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August 19, 2022

Homeward bound (Travel letter No. 7)

I leave GRANDE-VALLÉE, its nice motel and breathtaking view. I hang on tightly, turn and climb a narrow road that reminds me of a ribbon wrapped around a huge Christmas tree. I encircle the mountains repeatedly, terrified, because the road seems suspended high in the air. RADIO-CANADA announces nice weather: alternating sun and clouds, humidity and 25 degrees, with the clouds clearing in the afternoon. Hurray! A few minutes pass by and the radio suddenly starts to protest at the top of its lungs: $350 per night for a hotel in the U.S., $60 per pound to taste a small, fresh lobster, and that’s not even taking into account the exchange rate!

I drive down a very long hill. I fly, I twirl like a feather from a seagull falling from the sky. I’m afraid, even frightened. My toes are cemented to the brake pedal. I hope my car insurance is in order, I think to myself. I read somewhere that a person who walks is healthier. The one driving is in greater danger – from suddenly not being able to walk any more.

SAINTE-ANNE-DES-MONTS, 95 kilometres. Do I have enough coffee to make it there? Finally, a yellow-lemon house catches my attention. I take a picture of it from the car. It’s rather rare in GASPÉSIE to see such vibrant colours. According to the voice on RADIO-CANADA, inflation is directly proportional to the price of gasoline. And don’t dare ask me how many $$$ I have paid so far to admire the landscape.

Come to think of it, I am on my last few miles. I don’t need much of anything anymore; no need to purchase new clothes or dress shoes for Sundays, no reason to buy fancy scarves to hide the wrinkles that betray the passage of time. My closets are full of them. I had my hour of glory when I was 15 or 16 years old, when everyone would tell me I looked like the famous Marina Vlady. She was a beautiful actress who married the splendid Robert Hossein. Today, at my age, I live in my head most of the time and I feel pretty good there. Until a handsome lobster holds out its claw to me. I forget about the cost; ocean delicacies are one of my weaknesses. Here, surrounded by the ocean, I say to the devil with money! I compensate for all the small frozen Icelandic cod filets I’ve ever bought from Costco.

Is this my last trip around the Bas-Saint-Laurent region which stretches along the St. Lawrence River? Maybe not! The only way to live a long life is to accept getting older and to get on with your projects. It means embracing your dreams whatever your age. My close friends and family know that I’m inquisitive – constantly questioning life, others, myself and the creator above, who has never replied back. Will I be able to find out who I truly am before I leave this earth? It seems to me that my identity is in constant metamorphosis.

SAINTE-MADELEINE-DE-LA-RIVIÈRE-À-MADELEINE (literally, “Saint-Madeleine of Madeleine’s River”) announces the green sign. Where is the river that bears my name? Didn’t I wash enough dishes in my life to merit my own body of water somewhere? Perhaps in heaven?

I arrive in GROS-MORNE (literally, “big gloomy”). Who is that? A famous bear? An oversized Canadian pioneer? Who is GROS-MORNE? A deforested mountain? A well-known First Nations leader? Is there a ministry of place names here? And church names?

ANSE-PLEUREUSE (which translates roughly as “crying cove”) is on the horizon, just 12 kilometres away. “Tears wash our eyes,” my mother would tell me from the other side of the door when I hid in a closet to fume. And so life goes on. Have you ever noticed that our misfortunes are often intersected with small, surprising joys? I run away from my home with my children. The husband gives me nothing, nothing at all, and I jump for joy despite it all because I am finally free. I’ve been through enough hard times to finally realize that the most miserable calamities don’t last forever. In the worst of times, in the darkest moments of despair, there is always a small crack, a thin ray of light that penetrates the shadows. Maybe that was what the acclaimed Leonard Cohen was talking about when he wrote, “There is a crack in everything. That’s how light gets in.” It’s that small crack that we all have within ourselves, each one of us. I will certainly reread this great poet. At one point, I even studied the symbolism of his psalms, including those in his book on my bedside table that falls asleep with me.

In MONT-SAINT-PIERRE, I finally learn that GROS-MORNE is a great rock that juts into the sea. But why is this rock so sad? If the rock’s name is “big gloomy,” then it has to be a very forlorn rock, I tell myself. I drive for a long while, brushing against the sea’s edge. I always hope I will see a whale’s back surfacing. At the same moment a flock of seagulls perform a dance in the blue sky. I see many of them landing, gathered on the shore or perched on driftwood. They are impressive birds. I even had one in my sunroom at home for many years. I would say hello to the bird every morning until a painter threw it away in a garbage container four years ago. I had been doing renovations around the house and my big, beautiful plastic seagull flew away.

MARSOUI, 10 kilometres. I am still tracing the seashore’s edge. Invigorating and soothing, GASPÉSIE’s water makes me think of goodness. I imagine it filling all the empty rooms of my life. A little further on, I think of the GROS-MORNE’s (a.k.a. Big Gloomy) sad story. An old fisherman told me the tale. Big Gloomy had fallen in love with a stunning mermaid whose golden agate eyes attracted hungry sailors. Capricious and haughty, the wretched siren ignored the kindly rock who, holding out its open arms towards the escaping mermaid, only retreated further into the bay. The mean siren preferred to entice her many suitors with her angelic voice and her tail of sparkling scales.

When I was 18 years old, I could have been a beautiful, good siren, in love with a strong rock. But I stayed on firm land and that didn’t stop a terrible shark from laying waste to all the dreams I had as a young woman. Attentive and studious, I was finishing my classical studies and had enrolled at the Sorbonne in Paris. My greatest desire was to become a writer. Oh, if only!

I remember it so well, that fateful Saturday night when the Earth started spinning in the wrong direction. I had just gotten my driver’s licence and Dad had agreed to lend me his small white Volvo to visit a college friend who lived some 15 kilometres away, in the metropolis of Montreal. I was spending the weekend there. I was elated as I took the wheel of the car. I loved driving then as much as I do today. And when I got to my friend’s house, her two cousins, who were the same age as us, were also there. The three young ladies were crazy about dancing.

Much more worldly than me, they often went to downtown Montreal on Saturday night to dance. And, of course, they insisted that all four of us go dancing in Dad’s car. Enjoying being behind the wheel, I instantly agreed to it without giving it a second thought. I explained to the girls as I was driving there that I had never been dancing before in my short life. They burst out in laughter. I was intellectual and studious; I knew little of the real world.

It was getting dark when we arrived at our destination. Stores were closed, but the city streets were packed with the young and not so young. It was an urban crowd that was utterly unfamiliar to me. I parked in a secure paid spot and then followed my companions, who seemed to know exactly where they were headed. A portly, ageless man was guarding the door. He opened it with a smile that seemed more questioning than friendly. Weren’t we too young for this type of place? Were they going to ask for our IDs? In front of us, an infernal sound blasted from the top of a huge staircase. The girls ascended the stairs two by two, transfixed by the music. Yuck! Where am I? With each step, I wanted to turn around and flee. But I had promised we would all return to my friend’s house together. And so I let myself be led to a round table facing the dance floor. “Four cosmopolitans,” ordered my friend. Four what? The place itself was cosmopolitan, filled with the most attractive men I had ever seen. I couldn’t make out the different nationalities that were gathered at the party, but I appreciated the handsomeness of the men. Almost all of them resembled mythical gods from Greco-Roman antiquity; the same ones whose history I read about in my classical studies.

One of them, a strikingly tall, well-built and gorgeous man with his ebony hair and copper tan, suddenly made his way to our table. I couldn’t help but stare at his beauty; his eyes, on the other hand, were fixed intently on my friend’s turquoise eyes. After a few long moments, he inexplicably turned to face me. I am held in his hypnotic spell. He holds out his hand and invites me to dance. Incapable of saying no, I stand up and let myself be pulled to the centre of the dance floor.

And so that is how, ignorant of life, a Sleeping beauty fell asleep for many long, nightmarish years. But she is slowly waking up. Trying to assemble the pieces of the puzzle, revisiting the good and not so good moments of her existence. Writing, reading, trying to understand the moral of her story. One thing is for sure: Appearances deceive; trust only the goodness of others’ hearts.

More next week!