Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Joie de vivre

Last weekend, Patty and I decided to join the Saint Jean Baptiste Day celebration, also known as Fete Nationale in Quebec, so we travelled to Montreal to visit our daughter who has moved there to work with the national office of the Canadian Red Cross. A huge throng of student demonstrators welcomed our arrival in Montreal last Friday, part of the large daytime demonstrations opposing Quebec tuition hikes and Bill 78, Quebec’s controversial anti-protest law.
Quebec students marching through  the streets of Montreal last May 20, 2012,
in what has become an almost nightly occurrence. Photo by Graham Hughes-
Canadian Press. Click link  to view "RAW 10,000 Montreal Students Defy Quebec
Anti-Protest Law Bill 78,",
Little did we know that the student protesters have been staging their demonstrations on the 22nd day of every month since March. In the past 15 weeks, these demonstrations have turned violent, especially those held at night. Many observers in Quebec haven’t figured out the larger significance of the protests dubbed as Quebec’s Maple Spring. Some are quick to predict that the protest might create a new generation of leaders that would shape the province, and perhaps the whole of Canada for decades to come, as Quebec’s Quiet Revolution did in the 1960s.

The end of these demonstrations appears not in sight as the students have promised to soldier on with their protests even this summer break. That Friday in the busy streets of Montreal, traffic was snarled as the protest ended at Parc Jeanne-Mance. A group of student protesters was able to make its way to Carré St-Louis by walking up Mont Royal Avenue. The police considered the protest illegal since no route had been provided to them but the protest as a whole was very calm and peaceful.

We finally reached Metro Atwater where we took the subway train to Charlevoix where our daughter was waiting to pick us up. After freshening up at our daughter’s place, we then walked along the Canal de Lachine going to the Marché Atwater, an open market my wife had always insisted that we go to whenever we visited our daughter during her student days at McGill University. This time, however, we took a walk along the banks of the historic canal for the first time.

The Lachine Canal which runs 14.5 kilometres from the Old Port to Lake Saint-Louis used to be the first link in a chain of canals that facilitated shipping between Montréal and the Great Lakes. Closed to shipping in 1970, it was replaced by the St. Lawrence Seaway. Now, the Canal has become a multi-purpose path for walkers and bicyclists, but more than an urban park it bears witness to the importance of shipping, canalization and industrialization in the history of Canada.

Across the Canal to the north is Marché Atwater, an Art Deco building and quaint little farmers’ market where they sell a wide variety of fruits, herbs and vegetables as well as flowering plants, maple syrup, fresh fish and meat, Quebec cheese, and freshly-baked bread and pastries. A pedestrian bridge connects the market to rue Saint Patrick and to a bicycle path in Pont Saint Charles on the other side of the Canal.

We sat on the grass overlooking the Canal as the sun set down on us. The late afternoon breeze provided comfort from the heat as we ate our repast of fresh bread, foie gras and prosciutto ham, and for dessert, fresh blueberries and sweet pineapple chunks. 

Both the Canal and Marché Atwater seem symbolic of the bridge between the past and the future, not merely in Montreal but perhaps of our lives in the larger sense. After all, the purpose of our visit that weekend was more than joining the St. Jean Baptiste Day festivities but also to connect with my wife’s very dear friend in the past and our own daughter Isobel who’s decided to live independently from us. Although for one and one-half years, Isobel was away in Paris to pursue her MBA, her new job posting meant returning to Montreal where she had lived for four years while taking her BA.

The other purpose of our trip was to visit Marina, Patty’s classmate from university, a bosom friend she had lost contact with sometime in 1976 during the early years of repression under Ferdinand Marcos. They were part of a closely-knit group of friends, conjoined by common youthful dreams and ideals, only to be separated by their personal pursuit of the proverbial place in the sun. A member of that group, Rebecca, passed away more than ten years ago in Toronto, with whom we also shared fond memories of friendship.

Through the wonders of the Internet, members of their group started finding each other. Patty had earlier reconnected with Leni, another member of that group, while we were in San Francisco in 2007, and later in 2011 when she visited Toronto. Only a few months ago, Patty finally found Marina on Facebook, and wonder of wonders, to be living in St-Hyacinthe, Quebec, as a member of Notre Dame de Vie, a secular institute that sprang from the Order of Carmel near the ancient shrine of Notre Dame de Vie in Venasque, France in 1932. Except for one, all of them, had crossed the Pacific to settle in North America.
Notre Dame de Vie Institute, St Paul d'Abbotsford, Quebec. Click link to view "Thomas
Merton - What is Contemplation?"
On a sunny but windy Saturday, we drove to Saint Hyacinthe to meet Marina at Hotel de Dieu where she is engaged in her apostolate of caring and ministry to the sick. As a lay religious, Marina says that members of their Institute are allowed to continue with their professions in their various social milieus. Every member, however, is required to devote fidelity to the exercise of their spiritual life: daily silent prayer and periodic return to solitude.

I had also met Marina before as well as the other members of their small group when Patty brought me along with our children during a visit to the Institute in Novaliches where Marina was then contemplating on entering the religious life. That was more than thirty five years ago, the last time we would see her in person.

Marina showed us around the town’s centre, visiting its little market and shops and walking along the banks of the Yamaska River where the more prosperous residents of St-Hyacinthe live in huge houses built along the riverside.

What struck Marina about life in St-Hyacinthe was the townfolks’ seeming lack of joie de vivre, as if they had never found satisfaction in life, which to her meant a deep chasm in spirituality that has afflicted many Quebecois, especially among youth, in the recent years. Their churches, which are really cathedrals in size and architectural grandeur compared to those in the Philippines or even in Toronto, are in fast decline and now mostly likely empty. But this waning participation wouldn’t deter Marina in her apostolic mission; it is just one of the many challenges she must face, she stressed.

Then she turned her contemplation to the problems back home, posing questions like why the Philippines and our people seemed to have never progressed despite all the outside trappings of material growth. Of course, she said, she was referring to the internal soul, the impoverishment of our hearts. Nonetheless, she said, she was truly delighted she could speak in her native Tagalog, complete with the distinct Malolos accent. Sometimes, she found it hard to speak in three languages (Filipino, French, and English) while at the same time processing and deconstructing the meanings of the words in her mind.

Our Saturday afternoon sojourn was capped with a visit to the Notre Dame de Vie Institute’s retreat house in Montérégie, Saint-Paul d'Abbotsford, in the diocese of St-Hyacinthe, about 20 minutes’ drive along green and vast stretches of farms dotted with apple trees, grapes and a variety of berries. The Institute’s house is nestled on the foot of the mountains and has all the modern amenities needed for contemplative retreat—spacious meeting rooms, individual rooms for prayer and contemplation, several bedrooms, and a running brook where you can hear fresh water cascading down from a lake on the mountain top. Marina also introduced us to some members of the Institute who were there at the time—Marion, a former social worker from Montreal, Marie Josie from France, and Josephine who was rushing to go outside to pick some berries for fun from the Institute’s farms close by.

Instinctively, we had sensed Marina has found the ideal life of spirituality in the midst of her new world and community, although she said her search for the truth has not ended. We all concurred that truth could really be anything one stands for, be it justice, fairness, equality or fidelity to God. Truth can be achieved through various ways, from contemplative prayer to vigorous activism like joining protests against tuition hikes or discrimination, or political and civic engagement, with the end result forming part of the larger and immutable truth. With her peaceful demeanour and happy disposition, we believe Marina has already found the truth she was searching for. We parted ways making a promise to see each other again or more often in the future.

Sunday, June 24, Jean Baptiste Day, we drove to Cote-des-Neiges, a working-class neighbourhood in Montreal, where we feasted on our favourite Filipino dishes for lunch at a Filipino restaurant along Avenue Van Horne. On our way to Avenue Van Horne from Route 15 North, however, our car was accidentally rear-ended by a young Jewish man who seemed lost on the road on his Vespa scooter. It could happen to anyone but the good thing was nobody was hurt.

Van Horne is where most Pinoy expats in Montreal gather every Sunday to buy their Filipino groceries and household stuff. Across the street is the Centre Communautaire Philippine, so aptly named FAMAS Centre, where a group was holding a baby shower that afternoon. A middle-aged couple we met who were waiting for their other son who was having a haircut told us of the difficult life in the Philippines which drove them to come to Canada. Now they’re settled in Dorval, a Montreal suburb where they found work in a firm that makes fashion jewellery.

After having our taste of Filipino food and communing with our fellow kababayans, we then proceeded to the more upscale and bigger market, Marché Jean Talon, past Mont Royal and Outremont. Here is the biggest market in Montreal where you could find practically all the vegetables, fruits, herbs and condiments you’re looking for in the world, from bay leaf to parsley, rosemary and thyme which can be bundled together or wrapped in leek to form an aromatic bouquet garni, to different types of eschalote or little scallions to peppers of all hues, big and small, from wild mushrooms like chanterelle to shitake, or from plain tomatoes to many varieties of lettuce. If you love to cook, this is the perfect place to buy produce.

We ended bonding with our daughter atop the Oratory of St. Joseph of Mont Royal, overlooking Montreal’s vast landscape. We also started to wonder about the few changes in Isobel’s life, now that she’s living independently from us: the trip she made to Toronto two weekends ago from Montreal to participate in the GK Global Summit, her engagement in efforts to protect and preserve our fragile environment, the collective community garden she joined to plant and raise organic vegetables, and the decision to forego driving a car by going to work on a bixi bike, the reason she chose her apartment to be closer to work in order to leave less carbon footprint and thus, in her own small way, help save the environment.

Marina and Isobel are many light years apart and actually are separated by two different world views, one, spiritual and contemplative; the other, socially-innovative and less profit-driven. They have certain similarities such as the love for the French language. Yet, they’re two worlds that are connected. The bridge to their separate worlds is the nature of the work and the kind of life they have committed themselves to.

What Thomas Friedman was referring to in his book, The Lexus and the Olive Tree, as the balance in life we need and keep in constant struggle, the past or present against the future, the ways of old against the new technology—a perpetual antithesis but a harmonious one in result. We can’t only have one and not the other. This is probably the secret to having joie de vivre or the joy of life, or the joy of everything, or a philosophy of life that matters.

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