The Thing Is with Steve Canavan

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Us Brits even disliked by French Canadians

I’m writing this week’s non-award winning copy from Canada. I told the editor of this newspaper I was becoming stale and needed new surroundings in order to produce a better column, so she agreed to fly me to Montreal and put me up in a five-star hotel for a couple of weeks.

Actually, that’s not true.

If I had said that to the editor, she’d have punched me in the face, or sacked me on the spot, or possibly both.

I’m across the Atlantic on a family holiday, along with Mrs Canavan, our baby Mary, and my mother.

I booked the trip six months ago as my aunt (my mum’s sister, who emigrated to Montreal in 1960) turns 80 this week and I thought it would be lovely for us to be there for the big day.

Moments after booking – and this is absolutely true – I rang my mother with the good news. “Mum, I’ve bought us all plane tickets to go to Canada for Aunty Kath’s 80th.”

I waited expectantly for the words, ‘Oh that’s brilliant son, thank you so much for your kind and thoughtful gesture’. Instead she replied, ‘She’s not 80 till next year you dimwit, she’s 79 this time’.

Which was a tad deflating, but as the tickets were 
non-refundable, we’ve gone anyway.

My Aunty Kath is, in the way most North Americans are, beautifully direct and embarrassment-free.

While eating breakfast on our first morning, my aunty, halfway through munching on a boiled egg, looked directly at Mrs Canavan and said, “Don’t flush any sanitary towels down the toilet.”

‘Oh, okay,’ said a slightly taken aback Mrs C, who had only met my aunty once before.

My aunty lives in a town called Hudson, about 20 miles outside Montreal and very quaint, a small collection of houses nestling on the bank of Lake Ontario.

This lake is, like everything in North America – including its people – massive.

The 14th largest on planet Earth, it is 193 miles long and 53 miles wide.

Only 51 people have successfully swum across it, the youngest a 14-year-old girl in 2012.

I did consider having a bash, perhaps setting a new speed record in the over-40s category, but I forgot to pack my armbands.

Hudson, like Montreal, is in the province of Quebec, the French-speaking part of Canada, where the people – much like French folk worldwide – feel the same way about the English as a polar bear feels about a sun-lounger. They detest us, and – something I strangely admire them for – aren’t shy about letting us know.

I went in the local shop on the first morning of our holiday and, as instructed by my aunt, asked for eight slices of turkey at the cooked meats counter.

The man behind the counter said something back to me in French, so I very politely repeated my request.

The cooked meat man – about 45-years-old and with a nose so astonishingly large I could barely see his face – stared at me with a look that suggested he’d like to plant a large kitchen knife in my forehead.

He then spoke, or more accurately shouted, for around 15 seconds in French, becoming increasingly animated, and waving his arms in the air as if trapped in an enclosed space with someone suffering from severe flatulence.

I know three French words – bonjour, mais oui, and mange tout – but none seemed suitable so, in desperation, I said ‘turkey, you know, gobble gobble’.

He looked at me for a long moment, decided against first-degree murder, and instead turned and walked away, leaving me to exit the store without so much as half a slice of turkey.

On a more positive note, Canadians have a marvellous bin lorry system.

There is only a driver on board, who stops his truck next to the bin and then presumably presses a button on the dashboard, at which point a mechanical arm reaches out and clamps on to the bin, pulls it into the air and empties it into the back of the vehicle, before placing it neatly back down at the side of the road.

It’s a thing of wonder and I stood there admiring it at length until I thought about all those bin-men who had lost their jobs and were now on the dole.

Also what a rotten life for the one bin-man still in employment.

He used to have a laugh and a joke with all his mates – now he forlornly drives along on his own, pressing a button to activate a robotic arm at every bin he passes.

He must be bored out of his skull.

We’re in Canada for another few days – find out next week if I successfully managed at any point in the holiday to purchase some sliced turkey.