Quebec in October–Une Leçon Elémentaire (An Elementary Lesson)

Like most folks, I have learned and relearned many things French through the years.

As a kid watching television dramas and movies about WWII, I learned it was the Americans who always were the bravest and saved the world in thousands of battles. I saw American G.I.s shooting the Nazis and never really noticed if any other country in the war even had guns. The bravery of those in the French Resistance, the underground army of brave French souls fighting in every way they could, was never acknowledged.

Having Canadian relatives all up and down Ontario, I grew up hearing various names and epithets about “those Frenchies.”*

In high school, I learned French through a three-year course of study and promptly learned I knew nothing of actually speaking real, down-to-earth French. And, that the French spoken by the Canadians in Quebec was NOT French.

So Quebec was, eh, not-so-nice.

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Riding atop a tour bus along the top of Mount Royal.

And then I had to visit Quebec…

By way of an explanation, an heirloom had been passed to my wife bearing the special stamp and label of L’Oratorie du Ste. Joseph du Montreal. No one in the family had been able to open its metal twist off cap for fear of breaking the container or ruining the mysterious contents inside.

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Rhonda's bottle was exactly like this one displayed in one of the Basilica museums.

Furthering the mystery, the vintage of its stamp and the condition of its label, we all judged it to be about one hundred years old. And, to further entice us, the Oratorie of Saint Joseph is an actual place in present day Montreal, Quebec, Canada. It is, in fact, the largest Catholic basilica in North America, and the third largest in the world.

And to cement our journey, one day Rhonda slowly twisted off the formerly immovable cap to reveal the container’s contents, a small bottle of some kind of oil with no explanation or label of any kind. It was a sign. And now we had to go. The rudeness of the French would have to be tolerated.

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Cloudy, windy and cold, but any day is a good day to travel in a Roadtrek.

Montreal is two Roadtrek days away–following the rule to never drive past [3:30] in the afternoon or travel more than 350 miles a day. From Michigan’s Lower Peninsula we like Port Huron as our entryway into Canada, via Sarnia and the Blue Water Bridge. The wait is shorter than at Detroit’s Ambassador Bridge, and the traffic on the 402 across to Toronto is much more civilized than the more southern 401.

As always the speed limit in Canada is usually 100 so travel in our 210 is respectable and less harried. I love 100 km/h, it is 62 mph, and my buggy gets much better gas mileage at that speed, as I think most vehicles do at lower speeds.

401 sign

Bilingual and pictographic highway signs.

I still get passed while plodding along at the speed limit, but eh, if you want to get there sooner, leave earlier.

Across all of Ontario, you see road signs written in English and French. But as we entered Quebec, we were on our own. No Anglaise, pas du tout! rien! (No English, at all, nothing!) It seems the Ontario road signs are meant only to placate natives of Quebec traveling through Ontario, after all Canada does have two official languages; but for the rest of us, they give opportunity to practice our French.

Quebec in October

We are parked in the lot of St. Joseph's. You can park all day until 11:00 p.m. for $6.

Pulling into Montreal, we located our overnight spot, a street between a currently unused stadium and a Walmart. (Allstays had filled us in on the details here. Do investigate this site and app.) This location was near to the Oratorie du Ste. Joseph, and within our walking distance of 2 miles one way. (We like to walk, you might choose differently.)

Our plan when we explore any city new to us is to first plunk down a few bucks, dineros, dollars, loonies, etc. to find an on-and-off tour bus which offers a loop tour of the city. Usually these are good for two consecutive days, and not only give you the lay of the city, but offer very good information all along the way, via on-board tour guides.

We usually ride the whole loop first, and decide what to see and where to go, getting on and off the buses for the next two days.

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The scale of the Basilica is not clear here, but try to spot the cars parked in the lower level drive to give you some perspective.

This trip we worked the plan a little differently. We started with the origin of the mysterious container, Ste. Joseph’s, to discover that it was one of the seven stops on the Red Loop Double Decker Tour Bus.

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Grayline operates the Red Loop Tour Buses.

So from our parking spot on the first day, we walked the 2.22 miles to the Church, and spent the entire day there working on solving our mystery. The following two days we drove to the Church, paid for parking, and spent the rest of the days on and off the bus exploring Montreal. At night we retreated to our spot near the stadium.

We learned from tour guides, who are very proud of their city, that Montreal is the biggest–, the best–, the most–, the richest– and the only–the nouns which followed these qualifiers would fill an entire blog. Each of four different tour guides over the two days added their own special spin.

What impressed us, and applies here, is that Montreal is the most diverse city in North America, after New York City. And it is safe. With a population of two million, there are 30 murders annually. In New York, with a much larger population, there are 30 murders a DAY, and as the guides pointed out, the ratios of population to crimes do not match. Because of this low number, Montreal feels comfortable.

Our  walks brought this diversity home to us. Everyone, to a person, is courteous, inasmuch as no jostling, horn blowing, or cutting in lines was evident to us. Pedestrians rule. Cars stop the second your foot hits the crosswalk. Even if you cross against the light, no digits were raised in “salute” anywhere we saw. People hold doors for you. The usual city-folk-not-meeting-eye-contact was evident, but you shouldn’t be searching faces to find your Auntie Mildred in a crowd of 2 million folks, anyway.

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Every big city seems to have a ChinaTown. Montreal is no different. Except maybe for all the French spoken there!

As for the language problem? It is disconcerting to a “Detroit-born in the ‘50’s Midwesterner” to see so many Asians speaking French. I was prepared for Vietnamese, Chinese or even Thai, but their fluently spoken French blew all that away. This language problem was really my own problem. Trying to eavesdrop on passersby tends to leave a person feeling inadequate and perhaps paranoid. But my bride was so impressed I could read or at least decipher the signs, my spirits were buoyed.

Better was the friendliness of each person we encountered. When we actually approached a person and waited politely to be acknowledged, in response to their “Bonjour,” we would reply, “Hi!” This gave them the time to mentally process that we needed English and that they had to switch linguistic gears.

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Sidewalk cafes and flowers are everywhere.

After the pause, if they hadn’t responded, we would give a slightly apologetic look and ask, “English?” To their reply whether positive or negative, we quickly responded with a heartfelt “Thank you!”

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Irish Pubs are popular all over!

Personally, I never tried engaging anyone using my poor French. I feared that would cause them to expect me to speak French, and when I could not, they would be frustrated. Or they might think I was poking fun at them by mangling their language. And to a person, everyone I engaged tried to help by speaking English, or apologized because they could not.

All manner of food is available in eateries on nearly every block. Down the street from the Farmer’s Market we encountered a treat we thought to be a Montreal original…a Cronut…a delightful cross between a croissant and a donut. We later found it was a New York invention but SO delicious!

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Saint Joseph holding the Child is depicted here in front of the basilica.

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Saint Brother Andre blessed this oil and the flame kept burning by it. Each evening some oil is extracted and replaced. Oil is available to take home.

The mysterious container of oil actually came from a font bearing an eternal flame. The oil was blessed by Saint Brother Andre, a simple monk is credited with healing thousands of people. Rhonda’s oil bottle was mailed during Brother Andre’s life and was likely blessed directly by the saint. All during Brother Andre’s life on earth, he was a champion for St. Joseph, healing people through his intercessions. Brother Andre’s dream of a church suitable to honor him is now a reality. It took forty-three years to build and is the second largest basilica in North America, the L.Oratoire Saint-Joseph Du Mont-Royal.

We were told that if we were to make it all the way to Montreal, we needed to complete the journey to Quebec City. We found this historic walled city to be just as friendly, though decidedly more tourist oriented. Having features like “Breakneck Staircase” and “Tabagie Casse-Cou”  gives visitors a cautious, yet delightful experience.

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Originally established to auction horseless carriages, Tabagie's now sells candy and confections.

Much of our adventure through Quebec City was based on a Green Circle Walking Tour put in by the city some number of years ago… Put in… but not updated.

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Looking down the track of The Funicular. This vertical tram has been operating since 1879.

The tour consisted of following green and blue circles which were embedded in the sidewalk concrete and led you on a three mile circle tour around the Walled City of Old Quebec. It was most pleasant but not disability friendly. We journeyed through beautiful parks, down iron staircases, up hillsides, and across streets upon streets of shops, churches and apartments, nearly all of which would prove challenging to wheelchair bound travelers.

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Art is everywhere. The French just can help themselves! This mural is part of a four story high mural depicting famous Quebecois. Can you find Rhonda?

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In an effort at urban renewal, an entire neighborhood was razed to build through-ways to lessen the traffic problems. The action was so despised, no one would move back near the area and so each highway support was painted hoping to make the area more beautiful.

Perhaps this is why, when sections of sidewalk were replaced, long stretches of green circles were sometimes not replaced as well. Perhaps the city is phasing out the trail… I did mention that we like an adventure, right?
So our “Amazing Race” skills kicked in. We carried a city map, a rough representation of the Green Dot route, a GPS, and two smartphones. Guess which we used the most?

“Hi!—English?”

TIPS:
• Get a Canadian Data plan if you plan to use your smartphone.
• Use your smartphone for GPS functions, Google Maps got us everywhere we wanted to be and in English, driving and walking.
• Unless your French is conversational, address people as soon as you meet using the English “Hi” or “Hello” (not Allo or Bonjour) to establish that you need an English conversation.
• Whenever possible use a credit card for purchases. Most credit cards automatically give you the difference in currency. On this trip it, our US dollar was worth $1.31 Canadian.
• Multiply the speed in Kilometers by 6 and divide by ten to get what your Imperial (American) speedometer should read to keep you going the speed limit. 90 km/h is 54 mph
• Temperature in Celsius roughly converts to Fahrenheit by multiplying by two and adding thirty. That will get you the temperature within a couple of degrees. 17 C is about (17 times 2) plus 30 or 64 deg F.

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Originally built by the railroad to house its traveling guests, Le Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac stands as a monument to the grandeur and wealth of Old Quebec City.

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Nearly all the streets of the Lower City offer centuries old shops and views of the Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac Hotel.

*Much of that childhood vocabulary seemed innocent enough, but I actually took French in high school and found it not publishable for this or any venue…

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This is an Art Museum…what else could it be?