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J’adore Quebec City

Way back in the day, Christine and her family took a road trip to Quebec City, the entire family stuffed into their 1970s station wagon: her parents, three siblings, her grandmother, and Christine. Seven of them shoulder-to-shoulder on an eight-hour drive across the northern border.

On our visit in 2018, Christine often reminisced about that trip, remembering it fondly, especially reflective about her time with her grandmother, who had recently passed at the age of 104. On our first afternoon in Quebec City, we walked around the scenic promenade that looked out over the St. Lawrence River and basked in the radiance of the iconic Fairmont Le Château Frontenac, the castle-like hotel that is the city’s crown-jewel. Near it were a row of cannons pointing toward the river, and Christine remembered posing for a photo here as a young girl with her sisters, all astride the cannon as though it were a horse. She picked out the cannon that she was pretty sure was the same one, and we replicated the photo, albeit just her this time. It was my first time to the city, so it was sweet to experience it through her eyes, her memory a touchstone that guided us in our sightseeing.

I fell in love with Quebec City. I’d been told that it was reminiscent of an old European city, but I hadn’t expected it feel quite as familiar as it did. The lower Old Town, especially, harkened back to the prettiest European cities we’d visited. My only wish was that there were nonstop flights here from Boston. Being able to take advantage of a long weekend by flying nonstop two hours to Quebec City, easy access to a little taste of Europe without having to wait for summer to plan an ambitious travel itinerary, would be a dream. But there are no nonstops from Boston—we had to connect in Montreal, which meant the airport-to-airport journey should have been three or four hours with the layover, but we’d missed our connection in Montreal and were forced to book a hotel, flying to Quebec City early the next morning. As a long weekend, it didn’t seem feasible without that nonstop flight. Maybe someday.

Still, this was the first summer in four years that we weren’t spending in Europe, so this was a perfect alternative, a way to scratch the itch. Old Town Quebec checks all the boxes: narrow cobblestoned streets, inviting facades, strung lights, music, history. We ate lunch at a sidewalk café, a simple cutting board with cheeses and sausage, a couple glasses of wine, the sky melting into pastels as the afternoon grew long. After, I had to order a beavertail—the rich fried dough concoction I saw people walking around with. I didn’t want to walk around with mine, though. I needed to sit. This needed to be savored.

* * *

On a day trip we ventured outside the city to visit the town of Sainte-Anne-de-Beauprě, and in particular the renowned basilica it is known for, a fixture along the St. Lawrence River noted as a place of healing and cure. Christine visited this sanctuary as a child and fell headfirst in love with its majesty. She clearly remembers telling her grandmother that someday she would get married here, at St. Anne’s. That ultimately didn’t happen, since we were instead married in 2010 on the shores of Gloucester, Massachusetts. At the time, I’d never even heard this story. But once inside the doors of the basilica I had an idea. We looked at the artifacts for a few minutes, crutches fixed to the columns and other indicators that miracles had happened here. Eventually we ended up at the back of the church standing in the center aisle, and I hooked my arm through Christine’s and we moved, slowly and deliberately, down the aisle toward the altar. “What are we doing?” Christine asked in hushed tones.

“I’m walking you up the aisle.” I squeezed her forearm and drew her close. “You said you wanted to get married here.”

Once at the church’s nave, the altar just behind us, I took her hands in mine and we looked at each other. Tourists meandered about, paying no attention, and off to the right a priest sat in a chair, perhaps watching us, perhaps not. Quietly, I professed my love, murmuring a string of words that, collectively, made for an impromptu, somewhat clumsy, vow. Christine’s eyes filled with tears, taken aback by the moment, and when I finished and it was her turn she said, simply, “Me too.” Later, heading back into the city, she told me that she’d been so emotional it was all she could get out.

In our own creative, abstract, maybe even silly way we were able to fulfill a little girl’s promise she’d so long ago made to her grandmother, finally coming to fruition just eight months after her passing, this petite French-Canadian whose granddaughter had come home to exchange vows in the motherland. Je Fais.

* * *

Back in the city, we ate dinner in Old Town at an outdoor café, right next to an old stone staircase that Christine remembered well. Live music played, and we ordered a couple rounds of drinks after dinner was over, in no hurry to move on. It was nice listening to her reminisce, to recognize places, leading us around the city almost on instinct. She knew this place—though it was so long ago she knew it almost as one does a hazy dream. While I looked upon the city with new eyes, she was always in two places at once: in the present, with me, but also with one foot in the past, reconstructing and repairing this ancient memory, giving it life again. Our memories are important, they’re the building blocks on which we’re constructed, and it was inspiring to watch her infuse this old memory with fresh nutrients.

Fireworks were scheduled for what we’d thought were nine p.m. but turned out to be ten, so we had an hour to kill on the promenade, but of course we weren’t killing the hour at all but spending it in the moment, the Château above us uplit like a beacon, boats sliding along the St. Lawrence, glowing with pinpoint light. The fireworks began at last and we tilted our heads to the sky, our bodies leaning on one another. The night exploded with color, the faces of the spectators around us tinting. We watched in mostly silence, but afterward agreed that these were among the best we’d ever seen. “Why are the fireworks so much better in Europe? And, now, here too,” I wondered aloud.

“I don’t know,” Christine said. “But it’s true.” I thought of Venice, Italy and Pamplona, Spain, fireworks displays that still echo through my body to this day, their afterburns still glowing from within.

I shrugged and we began walking, sticking my elbow out so she could take it. “You think it’s really the fireworks?” I asked. “Or is it actually just the city?”

She took my arm and her head fell to my shoulder as we moved along the promenade. Ahead, the spires of the Fairmont Le Château Frontenac were shadowed by the haze of fireworks smoke, drifting across the city like fog. “I think it’s both,” she said.

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