Many years ago, I took my first trip to Canada. It was the first, but not the last time, I would visit during the arctic winter months. I imagined people just stayed indoors for the winter, hibernating like bears, emerging like crocuses pushing out of the ground when the spring rains arrive. Canadians don’t just continue living in piles of snow, ice, and sub-zero temperatures, they full-heartedly embrace it. Winter, where I grew up in Pennsylvania, was always an endless conversation how cold it is outside: “Cold out, isn’t it?” “It is! Sure is cold!” ad naseum. Canadians don’t mention the cold, in fact, they hardly seem bothered by it at all. That is why when Carnaval time comes around in Quebec City, they throw one of the biggest parades and outdoor parties.
I was 18 years old, studying French, finally looking forward to using it, and taking my first steps on foreign soil. I love to travel now, but traveling to far away places wasn’t something that happened for me growing up. I was ecstatic. We had learned about the traditions of the Winter Carnival, as well as some vocabulary, like the French word for snowman, bonhomme de neige, which literally translates to “good man of the snow”. This was the first time I can remember thinking that some languages have better words and phrases than we do in English to describe something. It makes sense to qualify the character of a snowman, and snowmen are certainly good. All it took was one look at the mascot of the Carnival, and I was inspired to have a good time. I wanted to know where he was, I wanted to follow him wherever he was going. It was my dream to give a kiss to this inspirational fictional character. He felt like a kindred spirit to me, always dancing, always smiling, and always bringing joy wherever he goes.
It was a 14 hour bus ride overnight from Pennsylvania to Quebec City. It was a hard night, sleeping in the bus, but it has since given me the ability to sleep almost anywhere. It was a gift I am still thankful for. We toured the University, and saw underground tunnels that lead from one building to another. Our guide Sebastian explained that if you were an international student, and perhaps you were unaccustomed to the cold, you could still attend all your classes without having to step foot outside, or ever even put on a winter coat. I added this underground existence to my notes on how Canadians survived the winter, use underground tunnels and blame the foreigners. Once we visited the old town, I would see that it was a lively town despite the brutal cold.
We stopped at the Chateau Fronteac, one of the most beautiful examples of Old World architecture in America. Castles and dreams go hand in hand for Americans, because we have nothing older than 275 years on the east coast, and even less for those on the west coast. It was truly gorgeous, and it sat on the bluffs of city, overlooking the St. Lawrence, and one can see snow covered plains for miles and miles to the South and East. As we made our way around the Chateau, Sebastian pointed out a three story slide where people would ride down at night for the Carnival festivities. He also pointed out the stands where you would get hot drinks and snacks. As we made our way through the small cobblestone streets, he also pointed out an ice bar. He explained that they were fairly common once the winter came, because you never needed to worry about the bar melting in a Canadian winter. At night, these bars would be serving a traditional shot called Caribou. It is a fortified wine liquor that includes maple syrup. It was traditionally made with the blood of Caribous, and served warm. It tasted a lot like Jagermeister.
We were taken to the home of the Bonhomme Carnaval next, the Ice Palace. It is a castle made entirely of ice. It is even more beautiful at night, when it is illuminated from within. The Ice Palace was not very crowded, as we experienced some of the coldest temperatures in years. Our next stop was the Ice Sculpture Competition, and some dog sledding. I kept my eyes peeled for the mascot of all the festivities, but he was nowhere to be found.
After a brief rest, we had some dinner in Old Quebec, which is located between the St. Lawrence and the Chateau. There are many restaurants, shops, and sights in the cobblestoned pedestrian streets and stairs that wind up the bluffs from the river to the castle. The castle at night provided a beautiful sight each time we looked up. After dinner, we made our way back to the Ice Castle, which was a much different scene now. The parade had started, there were horns (Side note: some of you may be familiar with the vuvuzela horns that became popular during the World Cup in 2010, same thing) blowing everywhere, lights, and music. Everyone was dancing and celebrating everywhere you looked. I asked our guide if there was a chance we would see Bonhomme Carnaval. I was very concerned, as there were so many people, I was no longer sure I would get a chance to meet him. Our guide assured me that the Bonhomme Carnaval was a busy guy, and that they best thing I could do was enjoy myself because that is what he would want me to. And I did.
I went out and purchased his sash. If I was going to be an ambassador for the Bonhomme Carnaval, I had to look the part too.