Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Dream--Taking the Train to Quebec City

By Cal Orey
 Quebec City--Coffee, Pastries, French Canadians, 
and Down-to-Earth Warmth 
Made a Lasting Impression on My Mind & Spirit

In retrospect, for decades I've experienced a vivid and surreal dream. Each time I am solo on a train (without people) moving Northeast amid a lush forest--it has a "Twilight Zone"-ish feel to it. At times after awakening I linked it to my past travels hitchhiking from California to Florida northbound to Quebec--a province I was not ready to face and I didn't visit more than a few hours. After dealing with Montreal culture shock--at 21--I fled to Toronto, Ontario (it was more Americanized to me) but knew I'd return one day to Quebec and Quebec City when I was more mature, more ready to deal with French-speaking people, and an intense city. It was my plan to be more self-reliant rather than relying on my thumb and people to flag down rides...

Since I went to QC I haven't had the dream of me on
this train
traveling Northeast
LEAVING ON A JET PLANE TO THE "PLANE TRAIN"...Fast forward to mid-September 2014. I finally left my cozy and safe cabin (minus coyotes, bears, quakes, wildfires, winter snow, and flooding) in the sierras and headed out of the country. I did love the "Plane Train" at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport
--a subway to cover ground and make a flight connection, more fun than moving walkways at larger airports. This time I came prepared: A passport, four star hotel reservation, layered clothing, and funds--no panhandling this time around. Still, a hippie chick but dog-less (both my boys were in the kennel) I left my fears in California and headed towards Quebec City--my final goal. 

After I arrived in Montreal I knew that I was closer to my fantasy Oz--much like Dorothy--in the sleepy daze--in the field before she arrived at Emerald City.  After a few days, on Friday I was up at 5 A.M.--on time to walk in the dark (it was close to the hotel) to the train station and catch a real-life 6:15 A.M. train ride to  Quebec City. The comfy business lounge for traingoers was more than awesome. All types of coffee--lattes to gourmet java drinks--as well as high-end mags, newspapers, bottled drinks, pastries and more were available at no cost. (Well, you are charged when you pay for your ticket.) As noted in my last post, I was nursing a "French Kiss" film-like case of lactose intolerance from the cheese incident the night before and passed on the goodies. I did snag a can of ginger ale and made my way downstairs to catch the train (reminding me of my SFSU commute days).
Once moving--it hit! This was my dream come true. The train and trees were what I envisioned in my dream. However, years ago, I did not have the money to take a train let alone know one existed to take me to the city. I did sleep in the cold, dark forest, though, with my dog. And this time around while I missed my canine companions, past and present, I felt warm and fuzzy fulfilling my traveling fantasy with French words filling the air. I passed on the vegan breakfast (pre-ordered) and accepted an antacid from the train staff.  Rarely do I get heartburn unless I devour a well-meaning and generous chef's special high-fat fare after 7 P.M. (which I did). 
I rode in business class--it wasn't full like my dream. It was calm, cozy, and inviting. One Italian-looking businessman was working on his laptop (I chose to go off the grid). He treated the female staff like Stepford Wife goddesses so no love connection on the train. Passing by tiny towns and rural regions made me think: "I should have come straight to Quebec City for the week--not Montreal." It was earthy. It was serene. It was more me.  I had one day to savor the place and that was doable, sort of.

Gare du Palais is a train and bus station in Quebec City
served by Via Rail
GOOD MORNING, QUEBEC CITY! After three hours I arrived at Quebec City--my final destination. No turbulence or derailed train like I imagined. It was cold. Clad in sweaters, jeans, T-shirt(s), a wool neck scarf, mittens, and boots I was warm. But another glitch hit.  My eyes were attacked by a stylish smokey eye make-up I used making me look like a tired party raccoon from my home at Lake Tahoe. My eyes were red, inflamed and watery...

Adored my city room view and Mediterranean decor
The night before, I called hotel room service for SOS. Did you know for $300 you can get a one-on-one room doctor call?  I received a phone call from the M.D.  We agreed it wasn't a multi-dollar ER visit but cold compresses were doctor's orders. In the morning, I was better but my eyes were wet, similar to grad school when they were bloodshot and dry due to over use, but this time it was reverse--puffy like I had been crying for eternity.  So I needed a remedy to see Quebec City...

DO YOU SPEAK ENGLISH?...  I was in a French-speaking province (more than 90%) and while Quebec City has bi-lingual locals, English-speaking tourists, the vast majority of people I ran into spoke only French. That said, I was on a mission in another world to find a pharmacy who could read me. One cabbie later (broken English) I was brought to a compassionate, semi-bi-lingual pharmacist who led me to over-the-counter help. Cortisone cream and a non-drowsy type pill to dry up my eyes was the Rx. I was cursing the maker of the eye make-up and praising the French Canadian medicine doctor. By noon while feeling a bit off (the drug was strong), my bloodshot eyes were on the mend and I was ready to see what I could see.

COFFEE, COFFEE, COFFEE...Once I sipped a latte, I was feeling normal in a new city. I ended up in the old town area, a busy tourist trap-- cobblestone streets, bistros, and shops--much like Fisherman's Wharf at S.F.--probably not the place I should have been but I did make the best of it. I purchased a cross necklace (this was a challenge since the merchants spoke minimal English), and a thick black and red checkered hooded jacket sporting a small Canada flag on a pocket. A perfect find for cold fall/winter Tahoe days. The soothing sound of church bells outdoors reminded me of the pair of chime clocks I adopted for my cabin. And I was feeling kind of homesick...

Quebec City scene away from tourists 
It was a big horse that caught my attention--a four-legger like my canines--and he rescued me. I sprung for a pricey 45 minute ride--it was worth it to keep me grounded and see the sights of the foreign city. The driver, I discovered, did not own my horse friend but wish she did. She was aloof, a tad masculine, and before I saw it coming (I know, if I were psychic I would have known) I was being worked for more money...
The driver's dog story got the extra tip--
I missed my fun-loving pooch
As the story goes, it was a corporation she worked for that only dished out minimum wage. Read: She lives on tips and was having a difficult time making ends meet. I told her "no worries" and settled up to enjoy the ride. Karma, due to my tales on the road for food and money.  In her thirties (but the outdoors did seem to take a toll on her age), she told me tales of woe living in Quebec City. She did not like her job, nor the minus 35 degree winters and snow for six months a year.  I could feel the big chill--which we need here in our drought--stricken Golden State. Her dog from the pound was leashed outdoors all day, she said, while she and her partner worked the horse and carriage gig.  Soon, I was giving her a  free "psychic" reading to uplift her spirits (and mine) and wishing I could escape with the horse with no name--and hug my dog(s). 

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