The annual Québec Winter Carnival is going on right now in Quebec City. I have never attended, but hearing about it stirred up memories of my trip to the French Canadian city two summers ago. It’s below freezing there now, but in July the weather was absolutely perfect, sunny and warm without being sweltering. Most of the days that I was there, the sky was a nearly-cloudless blue.When my two friends and I were deciding where to travel, we considered splitting our trip between Quebec City and Montreal, another city I would like to visit, but we decided to spend all four days in Quebec City. This ended up being a good decision, as we had time to really explore the city and become familiar with the main streets. It ended up becoming a joke because we started recognizing places and people, like the street performer we saw two or three times at different spots. To our luck, we had also unknowingly booked our trip during the annual summer music festival, so we were able to fully take advantage of the outdoor concerts all over the city.
The Quebec region is special because it is in Canada, but its official language is French. In Quebec City, about 95% of residents speak French as their first language. Many people speak English, but I was surprised to realize that most do not speak it bilingually. Even if they’re fluent in English, you can tell that French comes more easily to them. It was incredible to me that Quebec has been able to preserve its French language tradition while remaining part of Canada. I had often thought of Canada as the United States’ rather similar neighbor to the north, at least culturally. I knew that Canada’s official languages were English and French, but I suppose I hadn’t grasped the day-to-day influence of French there, even outside of Quebec.
During family visits to relatives in Canada throughout my childhood, my cousins and aunts and uncles all spoke English, so my impressions of the country, which is huge and diverse, were formed by these pockets of experience rather than knowledge of actual demographics. When you look at a map of the country, Quebec’s longstanding unique culture becomes less surprising, because the Quebec region is actually very large.
Quebec City is the perfect place for an Anglophone to practice French because people you encounter will automatically speak French to you, but you can fall back on English if you need to or if you’re traveling with English-speakers. I also found that when I spoke in French, people didn’t respond in English even though I don’t speak French like a Quebec or French native. In Paris, francophone Anglophones are not infrequently spoken to in English once the shopkeeper or server hears the hint of an American or other accent. This can be annoying if you actually speak French, especially when the other person doesn’t even speak English well but insists on continuing. In Quebec City, in all but one encounter people responded to me in French without blinking an œil.
At one shop, an employee even asked us if we were from Ontario, which was surprising but delightful. I don’t even know why she thought we might come from there as opposed to elsewhere in Canada or the U.S.—the only thing I can think of is that it’s next to Quebec so maybe they get lot of visitors from there—but we were a bit excited to get mistaken for Canadians. (For any non-North American who is wondering, I think it’s safe to say that an American or Canadian wouldn’t be able to tell whether someone is from the U.S. or Canada unless that person had a strong regional accent. Or you asked them to write the word ‘color.’)An interesting thing about Quebec City is that even though it was the middle of summer and a huge music festival, the city didn’t feel crowded. We had a number of “private tours” of historic sites. I say this in quotation marks because the only reason they were private is that no one else was on the tour. Although the city was lively with visitors, at times it felt like we were the only tourists.One of the highlights of our trip was seeing a free Cirque du Soleil show under a highway. What about that sentence is not extraordinary? First of all, Cirque du Soleil tickets are known to be expensive, but since Quebec is where the circus got their start, they perform free outdoor shows in the summer as a thank you. Secondly, it is under a highway! Seriously. The lights and speakers, not to mention the acrobats, are suspended from the underside of a highway.Writing about Quebec City hardly scratched the surface—I didn’t even recount the elk burgers, maple cookies, and bubble tea in a can. Or how the soundtrack to our tour of the Citadel of Quebec was Canadian singer Sarah MacLachlan (she was performing outdoors somewhere in the city, and her voice carried to the fort). Suffice it to say I would love to go back in the summer and bike along the vast St. Lawrence River again.