Writers' Ink at Caledon Public Library

My Journey With The Empress


On our sixth day out, September 23rd, the ship’s company organized its traditional Saturday night fancy dress party for the passengers. Evidently many people were aware of this function and had brought costumes aboard in their luggage. Liz and I did not attend. She stayed reading in the cabin while I went for a swim in the pool located on the lowest deck. It was peaceful; I was the only one there, and away from the revelries in the ballroom above. The water was warm so I was in no hurry to leave. After about half an hour, detecting waves developing in the pool, I realized that while the water remained relatively flat, the rest of the ship had started to roll and pitch significantly.

I got dressed and stumbled my way up to the cabin grabbing at handrails. I chanced to look down a passageway as I passed it and witnessed a remarkable sight: a little way down was Superman, complete with cape, leaning against the wall and throwing up. Needless to say the party upstairs was breaking up. The sea had turned as rough as my infamous Channel crossing in 1950, but surprisingly Liz and I experienced no ill effects; whether it was due to taking the right seasickness pill, at the right time, I can’t say. I know we slept well that night and that we were among very few that appeared for breakfast the following morning.

Early on Monday morning, the 25th, the first seagulls appeared and shortly afterwards the uninhabited rock of Belle Isle was pointed out to us, as we entered the straits of the same name that separate Newfoundland from Labrador. It was the first land sighted since we left the British Isles. We began to get some sense of the sheer size of the country as we consulted the maps and realized it was still more than 700 miles to Quebec City. Yet we could not have asked for a more beautiful introduction to the country.

As the day wore on and the Gulf of St Lawrence narrowed to a river, the distant shores, first of the Gaspésie and then the Saguenay region, came to greet us. On the flatter south shore each village seemed to be dominated by a church that could easily accommodate three times the population of the houses huddled around it. The basic design of the churches varied little except for their steeples; all were thin and not very tall by European standards, but unique in their embellishments. It seemed to say that within the union of their Church, a proud local community was asserting itself.

The following day, September 26th we docked in Quebec City. I feel sorry for all immigrants whose first view of their adopted country was an airport, barely distinguishable from the one they departed from. We were speechless as we rounded a bend in the river to suddenly see in the distance the oldest fortified city north of Mexico. We could relate to it, coming as we did from the Old World, and yet its commanding location and architecture were intriguingly different. It was a glorious sight as we came gliding in: the Citadel and its ramparts looking down sternly on the Old Town’s gabled houses jostling each other on narrow streets, and the Chateau soaring above them in almost solitary splendour — I’m afraid that Malton airport (as Toronto’s was then called) just doesn’t compare.

All passengers were required to disembark at Quebec City – Canadian citizens for Customs and the rest of us for Immigration. Two gangplanks were set upon the starboard side, the forward one for those whose destination was Ontario and elsewhere, the other for those staying in the province of Quebec. As Liz and I came on deck the forward gangplank was already packed with people right down to dockside. From the top the line stretched almost to the bow. We had to make our way aft on the port side and cross through a lounge to reach our gangplank, which was almost deserted. As we sauntered down we were greeted with unkind laughter and jeering from some people on the other gangplank who believed we were trying to jump the queue. When we reached the bottom, brandishing our landed immigrant ticket and British passport, an official, who had watched the scene, grimaced as he told us in laboured English that we were in the wrong line.

He was the first Canadian on home soil to talk to us, and I will always remember the regret in his voice as he anticipated the embarrassment we would endure going back up to the ship. I also remember fondly how his expression turned to one of delight as I assured him, in French, that we were planning to settle in Montreal. He turned and called out to someone in the entrance to the reception area (in French, of course) “We have two more francophones…no, not Quebecois, immigrants!” Two people came out and shook hands with us and showed us into the building. Liz, a sensible Lancashire lass who would normally ignore rudeness, surprised me by turning and waving to the other gangplank. The catcalls had already ceased.

Once inside, the formalities were completed very quickly. Then, as part of the welcoming process, we were invited to join the few other immigrant passengers who had come down on the ‘French’ side, and avail ourselves of a small buffet that had been laid out for us. Across the hall and beyond a separating barrier we watched the ‘Anglos’ slowly making their way through the formalities and then on to a series of cafeteria tables where they were served tea and cookies. Our hosts had noticed us looking across the hall and matched our smiles as a pretty serveuse plied us with baguettes, cheese – all produced in Quebec, she assured us – and wine.

“The wine has to come from France,” she said apologetically, “but it is very good. You see, the climate in Canada is not conducive to growing grapes for good wine. If you travel to Ontario you notice they make wine there. But the grape is not what you have in Europe.”

“Yes,” I replied, showing off, “I’ve read about it. We grow the vitis vinifera species, whereas here they use a jam-making grape vitis labrusca.”

“Ah, I see you know your wines, Monsieur. You may wish to try it if you go down to Ontario, but…” shaking her head she declared — it sounded so much better in French – “pour moi, c’est dégueulasse. Imbuvable!”

We all laughed. Such passion! A first inkling of the Two Solitudes, for I later learned that Quebecers were also making and drinking the same foxy wine. I did try it later on; why not? You have to experience your new country to become part of it. The wine was not so bad if you like the taste of gunmetal.

We were free to return to the ship, but Gaetan, one of our welcomers, pointed out that departure was an hour and a half away and it would take most of that time to process the long line still snaking up the other gangplank. He suggested we had lots of time if we wished to go and have a petite promenade in the Old Town. We had hardly agreed when he whistled down a calèche for us.

“For your first visit, you must go in style,” he told us with a grin. He gave instructions to the driver as to where to take us and when to have us back. At least I think he did, because he spoke very rapidly in a language I did not at first recognize as French. It was a revelation that was to impact on us later. Before we took off he kindly told us, within the hearing of the driver, what the fare was. We enjoyed the first of what was to be many subsequent visits. We arrived back at the dock at the appointed time, ready to board, only to see that ‘our’ gangplank was now being used to allow all passengers to board. Our good friend Gaetan was on hand to explain: evidently there had been a problem offloading some cars, which had interfered with the passenger flow and everything was backed up. The line moving up was now as long as the one coming down; we could not even see where to join it.

Once again Gaetan had the solution. He had really taken to us; there must have been something about two Englanders who not only spoke French but wanted to settle in his province. He introduced us to the tallest policeman I had ever seen. That in itself was remarkable, but when told he was a Mountie I learned that they don’t always wear a stetson and red serge.

“This officer is going to take you on board” announced Gaetan. The Mountie smiled as my hand disappeared into his. “No problem.” He said, “But you should give me your passport, so people can see I have it. We should not be smiling.”

The reason was immediately evident as we said our goodbyes to the staff and headed for the foot of the gangplank. The Mountie had his hand on my shoulder and a scowl on his face. It was like Moses parting the Red Sea. He took us straight to the bursar’s office, said a few words to the clerk at the counter. Everybody in the vicinity had stopped in their tracks. The Mountie handed my passport to the clerk, looked at us, gave an imperceptible nod, and strode away. The clerk beckoned to me to come forward. He was laughing as he gave me back my passport.

Liz, ever serious and law-abiding asked me, “Should we be annoyed that we’ve received special treatment?” “No, I said flippantly, “Because we are special.” This was met with a frown, briefly, then her features relaxed and she said, “Still, it is nice here.”

By Hugh Marchand

About Alton Chapter

The Alton Chapter of Writers' Ink meets the 1st Wednesday of the month from 6:30 to 8:30 pm at the Alton Branch.

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This entry was posted on January 17, 2015 by in Alton Chapter and tagged , , , , .

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