Pulling up to the Canadian border at 8:30 at night was kinda scary--we were literally the only ones there..two young Americans rumbling through in our big brown van--I knew we would probably have some trouble. When we pulled up to the window we handed the officer our Passport cards and sat there looking innocent as can be as he asked us why we’re going there, how long we’re going to be there, what we do for a living, blahblah. And, of course, because we were the only ones there in our suspicious looking van, he told us to park and come inside. When we got inside we put on our friendly smiles and yet again, answered a slew of questions, this time including how much money we have to our names and if we’ve ever gotten a DUI. Even though I know John and I don’t have any sort of record, I found myself still incredibly nervous that they would find something to get us for! They told us we could go on our way and we started off into CANADA through another big stretch of forests and farmland. At one point we pulled over to stand in the road and squeal with happiness, and to look at the expansive sky and the stars that were above us. The air smelled like Christmas trees and we were so thrilled that Penny had gotten us to a whole other country!
We got to the nearest town and were pointing out all of the French signs, and anything that we also had in America--”Oh look, Subway!” Hah! After about 15 minutes of excitedly looking at every sign and reading them out loud we found our WalMart for the night, or as Canada calls it, Accès Pharma chez Walmart. We decided that we needed to celebrate getting to Canada, so we went back out to find ice cream! We found a little place and went inside, and were greeted by labels, prices and signs in French and a friendly, “Bonjour!” from the girl behind the counter. Oh..great..”Hi?” “Oh! English! Hello!” Phew! This is how it was our entire stay in Canada--almost everyone we talked to spoke fluent English with almost no accent whatsoever! We got some ice cream and sat listening to the people around us speaking French and then moseyed our way back to WalMart for the night.
We woke up bright and early and began our trip to Quebec City. It was a nice drive through a lot of farmland and a lot of confusing signs--thank God I got a Global Plan through Verizon and we were able to use my phone’s GPS to get us around (since our Garmin doesn’t have Canadian maps)--otherwise we would have been totally lost!
After a few hours of driving we arrived in Quebec City and spent the beginning of our day in the lower part of the city. Quebec City is surrounded by ramparts, which are the only remaining city walls in North America, and is separated into the lower and upper cities. The lower city has so much character!--the cars don’t really drive through the streets, they have market lights all around, a little park with swings and a bunch of quaint little restaurants with outdoor seating. We spent our first day really taking it all in! We strolled in and out of galleries--which were more like mini museums with the quality of the artwork. We went in almost every souvenir shop to find our sticker for the roof box, we sat on benches and watched the bustling people and the tour groups passing through. We found a coffee shop called La Maison Smith and sat for a while enjoying the ambiance and the yummy sandwich we were splitting. We walked up to the upper part of the city, which is within the ramparts, and is kind of centered around the famous Fairmont Le Château Frontenac! There was a beautiful church called Cathedral-Basilica of Notre Dame de Quebec that had been rebuilt after several fires since 1647--the last rebuild being in 1922, and it was absolutely breathtaking. After walking through the streets, briefly visiting the Chateau Frontenac, watching some street performers and looking at the buildings we decided to go back to the lower part of the city.
There was a little park in the middle of one of the main streets that was nestled between 2 restaurants and had bench swings and adirondack chairs. We sat on the swing for a while listening to the street musicians, watching the streets grow dark and trying to act like we didn’t want to go out to dinner. Finally we convinced ourselves that we would only be in Canada once (YOCO?) and we were going to splurge for our first real night in Quebec City! We went to one of the restaurants next to the park called Le Lapin Saute and got a great little table outside along the street. We got rabbit poutine (poutine is french fries with gravy and cheese curds--sounds and looks yucky, tastes delicious), rabbit pot pie and a cheese fondue. It was all amazing. We went back to our new home for the week--WalMart, and went to sleep.
This was the first time that we felt comfortable enough to put the top up to sleep--every other time we had stayed at a WalMart we didn't want to make a scene, so we slept on the bottom. We stayed at the same one for about 5 days, and in that time there were at least 4 other huge RV's that were there every night with us! And the quality of the stores in Canada is completely different than in the US--it's very clean, the people are pleasant and there's free WiFi--now I understand why Target didn't do well in Canada, because there was no need for it with such nice WalMarts! In the same shopping center was a KrispyKreme which opened at 6:30am and closed at 10pm, so that became our go-to for bathroom stops, coffee and computer charging… and an occasional donut...every day.
The next day we unfortunately started to have van issues--Penny’s reverse started to grind, at first just occasionally, but soon was every time. Then, after the van was warmed up, first gear got hard to get in to at idle. We stopped at a tiny little laundromat to do laundry and figure out what to do--of course with the plan I paid for through Verizon, our phones still couldn’t make phone calls so we couldn’t call a mechanic. After sitting in the laundromat for an hour with a loud, drunk guy yelling in French at everyone who came in the door, we had decided to drive to a mechanic a few minutes up the road just to see what he would say. When we got there he told us we would need a new clutch and he was 100% positive about that--there was a language barrier, he spoke very little English and could understand you only if you spoke slowly, but we trusted him. We really had no other choice, there weren't really any other VW shops in Quebec who were available, and we had read some good things about him from other Vanagon owners. He told us he wouldn’t be able to help until Monday (it was Friday), so we told him we’d come back and left for the city.
We found a different area that was a little more hip--it reminded me of parts of South Street in Philly. We spent a couple hours in a coffee shop called Cantook, feeling a little downtrodden, until we felt as if we overstayed our welcome. We went to a few stores and wandered down to an area next to one of the gates of the ramparts. There was a large theater there and outside of it was a big screen with chairs in front of it and all these signs that said something about a festival. We looked it up and found out that they would be playing a free movie there later that night, so we went back to Penny and made some sandwiches for dinner, and went back down to get a good seat. After a half hour or so of the same 4 commercials playing on a loop, they started to play Back to the Future! In French! These people were so excited for it, it was pretty funny actually. There was a guy dressed up as Michael J. Fox who was getting the crowd excited, and they had a bunch of dancers and old cars. It was kind of hard to watch the movie because there were no subtitles and neither of us had seen the movie before (I know, sorry..), so after an hour we decided to go back to WalMart to sleep.
On Saturday, since we didn't want to drive Penny around too much, we decided to find a campground to hang out at for the day. We found a place nearby called Camping Juneau which only charged 2 dollars each for a day pass. We parked Penny near the front and went for a walk to see the grounds. It was a pretty small place along a lake that seemed like people stayed there for the entire summer in their RV's and mobile homes; it wasn't necessarily a nice place, but it suited our needs for the day! There was a small pavilion near where we parked so John unloaded his leather stuff and worked for a few hours on wallets and belts. I read my book, doodled, cleaned up Penny and listened to a podcast with John and made a little dinner--we also got to use their showers, which was really nice. After we left we stopped at a sports bar called La Cage Aux Sports to watch the Bellator fights and went back "home" to sleep. When we pulled in to WalMart there was another brown Vanagon there! We got so excited, and when we woke up the next morning we said hello to an older couple who had just gotten the van a few days before! Theirs was an '86 weekender--which means they had the bed and a table, but no stove or sink.
We went to church on Sunday at the Cathedral-Basilica of Notre Dame de Quebec, which was a mass in total French--it was really traditional which is exactly what I wanted from a church like that. We spent the day walking all around Quebec City and sitting on our swing until we decided to turn in early and go back to WalMart so we could get a few things done.
The next morning we had a date with the mechanic at 8am, and when we got there we moved all of our stuff from the back into the middle of the van (the engine is in the back) and we handed our keys over. We stood across the street and watched one of the mechanics get in Penny and pull her into the shop, and as the door came down behind her we both looked at each other with frowny faces. It was pretty sad, actually and we suddenly felt very vulnerable and homeless without our van. I could have cried. We had 9 hours to kill so we started walking towards the city, which was 3.2 miles away. When we got there we spent some time exploring the ramparts which had been covered in bad graffiti. We decided to have breakfast since we were sad, so we went to Casse-Crepe Breton and got a window seat. We took our time eating and watched the people in the window walking by, knowing that another day would be spent walking through the city and going in and out of stores. We went back to La Maison Smith, and spent a while there writing and editing pictures, and around 3:30 we decided to head back to the shop.
When we got there he told us that the problem was indeed the clutch, and because you have to drop the whole transmission in the van it was a lot more expensive than a normal car. Of course when you have to fix something in a 30 year old van, other problems can come up..so our first problem was that getting into reverse and first gear was difficult and they were grinding pretty bad. Our NEW problem (after the clutch was fixed, which fixed the grinding) was that we literally couldn't get into second gear! In some cars you can just go from first to third no problem, but in our heavy, slow van second gear is crucial for getting up hills. The mechanic had no idea what the problem was, and really didn't know what to do to fix it. He said it shouldn't have anything to do with anything that he had touched, and it might be due to the trans shaft, which had a little more play in it than it should. After a little talking and thinking, we had to just pay him for the work that he had done and drive away confused and upset that we had just spent all that money and had a brand new problem. We had decided that we needed to get to Montreal--there were VW shops everywhere there, and we knew someone would be able to help us out. We just needed to make the 150 mile drive with no second gear… So we went to sleep with plans to wake up early and try to get to Montreal.
Quebec City was certainly one of my favorite places we'd been so far, and it was so nice to just be there for so long, rather than spending a day or two doing strictly tourist things. By the time we left Quebec City I felt like I could have been giving tours of the place, and it felt very familiar and comfortable.
(Here are some extra photos from Quebec)
In the morning we decided on a shop that we thought would be our best bet, and make the drive there, which wasn't really as bad as we thought it could be. Of course when we got there, there was a sign with buses and bugs on it, but no signs of a running business. We walked around the place and a lady came out from a house next door and started speaking French to me really fast. I clearly didn't know what she was saying, and she seemed to realise that and suddenly seemed a little less mad. "What are you doing here?" She asked. I told her we were looking for the mechanic and she said they had moved a few miles down the road. We thanked her and turned around, hoping we’d come across their new location. We found it a little down the road and went inside--the receptionist didn't speak English and she shoo'd us into the owner's office. Luckily he spoke perfect English, and when we told him our problem he smiled and said, "I know what is wrong..give me a half hour and I'll get it back to you." Ten minutes later he was pulling Penny into the shop and five minutes after that he drove her out and down the road with what seemed like no problem! When he brought her back we went out to meet him and he got out with a smirk and said “all done”. There are apparently two ways to put the shifter in, the right way and the wrong way--the other guy put it back the wrong way! We asked how much we owed him and he said, "I go to Washington, DC on my motorcycle every Memorial Day to support the troops--I know what it is like to get help from strangers when I have a problem..No charge!" What a relief! What we thought was potentially another huge problem was really nothing, and a free fix!
We pulled out of the shop problem free and drove to Montreal, which is much more like an American city than Quebec City. Pulling in to Montreal isn't nearly as cute as Quebec--it’s a little dirtier, a little smellier, and it was highlighted by a semi having a blowout literally right next to Johns open window, which sounded and looked like someone shot a cannon at us! The first place we went to was the Notre Dame Basilica, which had a 5 dollar entrance fee, so we decided it must be worth it--and it was. Never have I been in a church that was so ornate... and dramatic, and opulent and magical! The colors were very Indian-inspired with deep purples, turquoise and gold, and every surface had patterns, carvings, or a statue. We spent a very long time there, and when we finally left we went to Saint Patrick's Basilica, which was also very beautiful, but a lot less opulent. We walked around a bit, with no real sense of where we should go. I kind of wish we had time to make some sort of a game plan, because we definitely don't feel like we got a good taste of what the city has to offer. If we go back we’ll go with at least some plan! We found a place called Montreal Poutine for a last hoorah and split their smoked meat poutine, and it was delicious. We had been told that Montreal bagels will change your life, so before we left, we drove to a more Jewish section of the city and grabbed some fresh bagels at St-Viateur's. We got sesame seed and cinnamon raisin straight from the oven, and they were delicious.
We got out of the city and after about an hour and a half we got to border patrol again and went through another slew of scary questions, and before we knew it we had arrived in Vermont! We have officially been in all of the North Eastern states!
Spending so much time in Quebec City was such a great experience--it was the first time we've been to a city on this trip and left actually feeling like I knew the city. Everything from the quaintness of the lower city, the kindness of the people, the European feeling, the French-speaking, the peace of sitting on a swing and watching life go by--it was a really nice place to spend a week, and I would 100% recommend it to anyone.