Saturday, October 20, 2007

Ca et La

Friday morning, I pointed the nose of my car north and followed it. It was a dreary day, less like rain and more like driving thru slow moving water. The first few hours were dull, moving along roads hemmed in by trees and the low clouds like a lid on top of it all. Around noon, I finally reached the Acadia Peninsula, which branches off from Miramichi, a city with a Japanese sounding name and supposedly good fly fishing. I stopped in a small diner for lunch. Inside, the old timers were speaking French and an equal number of younger men in muddy boots spoke an English that was so thickly Canadian that it was almost a parody. The waitresses flowed freely between both. I read a few of the French flyers by the door, then moved on. Signs in French began growing in prominence until out by Caraquet where English was badly outnumbered. As I followed the coast, the sky cleared just enough to reveal the high peaks of the Gaspe Peninsula out across the bay. I crossed into Quebec and cut across the peninsula, finding myself suddenly in an Alaskan landscape of thick wooded hills and rushing streams. The only distinct "back east" touches were the centuries old wooden bridges that spanned them. I was literally driving into fall. Down in Maine, the maples were still yellow, and the orange leaves didn't appear until the Bay of Fundy. Up here, the birch trees had already shed their colors to take on a light gray. From a distance, a mountainscape seemed streaked in a way that resembled the alarming recent changes of my chin stubble. In Quebec, I'd gained an hour, but this far east, not any daylight, so at the coast I called it a night. I stayed in Matane, a town I liked for its Japanese pun of a name. As I ate pasta laced with the region's famous shrimp, the winds coming off the St. Lawrence River shook the restaurant. I barely felt it, my body still vibrating from an 11-hour drive.

I set off the next morning before dawn, driving away from a sun just rising. The streets were empty and none of the houses had any lights on. I played connect the dots with the small beach towns out this way, then crested a foggy which is the last of the Gaspe mountains. On the far side the hills dropped to parallel the shoreline, creating a long flat valley containing a chain of beautiful little farm towns. The rain stopped for awhile, bringing a sliver of blue to the sky which added color to an otherwise black and white day. Unfortunately it didn't last. I followed the farms to Quebec City, where I crossed over the north shore of the St. Lawrence. The sky dropped again and erased the view. I followed the highway toward Montreal.

Once in town, I contacted my friend Yvon, who directed me to his house in the northern part of the city. I'd met Yvon at PRYT training back in June, he being the only male besides me. When the rest of the group commented on our bravery, we two males venturing into areas more familiar to women, I countered that Yvon was the truly brave one. I'd been sipping the spiritual waters since university, yet he'd been a CEO of a successful company until the day he'd had an epiphany which led him to gradually shed 50 years of conditioning. He was currently working to bring yoga into the boardroom where he felt it was most needed. This weekend he was out at his country house, but I had free reign of his place in the city. I dropped off my stuff, then walked over to Outremont, following the streets around. The rain had stopped and the weather was perfect for a stroll. High brownstones lined the sidestreets, many with bicycles on the metal fire escapes. The main avenues were a mix of New England town and Paris boulevard, bizarrely perfect in their balance. A few streets over, the neighborhood grew rougher and hints of immigrant populations began to appear, in the form of Greek delis and Lebanese restaurants. Orthodox Jewish children walked in front of one of the three sushi bars on this street. I had dinner in a bistro specializing in mussels, then finished off with coffee at Second Cup, across from a movie theatre which screens French films. In both places, the staff approached me in French, then switched easily to a nearly unaccented English. I sat awhile reading in the front window table until it grew dark. I'd driven eighteen hours in two days and was exhausted.

I awoke early again, and walked through the silent streets past huge homes until I found a series of hiking trails up Mont Royal. A series of switchbacks gave way to a side trail which led into the Catholic cemetery. Looking around I realized that I was surrounded by the graves of children, each stone fronted by stuffed animals or toy cars. Why today of all days? On this date five years before, I'd lost my own son. I gave myself over to grief and cried for a good long time. I wandered the graves awhile, passing rows of markers of those who'd died in the 1950s. Spouses were buried together, and I couldn't fathom how it would feel to outlive your spouse by decades. Other graves were separated by ethnic group. The Chinese had the best spot, up at the top of the hill with a view of the Olympic Park to the west. Nearby I found a narrow path over to Mont Royal itself, with the main part of Montreal spread before me. I wandered down to the gothic stone spires of McGill College, then into the city itself. Down on Rue St. Catherine, I noticed three Natives laughing as they looked into a shop selling Inuit goods. Wearing backpacks and clad as hunters, they looked out of a cliched film about simple natives set loose in the big city, surrounded by well-classed tourists in this ritzy part of town. I followed this street until it began to resemble every other North American city with their chain shops and boutiques. I followed the side roads down toward Vieux Montreal and the waterfront.

Crossing into old town was like crossing the street between New York and Paris. The streets narrowed and became cobblestone. There were horse-drawn carriages down here, carrying tourists with blankets across their knees. In one lane, a pigeon feasted on the grain-flecked horse dung left behind. Down another cobblestone lane, one ballsy guy actually rollerbladed. I navigated these streets on a mission to find poutine, that artery hardening pile of gravy coated cheese fries. Ducking in and out of bistros and sandwich shops. I noticed that the latter were all run by Chinese. I finally found poutine in a cafe near Norte Dame, where I later stopped to light a votive candle for Ken-chan. I spent the rest of the morning down here, popping into shops and walking the lanes. On the waterfront, young couples strolled arm-in-arm or stole kisses down alleys. Seeing them made me miss the other half of my own couple, made me really long to waste away a lazy Sunday with her in some romantic setting like this.

A few more turns brought me to Chinatown, its one lane packed with people. Up the hill further was the trendy Latin Quarter, and the nearby Plateau. Down the old hippie haunts of Rue Prince-Arthur into Square St. Louis, where the hippie's offsprung still smoked dope in front of elaborately decorated Victorians. Up Boulevard St. Laurant now, stopping to read and write over coffee at the hip Cafe Popolo. Further up the street I had dinner with a now returned Yvon and his wife, talking Yoga and Zen over Indian curries served up by fussy waiters....

On the turntable: "Bach Meets Cape Breton"
On the nighttable: Tim O'Brien, "Tomcat in Love"

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