Tuesday, July 13, 2010

J’aime le Québec!

We are quite fortunate to be spending our summer months in the foothills of western Maine. Not only is the rocky coast of Maine just a short scenic drive to the east, but the mountains of western Maine and northern New Hampshire are a short hop up Route 26. And beyond that last height of land in the northern reaches of the Appalachian Range is the international boundary with Canada and la belle Province of Québec.

Crossing the border here, Montréal, Canada’s second largest metropolitan area, is only a two-hour drive through the rolling hills and farmlands of the Eastern Townships. The US-Canadian border is an arbitrary line drawn in 1842 and formalized by the Webster-Ashburton Treaty. Here it follows the highlands separating the St. Lawrence and Atlantic Ocean watersheds. For several miles before the international boundary you find yourself driving through near pristine forests where one seldom encounters another vehicle. There are no houses, telephone lines, or a living soul. Then, as one crests that final ridge line two lonely customs stations - one American, one Canadian - come into view. Completing the border formalities, one continues down into the St. Lawrence Valley with its patchwork of dairy farms and green fields and pastures interspersed with a collection of small villages.

There is no doubt one is in a foreign country. Speed limits and distances are measured in kilometers. In fact, everything in Canada is metric, a system the country converted to in the 1970s. At first one might think this was northern New England, but the architecture is different in subtle ways; the houses and barns have their own design distinct from their counterparts in the United States. Above all, everything is in French. The signs are French, the people speak French. Québec is French, pure and simple. Unlike the rest of Canada, which has been officially bilingual since 1969, the only official language in the province since 1974 is French. It was designed to protect its French language and culture within the framework of the Canadian nation. Québec is also very Catholic; crosses and shrines are everywhere and every village, many named after one or another saint, has a church in a prominent location.

I first came to Québec in the summer of 1967. Canada was celebrating its centennial and we spent a few days in Toronto before continuing to Montréal to partake in the festivities at Expo 67. We stayed in a small motel in St-Jean, on the banks of the Richelieu River, south of the city. It was there I had a severe allergic reaction on a Sunday morning and I was forced to seek help at the local hospital. Nobody spoke English and I had to sit on a wooden bench in the emergency room while the hospital staff, all speaking French, ran around treating several local youths who ended up sliced and diced during a bar fight the previous evening. I sat there until a doctor who spoke English drove down from Montréal to examine me and to prescribe medication that took care of my problem in short order. This first visit to Québec was my earliest introduction to a truly foreign culture and foreign language environment. It was intriguing, to say the least.

So I have been coming back to Québec every chance I get. There is something about this place that continues to draw me to it, particularly the Eastern Townships that stretch east of Montréal along the international border with Vermont, New Hampshire, and northwestern Maine. I love to wander here and there and soak it all in. The markets and the grocery stores (even the small chain outlets in rural towns) are a treat to visit and explore. The charcuterie, the cheeses (I have already written about poutine, Québec’s “national” dish), varieties of terrines, the local vegetables are de rigeur here. At home such a variety would only be found in specialty or gourmet shops. I am reminded of the markets I use to frequent when I was a university student in Germany. It is fun to walk down the aisles and look at well-known brand name items in their French-language packaging. I used to read the boxes in Germany in order to increase my vocabulary. I improve my French in a similar manner.

Québec is a place where things are quite different from what I grew up with. Different values, different language, a different culture. And each time I come, I remember back to that first visit over four decades ago. Things have changed, but in many ways they have changed very little. Québec will always be a different kind of place. That is what I love about it. Je me souviens.

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