It has to be 90 in the shade.... but then that's not in Celsius. In my inner demon USA brain an insidious whisper is hissing....'but this is supposed to be CANADA! Isn't it supposed to be cooler in the North?????' Ah, but an east coast heatwave has us all sweltering. It was the long Memorial Day weekend and we were on the road.
Liz has got to be the most shopping-est woman I know, have ever known (and that's saying something). One of my colleagues from the UN, she is 1st generation Chinese - he mother is from Hong Kong and speaks little English. Liz has traveled all over the world, thrives on travel and new places, but never been to Canada. She has graciously invited me to Canada for this trip in around November last year - paid for the room and the parking and I'm providing the gas and the transportation. Although gas has spiraled upward in the last year beyond anything I could have envisioned, it's still a bargain - Liz enjoys staying at fine hotels. The one we're headed toward is in downtown Montreal.
We spent time in the car getting to Montreal in the first place - it took much longer than expected over Memorial Day Saturday. Not that we were being terrible inefficient or scattered; it just seems to take me much longer driving to somewhere I've never been. We made a slew of stops along the way. Then it took more than an hour to get through customs into Canada proper.
Once we had crossed the border, things changed - - if only for the simple reason that we were now in the province of Quebec where French is the official language. Green signs for tourist attractions with white outlines of circle-headed people 1/2 submerged in white multiple peaks served as notice of swimming hereby, stretched out circle head outlines with the thin line was sure sign of a golf course. "If the signs looked different, this could be New Jersey" said Liz in a deadpan. Most metropolitan areas are similar when it comes to highways - inner cities, in particular, still use concrete and asphalt.
I had brought my golf clubs along and we carried both US and Canadian dollars to spend on meals and odds and ends. There was hazy sun mingled with patches of showers. When we finally made it to the Sheraton and heard a hearty 'Bonjour!' we were quite tired and hungry and settled on a dinner @ the hotel. By the time we had finished the meal and were 1/2 way through the Tarte aux pommes avec glace vanille most of our traveling stress had melted away.
Sunday Liz was heart-set on going to a gourmet spice company that features pesticide-free organic dried spices, vinegars, syrops to the north of Montreal in the foothills and mountains known as the Laurentides. While on the major highway the scenery was standard suburban with car dealerships, shopping malls and signs for new condominium developments. We turned off after St. Jerome and made it to the store. The shop owner, an ex patriot, told us to venture a bit farther north, just up the road, to Mont Saint-Sauveur a quaint ski resort town. Off we went. Liz found a fur hat she could not resist, I found something of a more modest scale to bring to C for a present on my next visit. Lord, it was sunny and hot. We found cool refuge in the local RCatholic church and sat in quiet meditation. Liz wondered how so many churches could be named the same thing..... Notre Dame. Trying to explain the extraordinary place for Roman Catholics of St. Mary the Virgin was more difficult than I imagined. It boiled down to the concept that it was widely held that because Jesus had a human mother that stood by Him we are also her adopted children under her love and care. She was "Our Lady", too. Oh. OK.
Heading back to the hotel was much quicker. We would go to Old Montreal - a section of the village to the south, along the river - tomorrow.
It was still hot and hazy when we set out. We walked, using a map provided by the Chamber of Commerce. It was not a holiday in Montreal so the city was buzzing, people on all manner of cell phones speaking in French and English. Tourists dressed in traditional short sleeves, shorts, flip flops and backpacks craned their necks to take in the architecture - some of which was remarkable and old. We, too, chose to take it easy and embrace our tourist status by popping into one of the open, horse-drawn carriages that populate Old Montreal. Our spirited guide, Roger, had been in construction prior to his retirement. Our brave steed was named Charlotte - she knew the route sight unseen and seemed to move automatically with little prodding from the intrepid Roger - who spoke the nasal French of the quebecois plus some accent-laden English. This had been a port town, settled by some men and two nuns (whose statues can be found rather prominently throughout the old town). The cobblestones that paved a few of the streets had been the ballast in the bottom of each of the ships that had arrived - nothing went to waste.
Our tour ended in front of Notre Dame de Montreal and we decided to seek refuge from the heat once again. The exterior of the building is not very flashy - not resplendent with statues or fine stone work.... it is plain and speaks eloquently of the steadfastness it must have taken to settle a rugged land. Coming up to the door there was a booth. One must pay to enter.
Something in me bristled..... I have to pay to pray??? I approached one of the guides and spoke to her in French - my friend and I want only to pray, please - she replied dryly in French ' if that is all, you may come with me, but not that one who does not believe. You may go into the glass enclosure and pay your respect near the reserved sacrament. You have a maximum of 15 minutes then I will come for you and you will leave' she paused and then said 'welcome to the house of God' and opened a side door, giving Liz the stiff arm and palm in a stop
Merci I replied, took Liz by the hand, turned and got on the line for a ticket. She took over at the ticket booth and said, upon taking my payment for 2 tickets, 'ah, you chose to pay after all'. I gave Liz her ticket and showed her in front of me. Turning to the guide I said - He has already paid for us all, but I will be happy to make sure that my friend is welcomed here as well'. Her face fell. 'I am so sorry, I did not know. She is Chinese.' 'Yes, Chinese and a child of God'.
Perhaps I should have held my tongue, but I don't regret for having challenged her prejudice.
As it turns out, the interior of the basilica is magnificent with blues that cannot be described. The structure had undergone significant fire damage some years ago and it had taken a massive campaign to rebuild and make repairs. In back of the main altar there is another chapel, very modern in style, with skylights above. Liz took pictures and cooled off from the heat. I finally calmed down enough to pray.
'This is beautiful' said Liz as she looked at the stained glass work depicting angels in the ceiling. Yes, it is. It was beautiful and built in the name of Our Lady, a mother to us all. I was welcome, Liz was welcome. And we each took in all the beauty with appreciation, giving thanks for divine inspiration and the human hand. .... a prayer by any other name .