Eh, Canada: A Love Story (Part 2)

This is a continuation of Monday’s post, recalling a visit to Québec in March 2002. Hope it’s a lot warmer in Toronto for tomorrow’s #UsGuys Toronto meetup!

ART + HISTORY + CUISINE = CULTURE

One more day in Québec: I wanted to squeeze in as much as I could. I started with breakfast at a little restaurant across the Place d’Armes from the Chateau Frontenac, another discovery that wasn’t in the tourist guides. The waitress greeted me with a flood of French; I understood only the first and last words, “bonjour” and “cafe.” That was enough.

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By the time I’d finished eating, the Musée d’Art Inuit Brousseau was open. After being in Québec a few days, I was used to everything being labelled in French and English, but here there were also notations in an unfamiliar alphabet—Inuit, I suppose? Really, I didn’t need label copy; just looking at the smooth stone carvings was enough. After the galleries, there are a video tape and a smaller room with a temporary exhibit. And then the shop! This was not your typical museum gift shop; it’s an art gallery in its own right. The saleswoman found me eying an ulu with wistful desire. How would I ever get an Inuit knife past the metal detectors at the airport?? And the statues? Just too expensive! She asked if I’d ever seen any Inuit art before, and I said I had (the Museum of Natural History had a small gallery on Inuits, though I think they still used the word “Eskimo”). She then pointed out that Inuit carvings were only just becoming popular, and few pieces in the museum dated back more than a few decades. “Anything before 1960 is considered quite old,” she said.

I arrived at the Musée du Fort just in time for the English narration. It’s not what I think of as a museum: rather than exhibits, they have a model of Québec around 1759, the time of the battle between the French and English for control of Canada. Of course, because we’re in Québec, they manage to make it sound like the French won. At least, that they may have lost the battle but won the culture war, which is pretty much true.

Two museums in one morning! I needed lunch. Although the guides said a reservation is recommended, I took a chance on getting a table at Aux Anciens Canadiens. They were wrong about the reservation, but correct in their description: “The oldest home in Québec, this quaint, one-story building sports a steep, red roof and a comfortable interior.” I scored a table just to the side of a fireplace with a roaring fire. To appease the ghosts of my French Canadian ancestors, I ordered a tortiere, a French Canadian meat pie; it was delicious. (Note: The Citadelle was closed for the winter, so I’ve been to Québec twice without seeing it. Someday I have to go, for the sake of my great-great-to-the-nth-uncle, who died in the War of 1812, fighting on the Canadian side.)

After lunch, I hit the souvenir shops and made another trip to the Rue du Trésor to get something for myself. It’s a little alley off the Place de Armes, across from the Chateau Frontenac (isn’t everything?), and it is known as a good place to buy artwork. Local artists bring their paintings, prints, photographs, etc. and sell them in the alley. They are not as expensive as the art galleries, but they make nice mementos. I was looking for something that would capture the peace and quiet of Québec in late winter.

Back to the hotel I unloaded my purchases and considered the serious question: Where was I going to have my last dinner in Québec? An idea had been forming, but maybe it was too extravagant? There are two restaurants in the Chateau Frontenac: Le Champlain, which is expensive by any standard you care to use; and Café de la Terrasse, which is just sort of expensive. But, hey, it was my last night in Québec, and the exchange rate was good.

I arrived a little early, hoping to beat the crowds because (again) I didn’t have a reservation. It worked. Not only did I get a table, I got a table directly in front of a fireplace. It was warm and toasty. The waiter was wonderful. I ordered a glass of white wine, produced in Québec. Then a bowl of soup, and poached salmon. Ahhh…. For dessert I had apples baked in a caramel sauce and served in a pastry shell. My waiter looked disappointed when I declined the fourth cup of coffee. I was so happy and well fed that even the bill didn’t upset me; it’s Canadian dollars, and when the credit card statement arrives, it won’t look so bad. I floated back to the hotel in a state of bliss.

I went to bed early. The following morning, I packed, had breakfast in the hotel restaurant, and went to the Post Office to mail my postcards. On the way back to the hotel, I walked past the street where I was staying and out of the Old City through the Saint-Jean gate. Walked one block into modern Québec, crossed the street, and came back on the other side. There!! I can say I’ve been outside the walled city. I collected my bags, checked out at the desk, and took a taxi to the airport. Sigh!

FLYING

For those of you who don’t know, I came to air travel too late in life. I was 34 the first time I flew, and my destination was Quito, Ecuador. Nothing like starting with a bang! I fell asleep about half an hour after take-off, and didn’t wake up until we were no longer over the United States. So much for everyone’s worries that I would be frightened or airsick… The only bad thing was, I slept through dinner and didn’t get a decent meal for two weeks.

Now, several years and a few flights later, I love to fly! Even after September 11, it doesn’t worry me in the least. In fact, I am probably the only person I know (but speak up if you agree with me) who gets nervous in automobiles, but has never been nervous on a plane. OK, here are the three things I like most about flying.

  1. The moment I feel the plane leave the ground.
  2. A window seat near the wing.
  3. The first glimpse of my destination.

GETTING AWAY FROM IT ALL?

On the first Toronto to Québec flight I discovered what I ought to have suspected: I was on vacation, but couldn’t leave the World Trade Center disaster behind me. My seatmate, a very friendly and chatty man from London, Ontario, asked where I was from. “So, um… how is it in New York since, um, um…?”

I told him things are going rather well for most of the City, though of course some people are still hurting, and it will be a long time until downtown is fully recovered. He asked if I’d been downtown, and I said I was there almost every day on my commute to work. And then he asked where I work….

The second flight to Québec, I got another talkative seatmate. He was a little less inquisitive, but then we only sat next to one another half as long. He asked about New York, but didn’t ask about my job. The taxi driver who took me from the airport to my hotel asked where I was from, and I got more questions.

While I was getting my bearings the first day, I went to the Rue du Trésor. One of the art sellers struck up a conversation–he’s from Halifax and was glad to find another English speaker. He asked where I was from, and a little while later said, “So, what do you do in New York?” I hesitated. He looked both puzzled and concerned. “I’ve never known New Yorkers to be shy about anything,” he said.

“Oh, I, um… I work for the American Red Cross on the Disaster Relief Operation in New York.”

He asked what I had been doing before the disaster. I said I had mostly worked for museums. Which ones? he wanted to know.

“Most recently, the New-York Historical Society,” I said.

“So you left there to be part of history, huh?” he asked.

I said that was a nice way of looking at it.

I went to Québec with the naive idea that I was going to get away from New York City and the World Trade Center disaster. Since September 11, I had only been out of New York once–a day in Connecticut in mid-October. I assumed that, while we were cleaning up the mess, the rest of the world had moved on. I was wrong.

Everyone I met in Canada who asked where I was from—and nearly everyone I spoke with asked—expressed shock, sympathy and concern for the tragedy in New York. Although not one had been to New York since September 11, they all seemed keenly aware of what had happened. One man told me that it seemed to him that “only three or four days have passed” since the disaster. Another shook his head and said, “Tragique…”

I sometimes found myself in the strange position of reassuring others that things are not as bad as they had been. “Really, if you’re in midtown, it’s almost like nothing happened.” One person asked what I thought would be built on the site; another, how long the clean-up would take.

Nobody asked if I’d been to Ground Zero. Maybe that term is strictly local. I appreciated that, because I’ve been asked several times here, and it seems a little voyeuristic. One person asked if I worked near the site, and I said my office was in Brooklyn, but it was only a couple of subway stops away.

I went to Québec to escape from New York for a while. It seemed the most distant place I could get to with only a long weekend—another country, another language. Instead of escaping, I found myself embraced by the sympathy of Quebecers. It was not the vacation I had planned, but it was very touching, and it restored me.

I was reluctant to go home; another couple of days would have felt good. I went to the airport on Monday morning for yet another trip through the Toronto airport. As before, I found myself rushing frantically to make the connection in time, feeling the mellowness of Québec slip away. But once I was settled on the plane for NYC, I was resigned to going home.

WELCOME HOME

We had been descending over the Hudson River for a while when I spied a familiar landmark: Central Park. The Lake looks larger from above than it does from the ground. Then we passed the Empire State Building and Madison Square Garden. The plane veered slightly west, to make a big loop at the lower tip of Manhattan and fly north to LaGuardia.

My nose was pressed to the window; there it was. Battery Park City and, just behind it, Ground Zero! The plane banked and I was staring, wide-eyed, straight down into Ground Zero.

There was nothing but a couple of ramps. If you’d seen it without knowing the history (but, of course, the entire world knows its history! I understand that now), you would think it just another construction site. And so it would be, soon enough; the clean-up is almost complete.

The plane looped around Manhattan’s southern end. There were two bright yellow ferries at the slip, waiting for rush hour to start. Turning, turning, and then north over Brooklyn. There’s the Brooklyn Bridge. Let’s see, there’s the construction site near the courthouse… Count north one short building, a gap where Walt Whitman Park is… That short rectangular building, barely visible… the Red Cross!

Home.

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