Tuesday, June 16, 2009

La Belle Province (I)

A few weeks earlier in this fast-receding late springtime Sarah and I drove up into Québec, borrowing a '92 Corolla from her married friends Mike and Morgan (married in Connecticut -- go Connecticut) and taking I-91 through Vermont as far north as it will go. Virtually right on the other side of the US/Canada border is North Hatley, QC, an anglophone enclave of some 800 souls and a touristic scenery centered around the refreshing Lac Massawippi. Sarah's mother runs an antiques shop out of the house where she lives with her husband, Sarah's stepfather, Pierre; the family has been established in North Hatley since North Hatley was North Hatley (one of them did the establishing, in fact) and the surname is richly present throughout the town, most notably in possessive form on the front of the single grocery store, run by Sarah's aunt Joey. Sarah and I were in North Hatley for six of the nine nights we stayed in Québec, around jaunts to Québec City and Montréal.

Sarah's mother's house is a sight to behold, the house itself a couple notches less knickknacked up than the antiques store but still bursting out all over in crafts and decoration. Surfaces you could spend decades in a house without noticing are used for whatever they'll hold; the tops of the kitchen cabinets, for example, are the staging ground for a collection of pots and plates. (See also bathroom, right.) The kitchen cabinets themselves are painted with a vibrant art naïf townscape, Sarah's mom's other great skill. (You can see just a little bit of this online, at the website of the North Hatley library, which has some painting of hers. And you can see the antique shop in mind-bending panorama here.)

The front porch, if you can look closely, is completely packed with chairs and other furniture.
Gazebo in North Hatley.
Saturday morning we ran out garage saling (the late run; the good stuff antique-store-wise is apparently best laid hands on at 7 in the morning); Sarah's mom is as quick and efficient as you'd expect from someone who literally means business. We stopped at the local creamery for maple sugar ice cream and cheese curds and, a little later, at an old abandoned barn, Sarah's mom declaring that there's always rhubarb behind an old barn, tramping off into the high weeds around the corner, and emerging with an armful of huge stalks that she later that night transmuted into two of the most meltingly handsome pies I've ever had cause to reminisce about. Seriously, the tactile and tasty sensation of the pie lingers vividly between my teeth; I mourn, come to think of it, the day (inevitably soon) when it's not quite so.

Instant coffee and rhubarb pie makes an excellent breakfast.

Québec City!
Sunday we got on the road midmorning to Québec, where we'd booked a bed and breakfast. Québec's greatest charm pertains to its picturesqueness and peculiar topography, cliffs and boardwalk-staircases and pedestrian streets that would seem European if they weren't quite as intentionally touristy and the dominating sight of the Château Frontenac looming over the old walled city. Weather for our two days was clear but quite cold. Our room in the B&B was library-themed, lined with books many of which appeared to have belonged to the operator's late mother, an enterprising sociologist. We dined at the universally recommended but actually appalling and overpriced Le Continental and walked through enough Frontenac hallways to see what we were missing. Monday and Tuesday provided military, aesthetic, and governmental sightseeing: the Citadelle, the pleasingly proportioned Musée des Beaux-Arts, and the Maison d'Assemblée. I managed to buy a pretty good-looking suit off the rack at the midpriced Canadian department store Simon's: evidently they build their French Canadian men slender up there, and so all the store had to do was hem up the pant legs to their appropriate length. (This was not splurging, incidentally: we attended a wedding immediately after this trip and I really needed a new suit.) Our second dinner neatly obliterated memory of the first: if you go to Québec I will strongly recommend Les Fréres de la Côte, energetic and hearty and unpretentious. I will also recommend just getting a beer and fries on the boardwalk-staircases.

French-Canadian brewskis.
(If my grasp of three-week old place-name detail seems out of character to you, incidentally, you are correct. Sarah took notes in her journal.)

Wednesday evening we left Québec, and I'll leave the second half of the week and description of the extraordinarily enticing city of Montréal for another half-narrative. I miss vacationing.


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