By Ross Murray
Why’d you have to give it such a soundbite of a title: Two Solitudes? God knows I love a good book title.
I’m sure Love in the Time of Cholera would never have become such a classic if it had been called Look Who’s Cramping! But you, Hugh, you had to pick a title that would become the go-to phrase for all those people who ponder the essence of Canada (and by “all those people” I mean “Canadians”).
Not only has it been overused, it’s been misused. The original sense, in a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke, was one of union, not separation:
Love consists in this,
That two solitudes protect and
Touch and greet each other.
A beautiful sentiment, but inadvisable during cholera season.
I’ve never thought of Quebec and the rest of Canada – or even the French and the English – as fully isolated entities. If we were truly two solitudes then we’d be able to get away from each other occasionally. Canada and the Ukraine, now there are two solitudes. Me and the gym: two solitudes. But French Canada and English Canada are stuck with each other, one influencing the other even when it’s not immediately obvious.
Basement mould fumes
I recently returned from visiting my parents, which is always a bit disorienting, and not just because of the mould fumes wafting from the basement. Going home, I’m jolted out of the notion that I came into this world fully formed, like Venus emerging from the waves, or in my case, wise guy emerging from the SAQ.
Instead, I hear myself in my brother’s voice or see myself in my mother’s salad tongs (she keeps them real shiny!). It’s disconcerting, like hearing a recording of yourself and saying, “I don’t sound like that, do I? And honestly, officer, I had no idea those men were Ukrainian crime lords.”
Time spent together with my siblings means dealing with their irritating quirks, like the infuriating way they remind me of how many irritating quirks I have. Yet, despite much covert eye-rolling and passive-aggressive sarcasm, this is my family and I would do anything for them.
Canada’s English and French communities are rather like siblings, and, like it or not, Quebec is the French sibling’s house; it said so in Mom and Dad’s will. English Quebecers, even though we were raised in this house and know where all the shut-off valves are and what makes that creaky noise at night and which neighbours to avoid (yes, I’m looking at you, New Brunswick!), we’re really not much more than glorified houseguests.
“You’re welcome to stay as long as you want,” the French sibling says, “but there are some rules…”
“You’re not the boss of me!” the English sibling complains. “This house is stupid! If you need me, I’ll be in my room watching reruns of ‘Trailer Park Boys.’”
“C’est quoi ca? Moi, je regarde un rediffusion de ‘Les Bougon’ ici.”
They drive each other crazy, they’re stubborn, they fight over the silliest flag-related things, they do horrible imitations behind heach hudder’s back. The French sibling keeps grumbling about the time the English sibling beat him up. “For God’s sake, that was ages ago! Get over it!” the English sibling replies. Sometimes it’s like they’re not even speaking the same language.
But you know that if things got tough or if anyone threatened that house, those siblings would be there for each other. As much as they complain and have different politics, those siblings are tight, thanks to their shared history, their love of the land and access to the cheapest beer in the country.
So two solitudes? I don’t think so.
More like “two solid dudes!” N’est-ce pas?
Ross Murray’s book You’re Not Going to Eat That, Are You? is now available as an ebook.
Buy it here:
About the author:
Raised in Nova Scotia, Ross Murray has lived in Quebec for over 20 years.
He is the former editor and owner of The Stanstead Journal, an English weekly newspaper, and since 2005 has served as communications coordinator at Stanstead College, a private high school.
Since 2004, Ross has written a weekly humour column in The Sherbrooke Record, Quebec’s only English daily outside Montreal.
Ross also records a biweekly radio column for CBC Quebec City’s afternoon show “Breakaway.”
In 2010, he published a collection of his newspaper columns entitled You’re Not Going to Eat That, Are You?, available at all good bookshops, including AngloStore, Quebec City.
Ross’s insightful, irreverent humour has also shown up on “McSweeney’s,” “The Big Jewel,” “Errant Parent,” CBC’s “WireTap,” CBC Montreal’s “All in a Weekend” and a number of anthologies.
Ross lives on the Vermont border with his wife Debbie.
They have four children, Emily, Katie, James and Abby.