As I had gone west in 1924, I made up my mind to go east during the next summer vacation in 1925. Besides seeing new territory, I had a vague objective of getting a room with a French Canadian family where I would have an opportunity of improving my speaking knowledge of French.
As soon as school was out I took the Michigan Central thru Detroit and got off the train at Rochester, N.Y. where I had discovered there was a boat going on thru the Thousand Islands to Montréal. Besides the small club bag for my clothes that I had carried the year before, I took my violin along. I presume I must have stayed in a hotel in Rochester - I can't remember - but I do remember sitting on the top deck at the stern while the boat left the dock and cruised thru the many islands, each of which, even the smallest, seemed to have a house on it. Between the Islands and Montréal, we shot a number of rapids, the last one being Lachine. Boats going up river used the canals which had been dug to bypass the fast water and the rocks.
In Montréal I bought a newspaper and looked in the want-ads for a room for rent. I assumed that if the ad was in French the landlady would be French speaking and that's the way it turned out. My room was in one of the long row houses with the stairways on the outside so common in Montréal and all over French Canada. An outside stairway is cheaper to build tho they are certainly not very suitable for a cold climate where there is lots of snow. The apartment was on the second floor and was owned by an old couple whose name I don't remember. He was retired. They had a daughter who came to see them every day for a few moments to make sure they were alright. She was about 40, fat and jolly. She had a boy about five years old that she would often leave with his grandparents for the day.
I carried my money as cash and as soon as I was settled I deposited it in a savings account in a bank for safety as I didn't want to carry it around with me or leave it in my room. Then I set out to explore the city. To get a general idea of what to see, I took one of the sightseeing street cars, an open car with seats arranged in teirs as in a theater so that people in the rear seats could look over the heads of those in front. A narrator at the front of the car pointed out and explained the different points of interest. After getting a general idea of where things were I set out on my own, either walking to taking a streetcar to the place I wanted to see and spending as much time as I wanted looking it over.
I was disappointed, however, in my expectation that I should be able to do a lot of talking in French with my landlady. She was not at all talkative. She appeared to be a little afraid of me and would shut herself in her room while I was at home. The only time I got to practice my French was when the daughter came. She was very friendly and asked me if I would like to meet a nice French Canadian girl. I sure would. She called her, told her who I was then gave me the phone so I could make arrangements to meet her. She spoke good English but with a strong accent. I don't remember her first name; her last name was Bourassa. I wasn't expecting much from a blind date, what I wanted was to practice speaking French, but I was agreeably surprised when M'elle Bourrassa turned out to be quite pretty and full of fun. I asked her what she would like to do and she suggested we go to the top of Mt. Royal, the hill which dominates the island on which the city of Montréal is built, and do it on foot, the only way to get to the top from the north side of it where we were. Only horse drawn carriages, a tourist attraction, were permitted on top of the hill and the winding roads which reached it are on the south side. The top could be reached from the north by climbing a series of long flights of stairs. There were landings with seats at the top of each flight and after climbing three or four flights of about 100 steps each I was ready to sit and rest and I think my friend was too. I'll call her Cecile, the name Cecile Bourassa rings a bell in my mind. She was a good sport, however, and we climbed clear to the top, then spent a half hour or more looking over the city directly below and the countryside and the river to the east. The west was blocked by tall trees. I offered to rent a carriage to take us back down but she turned down the idea and we arrived in the street below so tired our legs could scarcely hold us upright. I had told her at the start that I had come to Canada in the hope of improving my French so most of our conversation was in that language tho I was very slow to understand and sometimes she would slip into English. In talking about my education I had told her that I had started out studying in Indiana. She asked me, "Is that where is Indiana police?" It was several seconds before I realized she was trying to say "Indianapolis" and was putting the accent on the wrong syllable. We were both silly tired by that time (we were almost home) and I started laughing and couldn't stop. I had made some blunders in my French too which she thought were hilarious.
I had had such a good time with Cecile that I wanted to take her out again right away, it didn't matter where, but I thought it would be rushing things a little too much so I waited 'til the end of the week then called her to ask if I could take her to a movie. I was quite disappointed when she said she was invited to a party over the weekend. I realized then that she must have a lot of friends and my chances of dating her were pretty slim.
I had been less than two weeks in Montréal when my landlady's daughter came to tell me that I would have to get another room. Having a stranger in the house made her mother too nervous. Every place I had roomed before I had been on good terms with my landlady, almost as tho I was a member of the family, and to have the old lady avoid me when I sat in the living room or on the balcony made me nervous too. I didn't feel at home. I had visited all the places I wanted to see in Montréal and was spending more and more time at home practicing the violin or reading French magazines and newspapers. Instead of getting another room in Montréal I decided I would go on east to Québec City.
I had to take my money out of the bank, of course, and pay a penalty for leaving it less than a month. They gave me the money in the form of a $100 bill and two or three twenties, the first $100 bill I had ever seen. I didn't bother to put my money in a bank in Québec but kept it hidden in a pocket in my violin case. I spent the small bills first but finally had to break the $100 when I went to eat at the Chinese restaurant I had been patronizing. It took them a long time to bring me my change. I think they must have sent the bill to a bank to make sure it was genuine. Not many $100 bills were floating around in those days and I probably didn't look as tho I were prosperous enough to have one in my possession.
I took the train from Montréal to Québec and arrived at the depot in lower town in a downpour. I scooted from the train to the baggage room in the station where a couple of young fellows were sorting out baggage and yelling at each other. I suppose they were speaking French but it didn't make much sense to me. The only world I could catch, tho I listened intently, was "wye" which I assumed meant "oui." It was my introduction to "Joual," a dialect spoken by many uneducated people in the rural areas of the Province of Québec. Joual is their word for "cheval" (horse). Even after I became familiar with it, it wasn't very easy for me to understand.
I was in the baggage room for about a half hour before the rain stopped and I could check my bag and violin. Then I climbed the steep hill that leads to upper Québec and bought a copy of Le Soleil, Québec City's main newspaper, then looked in the want-ads and picked out about four rooms for rent. I went to see all four and decided on the first one I had looked at, a third floor room on Rue St. Eustache, just a few steps from the Québec Parliament building to the south and the Porte St. Louis, one of the gates in the old fortified city wall. I could look out my window and see the blue line of the Laurentian Mountains and the Rivière Ste. Charles where it joined the St. Laurence.
I didn't like Québec City when I first saw it. The streets were narrow and crooked and all of the buildings came right to the sidewalks, which in the residential parts of the city were only about two feet wide. Except for an occasional park, such as the grounds around the parliament buildings, there was no grass or trees. It wasn't long before I got used to it however, and felt quite at home. It was as tho I had gone back 200 years in time.
I had two landladies at Rue St. Eustache, two sisters in their mid-thirties. One was married and had two young daughters, Marguerite (called Margot) and Madeleine who was just a baby learning to walk. Mme. Berthe Côté's husband had been a lawyer in Rivière du Loup and had recently disappeared on a trip to Québec to plead a case. Berthe and her sister Georgianne LeClerc had come to Québec and rented the apartment on Rue St. Eustache with the idea of taking in roomers and, I suppose, looking for Berthe's husband. Both sisters were pleasant and willing to talk to me and, of course, I fell in love with Margot who was two and a half or three years old. I often took her for walks over to Dufferin Terrance, the wide boardwalk above the St. Laurence, to watch the ocean-going ships go by below. To reach my room I had to open a door which opened right on to the narrow sidewalk, go up to Mme. Côté's living room-dining room, cross it to another stairs which went on up to the third floor. There were several rooms up there and later on in the summer one of them was rented to a young Englishman, about my age, who considered himself to be much superior to the French Canadians. In fact, anything English was better than anything French, including the girls. I accompanied him one Sunday on a trip to a small lake in the Laurentians north of the city. A branch line of the Canadian National ran up there. Whenever we saw a particularly pretty girl on the beach he would remark that she must be English.
Berthe was kept pretty busy with her two small girls but Georgianne often went with me on walks to places I would not have known about or just to get out in the air. She was quite slim then but she wasn't pretty. She went with me to visit the Québec Parliament building and introduced me to the deputy who represented the region around Trois Pistoles, her home town. After a visit to the Church and Convent on Grande Allée, the only wide street in Québec, where a group of nuns were always, twenty four hours a day, on their knees praying, we got into a friendly argument about religion which continued, off and on, for the rest of my vacation. To convince me that Catholicism was the only true religion, she brought me a book on religion that her brother Arthur had used as a text when he was in college. It was rather didactic and I learned all of the arguments but it didn't convert me, nor did I convince her that human beings were descended from apes. I found the many Catholic churches scattered about the city good places to stop in and rest when I went out exploring on foot. They were always left unlocked and I would generally find two or three old people praying no matter what time of day I stopped in.
I met many friends of the two sisters; most of them had come to Québec from Trois Pistoles or Rivière du Loup to work in the city. One of them was a Madame Turgeon, a woman of about 40 with black hair. I came home one afternoon to find Mme. Turgeon in the living room and stopped, as usual, to talk for a few minutes. Berthe and Georgeanne helped me as much as they could to practice my French. Mme. Turgeon asked me if I could drive a car and when I said I could, she suggested that all go to Saint Anne de Beaupré the next day. She had a car, or her husband did, an Essex, but she didn't know how to drive.
Saint Anne de Beaupré is a famous shrine lying on the north shore of the St. Laurence opposite the Ile d'Orlean, about 15 miles east of Québec City. The women packed a picnic lunch and we made a day of it, stopping at Montmorency Falls on the way. The little town of St. Anne was swarming with pilgrims, many of them in wheelchairs or on crutches who had come in the hope that they would be cured by the miraculous intervention of St. Anne. The interior walls of the church near the front doors were covered with canes, crutches, dark glasses and other prosthetic objects attesting cures. Most of them had thank-you notes attached addressed to St. Anne. It's all very convincing but I still remain a skeptic, my explanation of such cures being that, 1, much of our illness is psycho-somatic, 2, our minds have much more control over our internal bodily functions than has been admitted so far, 3, many of the so-called cures were faked to get attention.
The street (there was only one) of the little town was lined on both sides with booths selling all kinds of religious objects, beads, crosses, hearts, pictures of St. Anne and the church, which the visitors bought and took to a booth before the church doors where a priest stood and blessed them for a small fee, or rather a donation of a few coins which he raked into a box with one hand while he made the sign of the cross over the trinket with the other. The press of pilgrims around his booth gave him no time to rest.
I carried Margot around on my shoulder most of the day while Georgeanne and Berthe took turns carrying the baby. Besides ordinary pilgrims, the whole area was full of priests, nuns and teaching brothers dressed in their long robes and funny hats and coifs. I had become used to seeing them on the streets in Québec but here they were in droves. At that time in the Province of Québec, all members of religious orders, both men and women, wore their religious costumes on the street and they must have been very uncomfortable, especially the nun's starched breastplates and enormous head-pieces looking like sailing ships or big white birds. I was able to spot Franciscans because of their brown robes of coarse cloth and their sandals but I couldn't tell a Dominican from a Jesuit. The teaching brothers, who did most of the teaching in the schools of Québec, wore long black robes and flat derby hats with wide brims and low crowns.
I had no trouble driving the Essex until we got back to Québec city and got into a narrow, steep street. Trying to avoid a car coming around a corner, I stalled the engine and when I tried to start it again, the Bendix mechanism, which operates the starter, got stuck. I tried to break it loose by letting the car roll back downhill then suddenly throwing it in gear but had to give up and get out the crank. Most cars still carried cranks in case the new-fangled starters refused to work or the batteries ran down.
Georgeanne asked me one day, soon after I arrived in Québec and had started practicing my violin, whether I would like to have someone to play accompaniments. Of course I was delighted. Lily Fohy was the girl's name. Her father was Irish and her mother French. She was very small, freckle-faced and a good pianist. Someone in her family had recently died and she and her sisters, who came with her, were always dressed in black and white. The great number of people on the streets dressed in mourning - black and white for the women and a black armband for the men - was another thing that differentiated life in Québec from what I was used to in the Midwest, at least after I grew up. I can't remember that my grandmother Courtright ever wore any other colors. Georgeanne explained to me that when an old person, such as a grandfather, died, all of his descendants had to mourn for a full year afterwards.
I happened to be in Québec when Cardinal Begin, the Catholic prelate who was head of the church in the province and surrounding territory, died. Le Soliel and other newspapers came out with wide black borders and there was almost no other new in them until the funeral took place, except stories of his life and good works. The city closed down for the funeral and school children came from everywhere in the province to participate, mainly in the funeral procession. It was a very colorful and solemn event and I got a good viewing point to observe it due to the good graces of a friend of my landladies.
The procession was headed by the military band station in Québec, marching with muffled drums and playing an adaptation of the slow movement of Beethoven's Eroica Symphony. All of the parish priests of the province must have been in the line of march if they were able to walk, attired in their beautifully embroidered robes and attended by all of their acolytes in red robes covered with white lace. There were groups of men carrying sacred relics in containers of gold richly ornamented with jewels, the container being sheltered under a decorated cloth held aloft by four men with poles. There were a number of military and semi-military organizations, the most colorful being the Zouaves in their red shirts and baggy trousers. The Knights of Columbus and other similar organizations were, of course, well represented, each group carrying pictures of the Virgin Mary mounted on poles and flags of Québec and the Pope. The maple leaf flag, the national flag of Canada, had not yet been thought of.
Last modified on 20 March 2017 @ 22:23