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Je me souviens: A road trip to la Gaspésie

I felt something akin to stage fright when a woman 1300 miles away answered the phone, “Bonjour!” I’d not kept up with French in the four decades since earning C’s for it in college, and had not needed that knowledge to make online bookings for traveling with my husband, Robin, to Québec. However, I found no electronic forms, only websites listing telephone numbers, for lodgings in Percé– the little village at the tip of la Gaspésie (the province’s Gaspé Peninsula) that would be our end-point.

“Uh…Bonjour. Parlez-vous anglais?” I stumbled my reply to the hostess; then inquired in English about accommodations at her B&B for the first Monday and Tuesday in July.

She spoke my language considerably better than I did hers. We proceeded without difficulty until she inquired, “So, will you be here Monday through Thursday?” I felt proud of myself for fishing out “lundi et mardi” from long-atrophied brain synapses. We were set.

“Let me warn you, no one speaks English up there.” “Or they pretend not to,” said friends who had visited the area. I regret never becoming fluent in a second language. Living in Harrisonburg, Virginia, U.S., where there are many Spanish-speakers, I’ve learned slightly more Spanish than French, but only enough that I might intend to answer “oui” but say “si.” Robin’s French is about the same. Nothing would deter us, though, from this road trip retracing a journey I’d made with my parents, c. 1959, to Montreal, Quebec City, and up the St. Lawrence Bay to the iconic Roche Percé (Percé Rock) on the Gaspésie.

In mid-June, temps topping 95, we headed north in our Honda hybrid (making sure to pack CDs by Edith Piaf and Montrealer Leonard Cohen, plus a pocket French dictionary and – as required between our countries since ’04 – passports). Following visits with friends and family in Vermont, we crossed the border where I-87 (New York’s “Northway”) becomes AUT-15 and the stop signs say only “arrêt.” Adventures began.“O,” we realized after one wrong turn, means “Ouest” (West). At lunch in a resto-bar, the waitress addressed us in English once she heard us speaking it. She also tried to help Robin negotiate the eatery’s ATM (which proved to be out of cash). Her kindness would typify our interactions on this trip.

We soon arrived in Montreal and checked for the night into a modest old downtown highrise, Le Tour Belvedere Apt. Hotel. (Could it be, I wondered, the one long ago where my mother was shocked at paying $20?) We strolled among the historic McGill University buildings, sculptured-garden parks and dockside restaurants, and visited Chapelle Notre Dame-de Bonsecours, whose titular statue raises her arms toward the St. Lawrence River, blessing sailors. The stars in her hoop-shaped halo called to our minds a gospel hymn, “Will There Be Any Stars in My Crown?” I later discovered her role as Cohen’s “Our Lady of the Harbor” in “Suzanne.” We would encounter many Marys overlooking harbors around the province.

Once leaving Montreal we began hearing less English. We were getting a small taste (from the easy position of tourists) of how it feels to be “foreign” – puzzling over exact charges (linked to fluctuating pennies’ differences in dollar values); comparing kilos, liters and Celsius with miles, gallons and Fahrenheit. (We had quickly discovered “100 k.p.h.” means 62 m.p.h., but had no idea what we were paying for le gaz until doing the math: $1.28/L equals $4.83/gal. At home that week, the price was $3.09, though we Americans do love to complain about fuel costs!)

French is the mother tongue of more than 85 percent of Québecois and the province’s official language since 1977. We had no trouble finding people who spoke at least some English, however, and almost everyone was friendly.

Most signs had been in English when I’d made the trip with my parents. Yet when the car broke down, my father (an engineer) and a mechanic – not knowing a word of each other’s languages — communicated by opening the hood, gesturing and pointing. It worked. (This time, fortunately, our three-year-old car made the 3,103 miles without a sputter.)

We found we had not needed our new international cellphone; unlike at home, public phones are still abundant.

After an easy drive of about 160 miles (240 kilometers) through mostly pine forest that looked as uninhabited as sections of Nevada, we arrived in Québec City. Our four days there were to be magnifique, but began inauspiciously that rainy night as we searched seemingly forever for our B&B – Hotel Jardin Sainte-Anne, on Rue Sainte-Anne in Vieux-Québec, the old part of the city. (We asked passers-by, who tried to help, but A, at first I mispronounced “Sainte-Anne”; B, there seemed to be another Sainte-Anne, outside Vieux-Québec; and, C, we would later hear that Vieux-Québec, like many old villages, began with buildings and added its wondrously convoluted streets as an afterthought.) Eventually gendarmes provided workable directions.

After checking into Hotel Jardin (which we’d highly recommend, once you find it), we had some disconcerting moments alone in the totally-automated parking garage around the corner. Once its gates closed, with no human presence at that late hour, each “sortie” sign (meaning exit, not to be confused, as I’d done, with“soiree”) led to a locked door. I’d misplaced the cellphone. We feared being trapped overnight, and were quite relieved to come upon a nearly-hidden egress.

The next morning, like the rest of our time in Québec City, proved merveilleux. Flowers burst from windowboxes everywhere. People seemed tolerant of notre très pauvre français. Our carriage tour driver showed a flair for puns. (Ex., a follower of Jeanne d’Arc tried to bring her ashes home “but was arrested at the border for smuggling heroin[e]”). The horse, Mick (for Jagger), drank from tall, 19th-Century curbside fountains.

We gradually discovered QC’s levels: the newest part (glimpsed briefly); the 18th-19th Century section where we stayed; central Vieux-Québec with its parks (including magnificent, still-healthy elms), historic ramparts and Château Frontenac; and below, the 17th-18th Century waterfront. Buskers entertained tourists on the graceful promenade of the Frontenac (the 1893 grand hotel that dominates Québec’s skyline): a woman singing Piaf’s “Vie en Rose”; a tenor performing “Ave Maria”; an organ grinder aided by a toy monkey; and a harpist, by an angel in drag. We hiked sections of the ramparts (QC being the only walled city north of Mexico), where wildflowers and graffiti make themselves at home among 1759-vintage stones. Following a harbor cruise with views of towering Montmorency Falls, we took in a free, slapstick Commedia dell’Arte performance in a cobblestone square.

Musée du Fort gave an overview of the struggle for control of Québec including an electric-map depiction of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, when Britain conquered the city. We encountered a more close-up vision of the past’s dark side in Québec’s original jail. Directly across Rue Sainte-Anne from our B&B, beside a picturesque downhill walkway, was the spot where 16 prisoners were hanged during the jail’s operation (1808-1867). Those included one apparent serial killer, our young Québecois jail guide informed us, but children as young as five shared cells with their mothers, and an 11-year-old was imprisoned for stealing food. We stood briefly in a dungeon cell, its chain for leg-irons intact. Floor markings made by prisoners –mostly French settlers, jailed under British rule – are preserved, including squares for forbidden chess games. The site, Morrin Cultural Center, is named for the college that later operated there until 1902.

Nearer the river, at the airy Le Musée de la Civilisation, we found multimedia presentations on the four-century history of relations between Canada’s French, British and aboriginal populations. Turning, foot-weary, from beautiful Inuit woodcuts to rest in front of video screens, I was rewarded with lively explorations of reforms, secession campaigns and the evolving Canadian/Québecois identity. Québecois from varying walks of life discussed the meaning of “Je me souviens” (“I remember”), the province’s license-plate slogan since 1978. One interpretation cites a quote, referencing French and British floral emblems, by architect Eugène-Étienne Taché, who had “Je me souviens” inscribed on Québec’s Parliament building: “Born in the lilies, I grow in the roses.”

We wondered: Was it the luck of the draw that our friends had found no English-speakers? Had they simply arrived in a different political season? We wished the nativists in America, who are horrified about bilingualism, could experience this vibrant city in a country that has been officially bilingual for four decades.

Food tended to be highly flavorful and served in healthfully modest portions. (An exception, portion-wise, seems to be the poutine – a francophone concoction of potato, cheese and condiments that may help one’s cholesterol count no better than McDonald’s fare, but is tastier.) Our most sublime culinary experience was dessert at QC’s1640 Restaurant: crème brule.

The weather was mostly Spring-like, with quick successions of sun, rain, overcast, sun, rain. (Back home, following the mid-Atlantic states’ “derecho” storm, folks sweltered in temperatures over 100.)

Struggling to navigate out of Québec City (sigh!), we debated whether to think about investing in GPS. (It might have saved some time, but did we want a robot voice continuously ordering, “Turn. Right. Here”? Anyway, our directions from MapQuest –GPS’s lower-tech predecessor — abruptly stopped at the entrance to Vieux-Québec. Perhaps MapQuest simply could not cope with the old city. Could GPS?)

On to la Gaspésie. Pine forests; low hills; hamlets. We tented two nights at Parc National du Bic, hiked, clambered over rocks, and found elongated dandelions, unblighted hemlocks, wonderfully swaying birches, the near-full moon at midnight, and by day, foxes calmly sharing human trails.

A note from my journal, at an overlook where seals are often spotted: “I experimented with the camera’s zoom feature and found groups of rocks, some of whom may or may not have been animal. They moved slightly, or else waves washed over them. Je ne sais pas.”

We might have seen more wildlife if we’d found campsite vacancies at the more remote Matane and Gaspésie parks. Soon, however — crossing the peninsula on inland Rte.198 — we had to brake for a moose and black bear. You can drive Rte. 132 all around the Gaspésie, keeping the bay to your left. Robin and I bypassed a bit of it via 198 (I believe missing cliffs that loomed spectacularly above the bay in my memory). Although the decades have brought commercial clutter, I recognized the shape of the land, breakers on hilly shorelines, little, brightly-painted homes, rows of tiny cabins resembling our midcentury accommodations, and in every fishing village a tall, slim church with a steeple and, often, an “Our Lady” welcoming ships. Most striking is the deep, ethereal blueness of sea and sky. The brightest rainbow I’d ever seen appeared over the bay as we approached Percé – site of my long-remembered Le Rocher-Percé.

We checked into gîte, B&B a la Revasse, where I had phoned that reservation to our delightful hostess, Brenda Cain. We enjoyed breakfast camaraderie with other guests, though understanding few words. From the gîte we could see the jagged, near edge of the iconic rock, accessed by thrill-seekers scrambling across a sandbar at low tide. My interest in returning had been roused by reading a report from a young man who made that trek, but Brenda’s husband, William Lambert, said that activity – while not prohibited — had been strongly discouraged since an injury from a falling stone sparked a lawsuit.

The next morning, catching a ferry to nearby île Bonaventure, I saw Le Rocher from the vantage point I recalled, its arch in full view. Nearing Bonaventure, a curious seal came close enough to make eye contact, and we began seeing what Robin – who has a knack for whacky puns — called “l’oiseaux up the wazoo”: nearly 100,000 nesting Northern Gannets. We hiked to their refuge across the lovely island with its bright green vegetation. L’oiseaux crowd together for safety (an apparent priority over fragrance). Their cry is no song; their movements, awkward on land, but graceful in flight.

Fewer gannets now return each spring after wintering on the Gulf of Mexico. In 1959 we’d heard that children living on the island (whom I much envied) got ferried across to Percé for school, weather permitting. Their small, whitewashed homes remain nestled above the harbor, though the last families were moved off Bonaventure by 1985 to create the park.

Rangers provided interpretation in English, although we were the only visitors needing it. We saw Japanese tourists, but none of our countrymen, and only a few Canadian anglophones, on the Gaspésie. Almost everyone we passed on the trails said “bonjour,” which gave me opportunity to practice pronunciation. Sometimes I heard an “r” sound, sometimes not. I am not certain of ever getting it quite right.

Momentarily, a fox blocked the side path from an outhouse, staring us down, then abruptly dove into shrubbery to emerge with a mouse in its jaws. Its parting glance seemed to say, “ma souris!” (My mouse!)

Bonaventure has no standing water source, so visitors had to bring their own supply. Fortunately we’d done so, but only had one 140-calorie trail-mix bar each for lunch. Walking 5.6 km (3.6 miles), I felt proud of that calorie-to-exercise ratio.

Lobstermen joined tourists for the return ferry. “L’eau ici est mauvais” (the water is bad), a waitress advised us at the dockside restaurant where we had fish and chips, plus the recommended house wine.

Waking at 4:15 a.m. the morning we would depart, I found total daylight – not dawn; bright blue sky. At Latitude 48, Percé’s midsummer light is different from that at home (37) – softer, though I’d gotten slightly sunburned. Mists linger through much of the morning around Le Rocher.

That night in Campbellton, NB — July 4 — we watched Boston fireworks on TV. In a sentimental moment I recalled the welcoming figure in the New York Harbor who, like the Bonsecours statue, sometimes gets dubbed “Our Lady of the Harbor.” Our stateside entry the following day, however, was by Highway 95 into Maine, where we found (just as rumors had it) that returning to our own country entailed answering more questions than getting into Canada had. Ex.: What was our relationship to each other? Why had I (driving) not stopped for the car in front of us to clear? (I meekly apologized.)

We soon arrived home, happy to see family and three demanding cats. Canada, we concluded, really is the highly civilized, cooperative society we’ve often heard described. That impression has remained unchanged since discovering that one exception – a nameless, faceless individual near Montreal – rang up charges on Robin’s check card weeks after the card (and Robin, who’d never misplaced it) had arrived home. (We were not out the cost for that, unlike removal of the virus our laptop probably acquired when I connected on WiFi in Maine or Massachusetts.)

My next dream is to take a class in conversational French, and return.

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