|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
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
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
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
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
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)."
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
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
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!