media.
My sharpest memory of the man is from the evening in the late 60s when he spoke to a meeting of Canadian Sigma Delta Chi, the journalistic fraternity. I was president of the Canadian branch at the time. It was a unfortgettable occasion to be in the presence of this brilliant man (I was never his student).
The most memorable statement I recall McLuhan ever having made dealt with something that would become familiar to us all as the Internet — almost thirty years before the advent of this new communications technology.
“Why do we buck traffic jams to get to the office every day?” he asked. “It’s because of the files, they’re all down at the office. But we could all access these at home, by broadband. Why don’t we do it?”
When we opened the new office of Argyle Communications on Bloor Street in Toronto in 1995, I got the idea of dedicating our boardroom to McLuhan’s memory. Son Eric McLuhan kindly facilitated a gift we made in his memory to the McLuhan Centre for Culture and Technology at the University of Toronto, and we duly christened the room which bore on one wall an impressive photo of the man.Pretty cool!
Here’s an old CBC-TV clip from those days:
Brave new electronic world
Would Marshall McLuhan have been distressed at the closing of the second-largest book store chain in the United States? The decision by Borders to shutter its 399 stores, laying off 10,000 employees, sounds as yet another echo of the death knell of the book. After spending months in bankruptcy, and failing to turn up a buyer, there was apparently no other choice than to shut down the stores.
Poor decision-making by Borders management was a factor in the closing. The company ignored the impact of the E-Book on its business. While Barnes and Noble and, in Canada, Chapters Indigo were promoting their own E-Book readers, and Apple’s IPad was winning millions of converts, Borders stood still. It missed the opportunity to make up, via E-Book sales, the revenue being lost from the declining sale of hard copy books.
How to get a book review
English Lissa Evans has found a clever way to ask for her book to be reviewed. See it here.
Last word of a TV journalist
They’re saying it’s “gone viral” — the WordPress blog by former CTV journalist Kai Nagata on why he quit his job. A litany of unhappy conclusions on what it means to be in the TV news racket these days. You can read it here.
Update: Murdoch drops BSkyB bid.
Rupert Murdoch’s problems with the News of the World and his bid to buy the rest of British Sky Broadcasting (BSkyB) are but the latest examples of how media barons are inclined to overreach themselves. Their frenetic efforts to grow ever bigger often lead not just to excess, but to collapse.
Examples include Robert Maxwell, the Czech-born British publishing tycoon who died, apparently a suicide, by falling from his yacht while cruising off the Canary islands. He’d risen from poverty to become the lord of the London Daily and Sunday Mirror, the New York Daily News, and the publisher Macmillan. After his death it was revealed he’d looted the company pension plan for money to shore up the shares of his company.
The exploits of Canada’s own Lord Black are well-known. He lost Hollinger International, which included the London Telegraph, the Jerusalem Post, and a chain of Canadian papers including his start-up, the National Post. In September, he’ll go back to jail to finish his prison term for fraud and obstruction of justice.
One of the biggest media barons of all was William Randolph Hearst, whose newspaper, magazine and broadcasting empire ruled American society and politics through much of the first half of the 20th century. Most famously remembered for his role in promoting the Spanish-American War of 1898, his early life has been chronicled by Ken Whyte, the first editor of Black’s National Post, in The Uncrowned King (Random House Canada). Today’s Hearst Corp. is still a force in American media, although incomparably less influential than during Hearst’s lifetime.
Interest in Rupert Murdoch is of course sparked by the scandal over his late and unlamented News of the World. This episode is turning out to be as damaging to the British political establishment as it is to Murdoch’s hopes of expanding his empire by the full acquisition of the UK’s most profitable satellite broadcasting service. It reveals a society of craven political operatives in both the Conservative and Labor parties who begged at Murdoch’s knees for his support.
Because the current Prime Minster David Cameron won that support, and even hired a former News editor as his spokesperson, he’s the one who is in almost as much trouble as Murdoch. It’s no surprise that Cameron is backing a Labor party motion urging Murdoch to withdraw his BSkyB takeover proposal.
Ever the resourceful player, Murdoch has taken some desperate steps to protect his interests. He’s opted for a longer review of his take-over bid by the UK Competition Commission. This means a closer examination, but also one that gains time for the current scandal to die away. And he’s set aside 5 billion pounds to buy back NewsCorp shares, thereby strengthening their market value; this may help to quiet a group of dissident shareholders.
For all of Murdoch’s embarrassments, his biggest problem could be these same shareholders. A group has sued his NewsCorp, accusing it of large-scale governance failures that allowed the phone hacking scandal in the first place. It was unhappy shareholders, one should recall, who triggered the events leading to Lord Black’s downfall.
The seasoned American writer Michael Wolff dissects Murdoch’s life and personality in The Man Who Owns the News (Broadway Books). Murdoch, an Australian, has for years been the pre-eminent global media baron, with operations all over the world. His American properties include the Wall Street Journal and the tabloid New York Post, plus FoxTV. He would probably be in Canada but for our legislation which prevents foreign media ownership.
It was Murdoch’s acquisition of the venerable London Times, Wolff writes, “that turned him from a vulgarian operating at the margins of the business into, well, a threat to truth.” In America, Wolff adds, his take-over of the Wall Street Journal “is the ultimate fuck-you to the people who have always believed they embody respectability.”
The B.C. Supreme Court is in the final stages of its hearing to determine whether Canada’s ban on polygamy is an infringement of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
You can follow the proceedings live in what is a first for Canadian courts, at this link.
There’s an unusual cast of characters in this drama, ranging from the two fundamentalist Mormons who ran rival sects at the B.C. community of Bountiful, to the provincial government, anti-polygamy movements, and the B.C. Civil Liberties Association.
Charges against Winston Blackmore and James Oler were stayed when a court found the B.C. had been “prosecutor shopping” before finding someone willing to press charges.The government then asked the B.C. Supreme Court to decide whether Canada’s anti-polygamy law violates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. An official statement from provincial attorney general Mike de Jong read: “Until Canadians and the justice system have clarity about the constitutionality of our polygamy laws, all provinces, including ours, face a lengthy and costly legal process in prosecuting alleged offences.”
I’ve written on this issue for The National Post. My perspective is that of someone who grew up in the adjoining community of Creston and saw the sect first take root there.
A reading of Daphne Branham’s book, The Secret Lives of Saints (Random House) will eliminate any doubts you may have about the devastating consequences of religious polygamy on its innocent victims. She has an amazing story in the Vancouver Sun today on the trafficking of young girls between B.C. and the United States.
Eight out of ten Canadians favor enforcement of the anti-polygamy law, according to public opinion surveys. I share that view. Allowing exploitation and brain washing of young people by any religion is bad enough, but it’s worse when the result is a lifetime of subjugation and child-bearing for girls as young as fourteen.
Surprisingly, the B.C. Civil Liberties Association opposes the present ban, but admits polygamy can and does cause harm. But it’s no worse than the harm that can come from monogamous relationships, they say.
I wonder. How many conventional relationships are based on a dictate to produce as many children as you can, by as many wives as you can garner, in order to occupy the highest rank next to god in heaven?
The Civil Liberties argument reminds me of the gun lobby and their cry – “guns don’t kill people. people kill people.”
The current hearing can have only one rational outcome – to reaffirm the present ban. Polygamy shouldn’t fly.