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Is there a (competent) doctor in the house?

July 12, 2012

When I watched Michael Moore’s Sicko a few years back, I left the cinema disappointed. Sure, Moore had brought the ailments of America’s healthcare system to light, but I thought he did so rather poorly. Most notably due to the high praises he sung for the “flawless” social healthcare systems of Canada, Cuba, France, and the United Kingdom all the while sailing toward Guantanamo bay cupping a bullhorn. Contending that social healthcare can do no wrong just presented a very large gap in his argument against the privatized and severely for-profit U.S. medical system. While healthcare should be for all, it should also work for all.

Barring countless hours spent in waiting rooms, my experience with social healthcare in Canada and the U.K. was satisfactory when my concerns were limited to a common cold. Appointments are not required, you don’t have to pay, and the doctor you see has enough medical knowledge and authority to write you a prescription for amoxicillin. Should your medical needs surpass this basic level, you might as well consider yourself screwed or, if lucky, in for a week or two worth of aggravation.

My initial symptoms appeared as severe headaches, swollen lymph nodes, weakness, and a scalp infection. After waiting an hour and a half for my name to be called, the doctor welcomed me dismissively with the question, “why are you here?” He then listened apathetically to my list of symptoms and, four minutes later, showed me the door, having convinced himself that my health problems were nothing more than a consequence of stress and the repeated clenching of my jaw. Neither he nor his diagnosis was deterred when I stated that I had no recollection of clenching my jaw, let alone doing so on a repetitive basis. Apparently, I didn’t know what I was talking about.

Six hours later I was quarantined in an E.R. room and told I had the chicken pox after more definitive signs begun to appear. The blunders didn’t stop there, however. The E.R. doctor just sent me home asking me whether I was familiar with something called calamine lotion; which, admittedly, was to become my closest friend over the next two weeks. Not knowing any better, I resigned to the prospect of letting the illness take its course covered in baby pink blotches, without questioning his choice of treatment further. Long story short, it was not until I was seen by a private doctor twice and then admitted into the second E.R. of the week that I finally was given a proper diagnosis and the medical treatment to match.

What bothered me more than the repeated doctor visits and the discrepancy in prices between provincial and private healthcare (each private consultation cost CAN $165, while both emergency rooms and the first clinic were free) was the sheer medical incompetency that was evident in the face of such a common virus as varicella. And this wasn’t an issue between public vs. private, as stereotypes would have you presume. Although smiles and a reduced waiting time were more forthcoming in the private clinic (I had to get something for my $330 + taxes), the doctor there was just as confounded by what ended up being an un-extraordinary oedema as the first doctor was in diagnosing my non-stress-induced symptoms.

Many people (usually in childlike form) have had the chicken pox – it passes, with only a couple of unpleasant scars as a reminder that you have already had it. It is in the hypothetical “what if?” questions that the real failings of the Quebec (and other) healthcare systems lie. If my uncle, a surgeon in Cyprus, was able to diagnose me properly over the phone without the full symptoms having materialized and without a proper consult, then more training and stricter qualifications are necessary to avoid four health professionals in four different institutions being unable to successfully diagnose and treat varicella. Otherwise, we’re left asking the questions: What if such medical care is experienced by someone with a more critical and degenerative disease? What if that person is too physically weak to get another consult? And, finally, what if we are all too trusting in the medical ability of a doctor or the entire medical system he/she belongs to?

Could Putin’s worst enemy be a white ribbon?

May 9, 2012

Could Putin’s worst enemy be a white ribbon?.

It’s not a rat!

April 3, 2012

Scala, the ferret previously known as Gertrude

So, this month I adopted a ferret. Why, you ask? Some whimsical Canadian trait, perhaps? Actually, it all started some time in the summer of 2008 when I happened upon a stranger walking his ferret in the back alleys of le Marais in Paris. It was the first time I had seen a ferret and I instantly took to the idea of owning one myself. But my constant moving and the even more persistant reaction of, “you can’t be serious”, sadly grounded any deliberations I had on the matter.

Between then and three weeks ago, I didn’t even think I was sincere over welcoming a ferret, and not a member of the better known cat and dog pet varieties, into my home. Yet, one day, while checking that my Petfinder profiles had uploaded on the SPCA’s* website, I came across the picture of a white ferret named Rascal, with “adoptable” next to his name. Unfortunately, he was already taken, but the seed was replanted and I started looking obsessively at adoption sites and online classifieds.

I finally settled on a suitable contender – the collateral of what I later found out must have been an extremely bad break up. The only foreseeable problem was that she had the misfortune of being named Gertrude (the French “jerh-t-hrude” sounds far worse) by her incumbent owners. With the conviction that a name change would just have to occur, we* called up the guy who had pitifully put a sad face in the ad next to the mention of his break-up and, after also confirming with his ex, arranged to pay a visit that week in the most awkward over-the-internet transaction that ever existed.

Scala in a box

The neighbourhood was questionable: a row of cookie cutter condos behind one of those open malls you pass on the highway with an insurance outlet, 80s inspired beauty salon and a gym where physical motivation goes to die. Neither extremely dodgy, nor somewhere you would consciously choose to live. The house itself wasn’t so bad if you ignored the shoes flung in all directions along the staircase and the rather adorable, yet intimidating, barking pitbull caged up in the corner.

With a pitbull and three cats, I didn’t really see why they wanted to kick the poor ferret out of this veritable urban menagerie, but refrained from asking any questions. For one, neither member of the former couple was particularly amicable. Secondly, I didn’t wish to entangle myself in the crossfire of snide comments – however, discreet they were trying to be for our sake. We decided to take in the ferret on the spot, but had to spend another agonizing hour with the unfortunate pair to dismantle the cage and get the payment sorted. In this time two things occurred which made the situation even more painful. The first was the sarcastic response of, “bien sûr que non”*, that I received when I politely asked if a cheque would do. The second was when (what could only be perceived as) the girl’s new boyfriend entered the door.

Thankfully, after coughing up the 300 bucks for the soon-to-be-rebaptized Gertrude, her cage and accessories, we drove off and thus began our continuing efforts to understand the bizarre world of ferrets and a sustained campaign, on my part, to re-educate others that (a) it is not weird to own a ferret, and (b) a ferret is not a rat. Let us start with the first case that it’s not a strange thing to own a ferret and, by owning a ferret, I am not the younger generation’s equivalent of an old lady with cats. According to one dubious Internet source, “ferrets have now become the third most numerous or popular companion animal (or “interactive” pet) in the [US]”. Even more indicative of their widespread acceptance as pets is the European Union’s provision of pet passports to only three animals: dogs, cats, and, you guessed it, ferrets.

Scala sleeping in her hammock - NOT exemplary of rat-like behaviour

Moving on to case number two that ferrets are not rats. First, ferrets belong to the family mustelidae and not, as I learned a minute ago off Wikipedia, to the rodent family called muroidea. To be sure, their occassional participation in scientific experiments, fondness of tight cylindrical spaces, attraction to trash and the fact that their eyes turn a beady red in bright light, all don’t help my argument. However, as far as their liking of constricted environments and trash is concerned, both are done in the spirit of playing, and not in an attempt to recreate the feel of a sewer. The red eyes also fail to make a strong argument for a ferret’s likeness to the rat, as it is only a symptom of a change in lighting conditions – by no means a fair assertion of a similarity. Besides, to my knowledge, rats do not play tag with you, sleep soundly in a hammock or know how to open a can of ginger ale.

After a lot of thought, I’ve decided to blame society’s great ignorance and prejudice against ferrets on Disney and co. Cartoon characters have been modeled on every possible animal there is – certainly dogs and cats have had their fair share of screen time; but they have been joined by deer, squirrels, clownfish, sharks, lions, hyenas, ring-tailed lemurs, chipmunks, and even rats. All have either had a full-length feature film dedicated to them or an entire animated series, as well as the cuddly toy accessories to match. But, the ferret still remains wronged in its underrepresentation on the big (and small) screen; and, without such an endorsement, is left without much hope of earning its way into the hall of acceptable domestic animals. Hell, I would even bet that my sceptics would have responded more warmly if I had told them I had just adopted an animaniac*.


*1 Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

* 2 However much people want to believe it was my fanciful idea that got us here, I regret to inform them, it wasn’t. The decision was mutual.

*3 “Obviously not”, but with vehemence.

*4 For those of you who weren’t brought up watching Saturday morning television in the latter half of the 1980s and begin of the 1990s, the Animaniacs was a cartoon series based on a family of white and black eponymous creatures living at Warner Bros. studios [].

Winter Deathtrap

February 8, 2012

As cities go, Montreal is not considered particularly dangerous. The city doesn’t make it into the rankings listing the world’s most violent urban areas. Nor does it feature particularly high on the same list for Canadian cities: coming in 22nd out of a nicely rounded-up 100. A now outdated 2008 report even has the Montreal Police proclaiming how safe the city is in relation to (a) the past, and (b) other cities in North America. Yet, despite the (thankfully) non-existent daily occurrence of beheaded bodies hanging from the city’s bridges, like in Ciudad Juàrez, Mexico, I have never been as conscious of the real possibility of bodily harm on a day-to-day basis as in Montreal.

Frostbite is not an issue. In fact, with the amount of layers and goose-feathered winter padding I wear, I’ve become more or less acclimatized to sub-zero temparatures. So much so, I have actually reached the point where I can agree with the national weather broadcast and call -6°C (without a wind chill) mild.

Icicles formed on the McGill Faculty of Music Building

No, aside from its notoriously rickety bridges, the deathtraps I see everywhere in Montreal are more an issue of ice, combined with (some might say) an overblown imagination. These past couple of months, constant fluctuations in temperature, from -19°C to 2°C, have created ideal conditions for all types of ice: black ice, clumpy ice, ice disguised as snow, ice in the shape of tire treads, elegant spear-like ice that could (in all likelihood) pierce flesh without so much as breaking

Before moving to a country that is prone to harsh winters, everyone warns you of the climate, the need for the right type of clothing (layers, goose-feathers, and an avoidance of synthetic materials, if you were wondering), and the more-or-less indoor lifestyle you will need to habituate yourself to. Not once did anyone warn me of having to contend with ice. Frankly, I didn’t even think it would be a problem, considering Canada would be much better at the salting and de-icing of its streets than certain European countries*. But even salt and grit don’t really come in the way of frozen water.

I had heard of black ice before – I believe in some episode of Grey’s Anatomy (which is sadly becoming my reference for one too many pieces of information of late) but had never encountered it until I started walking in the courtyard outside my office one sunny December day. Aside from the sudden jolt you feel when your balance is unexpectedly challenged, the only other sure way of noticing black ice is by an unnatural dark glimmer on the pavement. A sheen of ice so thin it barely forms a uniform surface layer; yet it is surprisingly effective in making you lose all earthly grip.

Even equipped with my Sorrel boots that boast maintaining comfort at – 32° C, I felt no traction. I started walking gingerly, taking one step then the next, then sliding a little, until I could finally grasp onto something and cease holding my breath in anticipation of a fall.

If it were only limited to a single patch of non-salted/gritted pavement, it would be a non-issue, but ice – of all my above poorly named categories – has pretty much conquered the city’s streets. The last time I attempted walking back home from work in such conditions, it took me triple the time – most of which was spent scrutinizing the pavement for the one dry spot I could sure-footedly step on before searching out the next. With my route being downhill, starting from the base of Mont Royal all the way down to Griffintown, I spent that one and a half hour trek wondering what caustic tabloid headline my imminent fatality would assume. I settled on, “Greek Tragedy: Foreign Woman Slides Under SUV”, as the one with the most potential.

The thing is, apart from having to constantly look down and assess the terrain, there’s also the question of ice falling from above that needs to be factored into the equation. I haven’t been successful in finding concrete statistics on the number of injuries and/or fatalities caused by icicles in Canada, but, judging by the number of, “Attention: Chute de Glace”*, signs dotting the walls of Montreal’s buildings, it must be some cause for concern.

So far, the only survival mechanism I have come up with for living on and under potentially dangerous pieces of ice is avoiding being out in the open as much as possible. It’s not a foolproof system, but it will have to do for the remaining winter months, or until I acquire the paranormal balancing ability of an average Canadian.

That’s not to say Montreal ceases to be a deathtrap during the rest of the year. Aside from the dilapidated bridges I mentioned earlier, fatal police shootings by Montreal’s Finest are not limited to any season. Last summer there was the killing of a homeless man in the middle of (the popular and only relatively dodgy area of) Saint Denis. A ricochet bullet also managed to kill a passer-by on the way to work at a nearby hospital, but that was only considered to be collateral. More recently, another homeless man was gunned down in the Bonaventure station only half a kilometre or so from my apartment building. Considering my grateful lack of homelessness, my chances of missing a projectile fired from the gun of a trigger-happy cop should be fair. Then again, living half a block away from a police station might not be to my advantage – thinking of all the possible outcomes, a new headline comes to mind: “Police Chief Says Instability of Foreigner to Blame for Slipping into Path of Rebound Bullet”.

*In order of most to least incompetent: (1) United Kingdom, which was brought to a standstill in the winters of 2008/2009, 2009/2010, and 2010/2011 with less than 5 inches of snow; (2) Belgium, where I was stranded for a day because the Eurostar wouldn’t work as a cause of frozen railtracks; (3) France and Germany…I seem to recall major airports being shut down here as well in the winter of 2009/2010 at least.

*2 Warning: Falling Icicles.

Montreal: A city tribute

October 26, 2011
Autumn at the McGill Gault Reserve

With the seasons changing and November creeping up already, I decided a written tribute to Montreal was in store. Not just as an acknowledgment of the city’s many charms, but as a reminder of them when I find myself snowed in for a fourth consecutive day wondering what lapse in judgement brought me here in the first place.

My first impression of Montreal wasn’t a great one: it was January, temperatures were ranging between -20 and -30 degrees, sludge and grit covered the streets, and the hotel I had booked on one of Expedia’s secret 4-star hotel deals was primely located one street up from the spot where city junkies generally go to score.

Thankfully, when I finally moved at the end of March, it was in a lovely neighbourhood known as Little Burgundy. And, despite the quirks I noticed in disproportionate sizes, the longevity of milk, and the particularity of the Quebecois accent, the city started to grow on me with my perception of Montreal’s best qualities neatly falling into four categories: (a) proximity, (b) seasons, (c) food & drink culture, and (d) eccentricity.

(a) Proximity

Border post entering USA

Like every cosmopolitan area, Montreal is divided into quarters, which are still quaintly referred to as parishes here despite some cataclysmic falling out with the church more than a hundred years ago (see more under quality d). Yet, unlike other cities, everything appears to be in proximity to everything else. The advantage being that you can live a 20-30 minute walk from the city centre and still find yourself in a quiet neighbourhood next to stables, a canal, and where canine play dates are the norm. Even the down-town area has somehow managed to share a balance between the urbanism of shopping malls and polished business towers and the more tranquil surroundings of the 200 hectare Mont Royal natural park. Moreover, with so many squirrels, raccoons, spiders, and the occasional skunk, Montreal is exemplary of how urban life and nature can find some harmony together.

Border post entering Canada

Then there is the proximity to the United States of America; which, if you can ignore its cold-hearted customs officers, is there for you to explore within a 45 minute car ride. Of course, there’s nothing much near the border – and metropolitan areas like Boston and New York are another 6 hours away – but there’s something about entering the US, which makes you know you’re in the United States of America. A feeling, which sadly is lacking up north, on the more modest side of the border.

(b) Seasons

This brings me to the next quality. Whether across the border in Burlington, Vermont, or walking around the streets of Montreal, one thing is apparent this time of year: how distinct the changing of the seasons can be. This, I believe, is my first experience of autumn as a season in its own right. The leaves don’t just alter their colours slightly, then fall off, as a brisk entrance to winter – which is the case in the UK, France and Switzerland1. The colours linger and become more intense as fall progresses.

Pumpkins at Atwater market

Autumn is also punctuated by variety in Montreal: aside from the symbolic bright red of the fall maple leaf, other trees stand out as well with their complementary yellow and orange tones. Sadly, I have not come to identify these trees by name; but, in my defence, their leaves are not the symbol of the flag, a hockey team, and every second product of an entire country.

Then there’s the actual celebration of fall – which is also marked by the tradition of Halloween – when farmers’ markets, houses, shops, and even banks are decorated with some variety of pumpkin. And, if it’s not a pumpkin, it’s an apple. Apple-picking might not be a sport, but it’s definitely considered an autumn past-time here with hoards of families being trucked (quite literally) to orchards during the harvest to collect their own bushel. During this whole time of harvests, pumpkin decorations, and the transformation of trees, the key element of the fall season, for me, is that it lingers at a mild 12-16 degrees – only requiring (at most) what used to be my winter coat in London (now renamed my “light coat”).

Needless to say, I was also surprised to find out that all other three seasons are just as distinct in Montreal as autumn. Summer, especially, is worth mentioning. Not least because an actual summer of heat, air-conditioning, and flip-flops, is hard to associate with a city that knows temperatures of -40 degrees (where, I have since learned, Celsius and Fahrenheit become one and the same) in winter. But, an actual summer Montreal does have.

It may be short – only encroaching upon the three-month allocation to it as a season, but that is probably its best feature. Being short-lived, summer is celebrated in Montreal like it will be the city’s last, with the city hosting festival upon festival – most of which are free and, best of all, varied. You’re into jazz? Montreal has an international jazz festival. Stand up comedy? Just for Laughs caters to that whim. Fan of electro? Jean Drapeau park hosts Piknic Electronik on any given Sunday. Even if loud music in a crowd is not your thing, there’s the Grand Prix, the Rogers Cup and, barring that, canoeing, hiking, and camping at one of Quebec’s many national parks. Water sports are also an option, but demand a lesser degree of cowardice. Lakes here are as warm as the Atlantic off the coast of Portugal in August – which is the only place I was crazy enough to get in it, yelp, and get out.

To conclude, the essence of a Montreal summer is that, at any given time, there is a myriad of events and activities occurring, which renders any sentiments of boredom quite pretentious. With the exception (of course) of those who do not enjoy jazz, comedy, electro, Formula 1 racing, tennis, or outdoor sports.


(c) Food & drink culture

For that unfortunate subgroup of people, Montreal still has to offer its food culture. Unfortunately, this doesn’t include its own cuisine, which is limited to poutine (a mélange of fries, gravy, and cheese curds best served drunk) and, as I found out leafing through a Quebecois cookbook, maple flavoured pork rinds. To be fair, this may have been another part of the pig’s anatomy, but it would still have been braised in maple syrup.

To make up for the lack of its own distinctive cuisine, Montreal offers numerous restaurants that serve great, creative food at a reasonable price. The ethnic diversity that comes with such a strong expatriate population in Montreal also lends itself well to the city’s food culture. Just the other week, I tried my first Afghan restaurant, which is a cuisine I would never have thought to try before because I naively associated Afghanistan with an oppressive regime, horses, and desert…but not food. (It tastes a bit like a mixture of Greek and Asia Minor cuisine, if you’re interested).

Arguably, the most astonishing aspect of Montreal’s food and drink culture is the number of microbreweries it houses. If you walk into any pub or restaurant on the Plateau or the Latin Quarter, you are guaranteed to either find beers brewed in a microbrewery in Montreal or blondes, stouts, reds and lagers (if those are one and the same, forgive me) brewed on the premises. The only negative aspect here is that, when trying to be adventurous, you wind up faced with a $5 pint of beer you don’t know what to do with.

(e) Eccentricity

Maple leaves in fall

Now, the “eccentricity” category doesn’t really follow on from any of the above. It is not exactly unique to Montreal either and has more to do with its people rather than the city itself. However, essentially, people and their city are one and the same, each shaping the other as they go along. So I have decided to list a few examples of the eccentric nature of Montreal’s citizens and their culture in order of oddity, moving from weakest to strongest.

#1 Montreal (or, more accurately, Quebec’s) dog culture: of which Quebecers apparently have an obsessed-loathe relationship. I have come across old men dressing their poodles in leather jackets and dark glasses, women taking their dog for a walk in a stroller (no doubt, with a leash as well), and canine booties for – I’m hoping – protection against frostbite. Yet, despite this overwhelming affection, Quebec is still the worst province in Canada in terms of animal rights, with one puppy mill being dismantled after the next.2

#2 The pronunciation of “about” (and all words ending in “out”) as “aboot”. It does lose its endearing quality after a while – especially, when you catch yourself saying it.

#3 McGill University’s Quidditch team. Apparently, higher education societies are just that flexible here that they can adopt a fictional game that requires a broom, a snitch, and a few wizards. It’s not so much the game of tag with the broom between the player’s legs that peaked my interest, as the fact that the broom appeared to be a collector’s item from the unofficial Harry Potter website. I have since found out this is not solely a tradition at McGill, but one shared by over 300 universities in the US alone. At least, that’s according to the International Quidditch Association’s figures.

#4 Swearing in Quebecois does not involve the usual expletives associated with copulation or bodily excretions like most other dialects and languages. Contrastingly, it stems from liturgical and catholic paraphernalia. As far as I have been told this was due to some catechism between the dictatorial teachings of the catholic church and the people in Quebecois history, which has led to “host3” (ostie), “tabernacle”4 (tabarnac), and “chalice” (câlice) being some of the more profane words in the Quebecois swearing vocabulary. I actually witnessed one Quebecoise unable to utter all three for educational purposes because she found them too vulgar.

Eccentric or not, charms are always counterbalanced with a few drawbacks. Montreal definitely has at least two, which may soon be joined by a third depending how the winter season plays out. (I have yet to make up my mind of how hellish Canadian winter conditions will be, as the opinions I have received so far from local Montrealers range from, “it’s really nothing,” to “sometimes, I get in my car in the morning and want to cry”). Anyway, after 1700 words on a city’s attributes, I believe I am digressing a little.

Back to the two definitive drawbacks of life in Montreal: one would unquestionably be Montreal’s infrastructure. If a slab from a tunnel can fall down one day with no previous warning, a revision of the city’s infrastructure is not just debatable, but in store. One good starting point would be to stop the reward of bids to construction companies known to be owned by the mafia. The second is spiders. And, by “spiders” I mean any kind of size, shape, and variety of arachnid that has not only infested the exterior walls of my home, but can be found walking on taxi cab windows, in pubs, and, inevitably, in my nightmares. But, again, Montreal manages to find a yin and yang way of balancing the good with the bad: at least with the number of cobwebs lacing my windows, I won’t have to make much of an effort decorating for my first Halloween.

1 I will leave Cyprus out of this, as we accepted a long time ago that there are only two seasons: summer, and a slightly cooler version of it levelling at a mild 10-15 C.

2 If you live here and are looking to adopt or be a foster parent, the SPCA has dozens of pets (canines, felines, exotics) needing a home!

3 The sacramental bread or wafer given in Catholic churches.

4 The vessel in which the Eucharist is stored.

Making friends

September 8, 2011

Settlers of Catan board game

There’s always the question of making friends when moving to a new city. Yet, doing so is no longer as spontaneous or as easy as it used to be in school. It now requires work-like dedication, organization, and compromise, including: the acceptance of any invitations that come your way; the joining of groups and societies you might not have otherwise attended; and the self-promotion that discreetly calls out, “like me – I’m a great person – my friends back home will surely vouch for me”.

The process is trying at the best of times, but it calls for an interesting combination when the person you’re living with is a computer scientist by profession. This past Saturday we were invited by a computer science colleague of his to an evening of board games (plural). I can’t say my heart jumped at the opportunity, but I acquiesced in the name of meeting new people and (more importantly) avoiding the “anti-social” label that has been tagged on me too freely in the past. I picked out a bottle of wine, lowered my expectations at the conversation evading the topic of superior programming languages, and hoped Scrabble would be the game of choice. In hindsight, I wasn’t prepared enough.

Our host acknowledged our presence with a nod, already having turned his attention back towards the game, and shouted, “there’s another two,” by way of introduction to the rest of group. We were told we would be joining board game B and shown into the kitchen, where a daunting hexagonal board, with accompanying cards, pieces and biblical-sized rule book had been scrupulously laid out on the table. A drink would have been useful before proceeding further, but, alas, said host had already retreated back to board game A, with no further thought to offering us a glass of wine or one of the Hoegaardens I had spied on the table.

I sat down and so began the explanation of a game that looks down on Scrabble’s simplicity with scorn: “The point is to build a settlement and make it grow. You can only put one house on the intersection of two hexagons when it’s your turn, then build a road and add to your settlement with another building that must be placed two sides of a hexagon further than another settlement.

Then you earn a sheep, wood, brick, ore, or wheat card when the die are rolled and the total coincides with the number that has been randomly placed on the hexagon neighbouring your settlement. You can also negotiate with other players to obtain cards you don’t have and then use those cards, in the right combination obviously, to buy yourself another road, city, settlement, or development card. If a 7 is rolled, you lose half your cards, but that’s only if their total exceeds seven and you have the right to use the thief, which is this black wooden piece also placed on the board for no apparent reason…”.

By this point, the explanations started fading into the background and I practised staring at the bottle of Hoegaarden, taunting me from the opposite end of the table, in order to avoid the temptation of turning around and giving my boyfriend a look that telepathically said, “seriously?”, with just the right intonation of sarcasm and disbelief. My concentration back on the game, I realised I lost two crucial pieces of information in that time: (a) what constituted the point (and, therefore, end) of the game and (b) its average duration.

I scrambled through the first round, following the other players’ lead, and then decided to be adventurous on my second turn by placing a road right next to the one I had built. I felt eyes boring into me as I went to pass the die to the next player and looked up. The two players opposite me – one, an undergrad from Guelph (population 114,943), the other a mechanical engineering student who admitted to enjoying the occasional C-4 explosion – were giving me a disapproving look. “Am I not allowed to place it there?” Guelph answered, a little sheepishly at first, then with confidence, “No, you can. It’s just, there’s not much point to putting it there now. You wouldn’t be able to build the longest road; it doesn’t give you access to the ore resources you need; and you won’t be able to access the ports from there because there’s already a settlement blocking your path.” I didn’t argue. I retreated my ambitious piece and got up to rummage the fridge for the wine I brought, figuring the host’s chances of acquiring any hospitality traits in the next hour to be slim.

I have to admit the Settlers of Catan, as the game is called, started following some logic after the second glass of wine. But I still found myself unable to meet the dedicated enthusiasm of the more experienced players who, by this time, had started disputing a sub- sub-rule over the use of the thief. So began my plan for an exit strategy – beginning with the subtle dropping of hints on my approach to a Somalian-level of famine.

My opportunity to finalise the strategy finally came when the C-4 explosives fan won the game. I waited a reasonable 5 minutes and then turned around to my telepathically-challenged boyfriend to suggest finding some place near to eat. He chose a less direct approach to leaving than what I had in mind: “Why don’t we just order in pizza? Is anyone else hungry?”

Everyone has a limit that, when reached, encourages physical violence as the most effective form of communication. This was mine.

However, as per usual when the prospect of violence enters the equation, I was incapable of reacting in the manner the situation warranted. Two pizzas and a conversation on Parisian cats later and game number two was being set up. This, I was told, was a fun and less complicated game: Cosmic Encounter. From what I gathered, the game requires you to set up alien colonies through strategy, negotiation, a variety of function-specific cards and, (oh right) alien powers specific to your chosen alien avatar that are descriptively detailed on an A6 card. I don’t believe I have ever had to think so hard at 11 pm on a Saturday.

Our evening ended five hours after it began and we left, knowing full-well that this particular networking event wouldn’t really amount to anything more than the odd acquaintance.

A few days later and an invitation to “board game 2.0” was received for next Saturday, with the rhetorical: “what more can you ask for on a Saturday night!”. Who says computer programmers don’t go nuts over the weekend? I chose to politely decline. If I’m really not doing anything in terms of venturing out on a Saturday night – and, let’s face it, with -20C weather coming up, that’s going to be common – I’ll settle for a game where the simple (yet strategic) formulation of words can offer just the right level of satisfaction. A movie also seems a good alternative.

Tolerance and the Politician: What constitutes a political career breaker?

June 30, 2011

“The only way I can lose this election is if I’m caught in bed with either a dead girl or a live boy.”

This quote, occasionally repeated in some form or another in politics, is attributed to Edwin Edwards – one-time governor of the state of Louisiana circa 1927. I came across it, sadly enough, reading a page of quotations on American politics* and thought it quite a brazen thing to say to a 1920’s audience.

While Edwards was just driving his point that the election indisputably belonged to him, we can surmise that those two faux pas – bedding a dead girl or live boy – could have ended anyone’s political career at the time. What could lead a politician to lose an election today, on the other hand, is a question with no straight answer. Thankfully, I have yet to hear of a scandal involving a dead girl, but the latter of Edward’s categories already seems to be old news, with accusations arising just this month of a French ex-minister having molested several youngsters in Morocco.

As opposed to the 1920s, audiences today have encountered almost every conceivable scandalous tale of deceit, infidelity, and corruption – which prompts people to shrug when the media latches on to a new story. Yet, tolerance of a politician’s misconduct varies; and, bizarrely, appears to be measured differently depending on which side of the Atlantic his* electorate is based.

In a departure from American-European stereotypes, American politicians have generally had to pay a steep price for being caught for (frankly) not all that much. Ironically, it’s been the Europeans who have been the more unreservedly accepting of the two, allowing their elected officials to get away with adultery, corruption, and any combination in between. Let’s pick from headlines making the news today as an example.

To recap for all those of you without privileged access to the repetitive US media: just last month, Anthony Weiner, Democratic Representative of the state of New York and a (previously) strong contender for Mayor, decided it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to send a photo of his groin to a female student over the very public medium that is Twitter. Despite his best attempts to remain a member of Congress, Weiner was pressured into resigning his Congressional seat by his own party after confessing that (a) that was indeed an image of himself, (b) that it was not an isolated incident, and (c) that he had lied about his Twitter account having been hacked into.

Three weeks, a lie, and a few inappropriate images, and Weiner’s political career saw it’s final act. In Italy, 16 years of Silvio Berlusconi being the country’s on-off Prime Minister and the Italians have yet to oust him permanently from the Italian political scene. The offence? Well, first we would have to correct that to the plural and think of where to begin. While Weiner did lie to his constituents, his actions – however dubious – did not spill over into the political realm. Berlusconi, however, has taken nepotism to new heights: not just providing his close circle of friends and family with seats in his administration but offering them to frequenters of his so-called “bunga bunga” harem parties or to half-nude stars from one of his six (3 public, 3 private) television networks. An article in this month’s Vanity Fair, titled, ‘La Dolce Viagra‘, sums the Italian PM up quite nicely: “Imagine a President Donald Trump with the media holdings of Rupert Murdoch and the sexual tastes of an aging Charlie Sheen, and you’re approaching the idea of Berlusconi”.

Despite some whisper of a protest from the Italian community after Berlusconi was indicted for sleeping with an underaged girl, he has been allowed to continue life much as before. Though this is probably just testament to how many people are on his payroll, it could also be put down to a European quirk. While, time and time again, federal or state officials have resigned on account of some (usually sexual) indiscretion*, Europeans anticipate that their politicians have several skeletons in their closet.

Take Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s alleged rape of an employee at a New York hotel. While the US decided to arrest the former leader of the International Monetary Fund and make an example of him by accommodating him on Riker’s island without the option of posting bail, the French were in (what could only be deemed) a case of denial over the possibility of his wrongdoing. Instead, they debated the faults of the American guilty-until-proven-innocent judiciary system and reported on the new round of “French bashing” spurred on by “l’affaire DSK”. Not to say the French don’t have a point on both fronts; but, due to the people’s general attitude of separating politics from private lives, there is a sense that DSK’s chances of running for President would hardly have suffered a dent should the allegations have surfaced in France.

Again, when it came out that former French President François Mitterrand had a daughter with his mistress, the public was reportedly blasé. Even Mitterrand was quoted as replying: “Yes, it’s true. And so what? It’s none of the public’s business”, to a journalist who asked him whether he had a child from an extra-marital affair. Across the ocean (and several years later), former Governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenneger, was reviled by the media and the American public in May for fathering a son with his housekeeper at the same time his wife was pregnant with their fourth child.

Whereas American society is visibly more puritanical – expecting their politicians to be true representatives of the American ideology of a wholesome family unit – Europeans, perhaps, expect too little. However, this diversion in the way politicians are viewed by their respective public only holds true with regard to sex scandals. The number of politicians held accountable for real political offences in both North America and Europe remains feeble, at best.

There are two ways – or, rather, situations – where positions of prominence can withstand the outing of some flagrant truth: being a royal or a member of the Vatican. In the case of the former, extra-marital affairs (Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles), illegitimate children (Prince Albert of Monaco), and friendships with convicted paedophiles (Prince Andrew), have been covered relentlessly by the media but with little apparent effect on the political or business dealings of those involved. With regard to the latter…well, you just might get demoted to presiding over a lesser parish, but would be allowed to continue much as before.

Of course, there is a third situation involving political administrations with no electorate. But, that naturally does not apply to officials of Western countries: they preach the virtues of democracy, not totalitarianism.

*Yes, I do have some time on my hands.

*2 The majority of politicians are irrefutably male (approx. 80%) – as are the majority of scandals.

*3 Between 2010-2011 there have been 4 sexual-related resignations by American politicians. The list is slightly longer between 2000-2009: