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Québec à la Carte

01/11/02 12:00AM By Willem Lange

Mother emerged from the motel in Sorel, Québec, with a strange look on her face. "They take dogs," she said, "so we're staying here for the night. But you've gotta see this!" I grabbed the bags and followed her into a tiny sitting room with a washroom and bedroom beyond. A strange reddish light emanated from the bedroom.

Directly above a queen-size bed hung a plastic Japanese lantern. At the head of the bed, glued to the wall, was a large mosaic of small mirrors; on the ceiling above, the same. "Yes!" I cried, "I've been waiting 42 years for this!"and flopped down on the bed to get the full romantic effect. But the ceiling above the mirrors was uneven, and the mirrors imperfectly applied; so the effect was instead hilarious -- sort of Picasso in motion. Someone much younger than I -- say, 42 years younger -- might have been able to overcome the weirdness; but not me. And several hours later Mother, just as she had 42 years earlier on our wedding night, called from the other room, "Nothing doing! I'm not coming into the room till that light is out!"

That was Saturday night of our annual anniversary trip. We almost always go to Canada. We head north, and on the way ask ourselves: French or English? If it's English, we turn left toward Ottawa; if French, we turn right, downriver, toward Québec. It was French this time; and the next morning I was stuck on a dead-end road on an islet lined with tiny summer camps and docks with duck-hunting boats.

"Restaurant Chez Babalou," read the sign on a white building by the bridge. We went in. Three tables ran the length of the large room, with the kitchen at one end. Everybody was having a great time. We were obviously from away, but everybody nodded at us and said, "Bonjour."

What a great place! It was closing for the winter that afternoon; Ms. and Mme. Babalou were heading for Florida. Mother had eggs and toast and some other stuff, and I had a Kit Babalou: two eggs over easy, homemade toast; saucisse like spicy hotdogs, fried bologna, lettuce and tomato slices, baked beans, and coffee. For the two of us, the bill came to $10.58 Canadian, or $6.67 US.

After breakfast, we drove to Odanak, the Indian village on the St. Francis River that was attacked by Rogers' Rangers during the French and Indian War. It's now a tiny First Nation reserve of English-speakers floating in a sea of French, with an Anglican mission church built in 1866. In the yard stands a granite stone with a bronze plaque. The native American pastor here 170 years ago went to Dartmouth

Small world. Small church, too: only eight of us. No piano. The priest, Louis Gallant, led the hymns with a booming voice, welcomed the guests from their sister diocese, and preached the best sermon we've ever heard on the Pharisee and the tax collector. High point of the trip.

It's another world: so different from New England. We had supper in Lévís with friends whose living room window looks directly across the river at the incredible lights of Québec. Then it was downriver again, to the Shrine of Ste.-Anne de Beaupré, decorated with discarded crutches, and the Manoir Richelieu, an immense riverside hotel recently restored. The dog cost an extra $25 Canadian, but it was worth it to watch her following us quietly through the grand salon. The room cost so much we hated to go to sleep, but the full moon on the never-quiet surface of the river was an irresistible soporific.

Next morning, off again: across the river and through lower Québec to the Vermont border at Derby Line. I hummed as I drove. "What are you thinking?" asked Mother.

"Oh, just that being married would be worth it even if only for trips like this. And I'm wondering what kind of glue it takes to stick mirrors onto ceilings..."

This is Willem Lange up in Etna, New Hampshire, and I better get back to work before I get into more trouble.

-- Willem Lange is a contractor, writer and storyteller who lives in Etna, New Hampshire.

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