Saturday, August 28, 2010

Bliss - Part II

(Did you worry I would forget to write Part II?)

The cottage is what we call it. Like it's ours. It actually belongs to my sister and her husband, but for years before they had kids, they encouraged us to use it when they couldn't, so we feel a strong sense of attachment to the place.

But that's not quite it. Eight years ago, I had hurt my back two weeks before we were scheduled to go for our first visit. It became a goal for my physios to get me there: fourteen hours away. It probably helps to give a physio patient a goal. So, that became it for me. I was sternly told to stop every 1.5 hours, get out a little yoga mat on the side of the road and do my exercises. Which I did. I saw a lot of Ontario and Quebec from ground level. I remember though, after three days of driving and stretching, getting out of the car and walking straight past the house down the steps to the beach, standing there and surveying the sweep of the St. Lawrence at half-tide. I felt triumphant that I had made it. I felt home. Right from that first moment.

The cottage is in a curious situation. Bear with me if you've heard the story before. In the mid-19th century, a number of English Montreal elites sought a restful summer place with good air for their families in the summer. They settled on this place and built their three-story summer homes along the curve of the bay. Their heirs, by birth and sensibility, still return each year. They golf and play tennis, hold dinner parties and tournaments, engage locals to weed, mow lawns, maintain homes, serve food, and care for children. A read through the golf club membership directory reveals celebrated last names - and often first names that sound like names I would give only to a pet. All this in the midst of a separatist region of Quebec where even the tourist centre staff may speak no English.

My sister often encourages us to get involved at the Club, but we have no interest at all. For us, it is and has always been about the natural beauty and the isolation of the place. It is a dramatic contrast to our regular life and it refreshes us like nothing else.

After our first visit to the cottage, I started a novel set there. And then another. I am about to embark on a third. I spent a good deal of time this past year revising my books for (hopeful) publication. In a sense, I have come to live in this place (although I decided I like my fictional town even more).

This summer when I returned, it was as if someone had fine-tuned my every sense. I started carrying my notebook around like Harriet the Spy, observing every little smell, sight and sound. I realized that this place is my muse. It inspires me and speaks to me at a very deep level. It's the ground of my stories for now. No matter that my sister now has three loud preschoolers who spend the entire summer at the cottage. I would wake at 5 most mornings and write. I had a sense of incredulity the whole time - "I really get to be here. Right now, in this place." - as if it were life imitating art.

But the other source of delight was that we did all our favourite things and every new thing we did was wonderful. As usual, we visited the honey place - finding the queen bee and squeezing samples onto popsicle sticks before choosing a box filled with jars of different varieties; we went to the steamy bakery and bought cream buns; we went to the little store for candy; we made stores on the beach (this year they sold hot stone massages and skipping stones); we walked and walked the beaches. But, we also discovered the 50,000,000 year old fairy caves on a half-washed out gravel road inland from Ste-Leandre, at the northern edge of the Appalachians. It was a wonderful challenging hike, complete with swimmable waterfalls, piles of deer poop and wild blueberries. We found an organic herb store that made and sold knots of soap that smelled like every good Gaspesian thing. We found a new bakery. We tried wines and ice wine at a winery we had heard of but never found before. Best of all, we discovered the Jardins. I had assumed that the Reford Gardens would be snobby and boring. Their signage was muted and tasteful. I had been in their high-end gift shop before. But this year we went inside and we discovered the International Garden Festival they hold every year. And we discovered that it was the most playful, creative place. It was delightful in every way. I laughed and gasped and held my breath. I got glimpses of the St. Lawrence through the trees. It was stunning.

Probably best of all on our trip, I had the sense of being utterly outside time. From the start to the finish. I more or less knew what day it was but that was all.I even had none of the usual sense of melancholy as our trip drew to a close.

I was very low when I got home and everything - the washing machine, the hard drive, the modem - broke in very quick succession the next morning. I wanted to be in a place where I could speak French and smell sea air and eat sugary things. I didn't want to be in poky, landlocked southwestern Ontario. If I could bring the sea and the French here, I would be okay, I though, or if I could bring my friends and family there. I started looking at Quebec real estate and to make a case for a job exchange. Not one family member would agree to consider it.

And then, I was brushing my teeth, and I suddenly thought about my fiction: I can live there, I thought, even when I'm here. And the bliss seeped back in.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Bliss - Part I

I struggle to explain how deliriously happy I was on our trip to Quebec.

It has been our custom, for the last nine years, to spend time at my sister's cottage in Quebec - four hours north-east of Quebec City on the Gaspe Peninsula. I fell in love with the Gaspe the first time we went and spent a good deal of the following winter pining for the beach there, and wishing I could see it draped in snow and ice. The next time we went, it poured and fogged and drove us half-insane. I did not love it so much. But we returned each year, varying our trip there, discovering traditions (visiting one of my best friends and my brother en route, eating decadent fine-chocolate-dipped ice cream, buying packages of plump dried cranberries, eating poutine and St. Hubert and sugar pie and cream buns. Okay, apparently it's all about the food.) I also, early on, began to write a novel set there - after a board member of the local English school there asked my husband to move there to teach. Who would say yes, I wondered. Now I know and am embarking on my third novel about that person and that place.

This last year, I really buckled down to finish up both of my first two novels set on the Gaspe. I hired a fine editor to work with me and I spent diligent, delightful hours being ruthless with my prose, shaping it until it shone to the best of my abilities.

In some ways, I lived in this lovely French-Canadian village all year.

But, it was not just that that made me feel so happy. I know this because I can pinpoint the exact moment my bliss began: there was a bad, lane-blocking crash on the 401 near Bowmanville, which meant we took back roads through suburban Pickering and Oshawa. It was just as we got off the 401 on the far side of Toronto for this long annoyance of a detour that my happiness set in. I was with the people I loved, I was heading in the direction I orient to, and there was nothing we needed to be doing but enjoying the ride. So we did.

We took a very different route this year than we have in the past. Usually, after Quebec City, we continue on the south shore of the St. Lawrence, which generally consists of rolling narrow parcels of farmland, punctuated by the occasional town, zinc-topped steeple, or hummock of a small mountain. This year, we took the north shore, and then took a ferry across the St. Lawrence.

The North Shore is wilder, with steep drops and curves, as you drive on and around mountains. Some of the north shore was shaped by a massive meteorite. We started at Ste. Anne de Beaupre church, marvelling at the artistry of this almost-European cathedral and at the crutches no longer needed, hanging on pillars inside the church. We decided to take our time en route too, stopping to sample food in the famed Charlevoix region. We stopped in the town of Baie-St-Paul, which was as touristy as our St. Jacobs on a Saturday. We gave it a shot, but quickly moved on. We discovered a wonderful village just past B-S-P. It was right on the water, but to get to it involved taking an 18% grade road. In all our travels, I'm not sure we've encountered such a precipitous drop. Our new car struggled mightily to get up the hill on our way out of town. But first, we visited a wonderful bakery where we ate lunch - a delicious regional meat pie - and visited an atelier where they made their own paper and paper art, and another where santons or little clay figures of Nativity scenes and Quebecois scenes were crafted.

Eventually we reached the Saguenay fjord, where the water that met the St. Lawrence is 200 metres deep and home to a resident pod of beluga whales. The fjord is about half a kilometre wide and because, presumably, the water is too deep to put a bridge in (or possibly too beautiful), they run car ferries year-round, 24 hours a day, every 10 minutes. ("I hope they change captains though," my daughter said. "That's a long day.") Some of us saw a minke whale from the deck of the ferry.

We stayed two days in the Tadoussac region and loved it thoroughly. We weren't sure how long we would like to stay, so with uncharacteristic spontaneity, we decided to not book our ferry until we were sure when we wanted to leave. We liked the place so much that we decided to stick with our original shorter length of time - and to come back next year. But when we found an Internet cafe (in a great funky restaurant where no one even looked up when we went in), the ferry we had planned to take was booked for the next three days straight. We had to recross the fjord in dense soupe des pois fog and take a ferry in tamer waters, forty minutes back.

From the bigger ferry, we saw belugas and dolphins and imagined what shipboard life would have been like for Canada's early emigrants. The water spread out around the ship as far as the eye could see, as silver as the zinc church spires, like a brilliant field.

And then, an hour on the south shore to the cottage.

Monday, August 16, 2010


We drive past our motel and reach the next town before we turn around in a lumber store parking lot. I have been entranced by the opportunity to speak French, but right now, I want to cut to the chase and get an answer in plain English: where is the place we are booked to stay at? Finally we spot it. There is no room, the proprietress tells the two elderly women who step briskly ahead of me into the motel unit that is the office. The proprietress is younger than me, plump with glasses and wavy brown hair pulled up behind her. She looks like someone who should be dressed in period costume at an interpretive museum. She speaks no English but she seems to understand me quite well, although she corrects my French as though I am a slow child, and her own sentences seem to end in mid-thought, quixotically.


We drape ourselves on the giant rocks, as if we are seals, looking into the cold depths from which sleek, glistening black backs and fins emerge at every angle unexpectedly. Farther out dolphins, grey seals and porpoises cut dancing silver crescents in the water. It is irrational, especially since I am a good swimmer and my kids swim like fish, but I am afraid that if one of us were to slip and fall into the icy water, we would immediately sink 300 metres to the river bottom. All except my daughter: her I picture astride one of the minkes, as if it were a horse, her dark hair streaming in the water behind her. I perch myself, leaning on a sunwarmed ledge of soft pink granite, my foot slipping once into into a slimy tidal pool behind me and I scan the horizon.


I meet a man dressed in camouflage-type clothing whose summer job it is to sit under the cover of a wooden shelter, counting whales and other aquatic mammals. He alternates between reading an apparently self-published thriller novel and looking out through tripod-mounted binoculars. I ask him if this is both a wonderful and terrible summer job. It must be hard on the eyes, I say. This morning, he says, I stared into the sun for two hours straight. Everything was shadowed afterward.


We climb the wrong dunes. We have been told that Tadoussac has impressive sand dunes. You can sand-ski down the dunes, but you may break a leg. You must climb to the top of the dunes and roll down laughing. We climb the dunes, so steep and thick that we move in slow motion and our legs ache with the effort. It is nearly sunset. We try sliding but there are rocks and scrubby plants, so we run down, thudding and laughing to the bottom. I find a bank card in the midst of this strange desert and decide I must ask a group of young adults if it is theirs. They look at me quizzically. It is not theirs. And later, we discover we climbed down the "other" dunes. But by then, we have decided we will return. And then we will find the right hill.


At the day's end, we seek a place to eat dinner. I am tired and do not want loud music and chatter from the tables around us. We find a pub and follow a ship's captain in full regalia into the pub. Our menu options are: flabby spicy chicken wings, steaming hot lasagna, a spinach-potato-salmon appetizer. I choose wine and the appetizer. We sit upstairs where the sea captain joins an elderly man at the brightly lit electronic gambling machine and where I have a view of the door. For some reason, I love this place. It feels like a place where the locals come, and indeed I wish we were there on one of the karaoke nights they advertise in the tiny washroom with the cherry-scented soap. Rhubarb grows in the garden behind the pub.


As I fall asleep at night, my husband's heavy exhale reminds me exactly of the huff of a dolphin or a juvenile minke, releasing air as it surfaces. I do not surface: I fall into deep sleep, the sounds of the logging trucks and motorcycles dimly heard as I dream.