“Shuttle? No, but we’ll get you a horse.”
Quebec City - Lifting the heavy fabric of my Mantua-style dress, I make my way over the crooked cobblestones.
I feel like a lady, but it's taken some adjustment. Being covered head to toe in hot summer weather is a challenge. Beneath my lace-edged gown are comfortable velco-strapped sandals and a distinct lack of petticoats. Itchy and hot and with a tendency to unflatteringly bulge, I tossed those aside in my room at the 19th-century splurge-worthy Chateau Frontenac. This is today, after all, when fashion decisions are flexible.
Or are they? At Quebec City's annual New France Festival, it's hard to tell.
Dressed in historical costumes, crowds of people meander through the UNESCO World Heritage Site that is this city's downtown. Men wear the long black robes of priests or the fancy coats of French noblemen. Women gleam in silk dresses or carry baskets while clad in simple frocks, aprons tied around their waists. Stockings cover lots of legs, and buckle shoes and powdered wigs are common. A few faces painted red and black in the style of the Wendat Nation warily eye the foreigners.
For those who volunteer ahead of time to dress up and create a character, and others who are inspired to rent costumes from the many places on site, this five-day festival in early August offers a portal to the past.
"If you ask our volunteers questions like ‘Do you need a shuttle?' they'll look at you confused and say, ‘What is a shuttle? Bring me a horse,' says Sylvain Gagné, a festival organizer. "You don't talk to the person, you talk to the character."
And these characters are everywhere. Entering Place Royale, the square where Samuel de Champlain settled 400 years ago, a black-haired pirate in a red coat passes us, accompanied by his snarling first mate. Seconds later, a group of peasant girls floats in, curtsying and uttering a demure bonjour.
Across the cobblestones, a barmaid yells insults as she pulls pints from a keg hidden in a barrel beside Notre Dame des Victoires (Our Lady of the Victories), a centuries-old church built on the site of Samuel de Champlain's first dwelling and named for two failed British attacks.
Hair held back with a blue kerchief, she snarls something at a man in a T-shirt who orders a beer, and laughter erupts in the gathered crowd.
"You men, you're always so charming at first until you marry us and then get us in bed to make your babies," someone translates for me.
The barmaid launches a few jabs that emphasize the differences between the two colonizing cultures that once fought over this land.
"Beer as cold as an English woman," she hollers.
We laugh as we head to the circle of wooden booths that offer samples of vintages from several regions in France.
A well-balanced red from the Château de Parenchère vineyard in Bordeaux melts in my mouth as we mill around a bronze bust of King Louis XIV, a gift to Quebec from the French government in the 1930s to replace one erected, but later removed, in 1686.
Back then, nearly 80 years after Champlain's arrival in 1608, the place was fully French. Laws, currency, culture, social structure and the deeply influential Catholic Church were established a full century and a half before the British conquered the colony in 1759, altering everything.
I am Canadian and I've been to Quebec, but that fact had never really sunk in before. I use my basic French to talk to costume-clad vendors in the crowded public market in Place de Paris. I appreciate the lack of obvious signage and the simplicity and quality of the food.
Butter drips off locally grown cobs of sweet corn, and small Quebec potatoes are roasted and served on skewers. Chunks of two-year-old cheese, cups of fresh raspberries, boxes of cherry tomatoes, rabbit with balsamic vinegar, and maple syrup slushies are also available.
With our beer and barbecued chicken marinated in orange juice and spices, we settle in to eat near one of the festival's many stages, heads nodding to Quebecois musicians who belt out raucous tunes, the lead performer jumping between several flutes held in a holster on his hip.
Soon we'll climb the Breakneck Steps to our castle on the hill. Like true nobility, we'll ease back into modern times with a swim and a soak in the sixth-floor hot tub, looking out on the spires and rooftops of the gated city.
As I strip away my aristocratic persona, I know what I'll be thinking: the words "distinct culture" make much more sense now than they ever did before.