Margaret Atwood and Me

The last few days a bad cold meant I could barely hold my head up, let alone sit at my desk. But I could read, and luckily I was in the middle of Rosemary Sulivan’s fascinating biography on Margaret Atwood’s early years: The Red Shoes (1998).

I have always been ambivalent about Atwood and I don’t really know why. Maybe it’s because by the time I was sentient in the 1990s she was already part of Canada’s “Literary Establishment.” I tend to shun anything that people or the media tell me I have to read. Such has been the case with the Harry Potter books (which I did end up enjoying), the Twilight series (still haven’t read), and any of Oprah’s Book Club choices.

When I was fourteen I had a friend who idolized Atwood – just devoured her fiction. She finally convinced me to read Cat’s Eye. I don’t remember finishing it. In fact, I don’t remember anything about it. I loved lots of other CanLit authors in the canon – Robertson Davies, Margaret Laurence, Gabrielle Roy – but skipped over the “reigning queen” (as some have called her, much to her dismay).

Fast forward to 2001 when as part of my Canadian Studies degree at McGill I took the requisite CanLit 100 course. Now I was nineteen and my main worry was arriving on time for that lecture, which was a stern walk uphill from my Spanish class on Sherbrooke St. Dr. Robert Lecker did not tolerate lateness, so I would arrive breathless and sweaty from my mad dash. Again I was faced with Atwood’s work, this time Surfacing. Again I don’t remember much about that experience other than I learned to pick my class schedule based on campus geography.

I don’t know exactly how I got Sullivan’s biography… like all things Atwood in my life there is a vagueness. I imagine I picked it up at a secondhand bookstore or a bargain bin at one of the big box stores sometime between 2000 and 2005. I found it again last summer stored in my parents’ garage when I Uhauled my past lives to Edmonton.

Last month I read James King’s biography of Canadian publishing icon Jack McClelland. There were some interesting tidbits about many of my favourite authors, and several about Atwood (her first book signing was in The Bay’s men’s underwear department in Edmonton?!). Sometimes a project leads you into the next project, and sometimes a book pushes you to another title. In this case, it pushed me toward The Red Shoes, which just happened to be next to it in the biography cluster on my bookshelf.

And I’m glad it did. It gave me a great appreciation for the creative, cultural, and political landscape writers – especially women – encountered in Canada and the U.S. from the 1940s to the 1970s. It also made me appreciate Atwood’s role in the changes of that era, just by doing what felt right to her and her writing life. While she struggled with some of those choices, pushing against ideas of womanhood (foisted on her from all directions) as well as what a woman “Writer”should be like (mostly tragic, apparently), I get the sense she’s always done things her way.

Today, at 71, she is among the Twitterati and I was a little ambivalent about following her at first. But not anymore. I realize that all Canadian writers follow her, and while her (not red) shoes may be big and her shadow large, she also paved the way for professional women writers to create, make a living, have families, and even bake a cookie or two.

Montreal, Mon Amour (and Onwards to Ottawa)

My friend, Andria, arrived in Montreal June 3rd, which turned out to be perfect timing, as by that point my brain couldn’t hold any more information about history and aviation (or anything else for that matter)…

I met Andria when I was living in Wyoming and while she has logged many air and road miles, she’d never been to Canada before. Imagine my surprise back in our local coffee shop last winter when she volunteered to drive a U-haul across this great nation of ours as her vacation! Her only requirement: we visit Montreal first.

She arrived at Dorval (aka Montreal-Trudeau International Airport) and we somehow managed to find our way through the maze of construction and round-a-bouts to the bus station. We parked at the mall across the street and carried our day bags to catch the bus into town (there was no way I was bringing my parents’ car into the city centre!). Sitting in the drizzle Andria was still zoned from her anti-nausea patch but excited at being in the land of her distant French-Canadian ancestors…

After our bus and metro rides, we emerged at Sherbrooke station. Completely disoriented from being underground, it took us a few moments to get our bearings, but soon enough we found our way to the Grand Plaza Montreal, where I’d snagged us a deal online. After dumping our stuff, we walked up St. Denis looking for food and found it at a great pasta bar called La Popessa. This was to be the beginning of what we called “our culinary tour of Canada.”

The next morning dawned bright and sunny. To fortify us for a big day of touring, I chose Chez Cora’s on du Parc for breakfast, a place where I had many a happy brunch during my university days. The resto, like me, has ended up all over the country, which has made me very happy indeed!

From there we wandered to McGill campus and I got to relive some great times: my home away from home at the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada (MISC), lectures in Leacock, Writer’s Circle meetings in the Shatner Building, and the summer day in 2005 when Doug proposed on the grounds. And then we went up, up, up Peel St. through the Golden Mile and into Mont Royal Park.

Lunch was a continuation of our gastronomical tour of Montreal, with carrot ginger soup and a delicious selection of Quebec cheeses at Le Cap Vert on McGill College. It’s a good thing it didn’t exist when I lived there, or I would have been even more broke as a student!

That evening we headed up St. Denis again for our 5 a 7 (Montreal equivalent of Happy Hour). Bieres et Compagnie has an amazing selection of microbrews from Quebec and the world, and some great Belgian-style frites with mayo dip (we had the spicy garlic). Andria sipped the St-Ambroise apricot while I had the Rebelle Quebecoise, but I could spend many happy hours and days sampling their other brews.

From there we saved our feet a bit by grabbing a metro back down to the Old Port, where we’d spotted some restaurants earlier in the day. By then we were eating on European time – 7:30pm – which also happened to be when everyone else was. And we’re used to eating on farmer’s time, so there was no way we were waiting in line for an hour even with some frites in our bedons

Luckily, a short walk away we found a less trendy (read: less busy and pricy!) resto/bar where we got a sampler of Belle Guele beers and amazing sandwiches on the best baguette I’ve had outside France.

Onwards to Ottawa!

The next morning as we prepared to leave Montreal after a much-too-short visit, the clouds warned of rain. We got sprinkled a bit on our way to breakfast, but it didn’t diminish our exquisite breakfast at Universel up St. Denis. What can I say? Montrealers know how to live and it’s a simple recipe: incredible bread, wine, beer, cheese, and maple syrup. You can’t go wrong!

And their demands for lovely foodstuffs have spread to the Laurentians, the picturesque lands to the northwest, where you can’t throw a fork without hitting an organic farm. It also happens to be were my parents live (and where I was storing the Uhaul), so after rejoining the car in Dorval, Andria and I drove the two hours there. With one quick stop: an asparagus farm! Needless to say, lunch at the “Chateau Chenail” was just as good as any Montreal bistro.

Later that day we arrived in Ottawa and rested our feet and bellies for the night. But the next day we braved the rain to enjoy Ottawa’s food legend – the Beavertail – al fresco in the Byward Market after a walking tour of the Rideau St., Parliament Hill, and the market.

[Man, after writing this post my lunch is going to seem kind of lame!]
© 2011 Danielle Metcalfe-Chenail. All Rights Reserved.