by Paulina Mustafa
I locked the front door of my purple house every day at seven forty in the morning, plus or minus a few minutes. As I walked down Rue de Saint Jean, the main street running through Haut Ville in Quebec, I was always five steps ahead of myself, knowing exactly what I would see in the unchanging window displays. First, I walked by a church, then a bank, several clothing shops, a candy store, and a Turkish café that always smelled like a rich blend of fruit-flavored tobacco and black Turkish coffee. I recognized this smell a few paces before I reached the door, and it lingered for awhile longer, as if the smell had gripped my hair and traveled with me for a few more steps.
After a few more blocks, I reached a small convenience store with the statue of a chubby jolly man by the door. As soon I saluted him, I closed my eyes. One, two, three, four, and five! Five steps and I smelled it. The thick aromatic wave of fresh bread and golden croissants just hit me, and though I knew it always happened five steps after the chubby jolly man, every time it caught me by surprise. It was so exhilarating that, every morning, I would stop to inhale deeply, letting the delicious aroma seep into my lungs. Then I would turn around, walk two paces back to the door, and step inside for breakfast.
Any time I catch the aroma of fresh bread and warm croissants, I am instantly transported to that patisserie in Quebec.
After a few days, the workers in the store knew me by name and greeted me with warm smiles. I praised them for the amazing aroma of their food, and they loved that I stopped by religiously for breakfast and a chat. Any time I catch the aroma of fresh bread and warm croissants, I am instantly transported to that patisserie in Quebec. I can still taste the golden croissants with their glossy buttery finish and feel them falling apart in my mouth.
This particular aroma, along with the smell of tobacco, coffee and several other scents, remind me vividly of my stay in Quebec. About two years ago I lived for a month in the city with a woman named Andree Jinchereau, my "mom" for that time; I attended a small French immersion school called Bouchereau Lingua International. BLI, as students commonly called it, is located in the heart of old Quebec, the only fortified city in North America. For four hours a day, I attended French class, and afterward, was free to explore the city like a native Quebecoise.
Every summer, usually in early July, people from all over Quebec and the surrounding cities come together on the rolling green fields of the Plaines d'Abraham. The Festival D' Été, an annual music festival, features about fifty concerts of well-known international bands, spread out over ten days and several different locations. The Plaines D'Abraham, a very popular spot for concerts, is an expansive national park and Quebec landmark. During the day, my classmates and I would lie out on the grassy sea, take in the sun, have picnics, and play volleyball or Frisbee. The luscious lawn in midsummer had its own distinctive aroma, one that I associate with golf courses in late afternoon, after the sun has beaten down on the grass for several hours.
At night however, the sea of grass became a sea of people gathered in anticipation of some of their favorite musical artists. Then, the plains smelled more like a state fair. All the concerts shared the same aroma: a mix of sweat and overturned earth, infused with beer and marijuana. I was shocked at the amount of marijuana I saw, and mostly smelled, so openly. People offered it as if it were candy.
Paulina and Friends at Concert 2008
That summer I saw many amazing concerts featuring artists such as Simple Plan, Linkin Park, Feist, Charles Aznavour, and Mes Aieux. Two of the most memorable concerts were The Wailers, a reggae group I love that performed on my birthday, and Paul McCartney. Although my friends and I tried to stay away from it, the smell of marijuana was unavoidable, making the scents of those long concert nights unique.
After the concerts, there was a particular aroma that was deliciously satisfying. It is customary among Quebecoise teens to eat poutine after a night out, and my friends and I, all from other countries, followed suit. We felt like true Quebecoises waiting outside Chez Ashton, the best fast food joint for poutine. But as soon as we opened the door, the aroma trapped us. It was the smell of French fries, squeaky cheese, as the Quebecoise called it, and the mysterious brown sauce nobody could give me a recipe for. This native dish was the perfect way to end the night. After we had been jumping, singing and screaming for hours, nothing was more filling than this delicious greasy plate. Poutine was so popular that even the local McDonald's sold it.
There was also a social aspect to the delicious aroma of poutine. People usually waited in line for poutine for at least twenty minutes at Chez Ashton. But those twenty minutes provided for the most interesting conversations and a great time to practice French with locals and pick up colloquial French and slang. My friends and I learned of great places to go and things to do that tourists normally don't know about. One of these places was a small ice cream shop across the Saint Laurent River. Not too many people went there because the area was mostly residential and industrial, lacking appeal for tourists. But some locals at Chez Ashton strongly recommended this ice cream store and also gave us directions to a small spot they loved that was only a five-minute walk from the ice cream place. However, they left the destination a surprise.
A few days later, my friends and I took the ferry across the Saint Laurent River. It was a sunny day, and the salty, fishy smell of the river overpowered all other scents. Once across the river, we found the ice cream place easily. As we walked in, I could smell the tasty French vanilla ice cream that a little girl by the door was sucking on. Tempted by the smell, I ordered the same. With our ice cream cones in hand colorful and ready to eat, we left the sweet creamy aroma of the store, trading it for that of fresh air and earth.
The sun reflected off the crests of the small waves in the water, making it look like a painting with rich golden highlights on the water.
Then my friends and I followed the directions to the special place a little skeptical of where we would end up. But, as we climbed the final flight of stairs leading up the hill, we saw it and knew why the locals had directed us there. It was about five in the afternoon, and the sun had started to descend from the sky. The sun reflected off the crests of the small waves in the water, making it look like a painting with rich golden highlights on the water. Above this golden river sat the Chateau Frontenac, the castle of Quebec. I had never seen the castle before in its entirety or with such vibrant colors. The view of the city was beautiful, and the feeling and smell of tranquility and nature -- the freshness and calm of the air -- brought the painting to life, giving it a third dimension and a marker by which I can recall the memory. I can close my eyes and remember the feel of the late afternoon sun beating down on my skin, see that amazing painting-like view of Quebec with scents of calm nature floating about, and smell hints of the French vanilla ice cream dripping down my hand.
None of our senses -- sight, hearing, taste, touch, smell -- can function alone; the senses complement and supplement one another. They also balance each other; we need all our senses to comprehend anything fully. In a Food Science class I took, I learned that taste is actually about eighty percent smell. We can smell danger. We can smell spring. Smell can make some intangible ideas, like danger and spring, tangible. I can smell tranquility, or at least tranquility is what I associate with the scent of a golf course at seven in the morning, when the grass is still covered with dew and you can see the tracks created by your footsteps and the rolling of the balls, or the breathtaking view of the Chateau Frontenac from across the river. But to me, the sense of smell evokes memories. Certain aromas and odors spark vivid images and memories in my mind. Fresh croissants, flavored tobacco and Turkish coffee, fresh luscious green grass, overtrodden earth and sweat with beer and marijuana, fishy saltwater, untouched nature, and creamy French vanilla ice cream all remind me of Quebec. Each of these aromas brings back memories of amazing times I had living there, immersing myself in Quebecoise culture and acting like a native. These aromas enabled me to dive into a culture I knew little about, absorbing, almost literally, the quotidian aspects of Quebecoise life.
Source: Québec Photothèque du Ministère du Tourisme du Québec (July 5, 2007)
Authors: Paul Hurteau and Claude Parent
Creative Commons AttributionLicense 2.0