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07.02.2004

Canada Day

Yesterday was Canada Day, a holiday the Québecois celebrate by moving out of their apartments. Long-time readers may remember a post about moving day (and the attendant conspiracy theories) last year, long before I knew that I'd be happily living here myself. So at least I was prepared for the fact that the real 'national' celebration takes place on St. Jean Baptiste, the 24th of June.

As luck would have it, I had to be in Vermont on that day, and missed not only the partying but also a perfect excuse to have my first dish of poutine, Québec's culinary gift to the world. Canada Day seemed like the only reasonable alternative (a boy wants his first poutine to be special), so on the morning of July 1 I headed down to St. Henri, where reliable sources said the most pristine poutine could be found.

For those who don't know, poutine is a combination of cheese curds, brown gravy, and french fries, invented forty years ago. The hot gravy melts the cheese curds, which consolidate with the fries to form a gooey mass that it is very difficult to photograph in a remotely appetizing way. Even in real life, poutine looks like a food that has already made several false starts through the digestive system. Whether for this reason, or because of its powerful ability to absorb and retain alcohol, it is frequently eaten after a heavy night's drinking.

I was eating it sober, and under the watchful eye of a native (NEVER swim or eat poutine alone), so it was a great relief to find out that the stuff was delicious. The cheese curds did indeed melt and pull the dish together into one gooey mass, although the French fries stayed crispy enough to be individually discernible in the collective, giving the dish a pleasing light crunch. The brown gravy was turpid and dark, with a sturdy tannin structure supporting notes of oak, wood smoke, spice, aniseed and musk. There was the faintest hint of chocolate and raspberry in the finish, though that may have reflected a previous use of the serving dish. In the nose, the poutine was beefy and slightly insolent - I detected an almost wanton playfulness, the evanescent flavors frolicking together like young beavers in a Gaspé pond at dusk - but in the mouth it opened to reveal a velvety (or perhaps Velveeta-like) smoothness that tenaciously clung to every membrane in my mouth, esophagus, and stomach for the next three hours. Small wonder that food is renowned for its ability to enhance heavy drinking. The aftertaste was rich, dense, and interminable, returning to say hello at various times in the afternoon from its rock-hard, baseball-sized headquarters in my stomach.

Feeling seriously overnourished, I walked back from my poutine encounter on foot, ducking under awnings once in a while to avoid the strange, sunlit downpours dropping from a quickly moving weather front. It was nearing four in the afternoon, and I was growing increasingly apprehensive, knowing that even as I walked, the climactic soccer game between Greece and the Czech Republic was drawing to a close.

I am not ordinarily a sports fan, but on that day you could not find a more ardent supporter of the Czech national team than myself. What united our aspirations wasn't just the shared Slavic heritage or fondness for dumplings, but rather the certitude that a Greek victory would turn my life into a steaming hellpit. All over my neighborhood there were cars draped with Greek flags, fueled up, ready to tear off at a moment's notice and begin the all-night honking frenzy that every Greek fan had been fantasizing about for days.

In every bar and café I passed on my route, I could see rooms full of tense, quiet spectators, with the televised score resolutely stuck at '0-0'. At St. Laurent and Sherbrooke, the Czechs were firmly in control and attacking. At St. Laurent and Rachel, the Czechs had the ball and nearly made a shot from a throw-in. Near Villeneuve, I saw the Greek goalie go down in a performance worthy of Sophocles, clutching a nonexistent wound to buy some time for his defense to rest. At St. Viateur I stopped and watched the last fifteen minutes of regular time from the outside of a packed café, with my face pressed against the window. Over and over again, the Czechs would attack, and each time the Greek defense would manage to stave off disaster.

I left during the interval, passed by the supermarket to buy some dinner supplies, and then stopped in at the Greek bar near my house to see whether extra time had started. The bar was overflowing with men paying the rigid, unsmiling, intense kind of attention I associate with strip clubs. Nine minutes had passed since the start of extra time, no one had scored, the Czechs were still attacking. My feet were sore and couldn't stand the suspense any longer - I walked up to my apartment and sat down to rest.

Five minutes later, I heard it.

hooooonk!

Oh, shit.

HOOOOONK

HONKA HONKA beepbeepbeepbeep HWAAA!

The Greeks had won. And now every resident of Montreal with even a drop of ouzo in his blood wrapped himself in a Greek flag, jumped into a car, and joined the long queue of vehicles waiting to honk directly in front of my apartment. The prospect of a nap (I had walked ten miles for poutine) suddenly seemed remote. So did the prospect of sleep - my apartment is almost directly above a Greek restaurant, and far into the night most passing cars felt obliged to salute the happy diners by leaning on the horn for the space of two blocks. A neighbor who snapped before I did had begun shouting incoherently at the passing cars - I heard one or two respond "Nobody minds except you!!" while I gritted my teeth in silence and tried to muster the courage to begin throwing eggs.

A little after midnight I went for a walk, since sleep was impossible. A car was parked diagonally across the right lane in front of the Greek restaurant. One passenger had stepped out and was doing a Greek dance in the left hand lane, as the diners and restaurant staff slow-clapped along. "Opa!" they cried, every time he managed to slap his foot with his hand. The car and dancer together had completely blocked a bus and two lanes of traffic, but this didn't seem to affect the performance. The bus and non-Greek traffic soon found a way around the obstacle by veering into the oncoming lane, while the Greek cars stayed and honked their approval. After a few more cycles of red/green, the dancer and his driver got called over to the restaurant with calls of "retsina!". They drank down their complimentary beverage and sped off, honking. The next car in line pulled over, and soon there was an orderly drive-up beverage queue in place. Honk if you love free booze!

In my last post I joked about a possible showdown between Greece and Israel, but I should have known better. What now looms is the far darker spectre of a final between the Greeks and the Portuguese, whose neighborhood starts just a block or so away. The only result that would not unleash an orgy of honking would be some kind of seismic event (oh please, oh please) that splits the ground open and swallows both teams whole shortly after the kickoff. Otherwise, the cars of the winning nationality will get drunk and race around the neighborhood honking, while the fans of the losing nationality will get drunk and inflict some kind of mayhem on the winners. I don't know what will happen to the drivers who mysteriously flew both Portuguese and Greek flags out of their car windows in the last round.

Trial honking has already begun. I can hear the cars calibrating themselves, emitting soft little 'toot-toots' as they drive past with miniature Greek or Portuguese flags waving out the window. The waiters downstairs have been smiling all day. Fresh cylinders of meat have been set out to rotate. Tomorrow we reap the whirlwind.

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