Quebecers' home away from home

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National Post, Friday, July 4, 2008

For decades, Quebecers have been coming to the beaches of Maine in summer.

In a seasonal sense, they are following in the footprint of those French Canadians who, a century ago, migrated by the thousands to the mill towns of Saco and Biddeford, just south of Portland on the Maine coast. Long since assimilated, they are still called Canadians -- not French-Canadians, much less Quebecois.

While their forebears came here to make a living, Quebecers now come here to play, from St. Jean Baptiste Day in June to Labour Day in September.

They populate the beaches of southern Maine, from York and Cape Neddick, to Moody and Wells, from Kennebunkport and Cape Porpoise to Goose Rocks, Fortunes Rocks and Biddeford Pool. From Ocean Park and Old Orchard to Prout's Neck and Higgins Beach.

And they come to Ogunquit. According to local lore, this is an Algonquin term for "beautiful place by the sea" -- which it most assuredly is.

At low tide, the beach is a quarter-mile wide and four miles long. Ogunquit is one of the great walking and jogging beaches in America.

The water temperature, a bracing 16C yesterday, is a deterrent to some adults, though not to children. My daughter, now 17, learned to boogie-board in Ogunquit's surf. Since she was six, Gracie has also floated down the Ogunquit River to the sea with the amazingly fast currents at low tide.

There has seldom been as much French spoken, on the beach or in the retail outlet malls of Kittery, as in the summer of 2008, a season of exchange-rate parity.

Seldom has there been as much French overheard on the Marginal Way, the renowned walk along the cliffs under hotels and gracious summer homes, joining Ogunquit to Perkins Cove-- which, with its pedestrian footbridge, fishing boats and shops, is a scene right out of Murder, She Wrote.

Only instead of Angela Lansbury, there is Billy Tower, a former lobster fisherman who scraped together the money to start his own lobster and seafood restaurant, Barnacle Billy's, in the cove 46 years ago.

All these years later, Billy still rides to work on his moped, dressed in the same immaculate white uniform with name tag as the students who wait on tables in his two restaurants. He acquired the second one, famous as the Whistling Oyster but now called Billy's etc., in a bankruptcy proceeding in the 1980s, when the onetime fisherman wrote a cheque for over $1-million.

For nearly half a century, students have worked their way through college waiting tables at Billy's. His alumni association surely numbers in the thousands.

It is also a good place to measure the mood of Quebecers on a summer evening.

Thirty years ago, in the nationalist heyday of the Parti Quebecois, you could occasionally hear a chorus of Gens du pays drifting across the cove. Rene Levesque called it "our national anthem by anticipation".

Nobody from Quebec talks politics anymore. All the conversation is about family, lifestyle and how far their dollars go.

It's true. Only six years ago, the loonie was mired at 62. Today, it's at par with the greenback. Canadian exporters may not like it, but Canadian tourists sure do. Stated another way, where it once took more than $1.50 to buy a U. S. dollar, a dollar is now a dollar.

And Canadians who used to come here for a week can in many cases now extend their visit to two, as we have.

My landlord of many years, Dick Drisko, is very happy to have us stay on in our cottage just off the Marginal Way above Perkins Cove.

"Welcome home," he said as we arrived.

That's just how it feels.

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