Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

July 20, 2006. Quebec City

When I arrived in Quebec I didn’t like it at all. I got off the ferry that brought me from the south shore of the St. Lawrence and found myself surrounded by tour leaders, tour buses, tour groups, and people speaking English, French, Korean, Chinese, Spanish, and a few other languages. In this, the famed lower part of the old city, every shop catered to tourists, selling t-shirts, crafts by Genuine Quebec Artisans, Inuitcarvings, maple syrup, and mugs printed with the Quebec fleur de lis. A pair of costumed guides sat in front of one of the shops interpreting local history for the

tourists in English and French. One was one dressed as a fur trapper, the other as a backwoodsman. Improbably, both of them were women. I guess equal employment opportunity can’t be sacrificed to realism. Aside from the tourism personnel, it was clear that no one walking the streets of the lower city actually lived in Quebec. I wondered where the locals were in this stage-set, imitation city.

I escaped into an old stone structure opposite the ferry landing, a 17th century house that went through a number of incarnations – home, warehouse, inn, ruin – before becoming a historic site. There weren’t many people inside, so the employees hurried to offer me brochures, information, a guided tour. We chatted a bit, and they sought out the French version of their flier, which hadn’t been on display. I was instantly delighted. For some reason I am terribly impressed with myself for having actually learned the French language, though clearly for most of the world mastering more than language is routine, and certainly nothing to be proud of. But I'm inordinately pleased with myself for this accomplishment, and whenever anyone takes me for a native speaker I am flattered all out of proportion to what is warranted. Anyway, I agreed to go on the guided tour, though I was warned that it was to be an English tour, not a French one, and I was the only visitor going on it.

It turned out to be good fun. Both museum guides decided to come along, and we chatted about all sorts of things in addition to the speech they were trained to give. They were dressed in period clothing and were supposed to be a well-to-do 18th century merchant couple. In the 21st century they were clearly good buddies, and they teased and joked. We went back and forth between English and French, filled each other in on obscure vocabulary points, and discussed impossible-to-comprehend regional accents in each other’s languages. I have great trouble with thick Quebecois French; they hadn’t been able to follow the Texas English of Brokeback Mountain. It was all very jolly, and I was feeling much better about this tourist town when, halfway through the small museum, they suddenly realized they were already late for their next tour, and they had to rush off. Later, I realized I should have asked about how the locals saw the city, but I missed the chance.

From there I slowly made my way beyond the tourist areas. Climbing the hill, I found myself at a Parks Canada information center, so I picked up brochures about Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. Across the street the Quebec information center had a sign for internet access, so I stopped into their wonderfully air conditioned office to check my email. And then I headed west, bypassing the citadel and the castle to stroll along the Avenue St. Jean into an almost real neighborhood, albeit one filled

with very chic épiceries, cute gift shops, and a pricey health food store. But once I'd passed the streets on my tourist map, I was in the city itself – block after block of three-, four-, and five-story apartment buildings with balconies overhanging the avenues. The stores became quite ordinary – pharmacies, an IGA supermarket, a community center, and for some reason an incredible number of manicure shops.

The afternoon got even hotter, and I meandered into any place that looked air conditioned just to cool off – pharmacies, groceries, whatever. Heading left toward the cliff edge and the river, the neighborhood became more upscale, big old mansions replacing the apartments. I found myself at a park, the Plains of Abraham, once the site of a major battle. Now the battlefield is a huge lawn, circled, much to my amusement, by a nicely paved trail dedicated solely to roller blading. A separate trail just outside the

skating one was for runners, and the posted rules explained that cyclists were banned from both trails, and had to use the park roads. Sidewalks were available for those simply out for a stroll. I’d certainly seen a lot of roller bladers in Canada, but the idea of a dedicated roller-loop around a historic battlefield just made me laugh. I determined that I absolutely had to overcome my fear and get out on my skates, and then perhaps I’d come back into town and actually skate around the Plains of Abraham.

Past the roller-loop, I found myself at the Quebec Museum of Fine Arts. Earlier in the day I’d passed a wall plastered with an array of posters, including one for what looked like a lovely exhibit of landscapes in snow. So when it turned out that this was the late evening and the museum would be open for another few hours, I bought a ticket and went inside.

It was a delight. The exhibit was devoted to one Clarence Gagnon, an early 20th century painter who worked in Charlevoix and the Laurentian Mountains, the region on the north side of the St. Lawrence downstream from Quebec. I was floored by his paintings. They were just wonderful. He really liked winter, and even then – in pre-automobile 1910 or thereabouts – he romanticized the small villages of the regions and sought to portray the “good old days.” I loved the snow. His scenes are buried in it, small houses surrounded by huge drifts, gray skies, horses pulling sleds, wisps of smoke drifting out of chimneys to suggest the warmth inside. Yes, yes, I know that his paintings made it all far more enchanting than I would find it had I really to spend the winter in the bitter cold of Charlevoix. But thank goodness I don’t have to spend the winter there, and I do find the imagery delightful. I even bought the exhibition catalog, a great big hardbound book that I’ll have to find space for in the van somehow.

Next morning I stuck to my determination to get onto my skates. Ignoring my fears, I headed out on another wonderfully manicured trail - this one shared with bikes and runners - along the south shore opposite the city. To my surprise, I can skate! It’s nothing like as easy as riding a bike, but it did come back to me. And after the first couple of curb cuts, I could even glide slowly over them, braving their little bumps without stumbling or falling into the street. I put on ten miles or so, and it was delightful. The last stretch was a long gradual downhill, and I soared along, the wind in my face, my hair flying behind me, almost the way I sometimes do in my dreams. It was the best part of being in Quebec, by far.

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