I imagine that many frequent travellers go through at least three phases:
1. Awestruck wonder at how new and exotic everything seems when they travel
2. Increasing disenchantment at how everything starts to feel the same (thank you, globalisation)
3. New appreciation for the subtleties that differentiate a place and give it its singularity.
In this regard, every place is at once both incomparable and yet familiar. But Québec is particularly particular.
Start with the city of Québec; the best way I could describe it is as a European city surrounded by North American suburbs. Indeed, the first fortifications were built in 1608, making it the oldest city in North America (so long as you don’t count Mexico as North America), and much of the old city looks rather European – the cobblestones; the winding, narrow streets; the public squares in front of churches, etc. But not too far outside the old city, you enter what look like the suburbs of any other North American city. Obviously, every grand old European city also has modern suburbs surrounding it, but its often in the suburbs that one finds high-rise residential buildings, soaking up the population that the tightly-preserved historic city centre can’t house. But given that it has a much lower population density, the periphery of Quebec is filled with the sort of low suburban neighbourhoods one might find just outside Minneapolis, for example.
Next, the language. In Québec-ville, it’s very rare to hear English, and you will see it almost nowhere, except in museums and some other tourist sites. In Montréal, one hears lots of English, and in some neighbourhoods, it’s almost difficult to find someone who speaks French. But because of Quebecois laws, all the signs are still only in French. I dare say one sees much more English in Paris than in Montréal. It’s a strange disconnect: people speaking in English, living in and moving around a city that, to all appearances, operates only in French.
But one of the most interesting and unique phenomena that can be witnessed in Québec is what I can only call ‘post-separatist nationalism’. Right now, all of Europe seems to be seized with separatist fervor: Scotland could be the first domino, then Catalonia, and others are already queueing up behind. In Asia, separatism still sometimes takes the form of violent attacks by separatist movements (e.g. Assam in India) or violent state crackdowns on separatists (e.g. Tibet and Uyghurstan in China). Even in Africa, where the more recent imposition of the nation-state hasn’t been as central an organising principle as elsewhere, has recently witnessed separatist movements succeed — South Sudan — or be, at least for now, forcefully countered –the Tuareg separatists in northern Mali.
This last point is important: Usually separatist movements either 1) succeed in becoming independent, and thus have to get on with the work of building a new nation OR 2) are effectively repressed, often leaving animosity and bitterness among certain elements of the population, and perhaps a lingering hope that they will yet have their day.
But in Québec, we saw something very different. The separatist movement had its day, and in two referenda (1980 and 1995), the people voted against independence (albeit narrowly the second time). Nowadays, the younger generations don’t seem that interested in formal independence; indeed the Parti Quebecois tallied its lowest ever percentage of votes in this year’s elections.
But that doesn’t mean that the feeling of nationalism and uniqueness that animated the separatists has disappeared. Much like my observation in Catalonia last year, I saw no Canadian flags in Quebec, except for on official buildings; but Quebecois flags were in abundance, especially in residential neighbourhoods. Anecdotes abound as well: Our hostess in Montréal said she was slightly offended that people moved to the province without bothering to learn French first. Many of the Quebecois we met had traveled much more in the US than in Anglophone Canada, and indeed at least one person referred to other Canadians as “the English”. The provincial parliament (near equivalent of state legislature in the US) in Québec is grandly named L’Assemblée Nationale. And so on.
Perhaps in 20 years, much of Europe will feel like Québec: integrated yet distinct communities, possessed of a confident exceptionalism that seeks validation in cultural pluralism rather than in grand political projects.
Until then, Québec remains comme nul part ailleurs.