and thus began a love affair with Quebec City
by Amanda Swartz

Monday, December 17, 2001 7:17:37 PM
Subject: final project
To:  Rhea Cote


Amanda Swartz
WST 301 Final
16 December 2001

 In 1998 I was 19 and working in Bar Harbor, meeting people from all over the world.  Among my roommates at the time were three women from France.  Anne-Constance Coll was a large, loud, fun and boisterous law student from Paris.  She enjoyed food and hiking, so we always had something in common.  Nathalie Berthe was a quiet person from the north of France.  She had a heart of gold.  Elise Thereau came from somewhere, maybe Lille, and she was studying agriculture.  She was carefree and always made people laugh.  I enjoyed their friendship, and during that summer we learned a lot from each other.  In August of that year they approached me and asked me to go with them to Quebec City for a weekend.  They were a little homesick and wanted to experience French culture in North America.  I was a little apprehensive at first about driving 600 miles roundtrip to a place where they didn't even speak English (although I spoke French), and most of all about travelling with the ladies.  As much as I loved them, th e thought of travelling with them didn't excite me.  I gave in, against my own wishes, and thus began a love affair with Quebec City, the Quebecois and the French-Canadian culture. 
I consider each trip that I take up there now a pilgrimage of sorts; each time I visit some of the same places.  They mean so much to me as they have become a part of me.  These include Notre-Dame, located right in the middle of Old Quebec, the Governor's Walk in front of the Chateau Frontenac, eating poutine (French fries, cheese curd and gravy) at Ashton's, the basilica of Ste-Anne de Beaupre, and hiking to the top of Montmorency Falls.  All of these places and the faces there have become a strong part of my identity.  As I walk down the streets I take in the language of the Quebecois; the twangy, nasal French that I have grown to love.  I admire the storefronts and the people that walk so close to one another, enjoying eachother's company.  It's just a different world, and one that is so important to me.  Through certain events, both hilarious and a little sketchy, I have found a place to call my second home.
The first trip up there, in August of 1998, opened a new door for me.   We left very late at night and had an adventurous drive.  Anne drove an automatic for the very first time and it scared her.  She couldn't understand P, R and D.  We were in the parking lot of the Irving in Jackman trying to get her used to the feel of the car.  After a while she became rather amused and figured it out.  Continuing on the highway, I grit my teeth but smiled to the best of my ability as Anne was driving my car.  Along the empty road there were warning strips calling attention to nearby moose.  Anne ran over one of those strips and looked at me, her eyes wide with fright.  "Sont les pneus?" she asked.  "No, no!that's not the tires blowing out," I replied to her.  I explained to her what they were for, as she didn't really know what a moose was.  Nervously laughing, she laid on the gas and the tires almost did blow out as they squealed and kicked up dirt and dust from the side  of the road.  I had her pull over again and we changed drivers.  I wanted to make it back from Canada in one piece.
We crossed the border without a problem and made our way through the Beauce region (known for its agriculture and lumber) and came upon the outskirts of the city.  Keep in mind that it was about two in the morning and my eyes were crossing.  We didn't have a clue as to where we would stay, but Anne thought herself a magical worker as she took in some of the hotels that we were passing.  I wanted so desperately to stop; I didn't care if we stayed in a roach motel as long as we got some sleep that night.  The other three girls were having a blast reading the French billboards and taking in the sights.  Eventually we saw Laval University up ahead.  Anne took the wheel from me and yanked it to the left across four lanes of traffic. 
I stopped the car and felt a very odd feeling, almost like I wanted to do something to her…she scared the daylights out of me.  The car was stopped and I looked at her.  I think she caught the glare of death in my eyes.  She pointed at a rather tall and large building and mentioned that we could probably stay there.  I wonder if she saw the big, blinking question mark over my head as she said that it was a dormitory.  I made my way over to it and she ran in and secured us a few rooms for the night.
They were the smallest dorm rooms that I had ever seen; two people were expected to live on top of one another in a space about the size of a closet.  The best part, however, was that the room had a sink.  I had never seen a lavabo before.  We got settled in and around 0300 we got together and went across the street to a student bar.    This was my first direct exposure to Quebec culture and its people.  We were complete strangers to these young folk, but they welcomed us in with open arms. 
Unfortunately it was too late to grab a beer, but we sat down with a group and started to chat about our lives.  We got back to the pavillon a little after four am, and the warmth of those students dazed me.   I learned so much about them in so little a time.  Years and memory have faded the students from my mind, but their openness still remains with me.
The next day was a little nerve racking for me.  We attempted to drive into the Old City and somehow made it in one piece.  We tried our best to find somewhere to park and eventually found a car park at the Chateau.  We got out of the car and I must have looked the stereotypical American tourist with my eyes popping out of my head and my map open, flapping to the wind.  I was suddenly very conscious of my old jeans, hiking boots and t shirt as I observed the stylish Quebecois in beautifully
coloured dresses and short sets, with bright scarves wrapped around their necks.  The women were some of the most beautiful I had ever seen.  They walked with a quiet confidence and with their heads held up high.  That clued me in to the people of Quebec.  They carry an inner pride that quite often shines outward in so many ways, through their openness and their kindness.  As they spoke, the expressions on their faces changed a hundred times, and they laughed constantly.  Their hands spoke, also.  Every part of their body  spoke with them.  Just watching them left me speechless.  I had never seen anything like it.  Usually when Americans express themselves they are banal and monotonous.  We never seem to be passionate as we speak.   I think we hold back our true emotions, lest we be afraid of what others might think of us.  Upon watching the Quebecois interact for a few minutes, I was mesmerized and drawn in.
The four of us decided to take a lengthy bus tour of the Old City and to Ile d'Orleans and Sainte-Anne.  I took in the history of the old part of the city and was speechless at the beauty of the place.  We made a stop at the Parliament Building and I gazed out over the expansive city line, across the St-Laurent River and out into the countryside.  There is nothing like it in the world.  The bus took us out to the historical Ile d'Orleans, which is considered the cradle of French Canadian civilisation.  Many of the French settlers claimed the island as farmland and from there the population grew.  We continued on to Montmorency Falls, taking the cable car across the falls to the top, and then to the Basilica of Ste-Anne.
The basilica is the biggest one in North America, and the first time I had ever been in one.  There are supposedly great healing powers of the site, and the soaring walls are decorated with crutches and canes of those faithful who have gone there and prayed for healing.  These relics serve as a testament to the power of the Basilica.  It is so beautiful, so very, very beautiful, that there are no words to describe it.  I believe that it serves as a great display of the faith and religion of the Quebecois.  A silence overtakes you as you enter the sanctuary.  It would make even the most non-believer fall to their knees.  It is a powerful place, and I have a desire to go back there every time that I go back for weekend.  There is almost a revival in me as I set foot inside the sanctuary.  I feel refreshed and more alive after I leave.  It is a shrine to the Catholic faith that is so deeply rooted in Quebec culture.
The day continued with hours and hours of festivities.  We had randomly picked that weekend to go up, and it was the weekend of the celebration of the anniversary of New France.  Thousands jammed the streets of the Upper and Lower Town, taking in the exhibits, dancing and singing demonstrations, battle reenactments, shopping and cuisine.  We ate at a small outdoor café called The Sautéed Rabbit (I was a little puzzled by the choice of names).  A small band nearby played traditional Quebec music, and we split a bottle of wine and toasted the weekend.  We shopped and walked around, absorbing the sights and capturing the excitement of the people.  That night we took in several open-air concerts where the air contained a sense of happiness and contentedness.  My head was pounding from all the French and from everything that we had done that day, but I had never been happier in my life.  This once strange city was becoming more and more comfortable to me.  We walked around a little while longer, stopping to have  drinks or watch the street performers.  This world was so very new to me, and I just fell in love with it.
Each subsequent trip to the city has showed me new things.  There is never a dull moment to be had for me.  I am not sure if I attract trouble or if it attracts me, but we always seem to (unfortunately) meet up whenever I make it up there.  In the spring of 1999 I went for a few days with some friends on a spring break excursion.  I was the only one in the group that spoke French and I spent the week translating for three other people.  I wanted to get out and take in everything, from concerts to shows to even the bookstores, but the others didn't really seem all that interested.  If English wasn't involved, they weren't' interested.  I did manage to drag them to Ste-Anne's.  They left feeling the same way that I had when I first saw it.  Beyond that, the trip had been rather disappointing.  I wanted to share my love of this place and of the culture with my friends, but they really didn't seem to care.  I felt very let down in a way, and I wondered if there was something w rong with me to love one place that much.
I was proved wrong twice in 1999.  In July I went with a friend for the weekend of his birthday.  That was the weekend I made the mistake of driving a standard in the heart of traffic in the city.  We crossed the border and switched drivers.  He fell asleep and all of a sudden I felt the way that Anne must have felt when she drove my car for the first time.  I was familiar with driving a standard but I think that I needed a refresher course.  I felt like I was going to be sick as I weaved in and out of lanes, trying to get into the city.  I made it in one piece, but I woke my friend up as I pulled into a hillside drive and tried to back up.  The car stalled, slipped gear and we started to roll down one of the steepest hills in the Old City.  Not a smart move.  Somehow we got out of that, but I was politely informed that I would never be driving his car in Quebec again. 
We spent a fantastic weekend eating French cuisine, sleeping in a cramped hostel with only a curtain for a door, going out and enjoying the night life, and we also encountered two new things for both of us; the Quebec smoker and the Quebec shopping mall.  I guess I had never really stopped to realise before how much of the population of the province smokes.  Everyone, from older folks to babies in prams, seemed to have cigarettes hanging out of their mouths.  One incident that left me speechless with awe was a gentleman and his wife in a restaurant.  They lit cigarettes when their meals arrived.  They would take a bite, have a swig of liquor, take a few drags of the cigarette, hold the cigarette in one hand and eat and smoke at the same time.  To say the least, I was impressed.  I later found a rather satisfying quote in Taras Grescoe's Sacre Blues about Quebec smokers; "Wherever you go in Quebec, you're rarely more than a dozen yards from a burning cigarette…the province of Quebec is , in effect, Canada's smoking section (10)."  How true.
The Quebec shopping experience, at least in terms of malls, is, to say the least, interesting.  My friend had heard of a shopping mall that was supposed to house a theme park, complete with roller coasters and a skating rink.  Urban legend or urban truth?  At that point we never found out.  We got so very lost that it wasn't even funny.   We eventually made our way to an obscure but rather crowded shopping plaza on the outskirts of the city.  The entire population of Quebec seemed to be out. 
We walked past the food court, and I was amazed at the choices.  There was everything from unidentifiable Asian something or other to poutine to grotesque sandwiches that were rather tall and filled with unknown meats.  Needless to say, we skipped on that and found ourselves in the middle of a store looking at a box of Calvin Klein underwear.  I think that my friend was going to buy them as he opened the box to inspect them.  A green and white striped pair of boxers sailed to the floor and a clerk came over to hel p us.  We were beyond help.  She asked me something in French that I didn't quite catch and I responded with a garbled French sentence that translated something like "We were just looking for a purple cow".  I am not sure what I said but from that moment on I was very conscious of my French.  The sales clerk nodded and went back to the band of sales ladies gathered behind the counter, laughing at us.  My friend quickly stuffed the underwear back in the box and we made a break for it.  I have been turned off from Quebec shopping malls, and I feel that we failed in our mission of trying to find the rumoured amusement park.  We enjoyed the rest of the weekend, and my friend learned to love Quebec as much as I did.  That made me very happy. 
I got to know Quebec a little differently during the last week of December 1999.  My best friend flew up from Georgia to stay with me for a week and to take in a few days in the city.  She was a French teacher and had never been to Canada.  Linda was excited about it, and her eagerness was contagious.  The drive was rather cold, as the thermostat in my car had decided to take a vacation with us.  The cold in the province was unbearable and the snow was high, but we managed through it.  We spent a lot of times in bars during that trip, getting to know the locals and soaking in the life.  Our fist night there we went to a hole in the wall bar on St-Jean that was so charming.  The walls were stone, the place was smoky and quiet with few patrons, and the selling factor was a lone piano in the middle of the floor.  Linda went right over to that ordered a drink.  Other patrons started to leave and the bartender came over to us and spoke with us for quite some time about the city, his life as a student, his family.
  Linda started to play the piano and sing and he grabbed a glass of wine with us and we simply enjoyed each other's company.  We left that bar feeling very complete and as if we had touched someone's life that night as much as he had touched ours. 
The next day was the day before New Year's Eve (St-Sylvestre) and we succeeded in getting lost in our mission to find that mall with the amusement park.  Yes, Virigina, there is a Santa Claus, we said as we took in the roller coaster and the indoor skating rink.  We spent hours and hours there among the people who were filled with holiday spirit.  They were very warm and friendly as I had known them to be.  We took in a few bookstores and spent so much time looking at Quebec poetry, literature and prose.  I had never realised before the strength of the Quebec art world.  The writing was all very vivid, fluid and real. 
That night we went out to yet another bar where we met two American men who were staying in our hostel.  We were pretty tight over the next few days, going out to eat, driving up to Montmorency Falls and taking the cable car up over an ice covered falls, and going to Ste-Anne.  It was a wonderful time, and we were all so happy and at peace.  We made plans to go out with each other on New Year's Eve.  The four of us got dressed to the nines and hit a few different bars.  Somehow we got lost and ended up in the Latin Quarter in a gay club.  To this day I don't know how we got there or why we went in, but what a festive time.  The music was fantastic and people were grabbing us right and left for champagne toasts and conversation.  It felt great to be part of a different side of Quebec City, one that I had never known before.  It was simply the best place and the best company to ring in the New Year.
I have made other trips since then, and each time I learn something new.  My language has improved and I feel right at home in the city, speaking with the locals, reading the daily papers and getting interested in the politics of the province, which are constantly hot.  I plan on doing grad school at Laval, or maybe at Concordia in Montreal.  I feel so at home and so liberated in Quebec; I identify with the way the Quebecois live their lives, with such freedom and openness.  The best way to describe what Quebec means to me was at an Easter mass that I attended at Notre-Dame in March of this year.  This church is old and beautiful and built within the walls of the Old City.  There was an ethereal presence in the room as the priest, dressed head to toe in colourful robes, led mass.  The hour and a half that I spent there silenced me.  The beauty of the French mass was amazing.  It seemed to me that this was the way the mass should be celebrated.  I felt the language take me over and the Quebecois around me lifted their hands up high as the priest praised God and their country.  Chills ran up and down my spine as I looked around.  I realised that I was home.


Je ne suis ni Athénien, ni Grec, mais un citoyen du monde.

Thursday, December 27, 2001 2:56:51 PM
Subject: Re: Fwd: final project
To:  Rhea Cote

You have my permission to print me up!  I hope my name in lights are next....I am off to France for a couple of weeks.  I wish you a great New Year, 
and thank you!


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