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June, 2005

A European-Like Holiday for the Price of a Bus Ticket

Québec City and Chateau Frontenac
Photo copyright © Emma Rath 2005
An olden-days walled city of European stone architecture, a provincial countryside of rolling dairy hills, evergreen forests and village church spires, a population that still speaks old French – sounds like a delightful European holiday. However, it’s just a bus ride up from New York – the French-speaking province of Canada called Québec.

Considered by many to be the most beautiful city in all of North America, Québec City is also the capital city of Canada’s French-speaking province of Québec. Although it is a few hundred years old, Québec City is an impeccably-maintained jewel of old French European architecture. It is the only complete and maintained walled city in all of North America. Inside these stone walls, you will feel as if you have been transported back to Europe of a few hundred years ago. Old churches, stone houses, narrow streets – this charming city has been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. The magnificent Chateau Frontenac hotel with it’s distinctive green copper roofs sits atop a cliff, looking down at the rest of the city, the port, and can be seen for miles around.

The other place in North America where you can feel like you are in Old Europe is at the Old Port of Montréal. The economic nerve center of French-speaking Canada, Montréal also has a distinctive architecture for many of the residential areas, consisting of steep iron-railing staircases, balconies, and ornate attic windows. The Saint-Joseph Oratory is overwhelmingly impressive, built into the side of Mont Royal, with hundreds of stairs leading up to it.

The agricultural Québec countryside contains some charming villages, each with the obligatory silver-colored church steeple that can be seen gleaming in the sun over the tops of forests on your approach to the village. North Hatley and Knowlton are two charming places in the rolling hills of the Eastern Townships, a region known in French as L’Estrie. The popular home-grown cheese called Oka was developed by monks at the Trappist Monastery of Oka. The scenic coastal villages of the Charlevoix region now inspire many artists.

Skiing in the Parc du Mont Tremblant, Québec
Photo copyright © Emma Rath 2005
Going further north, you arrive in the mountainous Laurentians region. Being part of the ancient geological Canadian Shield, these mountains are not as high as the younger mountains in the west of Canada, and are instead sprinkled with hundreds of picturesque lakes and forests. The native Indians developed the technique of portage in this type of terrain – canoeing from place to place, carrying the canoe on your head to walk from one lake to another. The tradition is alive and well with the many opportunities for canoe-camping in Québec’s provincial and federal parks. For the less adventurous lovers of nature, the government run SEPAQ chalets in the middle of seemingly nowhere, allow you to relax in comfortable, log-fire heated warmth, look out the large windows across the lake and forest, and see the deer that come out at dusk. This gorgeous countryside is the reason that cross-country skiing – “ski de fond” in French – is the most popular winter sport in Québec (after ice hockey of course). Québec does have a few magnificent downhill skiing mountains too. When you are atop Le Massif, surrounded by snow-laden fir trees, the brillant blue of the sky merges with the brillant blue of the Saint Lawrence River, which is so wide at this point that you think it is the sea. Like a Greek island, the only two colors here are white and blue, and you have the impression that you are going to ski over the top of a mountain and into a sea. The French word for the light reflecting off the snow here is “eblouissante”.

The fall is also a magnificent time to be in the Québec countryside. Québec is the world’s exporter of maple syrup, and those maple trees are magnificent as they carpet the Québec countryside in the fall colors of red and gold. If you’re looking for wild animals to show the kids, the Parc Oméga is like a drive through safari that features Canadian wildlife such as moose, black bears and arctic wolves. Whale-watching at Tadoussac is a popular tourist attraction, as the convergence of three differently-temperatured rivers churns up enough plankton to become a feeding ground for whales.

Late afternoon in Algonquin Park, near Québec
Photo copyright © Emma Rath 2005
Québeckers pride themselves on having a unique culture and language in all of North America. Quebeckers have gone to extraordinary efforts to keep alive and vital the French language in this sea of millions of English. These efforts include language laws and seemingly periodic separatism referendums. Montréal is the second-largest French-speaking city in the world, after Paris, France. In most places where tourists can be found, such as in restaurants and hotels, English is also spoken. However, pop next door to the “dépanneur” for a newspaper or a carton of milk, and you’ll be able to practise your French. Don’t be shy to do this – you’ll be met with appreciation. And if it makes you feel better, remember that not all Quebeckers are fluent in English either. An anglophone joke that makes fun of the native French speaker’s propensity to pronounce an “h” in front of vowels goes: “What’s the ‘CH’ stand for in the center of the Canadien hockey team’s ice rink? Center Hice!” (Actually, the “CH” stands for “Canadien Habitant”.)

Quebeckers have their own Québécois accent in French. Some argue that it is the original authentic French accent. They explain that while the accent of the French spoken in France has evolved over the centuries, the accent of the French spoken in Québec has remained more faithful to that spoken by French kings centuries ago. However, Quebeckers and French people from France have no trouble understanding each other. The difference in accents is similar to that between the English spoken in Britain versus that of the United States.

One of the characteristics that Quebeckers feel make them culturally more European than North American, is that of being “bon vivant”. It means taking the time to enjoy the pleasures in life, such as table and family, instead of always thinking of work as those Protestant English are perceived to be. The “bon vivant” characteristic can be seen in summertime when the sidewalk cafés and restaurants are overflowing each evening, such as those on Montréal’s Saint-Denis street. Another example of this “bon vivant” mentality is the enormous number of festivals that Quebeckers take part in. It is said that in Montréal in the summertime, you can know what date it is by what festival is on. The two most famous festivals are the Montréal International Jazz Festival and the comedy Just For Laughs festival. In the sunniest yet coldest weeks of winter, each city has its own winter festival featuring giant ice sculptures and snow sculptures. The most famous one is the Carnaval of Québec City.

So if you want to take a holiday in a foreign country with a foreign culture and foreign language, take a train up north, winding through the breathtaking Adirondack mountains, to arrive in Québec!

The author of this article, Emma Rath, is an anglophone who so fell in love with Québec that she now lives there and is raising her Quebecker children there. The bilingual and multicultural city of Montréal is where she develops the fun and educational games for children.

...parenting tip of the moment

The second reality of Baby Time...BABIES SLOW DOWN TIME...Things that feel like they're taking an hour actually are not. I was once so proud of having successfully entertained my son for an entire afternoon. I designed and constructed an immense building-block fortress, played a vigorous round of "Where's-Daddy's-Nose?/Where-Are-Daddy's-Ears?" and rendered a poignant reading of Harry the Hippo, only to glance at my watch and discover that in fact seven minutes had elapsed.

quoted from "Babyhood"
by Paul Reiser of television's "Mad About You", page 168

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