Travels through Quebec, 2019

Text and photos by Michael Broschat

The songs of Canadian Stan Rogers (1949–1983) have long been favorites of Lohoski and Broschat. Some are sea shanty/drinking songs that have, fortunately, gone on to even greater popularity after Rogers’ early death. The beginning of Barrett’s Privateers:

[singer] Oh, the year was 1778

is a rousing start, and the sentiment extends throughout the song, and the full chorus is:

God damn them all!
I was told we’d cruise the seas for American gold
We’d fire no guns—shed no tears
Now I’m a broken man on a Halifax pier
The last of Barrett’s Privateers.

I remembered that we tried to hear the unfamiliar place names well enough to place them, but that was in the days before Wikipedia, and we were never sure where (or which) Sherbrooke/Cherbourg was intended. As the Wikipedia entry notes, it wouldn’t have mattered as only parts of the song have any reference to reality, but we eventually settled on Sherbrooke, Quebec.

So, when someone had the idea to follow places in Louise Penny’s Quebec as this year’s Canadian odyssey, Ed arranged the experience to center on Sherbrooke, Quebec, a kind of tribute to Stan Rogers as we made one to Louise Penny. Ms Penny writes crime fiction featuring the incredible Armand Gamache and his loyal band, usually operating (or relaxing) in Three Pines, a fictional Canadian village reputed to exist within the Eastern Townships area south of Montreal. Like Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon, Three Pines got left off maps for some reason. As Keillor once said, “It’s real so long as you don’t go looking for it.”

Well, we went looking for it.

As with any good travelers, we were never far from knowing where our next meal was coming from, but we managed to fit in some sight-seeing between meals. Our first goal was the Abbey of St Benedict, a remarkable structure south of Sherbrooke. Those of us familiar with Penny’s The Beautiful Mystery, might have envisioned a medieval monastery, but the reality is a very modern complex—complete with a well-stocked gift shop. The young man charged with greeting visitors hadn’t read the book so wasn’t sure where the murder took place. No worry, and we even attended daily mass. The Gregorian chant depicted in the book and part of the abbey’s reputation didn’t quite meet our secular expectations, but there are CDs for the unsatisfied. Oh, and an extraordinary organ for which one also needs a CD.

We then followed Bernadine’s research into Eastern Townships locations important to Penny’s novels, and came upon Knowlton, rumored to be where Louise Penny actually lives. A visit to the local supermarket confirmed her presence in the neighborhood but we restricted our investigation to the local bookstore. Penny had released her 2019 novel just a couple weeks before our visit, and we were told that for the bookstore Ms Penny had autographed some 1,000 copies, only fifty of which remained when this quartet visited the holy location.

A somewhat curious phenomenon soon arose. Ms Penny writes of French Canadians. Although the books are written in English, we are to understand that most of the dialog is spoken in French. All characters can switch to English as needed, and that was our experience traveling through Quebec. But I can’t recall any French-Canadian (other than our Quebec City guide) who had ever heard of Louise Penny. Any author as successful as Ms Penny will see her books translated into many of the world’s primary languages, and although we did not see any French language books, there’s no doubt that translations of Ms Penny’s books include those in French. Interesting.

Our visit to Knowlton and nearby Sutton prompted a picnic in the park, using some of the foodstuffs we’d been acquiring. Here are a couple pictures. Yes, that’s wine.

Upon recommendation from friend Bob Nylander, Ed had arranged for us to be part of a walking tour of Quebec City guided by Sam Dubois. This proved to be the worst weather we would encounter while in Quebec but was no less interesting because of that. The tour concentrates on the old city, and that’s the sort of thing we tourists are looking for.

There were at least two locations in Quebec City that feature in popular culture. The first was the location of part of an Alfred Hitchcock film from 1952 called I Confess. As a collector of Hitchcock films, I had never heard of this one. It was certainly not available as I looked for DVD versions about 5-10 years ago. But I see that currently some Hitchcock films not then available are now. I Confess has some strong advocates among the citizen reviews on Amazon, and it also features in François Truffaut’s interview with Hitchcock (Hitchcock/Truffaut, Simon & Schuster, 1985). Truffaut appears to like the film more than does Hitchcock.

Hitchcock asks Truffaut: "Do you feel that there’s a connection between my Jesuit upbringing and the heavy-handedness of I Confess?
Truffaut: "Not necessarily. I attributed that to the austerity of the Canadian climate..."
Hitchcock: "...That’s the trouble with I Confess. We Catholics know that a priest cannot disclose the secret of the confessional, but the Protestants, the atheists, and the agnostics all say, "Ridiculous! No man would remain silent and sacrifice his life for such a thing."
Truffaut: "Then would you say that the basic concept of the film was wrong?"
Hitchcock: "That’s right; we shouldn’t have made the picture."

Well, be that as it may, all this made me order the film.

The tour also showed us a library [Literary & Historical] that contains early English materials on Quebec history, and Reine-Marie, Gamache’s wife, gets to use her librarian skills there in another book in the series.

You can see from the photographs how photogenic old Quebec City is.

Lunch before our city tour, Quebec City, Quebec, Sep 2019; Nancy, Ed, and Bernadine.

Waiting for Dubois, Quebec City, Quebec, Sep 2019; Nancy, Ed, and Bernadine.

Vegetation around the fountain, Quebec City, Quebec, Sep 2019

Sam Dubois teaches his students, Quebec City, Quebec, Sep 2019

The house used for Hitchcock’s I Confess, Quebec City, Quebec, Sep 2019

Iconic picture from the old city, Quebec City, Quebec, Sep 2019

In from Norway, Quebec City, Quebec, Sep 2019

We then visited the area around North Hatley, which contributes more than a couple locations to the Three Pines mystique.

Lunch at the Pilsen restaurant, North Hatley, Quebec, Sep 2019

Manoir Bellechasse, North Hatley, Quebec, Sep 2019

Manoir Bellechasse, North Hatley, Quebec, Sep 2019

Our final destination was north of Quebec City: the gardens at Quatre-Vents. To reach it, we passed through La Malbaie, beside the St. Lawrence River.

On the main street of La Malbaie, Quebec, Sep 2019; Nancy and Bernadine.

A restaurant in La Malbaie, Quebec, Sep 2019; Nancy, Ed, and Bernadine.

Nancy had obtained an invitation to this private location via her acquaintance with one of the owners. It is not normally open to the public.

Quatre-Vents, a private garden, Quebec, Sep 2019

Quatre-Vents, a private garden, Quebec, Sep 2019

Quatre-Vents, a private garden, Quebec, Sep 2019

Quatre-Vents, a private garden, Quebec, Sep 2019

Summing up

It’s easy to see how the concept of a Northwest Passage so intrigued early Canadians. Our trip took us to the mouth of the St Lawrence River, and you can see how they already had a waterway extending nearly half the width of the continent. Why not the other half?

But this trip concerned only French-speaking Quebec.

If we were worried about how we’d do among French speakers (none of us being remotely fluent), we were able to quickly relax. The instant we spoke English (or attempted a French word), our waiter or clerk summoned his or her nearly always excellent English skills. I asked one waitress how she could be so good, and she shrugged her shoulders and said she guessed it was just from watching Netflix.

We noticed once again that you get no official help from the Quebec government. Other countries might well put ‘Exit’ under a Sortie sign, but not in Quebec. Our guess is that French speakers struggled so long under English domination that they’re not going to risk further contamination.

Whatever. It all worked–once again–for us.

Michael Broschat (and Ed, Nancy, and Bernadine), 2019