Up here in the North Country, the surest sign that there will, in fact, be an end to the long, dark months of subzero nights and triple-fleece days is not the melting of snow or the emergence of squirrels or the arrival of V-flying geese, but the curlicues of fragrant steam rising from tiny wooden sugar shacks out in the forest. It is maple-tapping time in upstate New York, which means all the trees are wearing tin buckets around their waists, which emit a marvelous plink-plink sound when the sap trickles out. I have, in the past two weeks, discovered the joys not only of hot maple syrup slow-boiled in a sugar pan for six hours and drizzled over oatmeal, but also maple butter, maple cream, maple lollipops, maple cookies, and maple leaf-shaped lumps of maple sugar.
Another sign that spring will someday surface: a weeklong break from university life! My family flew out to join me for a road trip to Quebec. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere on this blog, I’ve been working on a book about life in the Texas/Mexico borderlands for four years now, and since moving up here, have decided to add the New York/Canada borderland to the mix. So I’ve grown quite fascinated with our Northern neighbor in recent months, particularly how it has managed to maintain two distinct cultures, Anglophone and Francophone, despite centuries of battles, separatist movements, and “quiet” revolutions. You can literally see the borderline when you drive from English Ontario into French Quebec: the signs switch from English to Francais, the scarlet maple leaves transform into blue fleur de lis, and the donut shops give way to bakeries selling fresh pain au chocolat.
Quebec City is perched high above the northern end of the same river that runs near my little town: the St. Lawrence. While March is probably the least pleasant time of year to visit it, as the snow banks have turned the color of soot and the sky is soggy gray, we were enveloped in warmth as soon as we stepped into our bed-and-breakfast, the Chateau des Tourelles, which was all hard-wood floors, apricot walls, and friendly men with sexy accents. They directed us to a bistro called The Hobbit on St. Jean Rue, where the waiter suggested we start off with a cheese plate and some wine, then gradually move on to dinner “and then a dessert and of course a coffee and some relaxing.” My kind of place. I convinced my niece and nephew to try duck confit, which instantly turned them into French foodies. “It’s like eating butter!” my niece exclaimed as the meat slipped clean off the bone with a single tug of her fork.
From there, we wandered through Vieux Quebec, a labyrinth of cobblestone streets and copper-domed castles surrounded by high fortress walls. There, we found bookstores featuring thousands of dignified, white covers with unadorned typefaces; boutique grocery stores that sold herbs and teas in tiny cloth bags tied with bows; music stores that stocked only records; an outdoor ice-skating rink that blasted jazz from its speakers. The stained-glass windows of churches cast kaleidoscopic light on the snow. Horse-drawn carriages clopped down the alleyways. Shattered ice floated along the river.
Just as we were absorbing the 400-year-old feel of the place, we noticed a construction crew icing down some sort of track that turned out to be the obstacle course for the upcoming Red Bull Crashed Ice Competition, in which 80,000 screaming fans gather to watch hockey players hurtle down a terrifyingly steep track full of chicanes, jumps, and rollers at speeds of up to 43 miles per hour, all while pummeling one another derby-style. Things like this make me realize how utterly different it is to grow up in “beach culture,” where the rowdiest group activity is stuffing sand down someone’s suit. Winter people scare me.
The rains came early the next morning and never ceased the whole day through, which sent us running to the museums, starting with the Musee National des Beaux-Arts du Quebec, which visually depicted the region’s rocky transition from a (literally) walled kingdom into an open, modern society. (As one sign put it: “A surrender to novelty without question or opposition would have been the mark of a soulless and spineless society. A categorical rejection of all innovation in the arts would have indicated one incapable of regenerating itself.”) I found Jean-Paul Riopelle’s tribute to Rosa Luxemborg particularly impressive…
….as well as his admission to artistic obsessive compulsion: “The important thing is to produce. For instance, if someone asked me why I sketched 2,000 owls, I would answer that it was to produce 10 lithographs. But what really interests me is to have produced the 2,000 owls.”
Our next stop was the Musee de la Civilisation, which showed how the French lived as a conquered, second-class citizenry for centuries, with the English controlling all of Canada’s power and wealth even in regions populated almost entirely by the French. Finally seeing their language as the last line of defense against Anglo-Saxon culture, the Quebecois began to fight for it valiantly (particularly when the Brits commissioned studies like the 1839 Durham Report, which declared them a people with “no history and no literature”). As someone who has deeply mourned the loss of her own ancestral culture, I sympathize with this plight, though it has certainly led to extreme measures over the years (such as when so-called “tongue troopers” fined merchants for hanging English-only “Merry Christmas” signs in their windows because they claimed it violated the 1977 charter making French the official language of Quebec). Although the lingual war has quelled in the past decade, the separatist Parti Québécois was recently voted back into power, so it will be interesting to see what other cultural preservation tactics they dream up. Just last month, their inspectors objected to the repeated use of the word “pasta” on a Montreal menu (which the media promptly deemed “PastaGate”) and to the words “on” and “off” on a microwave oven….
Considering these tensions, I was nervous how my linguistically-challenged family would be treated (particularly given the snooty treatment I experienced in Paris a few years back), but we found the Quebecois to be amazingly accommodating. Although people initially addressed us in French, they quickly switched to English with no sign of resentment whatsoever. Waiters patiently translated their menus item by item, which was a beautiful thing, as I can’t remember the last time I ate so well. Though the competition was stiff, the highlight was probably Le Billig Creperie-Bistro on St. Jean Rue, where buckwheat crepes started at $4.25 for a slather of butter, to $20 for one rolled in Swiss cheese, leeks, and lemon butter and topped with seared scallops. Other culinary miracles included the Bearn (duck confit, spinach, Swiss, and goat cheese with onion marmalade), the Lutec (cheddar, prosciutto, mushroom, mesclun, and tomato), and the Domen (Swiss and Roquefort, pecans, mesclun, pine nuts, tomatoes, and apples). And then there were the dessert crepes: the Salidou (salted butter caramel with Chantilly) and the aptly-named Extreme (poached pear with vanilla ice cream, dark chocolate sauce and almonds). Délicieux!
This all goes to say that I foresee more romps in the Anglophone/Francophone borderlands in my future, as I continue to contemplate the way borderlines shape our identities. At the very least, there is Quebec’s poignant motto to consider: Je me souviens, or I remember—the past and its lessons, the past and its misfortunes, the past and its glories.
Happy Spring, everyone.