Sunday, July 02, 2006


Sketches of Quebec City (Part Five)

The boys are asleep in the back seat, Beloved is taking in some culture at the National Musee des Beaux-Arts and I am driving randomly through Quebec City, as relaxed as I've been since sitting in Nancy's comfortable kitchen two long days ago. I start out driving rather aimlessly, and end up in a rather boring suburban neighbourhood that has the same big box stores every Canadian city now seems to have. I am pleased, however, to find a Tim Horton's - our first in Quebec City - and maybe it's the familiar caffeine burst that sooths my frazzled nerves as much as the sleeping boys and gentle loops I am making.

The boys should sleep for a good hour or more, their bellies full of the familiar tastes of home thanks to the most exquisite McDonald's I've seen since the Champs-Elysee in Paris. Lunch on the patio of a 300 year old manor apartment converted into a McDonald's on the Grand Allée, the most grand boulevard in Quebec, seems a perfectly reasonable compromise that leaves everyone content after our busy morning's adventures.

I drive down to the old port, and circle the outside of the city walls, looking up the formidable escarpment first at the imposing Chateau Frontenac, and then at Battlefields Park. For the first time, gazing at the sheer face of the escarpment, I get a visceral understanding of the history of the place. I can see why Champlain stopped here, why the British fought for this land, what 400 years of civilization - 400 years of Canadian history - looks like. It leaves me feeling infinitesimal yet strongly connected to the past. I follow Champlain (the road, not the explorer) as far as the looming bridges that ford the St Lawrence to the west, and loop back around for another pass.

I begin to realize that Quebeckers tend to be such aggressive and poor drivers (I once heard a stand-up comedian opine that the motto on the Quebec licence plate, Je me souviens, does not in fact translate to "I remember", but "I will be cutting you off in the near future") because they have the most arcane, confusing road system known to man. Traffic lights take forever to change, and seem to do so not to assist the flow of traffic, but to impede it.

After almost two hours of driving, during which I cover surprising little territory due to the aforementioned traffic peccaddilloes, I finally feel like I know Quebec City, and I wonder why I didn't do this the first night we were here. Eventually, it's time to return to the Musée des Beaux-Arts to pick up Beloved, and I manage to miss the exit I need.

Full of bravado and my newly acquired sense of the geography of the place, I forsake my map and make random turns through the heart of the old city. I am temporarily lost, then get my bearings, then become lost again. I find myself for one embarrassing moment going the wrong way down a poorly (if at all) marked one way street, and I vow that if we ever return to Quebec City, we will not only get a hotel in the old city but park our car when we get there and leave it parked until we are on our way out of town.

The final entry in this series is the post script.