Quebec City, Winter Wonderland

It’s been almost a year since we went to Quebec City, and yet we constantly find ourselves saying, “Remember Pub du Parvis?” “Remember the sled dogs?” “Remember the poutine?”  Then we all sigh and look wistful. Quebec.

Quebec City is a cross between Paris and Portland. Pastry shops piled high with jewel-toned macaron standing flamboyantly against the drifting snow, flannel clad Canadians watching ice hockey while supping on French onion soup and game burgers, locals in home-spun kit caps stopped on corners speaking French. It’s hard to imagine a seamless combination of elegance and humility, but that’s Quebec City.

The trip was a little bit of a lark. We had wanted to take a week to ski as a family, preferably somewhere that has plenty going on besides skiing since, as you know, my ski tolerance is iffy at best, the US dollar was strong against the Canadian dollar, and we craved hearing another language. So we made the trip the kids’ “big gift”—they woke up Christmas morning to plane tickets and all their gifts were cozy (flannels and games and books). Two days later we were flying Porter Airlines (Canada’s version of Ryan Air), and unlocking the door to a brilliant apartment with snow piling up outside the door.

We stayed in the Saint-Roch neighborhood of Quebec. It’s a lively district with plenty of restaurants (Poutineville was right across the street, handy for days when didn’t want to suit up for the cold… just a dash across the street and we were filling out boxes with what kind of potato, gravy, meat and toppings we wanted to feast on for dinner). We enjoyed pastries from Croquenbouche almost every morning —they cheerfully corrected our French and applauded our efforts as they boxed up amazing assortments of pastries for us. And we dined at Pub du Parvis enough times that the waitstaff began to recognize us. I think my favorite spots were actually in the Saint-Jean district. We lingered over a miraculous French lunch of crepes with duck confit and cider at Le Billig, and hunkered down at Le Hobbit for brunch as the snow hurried past.

The old quarter provided maple-scented storybook charm, and because this is an adventurous outpost, there’s a giant toboggan slide at the edge, looking far down to the distant river. I swallowed my own panic as Gabe started to fragment. We switched positions, he rode with me, and halfway down he began whooping with glee. Once at the bottom he shivered in shame that he’d been so scared. I told him that I had been scared, too, and only my need to be brave for him had allowed me to take charge. He paused and slipped his mittened hand in mine, “Thanks for saying that, Mommy.”

For the record, that bravery was a bit of a one-off. After a day of preparing to go skiing the next morning, I finally had to acknowledge the steep dread within me. I told Keith that I just couldn’t do it. Nothing about it sounded appealing, it all sounded like a combination of fear and drudgery, and I wanted to come up with a new plan. That new plan was that he took the kids skiing the first day while I discovered Quebec. Then the next day, Gabe and I explored together, riding funiculars and sitting in ice thrones and stretching our brain at the Egypt exhibit at the Museum of Civilization (and stumbled across a compelling piece of artwork about the levels in our society). It worked out well—I got alone time and time with Gabe, and the black diamond skiers in our family got to (shudder) do that.  

I felt worlds better not pretending anymore. I’ve skied since Italy, and I liked it fine for about an hour. I didn’t want to grin and bear it for a whole week.

So the relief was greater than the feeling of foolishness, and that was a boon. Every time the rest of them were suiting up, cheerfully complaining about their layers and their “denim prisons”, and how they were too tired to find the matching socks, I chuckled. I wanted no part of that.

The last day, Keith skied alone while Nicolas took a turn wander Quebec (he’d pulled some muscles the day before and didn’t want to get back up on skis), and I took Gabe and Siena dogsledding. That was one of the highlights of my life, and I can’t recommend the experience in strong enough terms. Not only did we get to be bundled under blankets while gorgeous dogs yipped and ran ahead, but the guides taught us to drive the sleds. I’ll never forget the sound of Siena calling out to her dogs in French, with Gabe snug in her sled. Afterwards, we visited the dog village and decided that though we are cat people, we would gladly adopt these dogs that are so gentle that you can literally take the food out of their mouths and they’ll just push their snout against your heart to cuddle closer.

Afterwards, Keith took Gabe skiing and Siena and I took the ski lift to the top of the mountain and read, sketched, talked, and drank hot chocolate, while watching the fog lift and settle in the trees. I thought, “If someone handed me skis right now and told me for sure I wouldn’t die, I think I’d strap them on with some exuberance.” But nobody did. Instead, we went back down the ski lift, talking about how we felt more Christmas spirit in a Quebecois January, then at home in December. Partly because this last Christmas we’d actually had to put the air conditioner on it was so warm, but partly because the frontier music, the little festive lights wrapped around bare branches both indoor and out, and all the being outside made us feel whole, and connected to the divine.

There is much to do in Quebec City that we didn’t get a chance to experience. Next time we’ll try a beaver tail (a kind of fried, hand-stretched pastry), go to the chocolate museum, and sledding 7 kilometers down the mountain at Le Massif.

Next time.

The weather is turning a little brisk in Virginia, and Gabe and I are whispering to each other about poutine and sled dogs and French pastries. Perhaps we’ll head back when the snow starts to blow.


P.S. Special thanks to Amy Choin, a friend of our pals at Cheeseweb, for her invaluable help in digging into her beautiful city.