Montreal and Quebec City: A Palimpsest

We spent ten days in Quebec, Canada, eating poutine and duck confit and crepes. We walked through the cobblestone streets of Old Montreal, then drove to Quebec City and walked the cobblestone streets there. My girls posed with cannons on the old battlements and were subjected to military history; we ate gelato and watched street performers in the old squares. We drove out of the city and explored a dramatic landscape of waterfalls and gorges and mountains. We saw sights like this.

            A view from atop the waterfall at Canyon Sainte-Anne, outside Quebec City.

                                                   Another view of the falls. 

We also saw this. 

                           A view of the Jacques-Cartier River at Jacques-Cartier National Park.

On our first night in Quebec City, my husband made a reservation at Aux Anciens Canadiens. Nearly twenty years ago, we had dined at this restaurant sans children. Quebec was one of the first trips that my husband and I ever took together. It was late autumn, and cold, and we were so young.

We came back with thicker waistlines and more money, more confidence. We came back with over twenty years’ experience as a couple. Husband had planned the trip, saying he wanted to give our children something of a European experience albeit without the cost and trouble of an actual trip to Europe. We didn’t try to retrace our earlier steps in Quebec. It was summer this time around, and there were new things to see and do. And my husband and I found that we’d both forgotten so many details of that earlier trip; we couldn’t have retraced it if we’d wanted. We blanked out on the names of the hotels and restaurants we’d visited, all the streets we’d walked, the things we'd done. I do remember the Montreal Botanical Gardens at night, lit up with lanterns. Walking past shops on Rue St. Denis, and a meal of mussels and frites. A dodgy hotel in a sketchy part of the city. I remember the cobblestone streets of Old Quebec City in the cold, a charming B&B, and the winds off the Plains of Abraham. We went on a boat ride, didn’t we? I asked my husband. Did we? he replied. There was a view of autumn trees from water—wasn’t that on our Quebec trip twenty years ago? Or was it a boat ride from a different place, a different time? Twenty years’ worth of vacations blur into one another. We didn’t keep careful track. Back then, we had no cell phones, no cameras with digital time stamps. I didn’t write anything down.

We returned with our family. One girl just in her teens, the other a few years away. This time, instead of hiding from the cold in Montreal’s Underground City, we hid from the summer heat. We walked through summer street fairs. We hiked up a mountain. We tasted black currant jam on a farm in Ile d’Orleans and played a round of indoor, glow-in-the-dark mini-golf in Quebec City, on Rue St. Catherine.

Memory is a palimpsest, traced over with new words. We continually build upon the old; the past becomes obscured, the old layers sinking and buried, hints of their meaning peeking out only at times.

But on our first night in Quebec City after twenty years, my husband and I did remember a romantic restaurant of traditional Quebecois food within the walled city. My husband still knew the name. To our surprise, Aux Anciens Canadiens was still open and had reservations available that night.

I didn’t remember the charming seventeenth century building as being quite so small. I couldn’t remember exactly what I’d had for dinner there before.

But my husband and I both remembered the fabulous maple syrup pie, rich and sweet. It was a highlight of our first trip, a treasure kept through the years. We ordered it for dessert again, of course. Four forks to share this time, instead of two. 

Our kids loved it. It was even better than I’d remembered.


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