As our CR-V with the Blue Ridge Parkway plates ambled through the customs booth into Quebec, we felt a shift in the flora, in the weather and in the way the clouds hung over the horizon. Oh sure, it was our perception largely responsible for these changes, but they seemed nevertheless palpable. We were now driving north without a GPS, without phones and, despite feeble attempts to buy one stateside, no map of Quebec.
Using directions hastily received from the last vestiges of non-roaming text service, we followed the signs to Montreal, hoping the road signs en Francais told of no impending dangers avoidable by fluency in Romance languages. I shifted the rusty brain into metric mode, while taking giddy pleasure at being able to drive at speeds upward of 100. As we approached the Isle de Montreal, traffic began funneling into a few rusty bridges. Traffic cones directed us around the incessant road construction (which seemed under-endowed for the herculean tasks of matching entropy’s brutal pace), eventually dropping us into a labyrinthian maze of streets, largely laid out before the advent of automobiles.
After a few missed turns, we landed at my sister’s house. Cozy, eclectic, and full of equal parts charm and function, her house is the domiciled embodiment of her family – a preteen, an imminent college student, a bike-polo-playing kiwi artist husband and my sis, the professor of art and cultural studies who analyzes human expression against esoteric trends of the pedagogy of … OK, I’m out of my league here. Though a largely rainy and foggy visit, the city nevertheless showed its manifold charms.
It turns out Montreal is a lovely city, multi-cultural, vast yet succumbing to its own cultural identity struggles, the outcome of which was/is the steady migration of political clout and capital to Toronto over the past few decades. As for the important stuff, the crowning achievement of our cultural immersion was eating poutine. I’d heard tales of this dish from Ontarians (the Internet and my word processor disagree as to whether or not this is a real term) who disdainfully described it as a cheap way for Con Agra to get rid of cheese curds left over from some industrial food processing.
Poutine consists of a layer of greasy french fries, covered with a chunky cheese curd and topped with, in my case, onions, bacon bits and mushrooms (most popular is barbecue sauce). It is absolutely delicious. If we had access to that dish down here, I’ve no doubt I would weigh some 400 pounds by now. (Uh oh, somebody just told me there’s a restaurant in Carrboro that serves it.)
Lots of sightseeing, hanging out in the trendy but gritty neighborhoods, giving us new insights into our own culture and customs. There was something comforting about a city less intent on sustaining its burgeoning power and more content enjoying its established comforts. It gave me hope that our culture has an example of how to share its glow rather than desperately cling to hegemony.
Next up was Quebec City, sans teenager, who stayed behind with her cousin to co-disdain life’s injustices. The city should trademark the word “precious.” With tiny cobblestone streets, ancient stone buildings and souvenir shops everywhere, the charm offensive was unrelenting. Two days of preciousness found us sated with great food, feet blistered from all the walking, and a smug satisfaction with the modest effectiveness of the vestiges of my paltry junior high school French. This town had long since acquiesced to modernity’s fickle attention span, having lost its relevance as a gatekeeper of the St. Lawrence Seaway and settling quite amiably into its nostalgia, which it freely shared with all who had money and a penchant for souvenirs.
Two days of tourist bliss and it was back to Montreal to grab the teenager and head back to the glorious land of GPS, sub-exorbitant phone service and Lingua Anglo. After another long wait at customs (we hadn’t figured U.S. border guards would be even gruffer than their Canadian counterparts), we made it through with some smuggled maple cream cookies.
Finally, 12 days later we were back to our sweet, glorious, English-speaking, digitally provisioned home. The jungle lawn and the air-conditioning-bereft dogs welcomed us while we slowly re-integrated with our zones of comfort. About 2,500 new miles on the CR-V, some remaining Canadian money and stories/memories to draw on for years.
Sure, the teenager’s French didn’t make much of an uptick, and truth be told, the cultural differences between the U.S. and Canada pale compared to those between English- and French-speaking provinces, but I-95 traffic aside, this was a vindication of traveling by family car, affording us side-trip opportunities and a more realistic sense of scale than flying in a metal tube to a single destination that lets us check boxes in the Lonely Planet things-to-do lists.
Most indelible was the realization that cultures less intent on clinging to the fleeting vagaries of global supremacy can thrive quite comfortably. In some sense, when one focuses on the more immediate joys of one’s surroundings, true contentment comes. And the slower the method of travel, the more this point rings true.
It’ll be a long while till we do something like this again, but when we do, it’ll be even more exotic, like driving to Costa Rica or Thailand. I’m sure both those destinations, and the journeys themselves, will reveal new truths about ourselves and the world in which we’ve shrouded ourselves.