O Canada, How Do I Love Thee?
After the interesting turn of events last fall in the United States, I, like so many others, have been looking up real estate prices in MTV, as Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver — Canada's three largest cities — are sometimes called. I am not, however, a hoser-come-lately to the charms of Canada. It is a country that has loomed large in my imagination since my family’s arrival in the United States from the Soviet Union in the 1970s. In fact, we could just as easily have come to Toronto as New York. I recall visiting my father's best friend in that city in the 1980s and being shocked by the orderliness of the large housing estate in which he lived, the relative lack of aggression, and the patient lines for fried doughy Timbits at the local Tim Hortons, to say nothing of my own desperate Manhattan urge to mug someone on the spotless subway, since these folks were obviously not going to do it for themselves.
Since then, Canada has been a place I often dream of when I find myself asleep at the keyboard. I fell in love with the work of Montreal’s late Mordecai Richler, a satirist who has influenced me as much as any other writer. I spent my 30th birthday with a dozen of my best friends at Montreal's Restaurant L'Express slurping up bone marrow, just as the rascally Barney Panofsky, the hero of Richler's masterwork "Barney's Version" (turned a few years ago into a movie starring Paul Giamatti), would have done. My wife and I were married by a justice of the peace in the Arctic town of Grise Fiord, in the territory of Nunavut, the northernmost civilian settlement in Canada and one of the coldest inhabited places on the planet. She has always felt a special closeness to Arctic and Antarctic terrains, as well as to Inuit culture, and when she suggested we get married at the far end of Canada, with just a few people in attendance, I felt a great calm come over me. The coldest spot on earth would be the perfect place to join with another human being for a lifetime. Years have passed since our nuptials, but I still can't accurately describe what happened on that trip, other than that I traveled to a brilliant northern planet where the night was as deep and dark and starry as any humanity has ever seen, and where the sun, an infrequent guest, sets entire mountain ranges of ice alight like a hazy, melancholy god paying her scattered worshippers a visit. Oh, yes, and there was also that time when I sat on a floor with a dozen villagers eating a raw caribou, with a small ax as my only implement.
And then, a few years later, in Toronto, I got into serious Canadian trouble. After judging the Scotiabank Giller Prize, Canada’s most prestigious literary award, I got drunk at a dinner and was quoted as saying that Canadian writers "didn't take the same damn risks" as writers from poorer, less culturally subsidized countries. The uproar was immediate, and soon I found myself quoted and reproached in the country's biggest newspapers. As quickly as I could, I hightailed it back to Toronto, where I duly apologized in front of a large audience at the main library and was immediately forgiven by at least some of the country's literati. I apologized on Twitter and in person to as many Canadians as possible. One reader I met told me, "You really apologize like a Canadian," which I took to be the highest order of compliment imaginable. Once again, Canada, I'm sorry.
Today, Canada is in some ways the opposite of dull or risk-averse. Montreal’s Plateau and Mile End neighborhoods are world-class incubators of hip, the latter being the birthplace of the acclaimed art-rock band Arcade Fire. As for food, I would argue that Montreal now ranks as the third-most important dining destination in North America, after New York and Mexico City. Few cities synchronize indigenous and global cuisines with such panache. The first time I was served Au Pied de Cochon's "duck in a can" — a duck breast and lobe of foie gras with thyme, garlic, and braised cabbage, cooked inside an actual can — I was gently shocked by its playfulness and informality. But Montreal is like that. The weather provides drama, the locals provide levity, and the Jews provide the world’s finest bagels — and I say that, humbly, as a Jewish New Yorker.
And Toronto, once derided as one of the world’s great boring cities, is now certified awesome. One of my favorite bars in
the world is the Communist's Daughter, at the corner of Dundas and Ossington, where one can play board games amid the Christmas lights and pretend to be the spawn of some northern Menshevik. Toronto's food is now equally spectacular, as befits a city seen by many as the most multicultural in the world. And what can I say about Vancouver, the least affordable (real estate-wise) city in Canada? It is about as Asian a place as you will find anywhere outside of Asia, and one of the most beautiful marriages of land, sea, and rain you can find outside of a writer’s caffeinated imagination.
But wait, there's more! Honestly, any place I end up in Canada is filled with quirky delight. Even Winnipeg surprised
me, with a gorgeous hotel bar (the Palm Lounge, at the perfectly named Fort Garry Hotel), the thought-provoking Canadian Museum for Human Rights, and one of the smartest audiences I’ve ever encountered during my travels as a writer, the kind that brings homemade Ukrainian Easter eggs to your reading and will gladly fix you a shot of something strong to go.
Is Canada a paradise on earth? Even Canadians will tell you that they can find their compatriots too smug, too self-satisfied. I can sort of see why they might feel that way, but I think much can be forgiven. As someone born in Russia, I know from cold — and Canada gets cold. Except for its western edges, this is no climate-blessed land, no temperate wonder like Catalonia or Australia. The whipping winds, the grip of the everlasting ice age, the quick frostbite of a walk to the car, all give Canadians leeway to be occasionally less than charming.
It is fair to acknowledge that Canada does have vast areas of darkness, including a history of racism and brutality toward its native inhabitants, the people of the First Nations. These include the Inuits my wife and I met at Grise Fiord, whose forebears were forcibly resettled to Nunavut in the 1950s from their homeland in Quebec. Many believe that this program was part of a government strategy to counter Soviet and American influence in the Arctic by planting what have been called "human flagpoles" in the region.
But these days, so many of us below the 45th parallel look north with wonder, even as large swaths of the world's population, from China to Syria to the Philippines, are realizing that their American Dream might not actually be so American after all. For them and others, Canada's secret has been revealed. Out: the wintry gloom, the images of safety and boredom, the moniker of "Toronto the Good." In: the strange experiment of bringing together the world’s brightest and often most endangered people, to a soundtrack by Arcade Fire and the additional drumbeat of a freshly shaken duck in a can.