Perdon. Nous bicyclette de Seattle, los Etats Unis. Je ne parle pas Francais. Parlez-vous anglais?
Tres bon! Merci beaucoup!
The change came at once upon crossing the Ottawa River. Or, as the map upon my handlebar said, the Riviere de Outaouais. The first of a week’s worth of La Route Verte signs lay just a kilometer beyond the provincial boundary, welcoming us onto Quebec’s famed bicycle network. No longer would we have to balance our bikes along the narrow edge of pavement and keep constant vigil for trucks and cars trying to pass with too little room. After weeks in Ontario we would finally be able to direct both eyes to the scenery and not our safety mirrors!
La Route Verte 1, the Voyageur’s Path, led us across the countryside of L’Isle-aux-Allumettes, through wetlands and forests where bouquets of trillium grew wild among the ivy and the scent of lilac and honeysuckle floated on every breeze. We crossed farms, rolled through acres of dandelions, and turned our pedals along the shores of lakes and streams and, of course, the Ottawa River. The crushed gravel path we so longed to reach, the very network of trails I had in mind when building our Salsa Fargos and selecting our wider 700×38 tires, was now leading us through Fort Coulonge to Gatineau and onward to Montreal. LRV1 was a land-based route that followed the annual journey of those hardy French-Canadian canoemen who made the fur trade possible so long ago. What a joy to lay awake in my tent, wild-camped on the side of the trail, reading of their history in Grace Lee Nute’s “The Voyageur” and to hear the names of the very towns and villages we had ridden through that very day!
After two nights back across the river in Ottawa, a wonderful capital city, we were anxious to return to the Quebec side of the river and continue our journey to Montreal. I fell in love with Montreal on a business trip in 2012 and couldn’t wait to show Kristin the sights. And after three nights in the old quarter, we continued along the St. Lawrence River to Quebec City. La Route Verte 5’s urban bike path was our guide out of Montreal, just in time to avoid the arriving Formula One crowds in town for that week’s Grand Prix. Three days later, after a trip through the St. Anne River valley, La Route Verte 6’s undulating gravel trail brought us straight to the old fort’s ramparts, just blocks from our hotel perched high above the hilly, historical city. La Route Verte doesn’t just make cycling in and out of large cities possible and safe, but it shows that even the oldest of cities can be retrofitted with bicycle infrastructure. And if a city founded some 400 years ago can find the room to squeeze in some bike lanes, then surely the younger cities can too.
Of course, the bicycle has to play a bigger part of the culture for that to happen. It can’t just be a recreational piece of sporting equipment. And that’s where the region’s origin as “le Canada” really shines. A cyclist we met in Deep River, Ontario said that of all the places in the world he cycled, there was none better than France. “In France, the cyclists are number 2 on the road. The farmers will always be number 1, but cyclists come second!”
We won’t be in France for several months, but I couldn’t help but feel as if a dormant strain of French was untwisting itself from my DNA as a cyclist and bubbling to the surface. I found myself greeting every passerby with a hearty “Bonjour!” as I rode, smiling at the day, and waving to the flowers. I’d enunciate with awful anglicized phonetics the words on the signs we’d pass and bellow, “Bienvenue Cyclistes!” whenever our chosen campground was emblazoned with the sign marking La Route Verte supporters.
Unfortunately, the abundance of apostrophes isn’t the only thing that’s throwing me off with regards to the French language in Quebec. I also have a problem with inconsistency and double-standards. And after seeing, what seemed to be, every single piece of text in Ontario written out in both English and French, from the labels on the cookies in the Dollarama to the overbearing billboards on Highway 17 explaining all of the numerous ways motorists will likely perish, it came as quite a surprise to find virtually no English in Quebec. It is certainly disappointing to find no translation on any of the monuments, statues, or plaques we’ve encountered along our travels in the province. What a wasted opportunity to educate the Anglophones on French-Canadian history! While the French Language Services Act seems to guarantee that all governmental agencies and the like are to be bilingual in Ontario (and we’ve seen plenty of French in British Columbia as well), it seems that Quebec swings the other way and goes out of its way to keep English from its signage. Or a store owner’s use of social media, for that matter. As an observant traveler just passing through, I found it interesting to see some of the historical explanations and plaques in Quebec include the Inuit translation but not English.
C’est la vie.
Special Thanks: The last couple of weeks have been great fun thanks to the arrival of summer, pleasant cycling conditions, and the generosity of those in our life. Want to thank Steve and Kate, our WarmShowers hosts in Deep River for a great night of drinks and board games. Also have to extend a hearty thanks to my good friend, “The Real Brian Donahue” for e-buying us a round of drinks and dinner at the Highlander Pub in Ottawa, and to our realtor and friend Justin Vander Pol for a lovely French dinner in Montreal. Would also like to give a quick tip of the cap to Bill Harris, a longtime pen-pal of mine, who so graciously allows me to send along a monthly dispatch for inclusion in his blog, Dubious Quality. Be sure to check it out.