Newer followers of “Mountains Beyond Mountains” may be interested to know that one of the annual traditions on or about Valentine’s Day is for me to write about one thing OR MANY THINGS (hence the “s” in brackets). It’s like Jesse Thorn’s outshot, expect that he has to come up with something every episode of Bullseye, and all I need to do is come up with something once a year.
It should be noted that the other “annual tradition” around here is that I do a little write up on the “Oscars” and lampoon them. We all get a bit of a chuckle over THAT post, but I’m telling you this: This year I’ve seen just one of the best picture nominations, and I hated it, so I don’t know what I’m going to do for that post. Either start watching a shit tonne of movies over the next couple of weeks, or just make a bunch of stuff up. I THINK YOU ALREADY KNOW THE ANSWER TO THIS.
So anyway, back to the thing (OR THINGS) that I love.
This year: It’s Bonhomme. Monsieur de Neige if you’re nasty.
Last week I went on a HOLIDAY to Quebec City. Everyone was startled by this trip, including my bank, which thought that there was NO WAY I’d ever set foot inside the province, and promptly shut down my debit card for fear that I had been compromised. Fun fact: my bank doesn’t even seem to operate in Quebec City, and we didn’t have a phone with us (I know, we are from the 1980s), so I had no way to fix the problem until I got home. My wife’s card still worked, because her bank (same bank as mine, same ACCOUNT as mine, if you must know) knows that she is not a xenophobic weirdo like me, so the thought of her travelled to La Belle Province never raised any red flags. She kindly put me on an allowance for the rest of the trip, and I had about as much spending power as our 7-year-old daughter. More, actually, because both grandmas gave our daughter a little “mad money” for the trip, so I was truly a dependent.
Despite this little financial setback, I had a great time. The city itself is a marvel, and we spent most of our three days there exploring the old city and just soaking up the atmosphere. We were sensitive to the fact that the city had just experienced an unbelievably horrible tragedy the week before, so we weren’t sure what to expect. The flags on all provincial buildings were flying at half mast, and we were reminded of the terrorist attack every day we were there. For example, our lovely airbnb host had a friend over one night who was originally from Tunisia and two of his good friends were murdered in the mosque attack. It really put a human face on a sometimes abstract, sometimes sensationalized news story. But despite the tragedy, which loomed over the city like a lingering illness, it seemed like the good people of Quebec City refused to allow it to ruin its underlying upbeat mood. We never ran out of stuff to do, and it wasn’t until our last day there that we decided we should actually go to the Carnival itself. I mean, we went all the way there for it, so we’d be silly if we missed it. I do recognize the irony of never once attending a similar winter festival in our own home town, but then travelling across the country to THIS one. I also recognize that we went to probably one of the few places in the country that had as much snow (and was as cold) as back home. This was keenly felt in the airport back home before we left, when we were all gathered together with our parkas and toques, where the people at the gate next to us were obviously going to some warm destination, as they were all in tank tops and flip-flops. And while many (including my wife and I) questioned our wisdom in the months leading up to this trip, there is one thing that any warm tropical destination DOESN’T have that Quebec City does:
And that’s Bonhomme.
Most Canadians have heard of “Bonhomme”, but I never really gave him that much thought until now. He is the mascot of Quebec’s winter carnival. He’s a giant snow creature with black buttons down his front, a sash, a red toque, and an eerily jovial smile plastered on his face, like one of the Joker’s victims. A benevolent yeti, a welcoming wampa, but less hairy, if you will. I’ve heard him described as “the Michelin Man’s flamboyant cousin”, but I haven’t confirmed the genealogy. He first appeared in 1955, and has shown up every year since then. The Quebec winter carnival is the biggest winter carnival in the world, and one of the things people like to do is get their picture with Bonhomme. If anything could be a symbol of goodness in the face of evil, fun in the face of despair, and inclusiveness in the face of division, that symbol would be Bonhomme. He’s even got his own theme song.
This became my obsession.
A couple of friends went to the Carnival about a week before us, and returned with a bit of advice. First: we should wear our warmest clothes, because even though the temperatures may appear to be mild compared to back home, you have to factor in the wind off the St. Lawrence and the dampness in the air. We were grateful for this advice and dressed for the weather. The other advice was that getting your picture with Bonhomme is much more difficult than you might think. Really.
First of all, he travels with at least two security people, and he never stays still for long. On the weekends, they have designated “selfie stations” with Bonhomme for a half hour at a time, but our friends weren’t able to get pictures that way. They arrived with 5 minutes to go, and Bonhomme was already in his van, whisked off to an undisclosed location. Left in line was a “single mother with a disabled child, crying” (my friend’s exact quote) but Bonhomme’s handlers were not moved by the scene. You can’t capture Bonhomme in a time and place, and truth be told, I’m not sure I’d want to get a picture that way. It’s kind of like lurking around the garbage dump in Churchill with the aim to see Polar Bears. Sure, you’ll probably see some, but it’s kind of sad and you’re not getting the best experience. I decided that if I were to get my picture with Bonhomme, it had to be natural or not at all. Bonhomme is serious business in Quebec. You can’t rent a Bonhomme costume anywhere, and you can be fined if you are caught impersonating him. Which makes sense if you think about it. They don’t want someone dressed up as Bonhomme robbing a bank, or getting caught in some kind of reputation-damaging video, or caught on a hot mike. So we were fairly confident that if we did bump into Bonhomme, he would be the real thing.
Around town, there are a number of Bonhomme statues set up, so you can take as many pictures of him as you want. I made my wife and daughter line up next to the first one we saw, just to get an “insurance selfie”. You never know. Maybe we wouldn’t see the real guy, and I wanted to have SOMETHING to show for my effort. It’s a pretty good pic, but it’s not the real Bonhomme. Still, if it was all I could manage, I would have to be fine with that.
Luckily, at the end of our first day in Quebec City, we had our first encounter with the real Bonhomme. We had a delicious meal (rabbit!) in the lower town, and although we could have walked back to our apartment, we decided to hop on a bus to take us most of the way. The bus let us off next to a skating rink at Place D’Youville, and GUESS WHAT?? Bonhomme was there! He was actually skating around! I lost all sense. I knew this was probably our only chance to get a pic with him, so I ran down to the rink to try to get his attention. Although he was mostly just skating around the rink, he would stop periodically and pose for pictures on the rink.
This is where it went bad.
My daughter suddenly got all shy and didn’t want to have anything to DO with Bonhomme. She just saw everyone skating and wanted to skate too. I saw a skate-renting place nearby, but I was worried that if we left the rink and got skates, he’d be gone by the time we got back. (Plus, it was cold, and were full from supper, and tired. All of these things factored into a perfect storm of WORKING AT CROSS PURPOSES). All my daughter wanted to do was skate, all I wanted was a family pic of us with Bonhomme, and all my wife wanted was for everyone to be happy. NONE OF IT WAS WORKING! When Bonhomme stopped skating, I ran over to where he was to get in for a pic, but when I looked back, my daughter and wife were heading towards the skate renting place. “What are you guys DOING! Get OVER here! It’s Bonhomme! BONHOMME!” but it fell on deaf ears. What made the situation even more surreal was that there was a stage in a giant globe nearby, where a group of folk dancers were dancing up a storm and an aggressively jovial DJ kept shouting and singing things in French, which only added to the confusion and the stress. You almost had the sense he was mocking Les Anglais who didn’t know how things worked here. In all the confusion I somehow ended up having a cell phone shoved in my hands so that I could take SOMEONE ELSE’S Bonhomme pic. The ultimate insult! I took their picture and they went to reciprocate. Bonhomme was still amazingly standing still. Here was our chance! Our daughter had wandered back nearby, after my wife decided it was too late/cold/wrong a time/ to rent skates and our daughter was miserable about it. I grabbed her and placed her in front of Bonhomme and leaned in for our pic. I looked for my wife, but she had enough. She was making her way up an icy hill towards our apartment, and was out of earshot. Bonhomme actually speaks, you guys! I assumed he was just like a mime, or maybe like those Disney characters, but no! He speaks. Another carnival wonder! He said something in French to us, and then when he realized we couldn’t understand him, he switched to flawless English, welcoming us to his Carnival and his city.
We got our picture, but at what cost? You’d think I would have had enough, but this experience made me want to see Bonhomme again even more.
A couple of days later, when we were actually at the Carnival site, we heard RUMOURS that Bonhomme was nearby, but how did we know for sure? There was a sudden squeal of schoolchildren, and sure enough: there was Bonhomme, in broad daylight, suddenly among us. We had no idea from where he came, and I was immediately struck by the thought that this must be what the disciples had felt when the risen Christ revealed himself after the resurrection. Again, my wife and daughter were not the keenest of people to get in line for a pic, but I managed to get my wife to stand next to him. Amazingly, my wife started speaking French to Bonhomme, and he responded in French! What was happening? I asked my wife about this later, and she said it all just came back to her. Just one of the many miracles experienced in Bonhomme’s presence! So, mission accomplished! I had a picture with me and my daughter from the other night, and now my wife and daughter had THEIR pic. That should have been enough, and it really would have been.
Except it wasn’t.
After Bonhomme moved through the crowd, a certain satisfied calm came over everyone, as if something wonderful and unexplained had just happened. Strangers were smiling at one another, children stopped screaming and yelling, and we moved on into a nearby warming cabin to get some hot chocolate.
“How about that? We all got to meet Bonhomme! Wasn’t that great? Wasn’t that fun?” I’d like to think that my wife and daughter were just as pleased with what had just happened, but it’s hard to tell.
Then, to my great astonishment, the doors to this warming cabin opened up and THERE WAS BONHOMME AT THE DOOR, for one final visit! It’s really hard to over-exaggerate the level of energy in the room when Bonhomme appears. My wife later said that she’s never seen me as excited as when I was in the presence of Bonhomme. A group of what looked like school children with a variety of special needs and disabilities were in one corner of the room, and Bonhomme approached them. I don’t really remember what happened next, but I am told that I got up from the table and pushed my way through the children to get close to Bonhomme for one last time. My daughter had her head in her hands, embarrassed by her Dad (and not for the first or last time, I’d like to add), and I just said, “Bonhomme” in a calm, even way, and he turned to me, and our eyes met, and before I knew it we were in some kind of an awkward embrace by the cookie counter. I didn’t realize you weren’t supposed to touch Bonhomme, but it was too late. I touched him, and I’d like you to know that he touched me back. “Touch”, doesn’t really describe it, it was more of a special hug, I would say. The “Leonard Cohen-looking” security guy didn’t even try to stop us. I think he sensed that something special was happening, too.
The contact lasted for a just a few seconds, but I’m glad it happened, and I’d like to think that Bonhomme was glad it happened too.
So, for 2017, I’m proud to say that “Bonhomme” gets added to the list of garlic bread, trains, The Olympics, and “Hamilton” as a thing that I love. I’ll never forget you, Bonhomme!