Driving from east to west in Quebec the country gradually moves from mono to bilingual with citizens east of Quebec City mostly not knowing any English. So in Riviere du Loup we had to pantomime our breakfast order but not before reading the English menu filled with odd phrases such as “eggs have been found useful with potatoes.” The people were nice (especially when greeted first in French) but it was hard not being able to converse. In Quebec City people spoke English but not fluently. In Montreal you are just as likely to hear English (or Arabic) as you are French. And everyone knows English. The streets are equally diverse with saris, turbans, stylish hats, and hajibs all bobbing together in search of something. And then you drive just a bit further west and you are in Ontario with everyone speaking English. It feels comforting but also a bit boring. You find yourself missing the exotic.
In the end it was the hieroglyphics that nearly got me killed. I left Corey and Henna for a few seconds to follow a windy trail up a hill. This trail twisted over and over again like a corkscrew. Not knowing what was around the next bend, the cemetery (or “cemetiere” as the sign below suggested) felt like it was always just slightly out of reach. Each turn instead presented more and more junk, each piece more fascinating than the next. There were old refrigerators, bits of a 1950s era truck, and a rotting wooden cart to name just a few of the discarded relics. I would have gladly stayed on that trail, reached the lonely grave, and then turned back down to the lovely beer garden where my wife and daughter waited. But I came across a small wooden sign, seemingly staked into stone. The sign had an etched picture of a bird and arrow pointing up. I left the trail to follow the bird and this led to a rope which I used to pull myself to a killer view of the St. Lawrence River. From my vantage point I saw a string of Quebec farms pressed close to the river and across the river there was endless forest. I paused, thought my family would be jealous, and descended from the rocks to the trail. But rough trails up rocky hillsides are difficult to duplicate and I ended on the trail away from where I started. There was a lone grave and more signs, but instead of pictures they offered French words. Confused I started one way, but then thought better of it and went a different route. There was a sign with the word “Riviere de la Ferme” and I thought maybe that was the name of the farm/ microbrewery I wanted to return to. So I walked in the suggested direction and soon ran out of path. In front of me was a small, buggy stream. Somehow I had lost the trail itself and I found myself standing alone in a small cluster of woods. I bravely panicked. Just then I heard two voices: An annoyed “Noel” and a sweeter “daddy.” I called out to them and they repeated my name(s) in unison. Their voices louder, I stumbled out of the forest and hugged my daughter excitedly. My wife took my arm, said “let’s go,” and pulled me down the path.
I never learned the name of that farm/ microbrewery. The proprietor was courteous but tough. She also spoke some English, enough, anyways, to let me know that a few American tourists wander in each week. There was also a very young and pretty waitress who flitted around the groups of people without ever making eye contact. She did not speak any English and had to pantomime certain items on the menu to us. The home brewed beer was interesting for its use of wine grapes. This made for colorful but, to me anyways, lousy tasting drinks. There were also lots of chickens, roosters, sheep, and other barn yard animals wandering around. Adjacent to a pond, where ducks swam, was a stone table with old men playing chess. A group of cyclists were also there. Their English was also very limited, just enough to say hello and smile. That was not too surprising. Two years past we had visited Montreal and Quebec City and found most of the people more than willing to converse with English speaking customers. But even just outside those big cities, it was often nearly impossible to get directions (which we need often) or order at a restaurant. Street signs, which are in both English and French everywhere else in Canada, are only in French in Quebec. French Canada has every right of course to protect their heritage, but I often think the symbol of French Canada should be a man wearing a beret shooting his self in the foot. Besides tourism, think of all those things made in eastern Canada that could be sold south. Knowing the language would aid that process.
The first thing that strikes you about the farms along the St. Lawrence River is their coloring. Who needs red when you can color a barn blue, green, or yellow? After cutting through a good swath of New Brunswick (and traveling on more than a few interior gravel roads) we welcomed the calming blue water, bright colors, and the frequent small attractions along our western route to Quebec. Everywhere there were small campgrounds, charming cafes, and little towns filled with vacationers reading, playing, or drinking a beer among friends. Not speaking French made these scenes out of reach, more than a simple difference in language could account for. For example, while camping in Edmunston, NB (a few kilometers away from Quebec province) we noticed passing tourists smiling at us and then looking away when we returned there greeting with a “hello.” French Canadians, like all Canadians, are some of the nicest, most articulate people I have ever met. But in Quebec there seemed an automatic suspicion of all things un-French.
No matter. We have plans to visit soon, maybe two summers from now. I have relatives in Montreal and they are the best of the best in terms of hospitality and conversation. We will play Scrabble and talk books (I hope) and Henna will play with her younger cousins. I hope to visit more farms and breweries and I will know not to hike without my support team. We will also bring a French phrase book.