Saturday, May 31, 2008

Festival des guitares du monde

...also known as the International Guitar Festival. It's held annually in Rouyn-Noranda, northern Quebec.

We arrived here Friday morning at around 10:30AM, after driving two hours from the cottage in Cobalt. The drive from Toronto to Rouyn-Noranda takes seven hours, so we broke our journey at the cottage on the way up, and plan to spend Sunday night there on our way home.

This is the furthest north I've ever been (the cottage was my former record), and it's an exciting experience. Rouyn is fairly remote, and the people who live here speak only French - unlike Montreal, where most of the folks I encountered tended to be amicably bilingual. It's also interesting to see such a high ratio of Quebecois artists on the performance roster. There are a number of Big Names (Johnny Winter, America, Bruce Cockburn) but the majority of the performers present are best known within the province.

The festival has booked us rooms at the Hotel Noranda, a surprisingly boutique-y little place connected to the convention centre where the majority of the programming is held. The menu is intriguing, particularly the room service:

It's late May, so still cool up here (plus, it's blackfly season), so the Festival is held largely indoors. We're assigned a space in the convention centre, in a room across the hall from two performance spaces, with a third upstairs, so we are in prime position to attract the attention of audiences as they arrive and depart. We have two laptops with us, and the whole building is wireless, so we use one for registration, and put the other on a little table outside our door, playing a slideshow from our Flickr page. This intrigues people - and they poke their heads into our room curiously, wondering what the fuss is about.

Having the Francophone is in his element here - we truly couldn't manage without him, as my Man and I realize how sadly inadequate our long-ago high school French is. We keep at it, though, and by the end of the weekend my Man is able to describe many of the guitar's elements in language that people are at least pretending to understand.

Being in Quebec with the guitar is different than being in any other province so far. The only one I can compare it to is Newfoundland - there is a similar sense of pride of place here, a fierce possessiveness - of ownership - that you certainly don't see back home. It's more than a little moving.

There are certain obvious elements of the guitar that resonate here: the seat from the Montreal forum, the Richard ring. Also the northern mining elements - silver from Cobalt and nickel from Sudbury. But the children are interested in all the stories; they crowd around the Francophone, reaching out with shy hands to stroke the guitar gently, asking questions in rapid French, and eyeing Doug with interest, as he attempts to place them against the backdrop in his own broken French.

The festival director is Alain Vezina, and he runs the show seeming to subsist on nothing but on coffee and granola bars - but with the help of dozens of volunteers, many of whom are members of his family. His sisters, his son, his parents - all of them are present at the festival, dashing about in their FGMAT t-shirts helping artists, patrons, volunteers - Louise even manages to find time to source some freshly caught lake fish for us (we are on the shores of Lac Dufaut here) as well a basket of assorted local cheeses.

This is a photo of the board of the festival, with Alain in the centre holding the guitar, and Louise to the right of him.

Our assigned volunteer was formerly the principal of the town's sole English school. She knows everyone who walks in the door, and tells them all about the guitar with great enthusiasm. In spite of her claims to be computer illiterate, she soon masters our database, and helps people with the registration.

The Photographer takes advantage of a lull in portrait sessions to connect with the family back home. How did we manage before the internet??

Aside from the cheese and my ever-increasing cretons addiction, there is not much of note on the menu in Rouyn - though we did have one spectacular breakfast at the St Honoré Boulangerie, whicih had the most gorgeous selection of breads and pastries, and where the Photographer and I each bought a very exciting-looking Tarte d'Alsace to take home with us.

On our way out of town on Sunday, we stopped at the mine (the economic centre of town) to take a few photos.

Life in a northern town.

Saturday, May 24, 2008


We'd been attempting to find a meeting date with the folks at the head office of a major Canadian airline (which shall remain nameless until they actually GIVE us the sponsorship deal we really need, at which point I shall promote them faithfully in every post), and finally managed to set one up for the afternoon of Friday May 23. We'd also been trying to find a way to spend some time with our very good and much-missed friends the Runner and the Best Friend, who live in Ottawa with their wee one, Peter Parker (PP for short), so we decided to spend Friday night in Montreal, drive to Ottawa on Saturday to spend the night with them, and then drive back home Sunday afternoon in time to have dinner with my Man's mother. I've never visited Montreal and have spent very little time in Ottawa, so the weekend promised to be full of interest and adventure - and it was!

Our meeting was at 2pm and the airline's head office was out by the airport, so we rose at 5:30AM in order to be out of the house by 7:00AM. Traffic was light that early in the day, and we were soon cruising sunnily eastward along the 401. We reached Montreal by noon, and navigated the maze of expressways with the aid of a GoogleMap, reaching our destination by 12:30PM. The traffic in Montreal was heavy, and it was too risky for my Man to try to drop me off at the hotel before the meeting - we needed to find somewhere nearby we could have a snack and a coffee while we waited for 2PM to roll around. We followed the directions of the receptionist in the lobby, who told us there were a couple of restaurants a five-minute drive back the way we'd come.

Unfortunately, these instructions were too simple for us. In four minutes were back in that same maze of expressways, completely disoriented and with no restaurants in sight. We did, however, see an IKEA! Spurred by the thought of fifty-cent hot dogs, we hit the off-ramp and navigated the warren of back-streets to the IKEA parking lot. I don't know what it is about the IKEA hot dogs...perhaps it's the Swedish mustard...they are so good!

Thus fortified, we managed to find our way back to our starting point with very little foul language and only two panic attacks, and my Man headed in for his meeting while I napped in the parked car. The sun was warm, our rental car had a sun roof - and I'd been up since the crack of dawn. An hour and a half went by swiftly.

By 3:30PM my Man was out of his meeting and back in the car. The meeting was profitable - though not quite as profitable as we had hoped it would be - and he'd been promised a message outlining the actual support he would be offered the following week. Nothing to do but wait and see. It was a sunny afternoon and we were in Montreal - time to forget about work and have some fun!

A few months back, our friend the Francophone had invited us for dinner, and had shown us a beautiful cookbook from a Montreal restaurant called Au Pied de Cochon. As the title indicates, the focus of the book is MEAT, particularly pork - with an equal emphasis on foie gras. We ordered a copy of the book for ourselves, and have been dreaming about eating there for months. Two weeks before our visit, my Man phoned for a reservation, and managed to get the last available table for the Friday we'd be in town - at 5:30PM.

Searching for a place to stay online, I looked for a small hotel that would be walking distance from the restaurant, and through stumbled upon the Kutuma. It was a small boutique hotel, three stories tall, next door to an Ethiopian restaurant called The Blue Nile, and run by the same owners. It is cosy and charming and the staff took wonderful care of us, upgrading our room to a junior suite with a kitchenette, helping us up the stairs with our bags, and showing us how to work the remarkably complicated shower.

Being in the room was like being on safari. There was leopard-print carpeting on the floors, leopard-print sheets on the bed, as well as a furry leopard-print throw....zebra-printed cushions on the sofa...leopard-printed plates in the cupboard. It was all slightly kitsch and very comfortable - and the king-sized bed was heavenly.

We only had a few minutes to unpack and have a quick wash before it was time to walk to the restaurant. After a couple of wrong turns down some very pretty side streets we managed to orient ourselves - though we had to duck into a couple of doorways along the way, due to sudden and inexplicable rain showers falling from the almost cloudless sky.

This particular part of Montreal is so pretty - two or three-storey walk-ups line the well-treed streets, and people sit on theirs stoops chatting and reading and's like Paris crossed with SoHo.

The restaurant was everything we had hoped it would be. Though it was only 5:30PM, it was already filling up with a clientele that ranged from thirtysomething trendies to twentysomething punks to sixtysomething retired folk. The place had a casual, comfortable vibe, menus in two languages, incredibly knowledgeable (and gorgeous) wait staff - and delicious martinis.

What can I say about our meal? My only criticism is that the portions were too generous.

We started with the Assiette de cochonnailles: a plate of three different kinds of pate - cretons, pâté de campagne, and rillettes, along with some of the chef's home-made ketchup and an exquisite little square of jellied braising liquid.

This was followed by our vegetable course: a tomato tartlet and a delicious apple, endive, blue cheese and walnut salad.

For our main, we shared the bison tartare and the tarte boudin.

The tartare was perfection - salty with capers and mustard and crunchy with finely chopped onion. It came with the restaurant's special french fries, cooked in duck fat - but we were so full by this point we couldn't really do them justice.

Boudin is a kind of blood sausage, and it came on a bed of flaky pastry, lined with thinly sliced potatoes, finished with foie gras. Completely decadent - a heart attack on a plate. We ate only a third of it between us.

We couldn't leave without sampling a dessert. Our waiter recommended the pouding chômeur, a sponge-toffee concoction with a lovely texture that was slightly chewy and yet somehow melty all at the same time.

After dinner, we rolled ourselves out to the street and staggered up and down Rue St Denis for a couple of hours, watching the city come to life in the May dusk. The light was lovely and golden, and the streets were still wet with rain, gleaming as the sun set.

We'd hoped to find a place to have one last drink, to sit and do a little people-watching before turning in, but eventually we found ourselves back at the hotel - where the adjacent restaurant was packed with chattering Montrealers consuming injera and kitfo at an astonishing rate.

By 10:00PM, our early morning and enormous dinner had combined to create a sort of paralysis.

We slept.