After last night’s cold ride into town and having the GPS battery go flat in the middle of trying to get into jail, I’m doing the only sensible thing one can. I’ve disassembled the side panel of the Multistrada in the Canadian Tire parking lot and bit-by-bit purchase-by-purchase I’m wiring the heated vest and GPS to the battery. Wrenching in a Canadian Tire lot, have we just stumbled on the prototypical Canadian Experience?
Not being mechanically inclined, I finally leave Ottawa at 1:30, that will put me into Quebec City late… if I took the direct route.
No, I have the GPS back, and we’re not taking the main drags… Wait though, in my rush to get going I’ve forgotten something – breakfast. Fear not, on the corner is a culinary cliché waiting to happen, the Cantine. I’m instantly attracted because it has a large number of people buzzing in an out (a good sign), a distant and slightly drunk memory of poutine from when I used to be a storyboard artist in Ottawa.
Poutine is everything your doctor ever warned you about, but better. French fries, covered in cheese curd and doused in gravy… there are variations, but this is the gold standard on which all other heart stopping poutine death is based. Most importantly you can not have poutine in a chain restaurant. Earl’s, Kelsey’s or anything ending in apostrophe and “s” can’t do poutine, because poutine is experience as well and ingredients.
Its best done at a roadside stand or Ma and Pa hole in the wall joint even here in Eastern Ontario. Poutine is social, and like smoking, is a guilty pleasure that unites its partakers. Wasn’t that bad? Have another forkful.
The Ducati is the day’s star, Multistada or not the brand has cache. Yes, yes, across Canada… How much horsepower? How does it handle? What’s it like in comparison to other bikes? The Multistrada is making me the Ducati rep I never wanted to be, but it’s also opening the conversational door.
From the rider with the broken arm I learn that it’s not Quebec City, around here you just call it Quebec. The old lady in the gas station tells me a well-worn joke, “How can you tell a happy motorcycle rider?”
I humour her, but after the achingly obvious punch line she goes on to tell me about her old beau and his 1948 Harley. She even used to ride it, a big deal back in the day.
I arrive in Quebec, just missing the wrap-up of the 400th Anniversary Summer, bad timing. The town is hopping, the hotels packed, and I land in a run down ex-chain inn. It still has a hot tub though, relatively clean even, and I risk it.
A man, old enough that the grecian formula is obvious, is already soaking. After the requisite uncomfortable hot tub silence, he asks, “Is that you on the Ducati?”
The conversation moves away from the bike and to Canada. Gilles attending grade 3 when the Quebec language laws came into affect. He was attending an English school at the time and, since his parents were both French speaking, was forced into a French school. “It was awful. I didn’t know how to read French, or write it, I had to go back to grade one. Some were even in grade six, and had to do the same.”
Gilles is clear in the end he agreed with saving the language, but the personal setback still hurts. On macro level, he’s avowedly Canadian, “We just don’t want the politics. Stephan Harper,” the name is nearly spat, “he takes away what was give. Just like George Bush.”
Eventually the conversation settles, “I went to Jasper as part of a student exchange. In high school you know. The kids who stayed with us, their French was really good, their schools taught it well. Our English, we were like ‘Yes’, ‘No’, grunt, more. It was embarrassing.”
I can relate as I muddle my way through with note pads and thoroughly forgotten grade-11 French. Gilles’ is an interesting take on the debate that still simmers around French language laws in Quebec, and as much so for the debate around separatism. It’s not as clean and simple as the lawmakers may think from above, or black and white as seen from a distance in the west, in essence it is Poutine a bit messy, but somehow it works.