Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

July 21, 2006. Kamouraska, Quebec

I wish there were a way to convey sound and scent in words. They are so often the best part of the experience of a place.

I came to the small town of Kamouraska because Rita Alanon and I watched a program about it on TV. I was at Frank and Rita’s house (that's Frank Condelli, for the vanagonauts among you), the TV was on, and the children of Kamouraska were building a model village. Rita said Kamouraska was a nice place, Frank said it had a street of artsy shops, I put it on my itinerary.

I got there in the afternoon, and found myself at a painting symposium, a few dozen people in the community hall working with oils, acrylics, and watercolors, their work on display and for sale. This area attracts artists, it seems – not only Clarence Gagnon, whose paintings of Charlevoix in winter so impressed me, but lots of contemporary ones, some of whose works were also rather nice. I resisted the momentary temptation to buy a sun-drenched impressionist oil of the landscape around me, and spent five dollars on a poster instead. I’m definitely looking towards housing, I guess – a poster is not only useless in a van, but I’ll have to spend the next month making sure I don’t crush it!

Kamouraska is spread along the south side of the St. Lawrence, so I walked along the street closest to the river till I arrived at a small terrace, two piers, a boat launch, and a small beach. The tide had begun to ebb when I wandered towards the water, picking my way across wet sand and small rocks. I walked out a long way, past the ends of the piers, but was still hardly in above my waist. I floated there, watching the shore and the sky, enjoying the cool salty water that surprised me when I first tasted it.

Back at my van in the early evening, I watched as groups of people congregated around the picnic tables on the terrace. A woman approached me to talk about my van. There are a lot of Westies here – I’d approached a young couple earlier in the day about theirs. This woman was from Riviere du Loup, a few miles further down the river, and wanted to tell me about being afraid to travel alone. Afraid of everything, actually. She’d had a bicycle accident not too long ago, hit her head, and since then she was different, afraid. She needed to regain her confidence in herself, she told me. Vas-y, I encouraged, go for it!

I settled at one of the picnic tables on the terrace to chop vegetables for a salad, and the people nearby started talking to me. Rather to my amusement, they didn’t even remark on my food preparation, just chatted about the town, the sunset, the fact that "that red van over there has plates from Virginia, so far away!" I was amused by that, too.

Quebecers aren’t like the French. They are friendly and outgoing. They talk to strangers. They use the French "tu"

with everyone - the informal, instead of the formal "vous." In France it would give great offence if you use "tu" to a stranger. In Quebec it would seem awfully unfriendly not to.

One of these people - she and her husband – are from the Montreal area, but they have what they called a “chalet” in Kamouraska. "Chalet" in French translates as "cottage" in English, it's not the lavish home suggested by the English word. And this was certainly a basic cottage - no electricity, no running water. They spend three weeks a year in the town, when the husband has vacation. Another man joined us, who lives there year round. He pointed out the two silos of his farm, which his sons took over from him when time came for him to retire. Now he works part-time for the town, and he advised me on the best spots to evade the restrictions on spending the night in my van. He was a friendly man, but I couldn’t understand his French at all. The woman said he had the accent “du terroir” (which means land, or territory - has nothing to do with terrorism!). He was a man of the soil and spoke that way. She had to translate from French to French, though, so I could follow what he said. Everyone comes to the terrace, she told me, to watch the sunset, meet up with their friends, chat, and make new friends. We all stayed till the sun had disappeared and the clouds went from rosy pink to deep blues and grays.

In the morning I woke early; I’ve come almost to the eastern edge of the time zone, and by five it’s light outside. It’s lovely here in the early morning, quiet, gray, peaceful. The tide was ebbing once again, the fragrant mud emerging, gleaming in the sunlight from behind the clouds. Songbirds filled the air in the gardens, while gulls screeched over the water and picked their way delicately across the tidal flats. Even the early morning walkers apologize for an accidental loud noise. It smells of the sea, without the crashing of waves to disturb the perfect calm of the morning.

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