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Great law prevails. A sign in St. Regis Mahawk Reservation, NYS

Sola Going French – Entering Quebec

Sola Going French

From 1000 Islands, NY to Port St. Francois Campground, Nicolet, Quebec

Towards the Border


I would have never arrived at Fort Covington had I not chatted with the three young guys at the winding up of the October Fest in Cape Vincent. Causal conversations sometimes give you the precise information you need, so when the time arrived to leave the 1000 Islands, I followed their advice. Continuing on the # 12 up north and following it after it merges with the #37, seemed to provide the country feeling I preferred and lead me to the destination, despite some befuddling bypasses and confusing road works.

I tried to call the border station (the number was provided on the GPS), but there was no answer.  The guys informed me that crossings could be closed if there was not enough traffic or for other reasons. Massena’s border crossing  seemed open, so I drove in, parked the car and went to consult the guy at the desk about Covington. The reason to go through Covington was that it led directly to Canadian route 132, my desired goal. He reassured me it would be open. I kept going.

Causal conversations sometimes give you the precise information you need

Great Law Prevails - The Mohawk Reservation

A stop at the Mohawk Indian reservation. Everybody advised me to fill up gas before crossing the border and I wanted to contribute to the local economy. Missing several gas stations on the road, I eventually fueled at Bear’s Den, an appropriately Indian-sounding name. An older unpleasant white guy showed up. He did not allow me to fill up myself, and demanded an extra fee on behalf of the reservation. I found it a bit disconcerting, but went along. The restaurant itself was not that welcoming either. A large Indian lady walked in smilelessly. The sellers were not very helpful, and the food was not appealing for a vegetarian. I walked away feeling a bit lousy.

Mohawk Reservation - you drive through the living history of a people, past trailers and cheaply-built houses, and what can you comprehend? What can be gathered from what exists now to what used to be, to things that happened in the past?

Living Histories

The Native American situation is generally depressing and sad, but in New Mexico you can encounter different energies in the communities. Not all are nihilistic, some people radiate positive, creative and proud vibrations. Here I felt a heaviness, but did not really have the time to study it in more depth. There was a casino advertisement somewhere down the road, but also a sign advertising: “Gambling is not Our Tradition”, and another sign proudly announcing :“Great Law Prevails”.

Thanksgiving story aside, how much do most Americans and Canadians know or care to know about the people they stole the land from? I heard on Canadian radio that a major court trial was taking place against the government, regarding the widespread practice of snatching indigenous children from their homes and raising them in European families. Amazingly, this was still prevalent in as recent as the 60-80s of the last century:

After years of delay, thousands of indigenous Canadians who were forcibly removed from their homes as children are finally getting their day in court. An Ontario superior court judge will on Tuesday hear arguments in a summary judgment motion for a class-action lawsuit brought against the Canadian federal government by survivors of the episode, known as the “Sixties Scoop”. Around 16,000 indigenous children were taken from their families and communities, and put up for fostering or adoption by mostly non-indigenous families across Canada and the United States – often without the consent of their parents. Some were sent as far away as New Zealand and Australia. (The Guardian, Aug. 22nd 2016)

By the time of revising ( Feb 2018) I found out that Trudeau’s government had compensated families with $800 million . That is nice, of course, but how can the emotional and cultural damage be rectified?

You go with your car through the living histories of peoples, through trailers and cheaply-built houses, and what do you understand? What can one sense, read, surmise from what exists now to what used to be, to things that happened in the past?

   A sign in St. Regis Mohawk Reservation by Massena, NYS     Great law prevails. A sign in St. Regis Mahawk Reservation, NYS   

The Interface

I was alone at the crossing. A bored official sat in a small booth and pretended to interrogate me. He was too nice for that, and in two three minutes was instead working hard to help me with the “How to bypass Montreal” task. He also complimented me for using paper maps…  Apparently nobody else does anymore…

And then I was on the “other side”, and there was nothing but corn fields, cows, and more corn fields. I was trying to sense a different feel, something, but it looked a lot like the  landscape around Sackets Harbor.

It was a long tedious drive. I stopped at a petrol station to get a snack and change money. Nobody seemed to know where there was a money change, despite the proximity of the border. Nobody took American dollars. This was no Campobello. English came with difficulty to the guy I spoke to and with considerable reluctance. A plumpish short lady directed me to some bank, but I did not find it. Luckily, I still had my 20 leftover Canadian dollars handy for immediate use, and my card.

This interface between cultures is reminiscent of the land-sea interface. As a marine biologist, I never stop being fascinated by the clear-cut delineation of marine and coastal life. The entire aquatic system is in full operation a millimeter beneath the water surface, a non-distance from where Land or Atmosphere start. Do human borders delineate such clear differentiations? You cross, and all of a sudden it’s French, or Spanish, or Arabic. You cross over that bridge to Mexico and it’s the Third World… 

History takes its toll on people. Bitterness, anger, stress, resentment are typical psychological consequences of warfare, ethnic or racial hatred, historical discrimination and being on the losing side or in any way in an inferior position.

French Land - Where Being Polite Gets You Nowhere

Deceptively, Land itself looked pretty similar: hay bales, plowed fields, conifers. And on the road: burgers, pizzas. What was new? Apparently Quebec has one authentic fast food dish, a variation on French Fries, called poutine. I did not try it, wishing for more from the celebrated French cuisine. All other things alike, the human landscape revealed itself to be quite distinct.

These transition areas are always very interesting, even when seemingly mundane. Except for the language, it was the appearance, and the energy. The feeling was a bit like being back in the Mediterranean, the Old World. Things had a familiar feel – behaviors less refined, polite, polished. Additionally, the language did not sound like the flowery language we are all familiar with from France, but coarser, less melodic. I had a hard time even recognizing it as French.

At first I was very polite, always asking if people spoke English, not assuming they should or would, but the reactions were often so negative, I glossed this over with time. Given the choice to pretend they didn’t know any English, they would usually take it. I figured out it was better to just hit them with it head on, and I would usually get some kind of an intelligent response, if basic. Whether I was polite enough to ask or not, people who initially smiled up at me from behind the cash register or counter, would often transform. Their body language and tone would change once they understood I did not “belong”.

Parisian snobbery can at least boast an impressive culture behind it, but here, in the fast food places, gas stations, country roads of southern Quebec, this aloofness seemed unwarranted. It came across as small town meanness, pettiness, an old “attitude” towards the “stranger”. What is stunning is how fast I felt that “vibe”.

The entire aquatic system operates a millimeter beneath the surface, a non-distance from where Land starts. Do human borders delineate such clear differentiations? You cross, and all of a sudden it’s French or Arabic. You cross that bridge to Mexico and it's the third world.

The French Enclave - Feeling Trapped?

The longer I stayed in Quebec, the harder it was for me to understand how this binational country functioned. Even in Israel, so easily blamed for “apartheid”, and with all the objective problems we have, street and road signs universally have Arabic on them, side by side with the Hebrew and English. The new light train in Jerusalem announces everything in three languages: Hebrew, Arabic and English, in that order.

Here, it goes one way. In the English speaking parts of Canada the signs are bilingual; in the French, they are almost exclusively French, including the driving signs. In Parc National du Bic, a site of international interest, some of the panels were still unilingual. I enjoyed guessing and trying to use my meager French, enhanced by my knowledge of Spanish, to understand the contents, but found it highly inconsiderate in all. 

I got the other side of the picture from a man I met in Vermont. He claimed the French are discriminated against, and complained that in French Canadian schools kids are forced to speak English. This contradicted what I heard from other sources, so it might be an issue of time and place. By now, according to a beautiful Quebecker I met in du Bic, you needed special permit to enlist a kid in an English-speaking school. The kids I met later in the Super 8 motel in the border town of Campbelton, NB, described a 50-50 situation, where both languages are taught at school.

All in all, I admit I don’t have enough information or historical understanding. Either way, I felt that vibe and it was not pleasant. 

I know very well that history takes a toll on people. Bitterness, anger, stress, resentment, are typical psychological consequences of warfare, ethnic or racial hatred, historical discrimination and being on the losing or inferior side.

Digging superficially into Quebec’s history, I found out that bottom line, the English conquered the territory. The British Queen is featured on the flag, the money bills, etc. For the French speakers, she clearly isn’t “their” queen. Why does that persist? Where is the consideration? I can relate to the resentment that can cause.

Being sandwiched in, “trapped” between the English-speaking Canadian provinces to the east and the west, not to mention the mammoth to the south, can create a ghetto feeling. This could be true even when the area you possess is pretty vast, unlike the Israeli situation. Still, this is human psychology, and it was interesting to see it playing out. Getting more information helped me feel more compassionate, understanding. Also, for clarification – even if what I said above was true of some, most people I later met in my 10 days in Quebec were nice and friendly.

Learning about Quebec 

(1.12.2016, Jerusalem)

Checking facts on the Internet. Quebec’s area is 83 times larger than Israel. Population the same: 8.2 million Quebeckers to 8.1 Israelis, including Israeli Arabs, and not counting the Palestinian territories. Strangely, the GDP per capita is somewhat comparable, but the numbers contradict themselves on different sites. Roughly, Quebec makes 36,000 USD per capita, and Israel 33,000. Even though Quebec is very rich in natural and human resources, its PC is behind the Canadian average. It is interesting how statistics like these translate into “the feel on the ground”.

Researching Quebec’s agricultural sector, I was happy to see there are 30,675 farms in Quebec, out of which 26% are female-operated and 7.6% are organic. I also learned that Québec is a leader in several  high technology sectors, including aerospace, biotech, biofood, wood-based construction, technical textiles, information and communications, environmental technologies, especially wind power and the aluminum industry, marine technologies, tourism, and more.

La Prairie, Yamaska

I had a vague idea where I was going. My friend and others recommended Quebec City’s old town, and half-heartedly I thought I might, indeed, stop there to actually see a beautiful city. My preference was to avoid the megalopolis of Montreal at all costs, so I decided to have a stop at either Nicolet or Sorel-Tracy, which seemed to be comfortably half way up. The effort of driving on unfamiliar major highways necessitated a break, and, indeed, I got tired but not quite as bad as I expected.

The GPS led me through bypasses and so I didn’t even sight the actual city from the road. The night before I read at length about road 30 (every road now has a website…), but the virtual info did not sink in. In real time, though, things were easier than expected.

At one point I took an exit into a small town called La Prairie to have a bathroom break and a little something. I tried to ask the attendants very politely in English (which caused a great commotion, of course) if they knew how I could get on the 132. Everybody there was clearly local,but the food was the regular American fast food (except for the Poutine, of course). Even though they were very friendly and really wanted to help, I could not get clear info. I decided to use my next tactic, which was to spot a nearby destination on the map. This is how I arrived in Yamaska, where I filled up the tank again, and then on to Nicolet. 

Nicolet - How did I Get Here?

So how come I ended up in Port St. Francois Campground, Nicolet?

Several days previous I tried to book something in Quebec City, but that effort failed. I challenged my last minute luck searching the Net at Riley’s Restaurant.  That did not deliver any solutions either. I found a cheap and very central place, a kind of commune for travelers run by a young and pleasant-looking guy, but I was too slow to book it, and the vacancy was taken there and then… Some of these cheap attractive places fill up as you type.

I wrote down the address of the only campground I found, which happened to be in Nicolet, and also of some couch surfing people in Sorel-Tracy and in Nicolet, half-way between Montreal and Quebec. I wasn’t interested in camping, as I knew it was going to rain. The couch-surfing place in Nicolet was advertised as already booked, and so was the one at Sorrel. 

But I was running out of driving energy and had no Wi-Fi/phone charge. It was time to settle for whatever I found. Not having too many other options, I typed in the non-available Nicolet couch surfing address on my GPS. Perhaps some guest would cancel, maybe there was a mistake and the place wasn’t booked after all, or perhaps there was a small unused room in the back I could use. In the worst case, I trusted the nice-looking couple to at least redirect me to another decent place…

Alas, I am not one of the most orderly of beings… Inadvertently I mixed up the addresses as I typed, and so instead of the couch-surfing place, I found myself led to “Rue du Camping” (Campground Road), Nicolet…

Port St. Francois Camping

So, on September 26th in the late afternoon, I arrived in Port St. Francois Camping, just outside of Nicolet. There was hardly a soul there. Some campers in the far background. Empty grass lots.

I rang the bell. The owner came after several minutes and assigned me to a specific grass patch. In other campgrounds they allow you free choice when there is that much space, but I did not argue. The man was friendly enough, he spoke English without fretting and gave me an adaptor for the electrical socket on the site. I paid for a “serviced” site, even though it was clear rain was up and coming. Nothing would stop me from watching the second presidential debate scheduled for that night.

Putting up the tent was quite a feat, since there were no rocks at all to be found, except in dedicated circles for the fireplaces, and those were huge. I carried one nonetheless and eventually got the tent up.

Now that I check their website, I see the park boasts a half Olympic swimming pool, a nearby beach and an ecological park. I saw none of that.

Showers were included in the price, and I decided to get one there and then. As I made my way to the facility, walking between empty children’s playgrounds and a huge standing chess set, I spotted a full-bodied employee, who was driving a maintenance cart. I told her there was dog poop near my site. She reacted with kind of a “so what?”

We communicated a bit like a pair of deaf people. She was obviously not keen on doing anything about it, and not enthusiastic about my presence there altogether. Still,  eventually said she would look into it once I explained to her where exactly the nuisance was located, but it had to be exact. I gave her a general idea and split. When I came back to my tent site, the poop was gone. 

Presidential Debate in Pouring Rain

Clouds were gathering. I was the only one tented. Some youngsters were playing volleyball on a nearby court. I braced for the storm, getting ready to disconnect all electricals fast and throw everything into the tent. I also readied my computer and Tablet for watching the second debate, which was best seen via the Canadian channel that did not require tedious downloads.

As dusk settled, a couple of women with kids drove into a faraway corner of the grass patch, erected a tent in the nick of time and settled into cooking. We made no contact. Desolation is an interesting feel – out of season, out of line, gripping the tail of something that used to be alive.

To keep from the rain I watched the debate mostly in the car, shifting from the computer to the Tablet as they each ran out of charge.

Nicolet - the Charm of a Non-Place

When I entered Nicolet earlier, I stopped by an advertised “info” center, but the librarians on the opposite side of the corridor said it wasn’t functional. They were nice, and spoke some English, but could not help. Even the park manager himself did not think there was anything worthwhile to see in his town. I asked about possible interesting architecture etc., but got no response. Perhaps he was just too tired to give details this much past the season. Instead, he handed me an info package in French.

That proved lucky, as the package contained a brochure with pictures about the coastal wonders up north. Nothing about Nicolet… There was a drive along “Route des Navigateurs”, a romantic-sounding name. While browsing through the pictures, my eyes paused on site number 88 – a beautiful photo of a green peninsula – Parc National Du Bic. It felt right. I took an instant decision: Quebec City – No! Du Bic – Oui!

Finding parking and accommodation in Quebec City seemed out of my turf for this trip. It felt easier and more appealing to drive the 400 kilometers into the cold and put up my tent, than to search for a city accommodation, and worse, to look for parking downtown with all my stuff in the car. Nope. Not this time around.

Road 132 was expecting me, beautifully meandering along the St. Lawrence and then around the Gaspe Peninsule – the Quebec equivalent of the fabulous route 1. In the national park I’ll just reach the office, pay, and then station my car by my tent site. At this point I still considered coming back through Quebec City.

For the moment, though –

Voila! Up north! Du Bic!

And North I went the next day, ignoring the rising latitudes at my own peril!

Is that a model for a successful bi-national state? The longer I stayed, the harder it was for me to understand how this binational country functioned. Even in Israel, so easily blamed for “apartheid”, with all our problems, street and road signs universally have Arabic on them.

En Route

It rained most of the night as forecasted. From past experience I knew there was no trying to keep the inside of the tent dry when dismantling it in the morning. After my morning tea, I therefore crammed the tent parts as fast as possible into the large black garbage bags I bought in a general store in Cape Breton – tent into one, rain jacket into another, tarps into two more. I pushed them all into the trunk, and on I went, leaving Nicolet behind.

I was soon bypassing the city of Quebec, still hoping I will one day come back there in a different capacity – maybe with a romantic partner, perhaps on an urban oriented trip, but for now the greens, the blues and the browns called me. Cities allure retreated into another brain compartment.

The GPS tried to give me the fastest route, but I wanted scenery, so I had to trick the robot to lead me to the 132. If there was a gizmo in that GPS that would have allowed one to choose the route, I did not find it. The Israeli Waze, that indeed gives one a choice of options, did not function because the AT&T did not function, so it was me and my limited mind against the machine…

And I won. Once I realized I was forced to cross the St. Lawrence to its western (northern) bank at Trois Rivieres, I knew I’ll have to soon find a way to cross it back. For the meantime it might have indeed been a bit faster to stay on that highway. It is always fun and exciting to drive over large bridges, so I did not mind. 

Eventually I got on the desired 132, but not without tribulations. My trick was to tyoe in names of places on the other side of the river, strange French names only half understood – Belthier sur Mer (something over sea), Riviere du loop (river’s loop?), Trois Pistoles (three guns?), and step by step and food joint by food joint, I finally arrived in the fabulous Parc National du Bic , one of my best-taken spontaneous decisions!   

Getting more information helped me feel more compassionate, understanding.

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