We were a busload of older women off on a jaunt on a hot day in July. Departing from a Montreal seniors’ center, we rode off to Mirabel, located in the Lower Laurentian Hills. In less than an hour we arrived at Routes des Gerbes d”Angelica, a collection of 14 themed gardens which are the creation of 20 retirees who have invested their money and the rest of their lives, it seems, into creating and sustaining a sanctuary of natural beauty. Most of the money earned from this project (from parking fees and the food concession) is reinvested into this labour of love. The rest is donated to help support needy children, both here in Canada and in Indonesia.
The co-owners of this oasis have thought of everything; insect repellent is on hand in both spray and cream form. Large green (of course) parasols serve as added protection from the searing summer sun. As we passed through the gates of the various gardens, invisible sprinklers sprayed us with mist. In these dream gardens, it isn’t only the flowers that are watered. Visitors are cooled off, too.
Our guides are women who won’t see seventy again. Their bodies are tanned, fit and firm from work in the gardens. Their faces glow with the passion of spirits living a life “on purpose.” The work they’re doing now with outlive them, and they know it. What a lovely gift they leave to posterity.
As we strolled languidly along garden paths, the scent of dahlias commingled with the humidity, distilling a singular tropic-like perfume.
“Why are the descriptions in French only?” A member of our group challenged the Francophone guide.
“Originally we had bilingual descriptions, but the writing was of equal size. Someone complained, et le gouvernment told us we had to remove the English. (sic) We couldn’t afford to redo the descriptions, making the French writing bigger.” Quebec’s latest language laws decree that French signs and typeface must be larger than corresponding English signs.
As we continued along the garden paths, I noticed one small bilingual descriptive plaque. It seems the language police are myopic.
At lunchtime I withdrew from the group huddled in the food concession under ceiling fans, and took myself to an outdoor table sheltered by an umbrella. There was one woman sitting at the table. She was not a member of our group. A video camera stood next to a chair. She was guarding it.
“May I sit here?” I asked, hoping to share the shade.
“Mais bien sur.”
I laid out my lunch on the table. “Is that your camera?”
“It belongs to my husband. He’ll be here soon.”
On cue, the lady’s husband arrived and took a seat. “Why are there no men in your group?” The man at the table noticed.
“They can’t take the heat!” I riposted. “The only man with us is the chauffeur, and he’s hiding on the air-conditioned bus!” That broke the ice, which would’ve melted in this weather, anyway.
My lunch companions were retirees who had come to take pictures and film of the gardens. “Usually we go to Ontario because the roads there are good, but we came here today because it isn’t far.” My lunch companions live in Pierrefonds, on the edge of Montreal’s West Island.
The gentleman sitting opposite me began his professional life fifty years ago as a drummer with a rhythm and blues band. The band was known by various names, beginning with the moniker Iron Bag. “It was serious fun! For five years we played all over and the others wanted to continue, but without a good manager to take us across Canada, we weren’t going anywhere. Only one of us continues to make music. Dmitri. Jimmy. He was Greek. He makes music, but he doesn’t make money.” At this point, the gardener/guides surprised us with samplings of freeze-dried berries and cups of complimentary iced tea.
In 1975 my male lunch companion married Chantal, who was seated between us, and went to work for the federal government. They started a family and settled in Outremont. Thirty years ago they moved to The West Island.
“And what is your name?”
“I was Pierre, but I changed it, because the English called me Pee Uuurr. I will show you.” The septuagenarian half-ran to the food concession, and returned with a brochure and a pen. On the brochure he proudly signed his autograph: PiAIRE. “So the English will know how to pronounce it!”
I smiled. “ ‘Pierre’ was good enough for Trudeau, but not for you?”
“You see! Pierre is banaaal! Everybody was Pierre!” Pierre/Piaire from Pierrefonds had a point. “But the Americans love Chantal!” Pierre/Piaire from Pierrefonds beamed at his bride of forty-four years. “They love to say ‘Chantaaaal!’”
“For the Americans, c’est exotique. Do you go often to The States?”
“Well, I hate winter! We go to Floride. We go—Pierre/Piaire waved his hand as if he were sailing the high seas—sur les croisieres.”
“Alors, votre pays n’est pas l’hiver.” I was referring to the song that, for some, is Quebec’s second national anthem. For some, Mon Pays, C’est L’Hiver is Quebec’s only national anthem.
“Non.” Pierre/Piaire from Pierrefonds has taken his video camera around the world. His photographs and films are posted on YouTube. It appears that the federal government has been very good to Pierre/Piaire.
After lunch Pierre/Piaire picked up his camera and accompanied by Chantal, set off to film the gardens. Delicate flower that I am, I was wilting in the heat, so I climbed aboard a club car, alongside Nicole, one of the gardens’ guardians who was serving as chauffeur. Nicole’s sweet, mature face turned radiant as she pointed out the collective’s creations. At the far end of the gardens there was a deer sanctuary, which fronted a vista of expansive meadows and rolling hills. The bus that brought us from Montreal stood at the edge of the meadows, shimmering in the heat.
On the way back to the accueil, under the protective roof of the club car, Nicole indicated a different kind of garden. Its archways led into a dark, shaded glade. Everyone still on their feet were heading for what seemed like a fairytale forest. “Would you like to go inside?” Nicole was ready to stop the club car and let me off. I would’ve accepted her offer, but our bus was pulling up to the accueil. “The woods are lovely, dark and deep but…”
“It looks like we’re going to leave.”
“You must come back in winter. In winter this place is magic. There are thousands of lights strung up in the woods, and a fantasy village. Last year, during the week of Christmas, we had fifteen thousand visitors.”
As our bus rolled out of Eden, Nicole and another guide stood by the side of the road, waving and shouting, “Come back! You must come back! Come back at Christmas!”
* * *
Fifteen minutes later we arrived at Intermiel, an internationally renowned honey farm founded by the Macles, two French teachers who came to Quebec fifty years ago. The Macles taught French on the West Island and raised a family while investing in their passion for beekeeping. Three years ago the Macles were able to fully devote themselves to their farm. Today Intermiel houses 10 thousand beehives, and welcomes even more that amount of visitors annually.
Madame Macle greeted us, and then passed us on to a young beekeeper and guide. We watched a brief film of Intermiel’s history, and then we were led to a screened-in porch, where we witnessed a demonstration of honey-in-the-making. Our young guide regaled us with an entertaining lecture on the sex lives of bees, before donning an astronaut-like white coat and helmet with a facial screen. “They do their wiggle dance and then rub together their antennaes. The rubbing sets off an electric charge. That’s what gets the throat going. Honey is produced in the throat, but propolis is produced in the belly!” Oddly, the young beekeeper did not protect her hands before approaching a tray full of bees. When asked why not, she responded, “My bees know that if they bite they will die, so they don’t bite unless they feel in danger.” I still haven’t wrapped my brain around that one.
When the beekeeper was asked, “What is the difference between a wasp and a bee?” I muttered to myself, but not completely to myself, “The bee wears a yarmulke.” Fortunately, no one heard me.
The beekeeper smoked the bees out of hiding. Literally. She set off smoke, and the bees emerged from their hive. We were introduced to the queen bee. The queen bee seemed to resent this intrusion upon her privacy, and refused to grant us an audience. Defying her keeper, the royal insect flew back to the hive. I took this rebuff personally until the beekeeper, peering closely, burst, “Look! There is a new and younger queen bee! How can this be? This situation cannot be supported!” In beehives, as in human families, there can be only one queen.
The beekeeper was asked what would happen between the two queens. “One of them will be removed.” She didn’t say how. But from bitter experience, I knew. It is not only bees who sting. It is the older queen who will be forced to abdicate. What becomes of an ousted queen? If she is to survive, she goes into hiding. In order to escape the dangers of isolation then, wisely, she joins a seniors’ center.
After this demonstration of rivalry and power, as well as the manufacturing of propolis, royal jelly, beeswax and honey (A teaspoon of honey represents the lifespan of one worker bee. Something to consider the next time one sweetens one’s tea) we were directed to the souvenir shop. Scattered through the shop and the lobby were low chairs and benches strewn with cushions that read Bee Happy.
I eschewed the shop’s 30-dollar candles and 10-dollar bars of soap, but succumbed to a 13-dollar bottle of rose steeped in rose petals plucked from roses grown on the grounds. Madame Macle joined her cashiers and personally handled my purchase. “Keep it in the refrigerator. An hour before serving, chill it in the freezer. When you open it, you can also add more rose petals.”
Mais bien sur.
Clutching our purses and purchases, our group of forty older women boarded the bus taking us back to Montreal. A fellow passenger had purchased a bottle of mead “because my sons are obsessed with the Middle Ages.” I had a flash of Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole in period costume. Also Robin Hood.
We rode off the grounds of the honey farm in the heat of high summer. We had done a good job. We had contributed generously to the economy of Quebec.