Truly, politely, kindly

Posted on September 22, 2012


In the battle of words, the man of few words wins the day – Fon proverb

The Fon people are the people of Benin which is currently where I am literarily if not physically. Physically I’m in a camper van in the imaginatively named Campers’ City in Moncton, New Brunswick.   It’s raining the kind of drizzle that is surprisingly wet and my fellow campers have gone off to a shopping mall to stay dry and have a simulacrum of activity.   I am trying to write this blog on an ancient laptop and in dire need of a decent cup of coffee.   You should be warned that the blog might take a mighty detour today before heading back to Benin. I’m afraid I’m going to be a little self-indulgent and morph into a travel blog for a paragraph – maybe two – and thus, going by the Fon proverb, I will instantly prove myself a loser. Oh well. It’s as well you found out sooner rather than later.

I’ve been in Quebec (apologies to Francophones for lack of accent, blame it on the laptop) and the Canadian Maritimes for 12 days and have 12 days left.   The eagle-eyed among you will note that this means I’m at the half-way point.  My mid-way impressions of Eastern Canada are all positive despite the British-ish weather.   French Canadians are laid back, friendly, and surround themselves by the kind of delis which could only be described in the vocabulary of The One Thousand and One Nights. And it’s a strange experience to be in Canada and yet feel as if in Europe – so much brick and stone as opposed to the wood and siding of the West Coast.  If you’ve ever looked over the shoulder of someone looking at themselves in the mirror you’ll find they look familiar but different.  That’s the feeling you get in Montreal and Quebec.

Having driven on from Quebec (Province) to Nova Scotia there’s a further sense of dislocation.   Nova Scotia has a family resemblance to the United Kingdom but also a present nostalgia (if such a thing is possible).  Rather like looking at a photo album of your parents when still young, optimistic and in love.  Who are those people? When did they become so embittered, cynical and rigid? After having you obviously.

If it’s a cliche to say that Canadians are polite, kind and friendly, the Maritimers define the term. To say these people are quite friendly is to say that George W. Bush needed a few English lessons.  There’s an instinct in Nova Scotians for conversation. Anything, everything is an opening gambit.   ‘How are you doing today?’ cannot simply be answered with a simple (and grammatically incorrect for those of you grinding your teeth), ‘good’ or even (equally grammatically incorrect) ‘fine’.  Of course, if they ask, as they sometimes do (with extreme grammatical correctness), ‘How are things today?’ (How’s things? is beyond the pale obviously)  –  things, of course, can be good or fine, even indifferent, but I’m not sure you’d want to answer indifferent it might upset a Nova Scotian.  Digressions aside, any which way, more than one word is needed. So, be prepared to be helped even when you don’t need it or to be drawn into conversation even if you don’t want to. While filling the car with petrol in the rain, a cheery soul may call out to a stranger ‘Not great weather for pumping gas’  and the gas pumper will answer ‘Supposed to get better by Friday’, ‘Oh! That’s good I’m going to plant beans on Friday’ ‘What kind of beans you planting?’ ‘Well, I was thinking of a few runners but …’ Try this in the U.K. people will either think you’re a nutter or nut you for getting them wet unnecessarily.   I had to stop myself when asked ‘You going out?’ by a passing neighbour, from saying ‘No, I like to stand by an open car door and look at the sky for three hours when on holiday, but thanking you kindly for asking.’ Instead, I politely explain, ‘Yes, we’re thinking of going over to Peggy’s Cove.’ ‘Oh, that’s lovely. Be sure to stop and look at the rocks.’ ‘Rocks?’ ‘Yeah, the rocks are kind of neat. ‘Bout 415-million-year-old granite boulders, just scattered about right before you get to Peggy’s Cove. You might like ’em.’  Sometimes it pays to be drawn in.

Anyway, back to Benin.  I chose Raouf Mama’s Why Goats Smell Bad for two reasons. One, the title, obviously. Two, it’s a book of stories which I thought would be easier to read on the road than a novel in West African French. In other words – laziness.   Mama is an academic and native Fon speaker. He spent six years recording tales from Beninian storytellers aged ten to sixty.   As a professor of English Lit. he also offers insight into the parallels and differences between his collection of Beninian stories and English language fairy tales and myths.  In many cases there are striking similarities. And, here I must admit to une betise – I missed a vital page and so hadn’t realised that the book is divided thematically. I’d read six stories wondering why all Beninian stories were about orphans before realising that I was in a section called ‘Orphans, Twins and other Children’.  Idiot! Anyway, as an example of the universality of stories, the third story in this section The Prince and the Orphan is remarkably similar to Cinderella the main difference being that in the Fon story the orphan, Hobami, wears her rags to the ball which gets round the troubling issue of potential nudity as midnight strikes.     Another section is called Cautionary Tales and Spirit Stories, but in truth all the tales are cautionary.  As to why goats smell, I won’t spoil it for you, but don’t get too excited, it’s not actually that interesting.  I think the alternative story title suggested by Chad – Why Coats Smell Bad – might prove a little more dramatic.

The next stop on my actual tour will be Prince Edward Island, which, as every girl knows, is the home of Anne of Green Gables.   As the books from Bhutan and Bolivia hadn’t arrived before I left home I may re-read Anne of Green Gables and I’m definitely going to the Anne of Green Gables Theme Park which sounds truly kitsch. According to the Lonely Planet many Japanese come to Prince Edward Island to get hitched in the church in Silver Bush where Lucy Maud Montgomery herself got married. It can be arranged by the local tourist office apparently.  Maybe I’ll leave Chad in the camper that day.