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Fear and Loathing in Quebec: A Savage Voyage to the Heart of the Quebecois Dream (Part Deux)

V.  Interlude: The Modern Age

On return to the warm womb of our hotel room Ian and I promptly set about the necessary task of bring warmth to our innards.  A couple slugs of whiskey sank down as we stowed our spoils in the fridge and stripped down to base layer.  The night stand between accommodations rapidly turned into a small graveyard as I slaked my thirst on high-proof bourbon and Canadian crafts while Ian tackled the Molson dry gorilla on his back.  Balance—of course, was a key consideration, lest you think this is about to degenerate.  A warm healthy buzz arose from frost bitten toes to dumbfounded mind, each sip making the French language History Channel closer to comprehensible.

As our glacial blood warmed and flowed like a mountain stream in a spring thaw, that balance we had sought to restore with our libations may have led to a minor flood at the brain.  As two disinhibited young men in a foreign land, in search of foreign women, we began to brainstorm our options for our pursuit.  My companion and I, admittedly, are sons of the modern era—though a tad anachronistic at heart—and as such we turned to one of the strange phenomena of our age.  Tinder.  Le Tinder, to the Quebecoise…I assume.  We prepared our French guidebook, the next round of beers, and got to swiping.  Oh, les lovely ladies du Quebec, all at the swipe of a finger, all presumably single and ready to mingle.

Now reader, before you jump so quickly into judgment, let it be known, we did not have high expectations for this venture.  Casual sex, particularly as our state began to degrade, was not likely on the menu—our goals were more modest.  We sought conversation, kindness, female companionship on this strange and surreal voyage of ours.  Is that too much to ask, is that so offensive to the sensibilities of respectable society, that people should meet and make acquaintance over drink in the night?  Probably.  Regardless, Tinder we did, and as a team we crafted poor French phrases to our matches—those young women who also expressed interest in us, to those not pathetically familiar with the Tinder.  As for matches, our luck was surprisingly quick.  Perhaps it was our distinct Americanness, our French expertise (hah!,) or simply our stunning good looks, but we rapidly found ourselves jumping between conversations, passing phones frantically, failing miserably to make impressions—sounds about right.  It’s hard to tell, in retrospect, how much time we passed in this manner, but it could not have been more than a couple of hours.  The light began fading over the buildings of city center no longer lighting up our hotel window.  The French version of Pawn Stars became less amusing, and the warmth in our stomach turned to a dull and empty burn.  The streets once again were echoing with the siren’s song of the curd’s squeak—poutine.

VI.  Men will still say, “This was their finest hour.”

Braced as best we could be against another bitter Canadian night, Ian and I once again set off.  Bitter is perhaps a bit soft on a night which could freeze whisky in the bottle, and then blow the bottle away with the wind.  Though armed with a list of recommended restaurants from one of our kind Tinderesses, Ian and I, blinded by the cold and a somewhat inebriated hunger could not walk into the wind, so we ventured east.  Blocks passed as we trod past restaurants we could find no time to agree on, we found ourselves nearing the border of our known Quebec as we came upon our morning’s breakfast stop, Chez Ashton.  Chez Ashton, however, did not appeal to us—too familiar, too…tee-totaling.  Luck should have it, next to Chez Ashton was a quiet Pub, Le Pub Edward.  Shelter from the storm.

We found ourselves 2 of perhaps 5 patrons in a large Pub at prime-time on a Saturday night.  Staff was spread thin, as if this were expected, and we sat at the bar as seemed most natural.  The first rounds were, if I recall, some of the Quebec mainstays, St. Ambroise, I believe.  Poutines were ordered, and a second round of more intriguing and unfamiliar beers from an extensive menu, a menu that included many brews which would be treasured in anywhere in America, among those some of the world’s finest Trappist ales.  Did I mention poutine was ordered?  Lovely, warming, hearty poutine, soon was in its well deserved place of honor—next to my beer.

Perhaps I should mention, Pub Edward is not high up on the river in the Old City, but closer to the business district, nearly under an overpass.  It is unassuming, and not mentioned with baited breath as a haven of the poutine arts.  This may well be a mistake.  Maybe it was a good night for the chef, or maybe Ian and I were a round beyond—though I think the cold had frozen us sober.  Whatever the situation may have been, the poutine with which we were presented was a thing of beauty.  As you may have noticed, there are limited criteria of which to judge poutine.  Crispy fries, why yes, deep fried to a near brown complexion.  Fresh curds, again, check—though not the squeakiest of our trip, which is Chez Ashton’s honor, the curds met our rigorous standards.  The gravy, well, the gravy was an epiphany.  Rich, and luscious, with the consistency of velvet and the color of rich mahogany the gravy soaked into our fries, coated our curds, and caught in our throats with a dark, smoke seasoned flavor.  Words are insufficient, lest I should resort to those cruder in my vocabulary, which would seem sacrilegious in this context.  Mingled brilliantly among this cacophony of flavors were shreds of fatty and delicious pork shoulder, making the symphony whole and completing the Canadian food pyramid.

Sometime during this orgy of gravy goodness Ian and I must have set down our forks to breathe, and order another round.  Perhaps it was only suiting to the culinary delights on which we were feasting that we sought something else exquisite, this on that revered text, the beer menu.  Should you be one of those close reading English major types, you may have seen me mentioning fine Trappist ales earlier.  Maybe you were even astute enough to sense, just maybe, this was foreshadowing.  Well, you are right my brilliant friend, it’s a shame our liberal arts degrees are worthless.  Should your genius also lead to alcoholic pursuits, you may be familiar with a beer which is revered as the finest of Belgium, perhaps even towering above the Belgian waffle in lowland glory—Westvleteren XII.  In the United States, this beer has graced our shores but once, in a limited fund raising effort for the Abbey.  Westy 12 is like the gorgeous agoraphobic girl next door, for whom we all lust, but who never leaves her home.  Which happens to be on the other side of the street…and that street is the Atlantic Ocean.  We could not fight the urge, we split the round, and $45 (Canadian) later we were splitting one fine beer, and Westy too lay aside our plates.

Again, I am at a loss for words, even while my memory holds every sip so dearly, and may until the day my neurons cease to fire.  Westy was a dark mistress, garnet in color, and with the aroma of a well mulled wine and a touch of dark leather.  The taste did not disappoint.  Dark spiced fruits abound, with a mouth that is at once thick and chewy, but creamy on the tongue.  The flavors lingered, sensuous and vibrant, however, the experience was all too ephemeral.  As all great things must end, we received our bill.  Satiated and bathing in the sublime light of glorious food coma, we paid our dues and went on again, into the night.

VII. The Wild Hunt

It turns out while we had been indulging in the finest that Pub Edward had to offer, a sideways glance had occasionally fallen upon our previous pursuits.  The great dynamite fishing expedition that was Le Tinder, during our fine meal, had somehow borne fruit.  While sadly, we had not found Quebecois love, we had found a group of Americans, similarly adrift on the banks of the St. Lawrence, and willing to hang out with some countrymen. Misty, we shall call her, beaconed us on our next steps in the night and emboldened we faced the wind down the Rue St. Jean, of which we’d grown so fond and headed into the citadel, toward the quarters where dollars and drafts flowed, toward L’Pub d’Orsay, where friendly strangers await.

On arrival at the pub, we listened about for familiar words and searched for the face from my phone.  After a circle round the joint, we sat ourselves at the always inviting bar, and ordered a couple of Boréales to pass the time, as I inquired into the whereabouts of our would-be companions. They had vanished, passed onwards to the Pub St. Patrick. We contemplated our situation.  We had beers, and a warm bar.  These small joys must first be savored before we can face the cold, find the strangers.  So we sipped.  I don’t recall our conversation, but likely we were still discussing gravy and Westy.  The great intellectual discussions of our times.  Upon settling, it was unspoken that we would continue our pursuit, and therefore it was toward the St. Patrick we went.  There was, of course, the small matter of finding the St. Patrick.  Having little knowledge of where this pub was, we marched off into the cold, I remembering only it was dark and on a very sharp corner, Ian remembering it being toward the river, as was everything.  In the cold of the evening, well below zero with river valley winds, we spent what could have been the rest of our lives searching, searching, stumbling, shuffling and sliding in the icy streets until dumb luck (which, as the author, I will insist is the result of my Henry Hudson-like intuitions) drew us to that sharp corner, the green white and gold, the pub.

Unlike Pub Edward, Pub St. Patrick was busy on this Saturday night.  Fuckin’ slammed. Crazy. Somehow we got a table for 2.  Ian, in good spirits, or least containing damned good spirits, decided on a round of Bulleit bourbons and a pitcher of beer.  We sent our follow-up in for Misty and her compatriots.  Gone again, vanished, to L’Atelier.  I, my friends, do not see the appeal of the bar hop.  When I get to drinking, I set up camp, I fortify.  In this evening, with a multitude of drink on the table before us, my natural instinct prevailed.  Rightly so, we shan’t go off again into the mist.  Instead, we began to make the best of our surroundings, and began to converse with the people at the adjacent table.  The gentleman was an Australian, one of some means, as best we could tell.  We spoke of ourselves, our backgrounds, small talk.  Across from the Australian was a beautiful woman, quiet, local. A school teacher, she told us. Whiskey gone, pitcher getting low, our inhibitions grew low.  My memory grows dimmer.  Ian, I think it was Ian, jested with the Australian that the woman was too beautiful for him—they played along, she coyly stating she was an escort.  She probably wasn’t, maybe she was.  I went along with the ruse, I told her she was too beautiful to be an escort, that she didn’t need rich men, she should run away from her rich Australian, run away with the young, broke, dashing American with inflamed liver and fogged eyes.  The joking was fortuitously ended by the coming of our bill.  It would be the last of the night, or perhaps the very early morning.  Again, the slush and ice and stumble of the streets.  My peripheries grew black, the streets dim.  Somewhere, someone fell.  Down the stairs, a couple more blocks…through the lobby, elevator, door.  Bed.

VIII. Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down

Morning came once again with a ray of blinding light illuminating the stagnant air over my bed.  That ever familiar pounding rhythm went from heart to head, reminding me that I was still alive, and that I lacked good decision making skills.  To the lavatory, need water.  I was met by a blood caked scarf across the sink, which only seemed slightly out of place, and simultaneously filled my glass and emptied my bladder.

The good news, that was not my blood—though admittedly a bit of bloodletting could actually have done me some good.  The better news, Ian was still alive, though a little worse for wear and tear.  He had had a bit of a cobblestone face-plant.  Anesthetized by cold and liquor he fortunately ignored the severity of his laceration and simple let the blood freeze in the wound.  Presumably he discovered this as I collapsed fully dressed into an unconscious heaving mound on return from our fruitless hunt.  Chemicals needed: coffee, food, forgiveness.  This need was addressed briefly at the hotel continental, and with 3 cups and some French (Canadian) toast in me I felt human again.  Ian was still feeling a pint short I’d guess.  It was determined he probably could have taken a couple of stitches.  Too late for that.  Best get a move on the day, once again.

This, the Sunday of our discontent, I should happen to mention was a bit of an American holiday, Super Bowl Sunday. Given the holy feast of the Patriots, we were on a bit of a deadline to get underway, with just a few hours to spare after check-in for a final round of fair Quebec.  Our evening’s plans were to take place in Vermont, a small town near the New Hampshire border and a few hours distant, where we planned to watch the event, eat and imbibe at the home of a great friend of mine and his fiancé.  Maybe that’s another story.  Anyways, these evening plans in mind we set off on our final inspection.  We went once more to the Carnaval grounds, for a minor inspection of the scene.  The plains were relatively quiet, aside from the clatter of toboggan on ice luge there was little in the way of goings-on.  We took a quick shot at the classic Canadian game of “slapshot in the clothes dryer,” at which I did slightly better than the French-Canadian fathers, and at which Ian promptly excelled.  They gave him a pin, I think, but overall this was a bit of a forlorn farewell.  Just one weekend into the 2 week Carnaval and we had to leave.  The sky blue sky and possibly above zero temperatures let us know, it was time to be on our way.

We made our way back once more to the Rue St. Jean to run a final few errands—some maple candies for Ian’s Chinese kids (these being Chinese students who live with Ian and his family,) a bomber and matching glass for the coming evening’s host.  On a whim, we took a last pit stop at the SAQ (liquor store,) as I still clung to the idea of bringing something back, maybe even something top-shelf Canadian.  Alas, barbeard had been right—they had maybe 4 bottles of Canadian whisky, all readily available and cheaper across the border.  All swill.  I settled for a Bottle of 7 year old Havana Club Rum.  I need something to write up, don’t I?  They didn’t give me a bag, so I swaggered down the streets as a menacing American pirate, blockade booze in hand.

IX. The Chicken Man

It wasn’t long before we were humming down the highway again clicking away the Canadian kilos south.  We did have a minor goal in mind on our way home, aside from the clear need to make time, we also sought one final poutine at a place that lingered fond in Ian’s memory, Le Chicken Hut, St. Hubert.  Fortunately the highway obliged, at some quasi-truck stop with big fiberglass dinosaurs outside I met St. Hubert, the chicken man, and Ian and I ordered Poutines and chicken tenders.  This was decidedly fast-foody, so much so that they fucked our orders, which were in doubtlessly flawless and un-stuttering French.  We had one poutine, some regular fries and 4.5 tenders, or some shit.  Now, admittedly, this was a St. Hubert express.  Also, admittedly, they share a location with a McDonald’s, which is a terrible sign.  They’re also a rotisserie chicken joint, which is not what we got.  But all of these details aside, we were forced to conclude that St. Hubert, as our final poutine was a sorrowful parting indeed, to the extent that splitting one was just fine.  Sadly, I am told that the sit down St. Hubert is actually decent, for what it is.  What we had was cheese curds that sobbed, gravy like used bathwater and flaccid fries.  Again, a sign, onward.

X:  Land of the Free

As the sun began to fall across the plains of Quebec we once again neared the United States.  We exchanged the remaining plastic money we had for a few liters of petrol to satiate Cecilia, who was no longer stating how many miles left I had on the tank.  We neared the border, which was admittedly a bit more backed up that the Canadian entry had been.  And for a reason, here in America, we have things we want to keep out.  People who dress funny, talk funny, or have…shall we say different complexions are monitored closely.  Two young New Englanders apparently fit this bill.  The 3 border guards, sharing a close hut and dressed in the official garb of Fascism, began to question us.

“ Where have you been?”

“Quebec City”

“When did you live the states?”

“Friday.”

“How long were you there?”

“Since Friday, so, two days, or so?”

“How do you two know each other?”

“College.”

“What college?”

“Gettysburg College.”

“What year did you graduate?”

“I graduated in 2012.”

“2014, for me” (from stage right).

“So when did you guys go to Canada, Tuesday, you were there 5 days?”

“No. 2 days. Friday.”

“Okay. Do you have any food, tobacco, liquor?”

“We have a bottle of liquor.”

“What liquor?”

“Rum.”

“What kind of rum?”

“Havana club, I think…”

“You can’t have that.”

Now my friends, here is a moment perhaps you’d been waiting, but I thought we had grown past this as a people.  Given the current political climate, with an opening of communications between ourselves and our Cuban neighbors, I had been led to believe that limited Cuban goods were now being welcomed into this country.  I was led to this belief by the liberal media, actually, BBC, and the fact that there was a newly listed $100 limit on the intake of Cuban goods.  Clearly Capt. America here had not heard of this, or had a different interpretation.  He sent us back to Canada, to dispose of our contraband.

It took a bit of explaining at the Canadian border to the friendly officials as to why we had been rejected entry into our father country.  The jovial gent stated that their rejection of my rum was decidedly “shit,” but, no, sadly he could not take the bottle while on the job.  We drove a bit further and placed it in a snowbank beside a snowmobile trail for some lucky recreationalist to find.  Again, at the US border, Capt. America was a bit less curt, and he let us on our way, without search, but also without rum.

I leave this story at the American border, with my bottle of rum, and a little carefree piece of my heart.  Perhaps you note that, for the most part, our stated goals failed.  I did not find a Canadian whisky to open my eyes and mind to the craft of the northfolk.  I did not find Canadian love, unless we count the Australian’s schoolteacher / escort.  I did not, it seems, even find material for a booze review to post.  And though I can’t say that I necessarily found the heart of the Quebecois dream, I can say that it is not cold, in spite of its environs, and that it quite likely pumps streams of gravy and good beer, which delivers the curds of life to hockey strained muscles.

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