Category Archives: Europe

FRESCH Comeback: EuroTrip 1

Last Wednesday, I came back to Montreal after a five-week trip to Spain (ES), France (FR), and Switzerland (CH). Got plenty of things to say about this trip, but I thought I’d get started with a few general comments.

Typically, my blogposts in English tend not to be about personal stuff. In this case, though my trip was a personal endeavour, it does have some impacts on things I do professionally or otherwise. In fact, there’s a level at which these things add up as an overall personal/professional development, especially since it’s been something of an important point in a fairly long transition period for me. Writing about this trip serves a dual purpose, for me, as it helps me to make sense of what this trip means in the longterm while getting me back into writing, which I haven’t done much during said trip.

Again, there are many things I’d like to say about my trip. For instance, I have a whole post planned out about my use of WiFi during this trip and I’d also like to say some things about my taking pictures in all sorts of places for all sorts of reasons. But this is more of an overview. As a teaser for these two potential posts: WiFi was both important and tricky for me; I may not be visual but I did take more than 2500 pictures in 35 days. ;-)

I’ve been drawing two main conclusions from my trip. Both are quite positive, but they come from something of a surprise flirting with disappointment. In other words, I got a lot from my stay in Europe and I’m really glad I went. But the outcome, while quite positive, didn’t match my expectations. Which has a lot to do with the role of expectations during this transition period in my life.

So, a tiny bit of context. As a kid and teenager, I used to go to Europe on a fairly regular basis. Fairly short trips, mostly to two very specific locations in Switzerland: my grandmother’s place in Montreux, VD (Territet, actually), and a house my father owned in Chalais, VS. We’d spend time in all sorts of other places, including Paris and Milan. But we mostly focused on Montreux and Chalais. These places felt like home, to me.

As most of these trips to Chalais and Montreux were separated by a few years, I grew accustomed to missing Europe. Nostalgia for all sorts of things European has been a fairly strong drive in my life, at the time. I’ve also been nostalgic of just about any place where I’ve lived in North America and Africa. But my nostalgia for Switzerland and other parts of Europe had a special place in my life.

The peak in this longing for Europe came after my only extended stay on the continent. In 1994–1995, I spent 15 months in Lausanne, working as a graduate assistant in Speech Research (doing analysis for a speech synthesis system created at a lab at Université de Lausanne). This Lausanne stint was a high point in my life and there was a clear “before/after” effect. It marked a high plateau in about nine years of happiness. It also marked the end of an era. What I felt, fairly quickly after coming back from Lausanne, wasn’t unhappiness. But it was as if I had forgotten how to be happy. That period lasted for about twelve years.

What started it was a combination of things. One was a kind of “Paradise Lost” notion, as I had a tendency to negatively compare my post-Lausanne life to what I had left behind. Silly, perhaps. But it was then difficult for me to take life for what it is.

Another factor was something I’ve associated with a “midlife crisis”, even though the timing was off by quite a few years. I was only 24, then, but I felt a number of things which are normally associated with “midlife”. Not a desire for sports cars (I don’t drive) or younger women (!). But something about a sense of accomplishment, a kind of disappointment about the “point” at which I was, in my life. Again, it sounds silly in retrospect. It hit me before I turned 25: I might have been what I wanted to be,  but I hadn’t done what I felt I should do. Again, my Lausanne life was serving as a point of comparison, as I was taking something of a “demotion” in several ways.

Another dimension which might have prepared me for this weird phase was the social and economical “climate” in Montreal, at the time. When I came back from Switzerland, the sense was that Québec had been affected by all sorts of financial and social issues for a number of years. It’s not even that the situation was worse than it had ever been. It was mostly a «marasme», a sense of longterm but relatively low-level moroseness. People I knew frequently discussed financial issues, something which seemed to be avoided by most people I had met in Switzerland. To this day, I’d say that money tends to be a taboo topic in Switzerland, which has both disadvantages and benefits. For several reasons, avoiding money-related discussions had been mostly beneficial to me personally. Coming back to Québec where money sounded like the main topic on people’s minds was difficult. Yet again, comparison between my European experience and my life in Montreal was skewed.

More on this later, as “tables have turned”, so to speak.

So, in the late 1990s, I was longing for Europe. Well, less Europe itself as the life I had there. Many things have happened since, including a short trip to Europe in 2000, but this lingering feeling remained with me until this most recent trip.

In the meantime, I was moving around quite a bit. And I do mean “moving”, as in going to live in different places, losing most any sense of geographic stability. Apart for an extended stay in Mali (a few years after a shorter trip there), all of these moves were in North America: IN, NB, MA, TX, and Qc. Some of these stays were quite short (at one point, I moved twice in the same week) and I regularly came back to Montreal. The overall notion was one of “living in boxes”, never really settling down.

Since April 2008, however, I’ve been living in Montreal. Continuously! Quite a change of pace. One way to put it is that it helped me grow back some roots. The impact this has had on my personal and professional development can hardly be overstated.

Which leads me to this transition period which provides the context for my EuroTrip. If I had something of a “midlife crisis” at age 24, I feel like I’m having the opposite at age 40. All sorts of things are either going quite well or improving significantly, in my life. And I’ve been feeling like this was a turning point in my life, one which gives quite a bit of room for decisions I’ve been making. And, really, I feel like I’m making the right decisions in my life.

These decisions were helped by personal life but also a bunch of things happening in what I consider my professional life. In terms of professional development, I feel like 2012 has already been a pivotal year, for me. There are personal dimensions to all this but the main transition has occurred through professional coaching, a learning circle, work projects, and a training workshop.

So, in most ways, my trip to Europe (my first in twelve years) was supposed to be a turning point.

And it was. Just not in the way I expected.

This is where the “FrEsCH” pun comes in. I went to Europe to “recharge my batteries”, to get a fresh perspective on things. It didn’t really happen there, though the process did start there. And it’s still going on. But I’m drawing some lessons from the experience.

The two main conclusions from my trip are part of it.

The best times I’ve had in Europe were with friends and/or family.

I spent most of my trip staying with family or friends. It’s one of my favourite ways to travel but, contrary to what some people seem to think, my main incentive isn’t financial. Sure, I would have a very different trip if I had spent money for lodging throughout. In fact, I probably wouldn’t have stayed nearly as long in Europe.

It’s not like the difference between camping and staying in hotels. It’s the difference between visiting people and visiting places. I did visit Barcelona, for instance, staying at a guest house. But that part of my trip was the least pleasurable. The lack of true human contact was a big part of this. The other legs of my trip were spent with people. These made my trip worthwhile.

Talking occupied much of that time with friends and family. All sorts of discussions about all sorts of topics. Many of these were relatively deep without getting heavy. Some of those discussions were actually quite long but short interactions were also quite interesting and pleasurable. Some of these discussions had to do with my plans or my life, but I also heard all sorts of things about all sorts of lives. I wasn’t doing any kind of fieldwork so it’s not really as an ethnographer that I enjoyed those. Part of what brought me to ethnography is an interest for these kinds of discussions and it still titillated my anthropological sense.

What’s funny is that I didn’t really expected this outcome. I thought that I’d mostly enjoy smells, sounds, sceneries, and tastes that I could only experience in Europe. Ended up enjoying contacts I could conceivably have anywhere. But context is key, as Sarine knows so well. Some of the people I saw in Europe I had also seen in North America. But it’s in Europe that I was able to really spend time with them.

A lot of this has to do with the “rhythm of life” in Europe. But that’ll be a topic for another post. For now, I want to introduce the other conclusion of my trip…

I don’t need to be in Europe to be happy.

Yep. Obvious, simple, even silly. But it seems like it took me all this time to realize this. I’m not even done, exploring the implications of this naïve realization.

At a certain level, this realization came as a sort of disappointment. A kind of “that’s it?” moment. Even more negative, what I had enjoyed so much during past trips to Europe (tastes, sights, sounds, smells…) had become much less special. I was almost blasé during important sections of my trip. I wasn’t getting the moments of intense joy for which I was anxiously waiting, over the years. But I got something else. The sense that my life in North America was fitting in a deeper way than I had assumed.

Part of this was facilitated by a sense of «marasme» I frequently noticed during my trip. Several of the people with whom I was talking, over there, gave me a similar impression to what I had in Québec in the late 1990s. A kind of slow-burning dread. Things aren’t tragic for those people I met. But there are enough people affected by social and financial issues that it sounds like it’s hard for people to be really enthusiastic. It’s not even about the future, about which some people are legitimately concerned. It’s about a stagnant pond of a present. Even with Swiss friends and relatives whom I knew to be reluctant in discussing money issues, money was addressed explicitly on several occasions and sounded like a background noise in other conversations.

Meanwhile, I get the sense here in Montreal that things are going on. Sure, there are multiple reasons to be preoccupied here as well as elsewhere. I wouldn’t even say that people here are particularly hopeful. It’s just that the tone of most conversations is more “neutral” than morose. Given my almost-pathological sense of empathy, a morose ambiance tends to affect me deeply. I don’t need euphoria, but I do need to refresh my own enthusiasm for life.

Some German Movies I Liked

I remember a discussion I had as a kid, about German culture. A normal kind of conversation, in my family. As Francophones of Québécois and Swiss origins, our perspectives on Germany were quite skewed. And that’s probably why it was fun to discuss these things, casually. I was probably ten years-old so this happened almost thirty years ago.

As far as I can remember, much of our discussion had to do with stereotypes. But I remember saying something as if it were common-knowledge yet clearly wasn’t: that Germans were “known” for great movies.

At the time, I probably hadn’t seen many German movies. Even today, I can’t really say that I’ve watched a lot of German movies. At the time, I was probably reacting from having watched or even heard of a single German movie. Come to think of it, it may even have been based on an Austrian movie I had seen something about. In other words, my statement wasn’t based on a true appreciation but on a vague impression which surprised those with whom I shared it.

Since that time, I seem to have developed an appreciation for German movies. Again, not that I’ve seen so many of them. But those I’ve watched I usually enjoyed.

Several of them came back through my mind as I was playing TRAUMA. Not that the game directly referred to any of these movies. But the game’s visuals did trigger my reminiscence.

So, a very short list of some German movies I’ve enjoyed.

  1. Lola rennt (Run Lola Run)
  2. Im Juli (In July)
  3. Der Himmel über Berlin (Wings of Desire)
  4. Erleuchtung garantiert (Enlightenment Guaranteed)
  5. Bella Martha (Mostly Martha)

Yup, just five films. Of course, I could list many more French or Québécois movies I’ve liked. Thing is, I can hardly remember another German movie. In other words, it feels as though I have never watched a German movie that I didn’t enjoy. And there are some movies I haven”t seen but that I’d probably enjoy, such as Good Bye Lenin!

Not that there’s anything specific about German movies. As a kid, I probably believed in a sort of “national character” but my training in anthropology got it out of me before I watched most of these movies. But it doesn’t mean that there’s nothing common between those movies. Or that I’m not constructing my own “reading” of German movies on these few examples.

For one thing, it’s quite likely that German movies which are released outside of Germany have some specific features. Chances are, there are plenty of movies in Germany which never get released outside and these may differ quite a lot from what I recognize a German movie to be. After all, I’m not including in my short list the variety of movies in which Germans were involved through coproduction. And all of these movies are about some place in Germany, the same way stereotypical Irish songs (those created in North America) have to do with places in Ireland.

So I end up with a skewed, fragmentary, and artificial view of German movies from just a few examples. What’s funny about it is that, based on my experience with TRAUMA (as well as with a few German TV shows), my bias continues to affect my perception of other German productions.

Had I not been trained in anthropology, I might not perceive the severe limits of my views on German culture. In fact, because German Romanticism has been so important in the history of my discipline, my limited experience of filmic Germany clashes with different encounters with the complexities behind German identity and cultural awareness.

Maybe it just means that I should go spend a little while in Germany. I hear they have good beer. ;-)

A Glocal Network of City-States?

This one should probably be in a fictive mode, maybe even in a science-fiction genre. In fact, I’m reconnecting with literature after a long hiatus and now would be an interesting time to start writing fiction. But I’ll still start this as one of those  ”ramblings” blogposts that I tend to build or which tend to come to me.

The reason this should be fiction is that it might sound exceedingly naïve, especially for a social scientist. I tend to “throw ideas out there” and see what sticks to other ideas, but this broad idea about which I’ve been thinking for a while may sound rather crazy, quaint, unsophisticated.

See, while my academic background is rather solid, I don’t have formal training in political science. In fact, I’ve frequently avoided several academic activities related to political science as a discipline. Or to journalism as a discipline. Part of my reluctance to involve myself in academic activities related political science relates to my reaction to journalism. The connection may not seem obvious to everyone but I see political science as a discipline in the same frame, and participating in the same worldview, as what I find problematic in journalism.

The simplest way to contextualize this connection is the (“modern”) notion of the “Nation-State.” That context involves me personally. As an anthropologist, as a post-modernist, as a “dual citizen” of two countries, as a folklorist, as a North American with a relatively salient European background, as a “citizen of the World,” and as a member of a community which has switched in part from a “nationalist” movement to other notions of statehood. Simply put: I sincerely think that the notion of a “Nation-State” is outdated and that it will (whether it should or not) give way to other social constructs.

A candidate to replace the conceptual apparatus of the “Nation-State” is both global and local, both post-modern and ancient: a glocal network of city-states (GNoCS).

Yes, I know, it sounds awkward. No, I’m not saying that things would necessarily be better in a post-national world. And I have no idea when this shift from the “nation-states” frame to a network of city-states may happen. But I sincerely think that it could happen. And that it could happen rather quickly.

Not that the shift would be so radical as to obliterate the notion of “nation-state” overnight. In this case, I’m closer to Foucault’s épistémè than to Kuhn’s paradigm. After all, while the “Democratic Nation-State” model is global, former social structures are still present around the Globe and the very notion of a “Nation-State” takes different values in different parts of the world. What I envision has less to do with the linear view of history than with a perspective in which different currents of social change interact with one another over time, evoking shifts in polarity for those who hold a binary perspective on social issues.

I started “working on” this post four months ago. I was just taking some notes in a blog draft, in view of a blogpost, instead of simply keeping general notes, as I tend to do. This post remained on my mind and I’ve been accumulating different threads which can connect to my basic idea. I now realize that this blogpost will be more of a placeholder for further thinking than a “milestone” in my reflection on the topic. My reluctance to publish this blog entry had as much to do with an idiosyncratic sense of prudence as with time-management or any other issue. In other words, I was wary of sticking my neck out. Which might explain why this post is so personal as compared to most of my posts in English.

As uninformed as I may seem of the minutiae of national era political science, I happen to think that there’s a lot of groupthink involved in the way several people describe political systems. For instance, there’s a strong tendency for certain people, journalists especially, to “count countries.” With relatively few exceptions (especially those which have to do with specific international institutions like the United Nations or the “G20″) the number of countries involved in an event only has superficial significance. Demographic discrepancies between these national entities, not tio mention a certain degree of diversity in their social structures or even government apparatus, makes “counting countries” appear quite misleading, especially when the issue has to do with, say, social dynamics or geography. It sounds at times like people have a vague “political map of the World” in their heads and that this image preempts other approaches to global diversity. This may sound like a defensive stance on my part, as I try to position myself as “perhaps crazy but not more than others are.” But the issue goes deeper. In fact, it seems that “countries” are so ingrained  in some people’s minds and political borders are so obvious that local and regional issues are perceived as micro-version of what happens at the “national level.” This image doesn’t seem so strange when we talk about partisan politics but it appears quite inappropriate when we talk about a broad range of other subjects, from epidemiology to climate change, from online communication to geology, from language to religion.

An initial spark in my thinking about several of these issues came during Beverly Stoeltje‘s interdisciplinary Ph.D. seminar on nationalism at Indiana University Bloomington, back in 2000. Not only was this seminar edifying on many levels, but it represented a kind of epiphany moment in my reflections on not only nationalism itself (with related issues of patriotism, colonialism, and citizenship) but on a range of social issues and changes.

My initial “realization” was on the significance of the shift from Groulx-style French-Canadian nationalism to what Lévesque called «souveraineté-association» (“sovereignty-association”) and which served as the basis for the Quebec sovereignty movement.

While this all connects to well-known issues in political science and while it may (again) sound exceedingly naïve, I mean it in a very specific way which, I think, many people who discuss Quebec’s political history may rarely visit. As with other shifts about which I think, I don’t envision the one from French-Canadian nationalism (FCN) to Quebec sovereignty movement (QSM) to be radical or complete. But it was significant and broad-reaching.

Regardless of Lévesque’s personal view on nationalism (a relatively recent television series on his life had it that he became anti-nationalist after a visit to concentration camps), the very idea that there may exist a social movement oriented toward sovereignty outside of the nationalist logic seems quite important to me personally. The fact that this movement may only be represented in partisan politics as nationalism complicates the issue and may explain a certain confusion in terms of the range of Quebec’s current social movements. In other words, the fact that anti-nationalists are consistently lumped together with nationalists in the public (and journalistic) eye makes it difficult to discuss post-nationalism in this part of the Globe.

But Quebec’s history is only central to my thinking because I was born and Montreal and grew up through the Quiet Revolution. My reflections on a post-national shift are hopefully broader than historical events in a tiny part of the Globe.

In fact, my initial attempt at drafting this blogpost came after I attended a talk by Satoshi Ikeda entitled The Global Financial Crisis and the End of Neoliberalism. (November 27, 2008, Concordia University, SGW H-1125-12; found thanks to Twistory). My main idea at this point was that part of the solution to global problems were local.

But I was also thinking about The Internet.

Contrary to what technological determinists tend to say, the ‘Net isn’t changing things as much as it is part of a broad set of changes. In other words, the global communication network we now know as the Internet is embedded in historical contexts, not the ultimate cause of History. At the risk of replacing technological determinism with social determinism, one might point out that the ‘Net existed (both technologically and institutionally) long before its use became widespread. Those of us who observed a large influx of people online during the early to mid-1990s might even think that social changes were more significant in making the ‘Net what it is today than any “immanent” feature of the network as it was in, say, 1991.

Still, my thinking about the ‘Net has to do with the post-national shift. The ‘Net won’t cause the shift to new social and political structures. But it’s likely to “play a part” in that shift, to be prominently places as we move into a post-national reality.

There’s a number of practical and legal issues with a wide range of online activities which make it clear that the ‘Net fits more in a global structure than in an “international” one. Examples I have in mind include issues of copyright, broadcast rights, “national content,” and access to information, not to mention the online setting for some grassroots movements and the notion of “Internet citizenry.” In all of these cases, “Globalization” expands much beyond trade and currency-based economy.

Then, there’s the notion of “glocalization.” Every time I use the term “glocal,” I point out how “ugly” it is. The term hasn’t gained any currency (AFAICT) but I keep thinking that the concept can generate something interesting. What I personally have in mind is a movement away from national structures into both a globally connected world and a more local significance. The whole “Think Local, Act Global” idea (which I mostly encountered as “Think Global, Drink Local” as a motto). “Despite” the ‘Net, location still matters. But many people are also global-looking.

All of this is part of the setup for some of my reflections on a GNoCS. A kind of prelude/prologue. While my basic idea is very much a “pie in the sky,” I do have more precise notions about what the future may look like and the conditions in which some social changes might happen. At this point, I realize that these thoughts will be part of future blogposts, including some which might be closer to science-fiction than to this type semi- (or pseudo-) scholarly rambling.

But I might still flesh out a few notes.

Demographically, cities may matter more now than ever as the majority of the Globe’s population is urban. At least, the continued urbanization trend may fit well with a city-focused post-national model.

Some metropolitan areas have become so large as to connect with one another, constituting a kind of urban continuum. Contrary to boundaries between “nation-states,” divisions between cities can be quite blurry. In fact, a same location can be connected to dispersed centres of activity and people living in the same place can participate in more than one local sphere. Rotterdam-Amsterdam, Tokyo-Kyoto, Boston-NYC…

Somewhat counterintuitvely, urban areas tend to work relatively as the source of solutions to problems in the natural environment. For instance, some mayors have taken a lead in terms of environmental initiatives, not waiting for their national governments. And such issues as public transportations represent core competencies for municipal governments.

While transborder political entities like the European Union (EU), the African Union (AU), and the North American Free-Trade Agreement (NAFTA) are enmeshed in the national logic, they fit well with notions of globalized decentralization. As the mayor of a small Swiss town was saying on the event of Switzerland’s official 700th anniversary, we can think about «l’Europe des régions» (“Europe of regions”), beyond national borders.

Speaking of Switzerland, the confederacy/confederation model fits rather well with a network structure, perhaps more than with the idea of a “nation-state.” It also seems to go well with some forms of participatory democracy (as opposed to representative democracy). Not to mean that Switzerland or any other confederation/confederacy works as a participatory democracy. But these notions can help situate this GNoCS.

While relatively rare and unimportant “on the World Stage,” micro-states and micro-nations represent interesting cases in view of post-nationalist entities. For one thing, they may help dispel the belief that any political apart from the “nation-state” is a “reversal” to feudalism or even (Greek) Antiquity. The very existence of those entities which are “the exceptions to the rule” make it possible to “think outside of the national box.”

Demographically at the opposite end of the spectrum from microstates and micronations, the notion of a China-India union (or even a collaboration between China, India, Brazil, and Russia) may sound crazy in the current state of national politics but it would go well with a restructuring of the Globe, especially if this “New World Order” goes beyond currency-based trade.

Speaking of currency, the notion of the International Monetary Fund having its own currency is quite striking as a sign of a major shift from the “nation-state” logic. Of course, the IMF is embedded in “national” structures, but it can shift the focus away from “individual countries.”

The very notion of “democracy” has been on many lips, over the years. Now may be the time to pay more than lipservice to a notion of “Global Democracy,” which would transcend national boundaries (and give equal rights to all people across the Globe). Chances are that representative democracy may still dominate but a network structure connecting a large number of localized entities can also fit in other systems including participatory democracy, consensus culture, republicanism, and even the models of relatively egalitarian systems that some cultural anthropologists have been constructing over the years.

I still have all sorts of notes about examples and issues related to this notion of a GNoCS. But that will do for now.

Café à la québécoise

J’ai récemment publié un très long billet sur la scène du café à Montréal. Sans doûte à cause de sa longueur, ce billet ne semble pas avoir les effets escomptés. J’ai donc décidé de republier ce billet, section par section. Ce billet est la troisième section après l’introduction et une section sur les cafés italiens de Montréal. Cette section se concentre sur une certaine spécificité québécoise de la scène montréalaise du café.

La scène du café à Montréal comporte plusieurs autres institutions qui ne correspondent pas vraiment à l’image du café italien. Certains de ces endroits peuvent même servir de base à la «Renaissance du café à Montréal».

Dans l’ensemble, je dirais que ces cafés sont typiquement québécois. Pas que ces cafés soient vraiment exclusifs au Québec mais il y a quelque-chose de reconnaissable dans ces cafés qui me fait penser au goût québécois pour le café.

Comme les intellos de Montréal ont longtemps eu tendance à s’identifier à la France, certains de ces cafés ont une tendance française, voire parisienne. Pas qu’on y sert des larges bols de “café au lait” (à base de café filtre) accompagnés de pain sec. Mais le breuvage de base ressemble plus au café français qu’au café italien.

D’après moi, la référence à la France a eu beaucoup d’influence sur la perception des cafés montréalais par des gens de l’extérieur. Pour une large part, cette référence était plutôt une question d’ambiance qu’une question de caractéristiques gustatives et olfactives précises. Dans un café montréalais, des Nord-Américains ayant passé du temps en France pouvaient se «rappeler l’Europe». La Rive-Gauche à l’Ouest de l’Atlantique.

Pour revenir au mode «mémoires», je pense tout d’abord à la Brûlerie Saint-Denis comme institution montréalaise de ce type. Vers la fin de mon adolescence, c’est par l’entremise de la compagne de mon frère (qui y travaillait) que j’ai connu la Brûlerie. À l’époque, il s’agissait d’un café isolé (au cœur du Plateau, qui n’était pas encore si «chromé») et non d’une chaîne avec des succursales dispersées. Ce dont je me rappelle est assez représentatif d’une certaine spécificité québécoise: un «allongé» de qualité.

L’allongé (ou «espresso allongé») n’est pas exclusif au Québec mais c’est peut-être le breuvage le plus représentatif d’un goût québécois pour le café.

En Amérique du Nord, hors du Québec, l’allongé a généralement mauvaise réputation. Selon plusieurs, il s’agit d’une surextraction de l’espresso. Avec la même quantité de café moulu que pour un espresso à l’italienne d’une once, on produit un café de deux onces ou plus en laissant l’eau passer dans le café. «Toute chose étant égale par ailleurs», une telle surextraction amène dans la tasse des goûts considérés peu agréables, comme une trop grande amertume, voire de l’astringence. En même temps, la quantité de liquide dans la tasse implique une dillution extrême et on s’attend à un café «aqueux», peu goûteux.

Pourtant, je me rappelle de multiples allongés, presque tous dégustés au Québec, qui étaient savoureux sans être astringents. Selon toute logique, ce doit être parce que la mouture du café et le mélange de grains de café ont été adaptés à la réalisation d’un allongé de qualité. Ce qui implique certaines choses pour l’«espresso serré» (ou «espresso court», donc non-allongé) s’il est réalisé avec la même mouture et le même mélange. Même à Montréal, il est rare d’avoir dans le même café un excellent espresso court et un excellent allongé.

Mais parmi les Montréalais amateurs de café, l’allongé «a la cote» et les cafés montréalais typiques font généralement un bon allongé.

Selon mon souvenir, l’allongé de la Brûlerie Saint-Denis était de qualité. J’ai eu de moins bonnes expériences à la Brûlerie depuis que l’entreprise a ouvert d’autres succursales, mais c’est peut-être un hasard.

Une autre institution de la scène montréalaise du café, situé sur le Plateau comme la Brûlerie Saint-Denis à l’origine, c’est le café Aux Deux Marie. Le Deux Marie aujourd’hui ressemble beaucoup à mon souvenir de la Brûlerie Saint-Denis. Comme à la Brûlerie, j’y ai bu des allongés de qualité. C’est au Deux Marie que j’ai découvert certains «breuvages de spécialité» (“specialty drinks”, comme les appelle le World Barista Championship). Ces breuvages, à base d’espresso, contiennent des fruits, des épices, du chocolat et d’autres ingrédients. Si je me rappelle bien, la Brûlerie fait le même genre de breuvage mais je ne me rappelle pas en avoir remarqué, il y a une vingtaine d’années.

Il y a plusieurs autres «cafés à la québécoise». Dans les institutions connues, il y a La Petite Ardoise (tout près d’Outremont, sur Laurier). C’est d’ailleurs mon premier lieu de travail puisque j’y ai été plongeur, à la fin du secondaire (1988-9). C’est un «café bistro terrasse» assez typique de la scène culinaire montréalaise. Le cappuccino et l’allongé étaient très populaires (si je me rappelle bien, on les appelait «capp» et «all», respectivement). Et je me rappelle distinctement d’une cliente d’un autre café s’enquérir de la présence du «mélange de la Petite Ardoise». Honnêtement, je n’ai aucune idée sur ce que ce mélange comprenait ni sur la maison de torréfaction qui le produisait. Ma mémoire olfactive conserve la trace du «café de la Petite», surtout que le café était la seule chose que je pouvais consommer gratuitement quand j’y travaillais. La dernière fois que j’ai bu un café à La Petite Ardoise, il a titillé ma mémoire gustative mais je crois quand même qu’il a beaucoup changé, au cours des vingt dernières années.

Une autre institution typique, le Santropol (qui est aussi connu pour ses sandwiches et tisanes). Il y a quelques années, le Santropol a commencé à torréfier du café à large échelle et leurs cafés sont désormais disponibles dans les épiceries. Mon souvenir du café au Santropol se mêle à l’image du restaurant lui-même mais je crois me rappeler qu’il était assez représentatif du café à la québécoise.

Il y a plusieurs autres endroit que j’aurais tendance à mettre dans la catégorie «café à la québécoise», depuis La Petite Patrie jusqu’à Westmount, en passant par Villeray et Saint-Henri. Mais l’idée de base est surtout de décrire un type d’endroit. Il y a une question d’ambiance qui entre en ligne de compte mais, du côté du goût du café, la qualité de l’allongé est probablement le facteur le plus déterminant.

Ce qui surprend les plus les amateurs de café (surtout ceux qui ne sont pas nés à Montréal), c’est de savoir que j’ai dégusté des allongés de qualité dans un café de la chaîne Café Dépôt. Pour être honnête, j’étais moi-même surpris, la première fois. En général, les chaînes ont énormément de difficulté à faire du café de très haute qualité, surtout si on considère la nécessité de fournir toutes les succursales avec le même café. Mais je suis retourné à la même succursale de Café Dépôt et, à plusieurs reprises, j’ai pu boire un allongé qui correspond à mes goûts. D’ailleurs, j’aurais dit la même chose de certains cafés dégustés à une succursale de la chaîne Van Houtte. Mais c’était il y a plus de dix ans et Van Houtte semble avoir beaucoup changé depuis.

Café à la montréalaise

Montréal est en passe de (re)devenir une destination pour le café. Mieux encore, la «Renaissance du café à Montréal» risque d’avoir des conséquences bénéfiques pour l’ensemble du milieu culinaire de la métropole québécoise.

Cette thèse peut sembler personnelle et je n’entends pas la proposer de façon dogmatique. Mais en me mêlant au milieu du café à Montréal, j’ai accumulé un certain nombre d’impressions qu’il me ferait plaisir de partager. Il y a même de la «pensée magique» dans tout ça en ce sens qu’il me semble plus facile de rebâtir la scène montréalaise du café si nous avons une idée assez juste de ce qui constitue la spécificité montréalaise.

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Finally! A Drinking Age Debate

This may be more significant than people seem to assume: university and college administrators in the United States are discussing the potential effects of reverting the drinking age back to the age of maturity in their country (18 years-old). This Amethyst Initiative (blog), which was launched last month, may represent a turning point in not only alcohol policy but campus life in the United States.

This “story” has started to go around recently. And it happens to be one I care about. Read about this on Tuesday, while doing some random browsing.

College presidents seek drinking age debate – Life-

And it’s coming back as a source of jokes:

College Presidents Rethinking Drinking Age | The Onion – America’s Finest News Source.

Though I may be a big fan of humour, I really hope that people can also take this issue seriously. For some reason, people in the United States tend to react to alcohol-related discussions with (possibly uneasy) humour. Fair enough, but there’s clearly a need for dispassionate, thoughtful, and serious discussion about the effects of current laws or the potential effects of new laws.

I have a lot of things to say about the issue but I’lll try to RERO it.

Now, obviously, the media coverage is typical “wedge issue” journalism. Which might well be working. In a way, I don’t care so much about the outcome of this journalistic coverage.

What I do care about, though, is that people may start discussing the social implications of alcohol prohibitions. It’s a much larger issue than the legal drinking age in the United States. I sincerely hope that it will be addressed, thanks in part to these administrators at well-known academic institutions.

Possibly the best person to talk about this is Indiana University’s Ruth Engs, professor of Applied Health Science. Engs has written extensively on the health effects of alcohol, with a special emphasis on the negative effects of the raised legal drinking age in the United States. She also has fascinating things to say about cultural dimensions of alcohol consumption, which happens to be a topic that I have been exploring on my own.

According to Engs, discussion of responsible drinking are quite rare in public events related to alcohol research in the United States. I personally get the impression that responsible drinking has become a taboo subject in those contexts. I certainly noticed this while living (as full-time faculty) on a “dry campus.”

It’s no secret that I care about responsible drinking. Part of this might have to do with the Éduc’alcool message which has been engrained in Quebeckers over the years: «la modération a bien meilleur goût» (“responsible drinking is more tasteful”). My strong impression is that at least some of those who wish for the drinking age in the United States to remain high share the opinion that, for adults, responsible drinking is more appropriate than binge drinking. They may think that any type of alcohol consumption has negative effects, but it’d be quite surprising if they actually preferred binge drinking over responsible drinking.

Where we seem to disagree is on the most effective strategies to reach the goal of responsible drinking among adults. IMHO, there is at the very least strong anecdotal evidence to show that increasing legal drinking age does very little to encourage responsible drinking. Unfortunately, with issues such as these, there’s a strong tendency for advocates of any position to dig for data supporting their claims. Stephen Jay Gould called this “advocacy masquerading as objectivity.” I may care strongly about the issue but I’m not really taking sides. After all, we’re talking about a country in which I’ve lived but in which I don’t have citizenship.

Let’s call a spade a “spade.” What’s at stake here is the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984, which was pushed by the MADD lobby group (Mothers Against Drunk Driving). With all due respect to people involved in MADD and similar anti-alcohol advocacy groups, I have strong reservations as to some of their actions.

As a group, MADD is a “textbook example” of what sociologist Howard Becker has called “moral entrepreneurs.” In the United States, these moral entrepreneurs seem to be linked to what Ruth Engs calls clean living movements. What’s funny is that, though these movements may be linked to puritanism, Puritans themselves did use alcohol in their diet. So much so that the Mayflower landed in Plymouth Rock partly because of beer.

There’s a lot to say about this. From diverse perspectives. For instance, libertarians surely have interesting points about the NMDAA’s effects on state laws. Health researchers may talk about the difficulty of alcoholism prevention when responsible drinking is left undiscussed. Teetotalers and Muslims may see this as an opportunity to encourage complete abstinence from drinking. Road safety specialists may have important points to make about diverse ways to prevent drunk driving. Law researchers may warn us about the dangers to the legal system inherent to laws which are systematically broken by the majority of the population. Border officers may have some interesting data as to the “alcohol tourism” related to college drinking. University and college students clearly have diverse approaches to the subject, contrary to what the media coverage (especially the visuals used) seem to indicate.

My own perspective is quite specific. As a very responsible drinker. As a Quebecker of recent European origin. As a compulsive pedestrian. As an ethnographer interested in craft beer culture in North America. As a homebrewer. And, more importantly, as a university instructor who, like Barrett Seaman, has noticed widely different situations on university campuses in the United States and Canada.

Simply put, it seems quite likely that widespread binge drinking on university campuses has originated on U.S. campuses since 1984 and that the trend is currently spilling over to affect some campuses outside of the United States. College binge drinking is not a global problem. Nor is it a problem entirely specific to the United States. But the influence of U.S. college and university campus culture in other parts of the world often comes with binge drinking.

Apart from the fact that I find binge drinking to be extremely detrimental to physical and mental health, my observation is about campus life in general. AFAICT, on university and college campuses where alcohol consumption by a significant proportion of the student population is illegal, illicit alcohol consumption pushes younger students outside of the broader campus life. This self-segregation makes for a very uncomfortable learning and teaching context. In other words, the fact that students hide in fraternity houses or off-campus locations to binge drink may have the same socialization effects as regular campus life elsewhere on the planet, but the isolation of these people is a net loss in terms of generating an academic environment which is nurturing and tolerant.

To be clear: I’m not saying that the legal drinking age in the United States needs, of necessity,  be brought back to 18 years-old as it was in several States until fairly recently. I’m not even saying that States should necessarily be allowed to set their own drinking age laws. I simply wish for this debate on legal drinking age to happen. Actually, I hope that there will be real, thoughtful dialogue on the issue.

Really, it’s the tasteful thing to do.

Defending Quebec's Cegep System

Disclaimer: So far, I’ve taught at six universities and one college in Indiana, Massachusetts, New Brunswick, and Quebec. In Quebec, I’ve taught at Montreal’s Université de Montréal (French-speaking) and Concordia University (English-speaking). This entry is mostly about my teaching experience in Montreal in contrast to my teaching experience in the MidWest and Northeast regions of the United States. Having spent some time in Mali, Switzerland, and France, I do realise that many education systems outside of Canada and the U.S. work pretty much like Quebec’s.

It’s partly my bias as a Québécois, I’m sure. Or it’s the weather. Yet I can’t help but being amazed at how well-prepared my students at both Concordia University and Université de Montréal have been, so far. Though personal characteristics could conceivably play a part, I usually see my Quebec students’ preparedness in relation to the Cegep system that we have here in Quebec.

“So,” I hear you ask, “what is the Cegep system anyway?” Well, it’s the educational system that we have, here in Quebec. It includes Cegeps.


Yeah, I know. ;-)

“Cegep” or “CEGEP” (pronounced “sea-jep” or “say-jep”) is a Quebec French acronym which stands for «Collège d’enseignement général et professionnel» (“College of General and Professional Education”). A Cegep is a post-secondary institution («Collège») which serves both as a comprehensive («Général») transitional period between secondary school and university as well as vocational («Professionnel») training («Enseignement») in fields like nursing, robotics, or computer science. People in the U.S. could think of it as a blend of a vocational school, a community college, a prep school, a continuing education program, and a two-year liberal arts college. A Cegep’s degree («diplôme d’études collégiales» or “DEC,” pronounced “deck”) can be compared with things like the French «baccalauréat» or the Swiss «maturité», but less Euro-hierarchical. (Please note that «baccalauréat» (or «bacc.», pronounced “back”) is used in Quebec to refer to the bachelor’s degree.)

Though I haven’t been in direct contact with many Cegep students for quite a while, I find the Cegep system to be one of the best features of the Quebec education system.

Of course, I tend to idealise things a fair bit and I know many people whose opinion of the Cegep system is much less enthusiastic than mine. Still, through both informal and formal discussions with many university students and faculty in Canada, France, Switzerland, and the United States, my positive perspective on the Cegep system keeps being reinforced.

One reason this issue keeps being relevant is that provincial politicians, school board administrators, and some other members of Quebec society occasionally attack the Cegep system for different reasons. On the other hand, I have yet to meet a university professor who has very negative things to say about the Cegep system. They might come out with this blog entry, but it would take a fair bit to get me, as a university instructor, to see Cegeps in very negative a light.

Cegeps were an effect of Quebec’s Quiet Revolution (late 1960s through the 1970s). They’re a somewhat recent phenomenon, so we can’t really see all of their social effects, but have existed for long enough a period of intense social change that they have really taken roots in the fabric of Quebec culture. (I love mixing metaphors! ;-) )

I’m a little bit unclear as to whether or not the requirements have remained the same since my own time as a music student at Cégep Saint-Laurent (1989-1991), but here’s a description in the present tense of how Cegeps worked when I went to one almost twenty years ago. All Quebeckers younger than 21 who wish to go to a university in Quebec need to complete at least two years’ worth of Cegep courses after secondary school (grades 7-11, here). “Professional” (vocational) programs last three years and also work for university requirements if a Cegep graduate wants to go to a university. For those 21 or older, life experience usually counts as equivalent to the Cegep requirement for applying to Quebec universities (at least, that’s the way it was, way back when). Even then, most university applicants go through Cegep even if they are old enough to enter a university program without a DEC as Cegep is an efficient way to prepare for university. Many programs at Quebec universities use representations of Cegep grades (kind of like a normalised GPA) as admission criteria. It wasn’t the case for my B.Sc. in anthropology at Université de Montréal (1991-1994). Unlike the United States where standardised tests are so common, Quebec students don’t take SAT-like general exams before going to university. To an extent, comprehensive training in a Cegep achieves some of the same goals as SAT scores do in the United States.

As far as I know, non-Quebec students need to go through specific requirements before they can begin a Bachelor’s degree at a Quebec university (B.A. and B.S. programs usually last three years, here). I’m not really clear on the details but it implies that even non-Cegep students are specifically prepared to go to university.

Even with students who never went to Cegep, the existence of Cegeps makes a large difference in the Quebec education system as it raises the bar for university behaviour. In Quebec, the kinds of mistakes college students tend to make in their “college years” in the U.S. are supposed to have been done during Cegep years in Quebec. So Quebec’s university students are less likely to make them

Unlike pupils in secondary schools, Cegep students enter a specific study program. On paper, course requirements in a typical Cegep program look quite a bit like freshman and sophomore requirements at a North American university or college outside of Quebec. Students choose their own courses (possibly with an advisor, I can’t remember) and usually get a fair bit of “free” time. At Saint-Laurent, my weekly scheduled only included 15 hours of classes but I also had 15 hours of Big Band rehearsal every week and would usually spend thirty hours of individual instrument practise as well as thirty hours of study every week. Yes, that was a bit much but I feel it really prepared me for an academic career. ;-)

The equivalent of “General Education Requirements” in Cegeps include philosophy and physical education courses. The philosophy courses are quite basic but they still prepare students to think about issues which tend to be very important in academic contexts. And, at least in the courses I’ve had at Saint-Laurent, we did read primary texts from important thinkers, like the complete text of Nietzsche’s Zur Genealogie der Moral (translated into French).

As compared to most North American universities, Cegeps charge almost nothing. When I was at Saint-Laurent, we had administrative fees of about $80 and no tuition fees. It has probably changed since that time, but I’m quite sure Cegep fees are nothing like the outrageous tuition fees paid by college and university students in many parts of the United States. What this means to students is that the financial cost of a Cegep program is fairly minimal. Of course, there are many costs associated with going through school during that time. For one thing, a good proportion of Cegep students live in appartments, which can be fairly expensive. And it’s difficult to work full-time while doing a Cegep degree. But, as compared to the typical situation in the U.S., the stakes in dropping a Cegep program or switching to a new one are low enough that students use this time as an opportunity to get to know what they want to do with their lives.

In other words, Cegep students who may look like they’re “wasting their time” are going through the period of socialisation associated with late adolescence in different parts of the world. If, as is quite common, they find out that they don’t necessarily want to get a university degree or that their original degree program was nothing like they planned, they still got something out of their Cegep experience at little cost. Given the functioning costs of universities, such shifts in learning orientation carry very high social and individual costs if they happen in universities. “Wasting” a DEC in Natural Sciences by then moving on to become an artist is nothing as compared to dropping a pre-Med degree to join the Peace Corps. In cases where public funding to universities is important, the difference is extremely significant, socially.

For many people, Cegep is in fact a way to experience student life to see if they like it. As painful as it may be for some academics and prestige-hungry parents to learn, many people don’t really want to spend that many years (and that much money) as college/university students. In fact, there are those brilliant students who, one day, realise that they just want to learn on their own while working as, say, a cashier at a university cafeteria. My guess is that social pressure and diploma prestige are the only reasons such people ever go through post-secondary education in the first place. I also feel that they should have a right to choose the life that they want. You know: “Pursuit of Happiness” and all of that…

As some would be quick to point out, there are some people who spend years and years in Cegeps, unsuccessfully looking for the perfect program for them, and end up working at low-paying jobs all their lives. These may sound like lost souls but I really think that they are more likely to contribute to society as a whole than the equivalent long-term “undecided majors” in U.S. universities.

Because Cegeps’ individual costs are relatively low, Cegep students often do experiment a lot with courses in different fields. It may seem like a stretch but my hunch is that this experimental tendency might be one of the reasons is so productive in creative domains like musical productions and circus shows. If it weren’t for Cegeps, I would never have spent two years of my life in intensive training as a musician. I already (since age 13) that I wanted to become an anthropologist and my DEC in music wasn’t necessary for anything I ever did. But it greatly enhanced my life more than many university programs ever do.

Cegeps often count significant numbers of what U.S. college people tend to call “non-traditional students” (older than the “typical” post-K-12 undergrad). These include fascinating people like mature women who are getting a Cegep degree as part of a life-changing experience (say, after a divorce). Because of this, the average age in a Cegep can be higher than in the typical U.S. graduate school. It also means that Cegep students coming directly from secondary schools are getting accustomed to interacting with people whose life experience may involve parenthood, career development, and long-term personal relationships.

For diverse reasons, Cegeps are the locus of most of the active student movements in Quebec, some of which have led to important strikes and other forms of student protest. Student strikes have had a deep impact in Quebec’s recent history. Not that students have forced long-lasting policy changes by themselves but many members of recent generations of Quebeckers have gotten a taste for political involvement through student protest. Though I was living in Indiana at the time (2004-2005), I have seen important effects of the most recent student strike on some dimensions of Quebec society. At the time, around 200 000 Quebec students went on strike in protest of the provincial government’s changes to the financial aid system. At one point, 100 000 students had taken to the streets to march as part of the student movement. The government eventually backed down on the changes it was implementing and people still talk about the effects of this strike. It is likely that the strike will not have any effect on any specific political party and political scientists would probably say that the strike failed to produce a “political class.” Yet, and this is an important point, the target of the strike wasn’t a political party but a perceived discrepancy between the ideals of two generations. In my personal opinion, such a social movement is much more important than partisan politics. In such a context, it isn’t surprising to see many young Quebeckers become social activists, may it be for environmental causes or to fight some global inequalities. They become like this in Cegeps. Since the majority of secondary school students eventually go to Cegeps, this social involvement has nothing to do with the elitism of “Revolutions” of the early nationalist era. Cegep students are the perfect example of individualistic (one would say «libertaire») social engagement.

Not only are Cegep students socially involved but they are usually considered to be socially mature.

Quite significantly, many young adults in Quebec learn how to drink by the time they finish Cegep. Drinking age is 18 here and people usually start Cegep at age 17. As has been happening in different parts of the world for the longest time, cafés and bars around Cegep and university campuses tend to be important meeting space for students. Coffee is the drink of choice for many students during the day but alcoholic drinks (including craft beer, nowadays) bring students together for long discussions in the evening and nights. Because student alcohol consumption is widely accepted, students never feel the need to hide in residence halls or “greek houses” to enjoy each other’s company.

In such a context, it’s easy to understand why university students in Quebec are very generally seen as responsible adults. In the U.S., I’ve heard both students and professors describe university students of any age as “kids,” a term I find very symptomatic of tricky educational and academic issues. As I see universities as a place to do serious academic work and not as a place for parents to drop their kids until they grow up, I have many reasons to support Quebec’s Cegep system or anything which may achieve the same results. :-)