It was a bit of a culture shock. Stepping off the train into the rural townships of Quebec’s Gaspesie area was almost like stepping back in time.
In these small towns, families are tight-knit and everyone knows everyone else. The people here trace their roots all the way back to the first French settlers in New France. In a town of just over 5,000 people, nearly all of them shared just six family names!
It goes without saying that no one spoke any English. No one here needed it. Tourists don’t come much, and not even tourists step off the train here in winter.
I had to improve my French vastly, in a hurry. That meant I had to talk with other people.
It’s too easy, in a place like this, to disappear into the winter silence. Chitchat at the grocery store always stopped dead when I appeared. Sometimes they’d step outside to light a cigarette. As far as I could tell, everyone in the town smoked. That took some getting used to right there.
They used to keep on talking when they thought I didn’t understand. Then they weren’t sure how much I did understand.
Of course I’m sure I didn’t understand anywhere near as much as they thought I did. My French wasn’t so good, plus the area’s so isolated that it’s developed a really hard accent which makes hash of my high school French. Many of the words don’t appear in any dictionary.
It wasn’t like they didn’t talk to me at all. They did. But from what I could understand, it was always the kinds of things you say to someone you don’t really know. It was friendly enough, but I was always an outsider. I don’t know if I would ever stop being an outsider to them. No one lived here who wasn’t born here.
Morning life every single day always started with the ringing of the church bells. They were loud enough and went on long enough to make it impossible to sleep in. It would have been pretty peaceful except for those bells. Who needs an alarm clock?
At six o’clock, the shops closed to the ringing of the church bells again. Only the single movie theatre and the bar stayed open late, but the movie theatre wasn’t open every night.
The church was the highest point in the whole town. The Catholic Church’s still an important part of life here. However, the generational divide’s hard to miss. When I went to Sunday services, nearly every head was gray.
That’s when I finally got it. Most of the young people here don’t stay. The entire region is patchwork farms. It’s all family farming around here. But in the towns, there aren’t a whole lot of job opportunities.
They go away to go to trade school. They go away to go to university. They go away to look for jobs in Quebec City or Montreal, or even for nearby Rimouski. The ones who speak some English or want to learn go to Toronto or Calgary. Everyone’s got a son or daughter or nephew or niece who’s away, going to school or looking for work.
They get jobs there, they settle there, and they don’t come back. Only people like me come at all, and the people who still lived here already knew I wasn’t going to stay.
At the end of my stay, the 2 am train took me away as suddenly as it had dropped me off. It was a completely different kind of culture shock stepping off the train in downtown Montreal during rush hour. People were moving fast in every direction to catch commuter trains or the Metro. I’d completely forgotten that places could have so many people. I missed the silence.