On occasion I have rhapsodized about the glories of driving in Europe. Minimal speed limits, superb automobiles, exquisite roadways and beautiful vistas combine to make the Continent a driver's paradise. But, sadly, it is separated from most of us by 3,000 miles of cold and very rough Atlantic Ocean. So I offer -- with reservations -- an alternative, a locale right here in magnificent North America where much the same kind of driving fun awaits the motoring enthusiast.
I write of the province of Quebec, where the soul is French and life on the road can be, to the Yankee visitor, a bit bizarre. It may come as a revelation to some that Canada is composed of considerably more than tundra, pine trees, frozen lakes and a few natives in coonskin hats who talk like the McKenzie Brothers. While the population numbers a mere 26 million, most of it is concentrated in some of the most beautiful and thoroughly civilized cities on the globe. Vancouver, Toronto, Edmonton and Montreal are magnificent centers by all measurements and, with the exception of Montreal, are contemporary in the extreme.
In contrast to most Canadian cities, Montreal is old even by European time standards. Jacques Cartier arrived there in 1535 while probing the St. Lawrence for the Northwest Passage (at roughly the same time Henry VIII was lopping off the head of Sir Thomas More), and it has been a city serious about its Frenchness since the middle of the 17th century. Montreal is in the province of Quebec and is strikingly separated by culture from Anglo-Canada.
French is the mother tongue of Quebec, and some of its more hard-core inhabitants believe themselves to be the only true Frenchmen in the world. Somehow, they reason that their counterparts in "La Belle France" have been mongrelized by various immigrant invasions while they, huddled as they are on the dark Canadian subcontinent, have remained pure.
A driver entering Quebec for the first time instantly recognizes that something is weird when he spots a local license plate. Below the blue letters and numbers are these words: Je me souviens, which roughly translated means "I remember." And what are the Quebec motorists attempting to remember? The 1976 Montreal Olympics? Stanley Cup triumphs? Not quite. Je me souviens recalls the black day in 1759 when French Canada fell to the British following James Wolfe's victory over the Marquis de Montcalm on the Plains of Abraham. Talk about sour grapes! During the 228 years since, these French have been restless participants in the Canadian confederation, and a strong separatist sentiment persists within the province.
Frenchmen, regardless of the continent upon which they reside, are a strange breed. Billions of words have been expended trying to explain the French character, which can range from the most charming and gentle to the most crude and bombastic on earth. One-on-one, the French are marvelous companions, laden with good humor and sensitivity. But collect them in groups and they behave like the front four of the L.A. Raiders. This is essentially the case when they climb behind the wheel of an automobile. And this can transform a drive in Quebec into an adventure.
The speed limit signs say that 100 kilometers per hour (62 mph) is permitted, but that appears to be only an advisory; 100 miles per hour seems more the norm on the big four-lane highways, and nobody would dare dawdle at anything near the posted limit. I recently drove a new Mercedes-Benz 300E into Quebec and was quickly reminded of the bizarre driving environment. I chose to ease into traffic at about 90 miles per hour, a mere canter for the car, and sufficient to run with most of the quick machinery. On occasion, someone would bustle past in a Chrysler (which seems to be the favored big car in the region) or some other Canadian-American domestic, but for the most part I was able to roll along with the mob at this velocity.
Occasionally the French- Canadian character would manifest itself when I passed motorists -- they would speed up and ride my rear bumper. This happened time and again. Were they using the Mercedes as an air tow, like Richard Petty getting a "draft" around the Daytona Speedway? Or were these attempts to prove that they, as proud Frenchmen, could not be shamed by a faster car? Or was it that I was in a German-built sedan, which conjured up nasty memories of the 1940 capitulation at Compie`gne? Or was it the simple fact that the Quebecois consider tailgating a normal way of driving?
Drivers in this province also have a turn-signal trick that may or may not be used exclusively in the company of outsiders. A left-turn signal can often mean a right turn and vice versa. Perhaps this is yet another example of the independent French mind.
Running with the lights on in the daytime and only the parking lights on at night are other mildly weird Quebec driving tactics. And there are the cute little habits of instant lane-changing and running stoplights. All this charitably can be described as part of the "local color" that seems to lure so many tourists, just as so many used to be drawn to Paris by the sight of Frenchmen grinding their Renaults and Peugeots into scrap metal as they raced around the Arc de Triomphe shouting "priorite' a` droite."
But no matter; the quirks the Quebecois exhibit behind the wheel are more than offset by their good roads and their wonderful scenery. It is startlingly similar to the rural European driving environment. In fact, driving is faster and more efficient in Quebec than in France itself. (Maybe they are the true Frenchmen.) Just be sure your brakes work, and don't make any cracks about Montcalm. ::