Québec: Hugged by a 7 foot snowman

24 02 2011

Serious stuff, Quebec’s Winter Carnival, and serious business for Ambassador Bonhomme Caranaval. “I travel all around Canada and the U.S. to let people know about the (Winter) Carnaval,” the 7 foot tall snowman tells us. “This is the time of year we celebrate winter.” Wrapped in his traditional Québecoise ceinture fléchée (multi-color sash) and topped with the traditional red stocking cap, Bonhomme took time before his opening night appearance to answer questions about the 57-year old event.

“I’ve been with Carnaval de Québec for 54 years,” he explains, “and have traveled hundreds of thousands of miles on its behalf.” Recently, Bonhomme used his ambassadorship to ask Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper to help support efforts to build a new hockey arena in Québec City. The Minister had been avoiding a meeting with the provincial capital city’s Mayor about the issue. The Ambassador, however, typically avoids political involvement. Arguing with a towering, smiling snowman is not most politicians’ forte?

The traditional arrow sash is handmade for Bonhomme by a craftswoman in her 80s. “It takes her nearly a year to complete the sash,” he says, “which is in the style used by Québecoise as far back as the 1700s to keep the Arctic winds from blowing up their coats.” The Carnaval organization provided replicas for the members of the media attending the Carnaval’s opening weekend. Bonhomme spends most of the Carnaval wandering through the crowds and resting in his Ice Palace. The palace is built annually across from Québec’s Provincial Parliament building using more than 6,000 bricks of ice. “The foreman turned 83 this year,” Bonhomme adds while talking about his Carnaval residence, “and has built every Ice Palace since the designing and building the first one in 1957.”

Fellow journalists tossed questions like snowballs as the snowman turned to go, “I’m due on stage in 45 minutes,” he says over his shoulder, “Look for me in the Ice Palace. I can answer questions then.” Later when visiting his palatial, or perhaps better stated, glacial, palace, hoards of children are lined up all the way out to the sidewalk waiting their turn to see Bonhomme. “He’s probably about as popular as Santa,” explains one parent trying to keep her three kids in line.


Warmth in the cold: A week in Ville de Québec

22 02 2011

“You’re going where? It’s January! You live in Arizona for a reason,” I was told while sharing plans to visit Ville de Québec (Québec City) for its annual winter carnival. “We get a lot of winter in Québec, we may as well celebrate it.” explains Patrick Lemaire, Responsable, relations de presse (Media and Public Relations Manager) for Carnaval de Québec to a group of print, Internet and broadcast travel journalists from the U.S., Canada and Europe. And celebrate Québec does for three weeks from the end of January to the middle of February (January 27-February 13, 2012). Parades, rides, music, fireworks and the International Snow Sculpture Competition are scattered throughout the Carnival.

Greeted with sub-freezing weather – the warmest day was 21°F – the events and people turned the cold weather into warm hearts. During my five days in North America’s only walled city, I will stay the night at an ice hotel, cross country ski in the city and snowshoe in the country, and dip my body into a river with a 31°F water temperature. If that weren’t enough, found long underwear in Phoenix, embarrassed myself in French and had hot chocolate in a shop that was everything a chocolatier should be, except that Juliet Binoche wasn’t behind the counter, and Johnny Depp wasn’t fixing the door.

The old city, Vieux Québec, has held my heart since my first summer visit 20 years ago. Since then, I’ve wandered the narrow streets and historic buildings three times. Loading the car at the end of my last excusion in 1996, I turned to my friends and said, “I want to come back here for Winter Carnaval some time.” I also asked how well I did trying to speak French full time during that week in Montréal and Québec City. I was told, “Eric, tu ne parle pas français, tu parle anglais avec les mots français.” Roughly translated, it means, “Eric, you don’t speak French. You speak English with French words.” Sacre bleu!

Bienvenue dans Québec

29 01 2011

Ah, français, “Bonjour,” “Bienvenue,” “patisserie,” “serable,” and “soup aux poix.” Is there anything like coming back to a familiar foreign land? Although Canada, la Ville de Québec is almost like a double foreign country. C’est la France!! Although graffiti proclaiming “Québec libre” (free Québec) are no long commonplace, there is something special walking through the gates of a North America’s only fortified city, all 400 years of walled existence.

Following a long day in the air, after surrendering my yogurt to protect my fellow flyers (“I have a yogurt, and I’m not afraid to use it”) from the active bacteria, and having my bag of blueberry rice crisps disappear – and the thief left my camera and computer; I suspect squirrels running the conveyor are the culprit – I arrived at Aéroport international Jean-Lesage de Québec on time, with suitcase on the carousel, snow on the ground, and an unexpectedly cold temperature in the air. Three previous visits to Québec were all in the summer, and on the last, I turned to my companion and said, “I wonder what it’s like coming here in the winter for the carnival.” For the next five days, I am living that “I wonder…”

Check this one off the bucket list, pull on the long underwear, and bundle up. I have my “effigy,” my “sashe,” and a chance to meet Bonhomme, l’ambassador extraordinaire de le Carnaval Québec. See how easy it is to pick up on French. I’m sure by Saturday I’ll be conversing plus temps (all the time) en français. This is Carnaval Québec’s 57th year. It’s my first. Picked up at the aéroport and bussed on both cheeks by my driver, Michelle, it was off to the Sheraton Four Points Québec adjoining the old city zoo (9530, rue de la Faune; Québec City, QC G1G 5H9. 418-623-2888, Toll free : 1-877-505-0423). The first night of my adventure starts in Hôtel de Glace, five minutes from the Sheraton, and experience to enjoy.