When Sophie, “The Frida Kahlo of Nominingue,” as my friend described her, asked me in her lilting French accent about New Orleans, I touted ‘the most European city in America.’
She stared at me, confused, and I stared back, wondering (stupidly, in retrospect) at my offense.
We sorted out the tangle and my arrogance while she explained, as we stood in the remote woods near Nominingue Lake, Quebec, that she lives in America, while I live in the United States.
More confused than ever, I recalled the hurt replies from Canadians who received our thank you letter following their purchases of George Rodrigue’s print God Bless America, benefiting the American Red Cross after September 11, 2001:
“You only thanked Americans!” they exclaimed. “Canadians also are devastated by this event, and many of us bought the print.”
I apologized to Sophie just as I apologized back in 2001, knowing that Quebec, a North American city, is far more European than New Orleans. But I still had a question concerning her status as more American than mine.
“If I’m not an American, what am I?”
“Ummmm," she offered, shrugging her shoulders, "a United Stateser?”
From then on our group, made up of Americans from New Orleans, Lafayette, Houston and Tallahassee debated these labeling anomalies, as we came across Quebec, the oldest city in America (“…but I thought that was St. Augustine!” exclaimed my sister), Restaurant Aux Anciens Canadiens, the oldest restaurant in America (“…but I thought that was Antoine’s!” I protested), and the oldest house in America (“…but I thought that was in Santa Fe!”). And so forth.
Our confusion morphed into delight with every surprise, including the near royal reverence of Celine Dion (particularly evident in Montreal), the barrels of foie gras (“rabbits hop in, but they don’t hop out,” jingled my sister), and the proliferation of bronze busts and marble war memorials, erected throughout the city like an extension of its population.
“The courage of the generals gave them the same death; history gives them the same monument.”
These are the words, loosely translated from the French by our Canadian guide, chiseled into a grand obelisk overlooking the St. Lawrence River in Quebec City. The British Major General James Wolfe (1727-1759) and French Major General Louis-Joseph de Montcalm (1712-1759) each died from injuries sustained in the 15-minute Battle of the Plains of Abraham. Despite the British victory, Quebec’s citizens honor both men as heroes.
Ever searching for a New Orleans connection, I was surprised to see on this monument my maiden name, correctly spelled, its English origins taking my great-grandparents in the nineteenth century to Mobile, Alabama and later Metairie and Algiers. At first amused, I then wondered, although we stood not in Nova Scotia, but in Quebec,
Could my ancestors have been part of the persecution of my Cajun husband’s ancestors?
I recalled Le Grand Dérangement and Longfellow’s famous poem, Evangeline, an Acadian heroine searching for her Gabriel following the 1755 British occupation and French deportation at Grand Pré.
It is hard to imagine a British hero in this area, and yet the signs — Wolfe Street, Wolfe County, Wolfe Island, Wolfe Tunnel, Wolfe Died Here — told a different story.
Although less surprising (and personal) than stumbling on a heroic Wolfe, the Ursuline Convent in Quebec City signaled a more substantial Louisiana connection. Established in 1639, it is a century older than its sister institution in New Orleans.
“At one point,” explained our guide, “Quebec had more than six hundred men, but no women. The Ursuline nuns taught young girls, first Native Americans and later French immigrants, to be wives and join Quebec society, thereby populating the area.”
As the center of the American Catholic Church, Quebec’s priests visited the Louisiana parishes annually. They made the arduous journey in canoes, traveling the St. Lawrence River to Lake Erie, followed by the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. I still question our guide’s insistence that the priests then walked the return trip, their canoes balanced on their heads, all timed to avoid the first snowfall.
It was in Quebec that some 100,000 Irish landed following the Irish Potato Famine of 1845-1852, resulting in a mass exodus from Ireland and the expansion of Irish communities all over America. This includes the New Orleans Irish Channel, already populated by the Irish workers who immigrated to the area in the 1830s to build the New Basin Canal.
According to our guide, Quebec’s Monseigneur stood on the church steps each Sunday, refusing to hold mass until every Irish child was adopted. For many this meant new French-American names and the loss of their heritage, as their parents died in quarantine on nearby Grosse Isle.
We embraced modern day Quebec as well, drunk on the beauty of tulips, the scent of lilacs and the opera-singing street musicians.
We enjoyed the modern art of Jean-Paul Riopelle (1923-2002), on view at the Musee National des Beaux-Arts du Quebec.
We embraced our need for a cathedral pilgrimage at Notre Dame of Montreal, with its blue ceilings, mahogany figures and rose windows, where, despite the fake, Elvis’s grave-at-Graceland flowers, we felt “enveloped, wrapped, and protected,” noted my sister.
And finally we ended our trip with a true American suspension of disbelief, as we paid homage to the great archaeological and religious artifacts on view at the Montreal Science Museum.
Wendy Rodrigue (a.k.a. Dolores Pepper)
*from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade; "Indiana Jones and the Adventure of Archaeology" continues until September 18, 2011 at the Montreal Science Center
-For a related post, including paintings from the Saga of the Acadians, visit “Recalling Le Grand Dérangement…from Quebec” in Musings of an Artist’s Wife