Is there a Canadian who is not sorry

interview : "We hold the door open"

Mrs. Atwood, you have a reputation for being a good canoeist.

Yes, I have done a lot of great tours. But at my age it slowly subsides. The knees hurt, and they are very important when you are canoeing. So I don't do this that often anymore. Like many Canadians, I grew up canoeing. For a while I even gave classes and taught people how to steer the canoe. That is not easy.

The canoe is considered part of the Canadian identity. Author Pierre Berton wrote: A Canadian is someone who can make love in a canoe.

That's very difficult. It is possible, but why should you do something so complicated?

Berton probably meant it as a metaphor for the closeness to nature and for a specific Canadian ability to keep one's balance ...

He's probably right about that. But usually we get in a canoe, paddle somewhere, get out and then make love there. At least I would recommend that. Canoes are just too narrow for something like that! For the history of our country one can hardly underestimate the importance of the canoe: Canoes made this country possible in the first place. Otherwise the first settlers would not have been able to cross these expanses.

The love of nature and the wilderness seems to be a central element of the Canadian self-image to this day ...

Yes. Like many Canadians, I am a hybrid, a city dweller with a very strong relationship with nature. I grew up in the woods and am still regularly out and about in the wilderness to this day. I spent a large part of my childhood in our log cabin in the woods. The log cabin is still part of Canadian identity today, especially in this part of the country where I live.

How much has the vastness of Canadian nature shaped the people?

Europeans are obsessed with time, North Americans are obsessed with space. First: Canada is a northern country. We have a climate that reaches down to the coldest, most grueling sub-zero temperatures. Another formative element: If you go from Europe to North America, you are struck by how much land there is here. We Canadians usually have no idea how incredibly densely populated Germany is. This vastness has shaped us Canadians. Canada is the most networked country in the world, we have the most communication channels. There is no such close network in any other country because we live so far apart geographically. We also have a different relationship to distances. It's not unusual for us to sit in the car for seven hours just to get to our weekend cabin. In Europe you would be in another country after seven hours.

You visit Germany regularly; your German publisher is based in Berlin. When you compare the Germans with Canadians, what do you notice?

The Germans have a lot more humor than I thought. You can be really funny. In Canada, many see the Germans as a humorless people. And at least in southern Germany you really meet a lot of people who look serious. The Huguenots are said to have been very influential in Berlin. The Berliners say: That is the reason why we are so funny and quick-witted. Maybe there is something true to it.

And compared to Canadians?

Let's take the Berliners I know. These are people from the literary scene. We sit together in the Paris Bar and smoke - which is no longer allowed here - and have deep intellectual discussions about Thomas Mann and similar topics. Something like that rarely happens in Toronto, there is simply no such intellectual, creative scene as in Berlin.

You once spent a year in Berlin.

Yes, that was a long time ago. I went there for the first time in the 70s. I was the first author published by the publisher Arnulf Conradi. I was living in Edinburgh at the time and went to Berlin to publish my book. That was probably 1978. It was winter, it was cold. I was able to use the German I had learned in school and then in college.

How was your German going?

When I arrived in Berlin, my German was pretty stiff. But somehow it worked. Berlin was very good at improving the language because Berliners play a lot of word games. I wrote them all down at the time, including word games from advertisements and the like. That's always the hardest part: understanding something strange in another language.

For example?

My favorite word back then was: athlete's foot. I found that incredibly funny. The Germans said: Why is that funny? Then I said: We call it "Athlete's Foot". They laughed at me then.

Even later they were in Germany several times for longer periods.

Yeah, I was there for a couple of months in the 80s. Here, I brought this photo for you. It is from 1984 and shows me how I begin to write "The Maid's Report" in Berlin. The apartment was from the DAAD and was on Helmstedter Strasse in the city center. (In front of the cafe in which we are sitting, the construction noise from road construction increases.) Oh, that’s getting louder and louder. We have a joke about it: There are only two seasons in Canada: winter and road repair. Whenever the snow melts and you're looking forward to summer, something like that happens (shows on construction site). Why do we have so much road construction work? Because we have such severe frost. You in Europe have these beautiful highways that never need to be repaired. Enviable.

Aside from geography, how do you explain the differences between your country and ours?

We in Canada went straight from the 17th to the 19th century because of the endless border wars between Great Britain and France in the 18th century. We never had a period of Enlightenment like you in Europe! We slipped from 17th century puritanism straight into 19th century modernity. Voltaire once said of Canada: Quelques arpents de neige - a few acres of snow. He was right.

Does that still have an effect today?

Yes and no. The intellectual tradition of Europe is missing. On the other hand, there were very sophisticated aboriginal societies that had everything from settlements to trade routes. They also had very developed mythologies, there was wonderful poetry, and so on.

Which elements shape the Canadian self-image to this day?

A few decades ago Canada defined itself as follows: Conservative, puritanical, backward-looking, socio-politically backward, narrow-minded, intolerant. For example, before 1965 there was no legal form of contraception if you weren't married. The USA was then considered liberal, open, progressive. Now it's exactly the other way around. And Michael Moore is making a film in which he is amazed at how we Canadians manage to maintain a free health system.

How did Canada get the way it is today?

On the one hand: We are not an imperial power. And if you are a rather powerless, politically small country, then people care very little about what you do. So we had a different freedom to develop. While in the USA everything became more and more controlled and more rigid. Noam Chomsky was with us the other day and described how narrow the limits of freedom of expression have become in the United States. Then someone said: Here in Canada you can say what you want. Chomsky replied: But nobody cares. I think he was right. There was a time with us when people wanted Canada to be like the USA, the land of the free. Guess what is now the country that is most popular with immigrants? Canada. Who would have ever thought? In the past, immigrants only came to Canada because they wanted to go to the US from here.

What does immigration status mean for Canadian identity?

It's a very good influence. We don't pay so much attention to what other people look like or what family or ethnic background they have. Much more important is how someone approaches life and behaves in everyday life. Canadians hold the door open after going through.

What do you mean?

Here you go through a door and then hold it open for people behind you, regardless of whether they look white, black, yellow or whatever. I didn't experience it like that in Germany. I see this as a metaphor for impartiality in dealing with one another. The downside is that we can be very mean and hurtful when we don't like people. Like in Michael Moore's film. He asked a few Canadian teenagers what they do when they don't like someone. Will they shoot him? The children answer, “No, we're making fun of him.” That can be almost as bad. It's no coincidence that all Canadians who have made careers in Hollywood are comedians, from Jim Carrey to Mike Myers.

Sounds like a nice, lovable country that you live in.

Yes, but as I said, that wasn't always the case. I lived through a time when there was no garlic in Canada! The 1940s to 1960s were a strict, narrow, British phase. All the more, there were the craziest things under the surface back then. As I described in my book "The Blind Murderer". My favorite example of that time is Canada's longtime Prime Minister Mackenzie King. At that time he was thought to be the most boring person who has ever walked the earth. After he died, it was discovered that the political messages he was acting upon came from his mother's spirit, which he believed resided in his dog's body. It's a true story, it's recorded in his diaries. He also determined that decisions in parliament can only be made when the two hands are on the full or half hour. So he always made the whole parliament wait until the pointers were right without anyone knowing the reason. That was Canada back then: behind the facade, total madness.

Speaking of Michael Moore earlier, he has had a major impact on the public image of Canada recently ...

... yes yes, "Bowling for Columbine" I know. I'm sorry to disappoint you: we're locking our doors! In his film, he only knocked on people who were at home. No wonder the doors were open. When we leave the house, we lock up, no matter what Michael Moore says about it!

For many Germans, Canada is still above all a country full of natural wealth. Culturally, it's a well-kept secret.Which Canadian cultural assets - a book, a piece of music, a painting - would you recommend to a German to take with you to a desert island?

I would recommend Northrop Fry's Collected Works, it is everything you need to know, from world literature to writings on Canada. As music I would take the collected works of Gordon Lightfoot or Leonard Cohen with me. They both tell very rich stories. Maybe also a CD from the "String Band". They had a classic in the 1970s with the title "Show me the length of your cock" - and that in a country as puritanical as Canada at the time! As a painting I would take one of Lawren Harris' icebergs with me. They look fantastic, and when you are in the Arctic, you can see that he really painted the icebergs as they look. When I was up there for the first time, everyone on the boat said: Look, the icebergs look just like Lawren Harris's.

Interview conducted by Lars von Törne

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