Before I left for Quebec, I tiptoed through the snow to fill the empty bird feeder that hangs from an old pine tree in front of my mother-in-law’s farmhouse. The rain the night before had frozen before dawn, coating the snow in a thin, hard-crack layer of ice. This is why I tiptoed; you never know when the surface will give way and a foot will fall – fast and hard – into fluffy snow below.
Birds have never found this feeder. It’s my fault, I haven’t been filling it, they don’t even know it’s there. But I heard the tell-tale hey sweetie call in the woods the day before and knew chickadees were nearby. As I poured seed into the feeder, a drift of snow buntings swooped overhead. I first spotted them this time last year – a long line of fat snowflakes sitting on a telephone wire just before the farmhouse. And now they’re back again from the Arctic in search of winter berries and other southern delights this place has to offer. The landscape is trapped in ice, but here they are, seeking nourishment I cannot see.
It’s now a few days later and I’m tiptoeing again. It’s been raining in Quebec, the ski hill is closed for the day, and the kids who are supposed to be ski racing are craving poutine. I don’t blame them; french fries topped with gravy and lumpy cheese curds are available at home, but they taste better here, the birthplace of poutine.
I park the car on a narrow, cobblestoned street in Old Québec and slip out of the car. Snow has fallen here since November, but today the temperature has creeped above zero and rain is falling. The street is deceptive; a layer of translucent ice hides under the puddles and everyone, even the seasoned locals, are inching through this 17th century city like 22 Minutes’s Mrs. Enid. It isn’t pretty.
We find a little poutine chain, the kind where food is spooned into aluminum baskets – bébé, mini or régulière – and served on fast-food trays. We sit down at a sanitized table, take off our masks and dig in. Poutine is a textural, salty experience – french fries are sodden with gravy but their ends are crispy, and if conditions are perfect, the cheese curds will melt just a little and squeak between your teeth. This doesn’t always happen; squeakiness depends on how tightly proteins are bound within the cheese, it depends on temperature, it depends on the day. The cheese curds squeaked today, the way snow squeaks beneath your skis on very cold days.
Tomorrow we’ll head home. It’s getting colder, the rain will turn to snow, we’ll have to crack the ice off the car to get inside. We’ll eat mandarin oranges in the car; the essential oils in the peel will balance out the boy smells.
This is our migration these days.