March 27, 2003

Québec notes

To all those people who thought we'd go sweep through Iraq, shoot Saddam, and bring democracy to this poor beleaguered nation, I have to say We Told You So... and it still sickens us to be right.

Anyway, about my trip. I've spent the last few days up in Québec. In fact, I'm typing this on Tuesday night in a youth hostel in Québec City, although I won't be able to post it until I get back. That's because I have no internet access, which is a little weird for me, along with no phone access, which is weirder. Nice, though.

Theresa and I arranged to leave on Saturday at about noon, which we hit pretty well---we left my house at 12:10, stopped at the biomed center to pick up her hat, and then hopped onto I-95 north. Amazingly, despite not starting packing until 11 that morning, I managed to forget nothing more crucial than a belt. Anyway, we cruised up to the New Hampshire border, stopped for lunch at a lovely little Italian diner called Luisa's in, I think, Londonderry (and also stopped at the Ben Franklin next door). I took over driving and continued north.

Driving a Volvo is pretty neat; a big change from my little Prizm. See, Volvos are sturdy cars, with heavy steel frames and solid construction. You have much more of a feel of piloting the thing down the highway than in other cars, and where they have good pickup you get this sense that it's entirely due to having a huge engine under the hood, rather than being a small, zippy little car. It's pretty cool.

(I'm sitting here in the lounge of the hostel, and a guy just walked in with an iPod he plugged in to recharge. I actually saw the charger first, and recognised it and laughed, then saw the iPod itself. Theresa noticed and asked me a question about my iPod, which brought the guy into the conversation. His name is Hervé, and he's from Strasbourg. He's teaching French at Oberlin for a few years before going back to France to teach high school. He has an iBook, and I think I just talked him into getting a wireless card for it.)

A little after Burlington, VT, we stopped again to put some gas in the car and feed Theresa's caffeine habit, then continued on. We crossed the border with no fuss (we had our passports out and didn't even need them; the border guard did ask if we had alcohol, which was ok to bring in but apparently we weren't supposed to tell him it was a gift), and continued on to Montreal.

Now, let me explain the situation. We had an address in Montreal, and we had one of those little four-inch inset city maps that are around the edge of a larger map (in this case of Québec and the Atlantic Provinces). We also knew that the address was somewhere near McGill University. How hard could that be? Theresa seemed confident in my ability to remember the city I'd last visited in 1998, to go to a conference. Ack! Oddly enough, I actually put us on exactly the right road---Rue Sherbrooke---as stopping at a gas station confirmed, and we found the apartment with no further event.

The apartment wasn't locked (you've seen Bowling for Columbine, right?), and we went up. Our host wasn't there, but one of her housemates was, and he'd been told to entertain us until we got back. So he showed us around and took us up to the kitchen, where he did his laundry and chatted with us. Now, let me explain that I was there because I was Theresa's friend, and Colleen is one of Theresa's best friends from home, and Shannon is Colleen's sister who goes to McGill. All of Shannon's housemates were nice and welcoming and everything; how much better does it get?

That night, we went out to the Shed Cafe for dinner, which was excellent; we took a cab back to the apt and were going to go out again, but we had inertia and basically just sat around talking, and doing a crossword puzzle, until two in the morning, when we got out our stuff and went to bed.

In the morning, Theresa and I got up and went to Mary Queen of the World church---rather, to Marie, Reine de la Monde; it was in French. I love that stuff. I followed a surprising amount of it, and occasionally leaned over to fill Theresa in. I'm a little mad that I neglected to pick up a little booklet with the mass music in it---I'd actually looked for it, didn't see it, and assumed that the music would be in the books in the pews---but at least the books in the pews had the order of the mass, with all the prayers and responses and stuff. Fantastic.

Afterwards, Colleen met us and we went across the street to this weird mall-tunnel thing (most of the stores had storefronts on the street, but were connected inside; it was kind of like a one-storey mall, but not exactly), where we went to a restaurant called Marché Mövenpick... it was so cool. You get a card they call your "passport", then you go around to all these stations where you get food and they stamp the passport with what you got. You can eat for a while, then go get more, and at the end you pay for all the things that got stamped. There is a whole station for coffee, one for crepes and waffles, another for pastries, one for salady sorts of things, and a bunch more for all sorts of different things. Not cheap, but not terribly expensive, either, and I highly recommend it.

After that, we wandered down to the Vieux Port, where we did a little window shopping and just admired the architecture and the cobblestone streets and such. Then we turned up Rue Bonsecours, which turns into Rue St Denis, a great little street where we got coffee (which I ordered in French, go me) and did more rubbernecking before returning to the apartment. We had originally intended to continue on to Québec that night, but Shannon asked us if we wanted to stay; we considered it, and ultimately I realised that I'd much rather drive to and arrive in Québec while it was light out (this, in retrospect, was an excellent idea). So we stayed.

Theresa and I went to an Afghan restaurant about a mile east of there, which was excellent. It's a lot like Indian food, with similar names and similar dishes; a little less spicy, and just plain different in some ways, but good. The sauce they served with the appetisers was amazing, so much so that we asked after it and bought a whole jar of it (they don't normally do that, but for just C$15 a jar they could just about create an export market for the stuff). I gather that it's relatively new, but it was shockingly empty; if you go to Montreal, I highly recommend tracking down this place and going there.

After we got back, we sat down with everyone and watched the Oscars. Not as political as I expected, but still worth watching (boy, did Michael Moore ever get them riled up). Steve Martin had just the right level of funny, and the organisers kept things moving. Interesting that there were five awards to people who weren't there to accept them. To be fair, one had died---and his son definitely gave the best speech of the evening, though Peter O'Toole's was pretty good too. Nicole Kidman looked uncharacteristically terrible---her hair was too light and in a bad-for-her do, the dress was unflattering, and her arms looked downright skinny. Her incoherence on getting the award didn't help things, though of course I can't blame her for that part. And I'm pleased that she got an award, though I haven't yet seen The Hours. (I will now, eh). I do think Queen Latifah should've gotten Best Supporting over Catherine Zeta-Jones, though. After the Oscars, I stuck around for awhile and tasted a bit of the fast food the guys had ordered---called 'poutine', this is essentially french fries baked in gravy with a layer of cheese on top, quite good; did I mention these friends-of-the-sister-of-my-friend's-friend were nice?---and went to bed.

In the morning, we got up, packed up, and left. I drove us out of Montreal (making a coffee stop on the way) and onto Autoroute 40 to Québec. My iPod's car adapter celebrated its inaugural trip with first a mix of country music and then a Paul Simon mix that carried us into Québec. We had better maps this time, so despite having some one-way issues we found the youth hostel with no great incident. It's right up in the old city, inside the walls, close to everything. We got a two-bed room for C$50 a night, so that's about US$16 per person per night, not bad at all. We headed back out to wander around the city for a while, in a sort of adirectional way, vaguely looking for food. A few hours later we decided that we'd start seriously looking for food and eventually that we'd take the next food place we found even if it was more expensive or not exactly what we were looking for, and it turned out to be both cheap and exactly what we were looking for: the Casse-Crêpe Breton served up savoury crepes for about four dollars each.

After we ate, we headed back up the hill to the Notre-Dame de Québec Basilica-Cathedral, which was in a completely different style from the Montreal cathedral---much more gold leaf and such. There was an exhibit on Monseigneur de Montmorency-Laval, the first bishop of New France, who was beatified in 1980 and is awaiting canonisation. Between his two names, he contributed the names for about fifty or sixty things throughout the province, including a town, a university, and a bunch of streets, rivers, and lakes.

At this point, we headed back to the hostel and signed up for the tour that was starting later, and then went out to get coffee. At about 7 we realised that we hadn't eaten dinner, so we each bought a muffin (I ordered in French again, go me) and went back.

(CNN's reporting just included a summary of recent political cartoons, one of which was apparently captioned "Boy, I hope they don't come to liberate us!" I laughed.)

The tour was given by a German woman named Sieglinde, in both French and English, a linguistic feat that rather impressed me. The tour itself took us all around both the Haute-Ville and the Basse-Ville, the former being the walled portion atop the cliff and the latter being the even older original settlement at its base. We took the ferry across the Fleuve St Laurent and back, and then walked up the hill and finally back to the hostel. Theresa and I both pretty much collapsed in bed at the late, late hour of 10pm.

This morning we got up at 8 and had breakfast at the hostel while deciding how to plot out the day. First, we hit the Musée de la Civilisation, which was free because it was a Tuesday, and had a few nifty exhibits; the one about the Amerindians was good, as was the one that was everything you ever wanted to know about skin, and the really big one about the history of Québec. The strangest part was an apparently well-established local art form that has very blocky ceramic human figures; at first it seemed like clumsy children's art, but it soon became clear that it was old and consistent.

We stopped briefly in the church of Notre-Dame-le-something on the Place Royale; it was apparently the oldest church in Québec, and among the oldest in North America. Very small and cosy, more of a parish church than any of the others we'd seen. We continued down the rue to a little shop where we bought lunch---soup and (for me) a ham croissant, plus of course coffee---and then some sweets, which were expensive but good.

(More "friendly fire". If I haven't lost count, the ratio of US-UK forces killed by other US-UK forces to those killed by Iraqi forces is something like 15:1. Lovely.)

We took the funiculaire up the cliff and then walked around the fortress walls, getting some nice views but mostly wet feet---you'd think they'd shovel the walk, no?---before proceeding down to the Musée des Urulines, a museum attached to the cloister of Ursuline nuns right in the heart of the old city. Interesting place, and they had a whole room on the sacred art created by the Ursulines; when you are a member of a semi-contemplative order, you have a lot of time for stuff like that, and the artwork is beautiful in addition to being very technically demanding. Interesting history, too; despite being a cloistered order, they have an educational mission, taking in girls and giving them both a religious and a secular education. The first religious order of women to be "implanted" in the province, they started teaching French boarders and day students as well as a number of native girls, starting in the early 17th century. Wow!

Having done everything planned for the day, we decided to head back to the hostel to chill for a while. And here I am! More later.

"I think I can see some senators out there; I think I see some members of Congress, and I think I see a President of the United States of America. Pursue public service---it makes all the difference." --Janet Reno

After I wrote that, we stayed at the hostel a while and then went out to get dinner; there's a Lebanese place on Rue d'Auteuil that serves wraps of high quality for cheap, a lot like East Side Pockets in Providence. Afterwards we read for a while and then went to bed.

This morning, we got up, checked out, and went on a quest for yarn shops that Theresa had tracked down via her knitting mailing list. One had closed down, but the second one we tried was a cute little shop called La Dauphine at the west end of Québec just before Sainte-Foy. The shopkeeper spoke a bit of English but was vastly more comfortable in French, so I did a fair bit of translating for Theresa, and held a great conversation about why we were there, where we were from, relative merits of the vacation systems at Brown and at Université Laval, and various other things, all of which I did in French, which she complimented. Best Canada experience ever.

On our way out of the Québec City area, we looked at the map and realised that since it was basically straight north of Boston, the route through Maine was probably more direct and in any case vastly more scenic (boy howdy), not to mention that I'd never been to Maine before. So we went that way. The border crossing was tiny, but enough to have a duty-free shop at which to spend the rest of our Canadian money and our tax refunds (I got a keychain and a shotglass). And then we were on an amazingly scenic road in Maine that paralleled a partially frozen river. Absolutely stunning.

Round about Augusta, there was a split in the road---we could turnpike our way down to Portland, or take 95, which had the benefit of being more direct as well as cheaper. And it went through Brunswick. Brunswick, ME is the home of Bowdoin College, and not incidentally of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain; he was the president of the college when the Civil War broke out, and he left to lead Maine's volunteers for the war, eventually commanding the left flank at Gettysburg and distinguishing himself there. Theresa had been there before, but it was basically on our way, so we stopped there. We found a really cute little bookstore named Gulf of Maine, which tragically has no internet presence, but check it out if you're in the area; and then we ate at a restaurant called The Great Impasta, where I had a really tasty seafood lasagna.

And with that, we headed finally home. Where I discovered that I had not only neglected to mention the upcoming trip to Canada on the blog, but also sort of forgot to tell my mom or anyone back home that I was leaving for five days, totally incommunicado. If I'd realised that, I would've been a lot more concerned with calling home from Canada! Oops.

"We cannot continue to be a strong, vital, vigorous nation when only 20-30% of our people go to the polls." --Janet Reno Posted by blahedo at 12:18am on 27 Mar 2003 | TrackBack

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