Saturday, February 10, 2007

Optimize for warmth, not fashion

"Beautiful Quebec City is close to home, yet offers all the charm of Europe-and a winter blanket of white to rival the best of the Alps! " Quebec City Tourism

I learned in Florence Italy this past October that
the art of a city...
is not just on the walls of its museums...
but also in the style of its citizens

So it seemed perfectly reasonable to further investigate this aesthetic principle when Mars and I visited the Vieux-Quebec to attend the wedding of the son of two close friends. In order to make this study as scientific and unbiased as possible I decided to look for this expressive elegance in the same places that I found it in the city on the Arno - on the feet of the natives and tourists strolling the cobblestones and bricks of this historic Canadian entry on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Unfortunately the actual sidewalks and streets were largely invisible due to a constant coat of packed-down snow and ice maintained by a nightly dusting of frozen white flakes - not enough to generate any real depth but enough to prevent any direct contact (either visual or pedal) with the pavers themselves. And definitely sufficient when combined with the arctic temperatures (as low as minus thirty five degrees Celsius) to initially cause this aficionado of Florentine open-toed, stiletto-heeled Ferragamo fashions to sulkily shut off my downward pointing digital and stuff it into the oversized pocket on my knee-length down coat.

The pre-wedding information packet sent out by Tanya and Steve (the couple) told us "...optimize for warmth, not fashion...It is very common for people in Quebec to wear winter boots and change into dress shoes at their destination...Don't feel silly about your choice of footwear unless of course, you choose to walk through the city streets in your three-inch strappy sandals..." Bummer!

Vieux-Quebec while Canadian in geography and climate is strongly, in some cases aggressively, French - and much more European in architecture, atmosphere and attitude than the rest of that country and their continent. Although it's pretty hard to recognize this when you are tenuously trundling down ice-coated sidewalk hills with cold winds whipping painfully against the uncovered parts of your body, the layouts and sizes of the streets are, as in Europe, narrow, intertwining, and by design quite walkable. The entire old city of Quebec is in fact much more accessible on foot than on wheels - "A five minute walk or a fifteen minute drive" as John, the father of the groom, expressed it.

The housing, as we also saw in Italy and Spain, is comprised of apartments located in distinct, abutting two to four story buildings - each one colored and surfaced differently. These living quarters are frequently placed above shops or restaurants, again as in Europe.

Cuisine, such as Pea Soup, Onion Soup and Meat Pie is continental in origin and hearty by necessity and design.

As I looked more closely at my fellow street-walkers I realized that while the North American climate prohibited even a minor replication of the Haute Couture shoe-look of their European cousins, there was a definite style to the Quebecquers' foot-covering which, like that of the Florentine femmes, expressed and amplified the aesthetic oeuvre of this frozen village on banks of the Saint Lawrence river. And it was photogenic - although at least to this paparazzi lacking in the frisson of the Florentine subject matter.

Some fascinations require warmth in order to flourish. On this north-of-the-border visit the only fetishes visible were those specifically suited for Quebec's cold weather conditions - the stone figurines in animal, human, and supernatural shapes also known as "storytellers" carved by Inuit Indians that were displayed in the shelves and windows of the local art galleries.

At which I and, I'm certain, many other hiking-boot clad visitors, looked longingly.

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