Friday, August 20, 2010

La Vie En Haut

The Saint Lawrence River is a long, clear tongue, which, for most of its length, mightily eases its way up through the province of Quebec--past Trois Rivieres, past Quebec City, past Rimouski--widening and getting saltier with each northern mile, until, finally--past the Gaspe Peninsula--it officially mixes its brine with the North Atlantic in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence.

As I and a few friends drove north along the Saint Lawrence this week, approaching the Gaspe Peninsula--a thumb of land bordered by river and ocean--I wondered when a river stops being a river, an ocean an ocean. Is it a matter of salinity? Of width? Of wildlife? In Cap-Chat, a rustic fishing village six hours north of Quebec City where we camped for a night, we waded in the slightly salty waters of the Saint Lawrence. When we finally submerged ourselves in its freezing depths, we gasped with fear and excitement, our skin tightening, our lungs shrinking. Seaweed floated beneath us and mussels and snails clung lazily to the smooth stones strewn along its floor.

When we reached Gaspe, a charming fishing village out on the end of the peninsula, the Saint Lawrence had widened considerably. We could no longer see its northern shore as in Cap-Chat. I felt as if I had entered an alien landscape with huge, beautiful, oblong rocks; cool, salty winds; big blue skies; higher clouds; abnormally starry nights. I thought a lot about geology, although I know nothing about it. I felt as if the residents of Gaspe might live more slowly, might more take their time.

Perhaps they do. But perhaps I was idealizing seemingly simple life. There is nothing simple about rocks. When Greg locked our keys in the car one night, we called AAA. They came and helped within forty minutes. So much for the middle of nowhere. Nevertheless, I still felt starry-eyed.

That same night, we came upon a quaint jazz group--drums, violin, classical guitar, bass--performing in an island of grass between two roads and a parking lot. When we sat down, the singer/guitarist was introducing the next song in French. Through his thick Quebecois accent I gleaned the name Johnny Hartman and the band went into Irving Berlin's "They Say It's Wonderful," which Hartman recorded with the Coltrane quartet in 1963. It is one of my favorite recordings.

The group rendered the song well--charmingly. They played "Night and Day," "O Pato." In "It Could Happen to You," the singer cutely crooned: "'ide your 'eart from sight / lock your dreams at night / It could 'appen to you." French doesn't seem to accommodate for the English h, but I loved the song anyway.

The violinist soloed coolly through the changes of each song, her brow wrinkled with focus. At one point, as she began to sing her bowed solo into the microphone--Slam Stewart-style, but at the same pitch--I wondered why I was surprised that we should happen upon this performance, that I should feel comfortable in such a wide-open area.

The next day, driving back along the coast, we stopped for a moment to look out on the water. Northern gannets were fishing: hovering high in thermals, they would slowly tilt up, their wings ajar, teetering on the edge of air, tip over, letting the force of gravity propel their bodies deep into the water with a small splash. Harbor porpoises were traveling through, revealing their matte gray backs and then slipping smoothly back into the water. Great blue herons flew casually past us, their sheet-like wings flapping inches above the water.

Eventually, as we retraced our drive, going back to Montreal, the northern shore of the Saint Lawrence came into view. We stopped at a road-side lobster-roll stand for lunch and enjoyed the fresh air. We were taking our time, enjoying friendship, tasting experience.

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