My grandfather, God bless his soul, used to shout, when he was upset about something that we children were up to: “You donkey! You bear!” This was reserved for serious offenses only, such as when we tossed lettuce into the stove or climbed upon a pile of construction material pretending we had been ordered to do so by Marshall Tito (heroic Yugoslav games of yore). Relying on his sixth sense, he would then awaken from his slumber in the kitchen chair (lettuce) or storm out of the house (construction heap) and roar at the top of his lungs: “You donkey! You bear!” and we would retreat immediately.
The donkey was understandable. If such language was directed at you, you would understand the disapproval involved, although the donkey is now recognized as a noble and intelligent animal. The bear, however, was a mystery. We certainly had no contact with bears (or donkeys) so as to be acquainted with their bad ways. And it wasn’t just any bear that our grandfather invoked. Instead of shouting out “Medvyede!” which would have denoted just a regular sort of bear, he would scream “MeDJede!” which, as you can perhaps intuit from the sound, denoted a stupid kind of bear, just the kind to be mounting a pile of rubbish or stoking a fire indoors.
Times have changed since my grandfather’s passing and now people wishing to show opprobrium in my native land simply say “You horse!” The horse is used as a casual insult for everything and anything, when the offending party is a man. An offending woman is sometimes called a mare, but generally speaking, she is just a cow. This is why I love the French word “vachement” occasionally used here in Quebec. C’est vachement drole! No kidding.
I don’t usually think about bears, or horses for that matter. They play no role in my life whatsoever, although I am in favour of the Montreal calèche being banned. Imagine my surprise, then, when the bear reared his head thirty years after the lettuce incident, and this on the occasion of my Canadian citizenship ceremony which took place last October in an obscure reception hall in East Montreal, getting to which felt like leaving the country. This bear was neither a medvyed nor a medjed but a polar bear.
Halfway through the ceremony, the new citizens were shown a brief video of Canada: architecture, landscapes, animals and institutions, with glorious music playing in the background. Just toward the end, as the video advanced toward Canada’s more remote regions, a polar bear appeared on the screen and I instantly felt a pang. My eyes welled with tears. There were other animals in the video, too, as well as people: beavers, horses (RCMP), and all the cultures occupying the vast Canadian expanse. Yet, only the bear brought me to my knees, gazing as he was from the projector screen onto the ceremony, looking at once puzzled and peaceful.
I thought to myself: “You are being ridiculous, getting all teary-eyed over the sight of this bear! You don’t know one bear from another, you don’t know any bear!” But I was not alone. Among the friends who had come to honor the occasion, some were immigrants. A Syrian woman who had been living in Quebec for a quarter of a century gushed about the video, zoning in on the bear. It had made her weep!
What on earth was happening?!
For weeks after, I pondered the bear situation trying to find a plausible explanation. As in my childhood, the how and why of the beast remained shrouded in mystery. I pictured the face of the bear: white fur, black muzzle, black eyes, sitting peacefully in the northern snows. A polar wind blew ruffling the bear’s fur but the bear just looked ahead, unfazed, not even cold. Then, it dawned upon me: that bear was a symbol of something grand and pure, something untainted and untouchable, the embodyment of the final frontier (far as he was, up there somewhere in the north)- the very thing that Canada itself had represented to me and my friend and perhaps others present there that day: those of us who had once imagined and dreamed of it from far away. And here we were now, looking the bear square in the face.
This was not an altogether crazy interpretation. At the Thanksgiving dinner which I hosted to celebrate the citizenship, another friend innocently turned up with the gift of a teddy bear. This was neither a medvyed nor a medjed nor even a polar bear, but a grizzly bear: a citizenship bear, if you will.
As for why my grandfather employed the bear in a pejorative manner, I will never know.