Je Me Souviens
Je me souviens is the phrase featured on the Quebec license plate and serves as a poetic embodiment of a weekend spent at the Canadian Grand Prix
Review by Christen Fisher
I spent a large portion of my late teens and early twenties perched on a metal stool in the corner of a single-bay garage watching my college boyfriend tool around with the electrical systems of cars. He and his boss, the late, great Gorman Clayton Palleson, a man with a legendary comb-over and a penchant for American muscle cars and divorcées, tolerated my ill-conceived Marlboro Light habit and taught me all about the singular savage beast of the modern age, the automobile.
The boyfriend said I had a keen ear (when he wasn’t blowing in it) and a natural feel for the creatures roaring in and out of their metalled lair. Corvettes, BMWs, Porsches, Hondas, Jeeps and Mercedes each spoke their own language and yet all seemed to express the same longing for clean air on the road ahead and the hands of a boldly skilled driver. I proved a good student, motivated in part I’m sure by the boyfriend’s end-of-day ritual of putting me up on the hood of whatever he’d been working on to kiss me long and slow while Gorm attended to the remnants of his hair before locking up.
I fell in love in that garage, and 20 years, two kids, and countless vehicles later, I still feel a hot spark of infatuation whenever one or the other of us pops the hood on the beast, currently a Jeep Wrangler we call Jenny, to check the oil before a road trip. As any proper petrol-head will tell you, there’s a numinous energy in the growl of an engine starting up with the power to bring you back to your younger years, your better self, and your most vivid living. After a mile or two on the open road north to Montréal for Formula One weekend, we are no longer a middle-aged married couple with two bickering kids and a carsick beagle in the back; we are young, powerful, and free with eyes only for each other… and possibly Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari if we can get close enough.
Although the second largest French-speaking city in the world after Paris, Montréal runs a bit more like a French city with English subtitles. Speaking French is helpful, especially when dealing with an Über driver (pronounced Yoo-ber in Quebec), but not essential to your survival or enjoyment of all the city has to offer. Touted as the most European city in North America, Montréal shows off its Euro-flair through a robust art scene including street performers, galleries, and various installations around the city. It has a plethora of open-air markets, and the cobblestone streets and colourful window boxes of Old Montréal exude old world charm. Then there is the food. From the traditional French and Italian fare at the more posh cafés dotting the city to the smoked-meat platter at Dunns’s on Rue Metcalfe—ignore any health-conscious inclination you may have about ordering it lean—and the uniquely Québécois poutine (french fries smothered in gravy and cheese curds), whether you are a gourmand or food-slummer like me, it is impossible to go hungry here.
Host to a number of international events including the 1967 World Fair and the 1976 Olympics, Montréal is also home to the destination of our road trip, Circuit Gilles Villeneuve. Originally called Île Notre-Dame Circuit before the death of Quebec-born F1 driver Gilles Villeneuve during qualifying at the 1982 Belgium Grand Prix, the track was built in 1978 across two islands in the St. Lawrence River, which according to my tour guide on Le Bateau-Mouche were man-made using the rock displaced by the construction of the Montréal Underground. Like all self-respecting European transit systems, the Underground is miraculously clean and orderly; and unlike the New York subway system, there is never a moment I felt the need to use my body to shield my children against flashers, schizophrenics, or the array of bodily fluids that coat most surfaces under the Big Apple. It is also the only reasonable way to get out to the track.
Measuring 4.362 km in length, the track features the Senna “S” turns, a true 180° hairpin curve, and the infamous Mur du Québec. Located at the exit of the last chicane before the start/finish straight, this unforgiving stretch of concrete is nicknamed the Wall of Champions for its uncanny ability to take out the likes of Damon Hill, Michael Schumacher, Rubens Barrichello, and most recently Sebastian Vettel. It’s formidable to say the least, and the excitement coursing through the throngs of spectators wandering the grounds on race day is palpable. Triumph, tragedy, a fall from grace, a rise to greatness—in the next few hours anything is possible, and everyone knows it.
After purchasing several bags of F1 merchandise including a Ferrari t-shirt that bears the name Fernando Alonso and therefore the bittersweet taste what might have been before the debacle that is Honda-McLaren and four ridiculously tasty jumbo hotdogs from an old French-Canadian couple with a rickety cart, I in my green Nina Rindt-esque hat and my family settle ourselves down for a long afternoon in trackside seats on the straight. With two children between us whining about the heat and the length of time before the start, the youthful feeling of taking Jenny on the open road in pursuit of adventure begins to fade, and I can’t help but regret not enduring the line at the Heineken truck before taking my seat. The middle-aged mom-wife-writer begins to rear her head again and then… the sound.
From the other side of the track, well beyond my view, there is a roar, and then another and another. Sounds so fierce and raw, they are unlike anything I’ve ever heard, not in that single-bay garage of my youth, nor in all those hours of watching F1 on TV, nor anything I’ve chanced upon in my travels. Like a pack of wolves howling before the hunt, it is a predator’s call to arms. I’m on my feet without thinking– my reptilian brain alerting me to danger, urging me to run. Tears prick my eyes. A chill runs over me. I look at my husband. There is a knowing gleam in his eyes. He smiles the smile I love best, the one that says the game is on. And I know in my deepest parts: Je me souviens. Je me souviens toujours.
The rest of the afternoon is an adrenalin-soaked blur of sight, sound, scent, taste, and touch. Lewis Hamilton wins with teammate Valtteri Bottas a comfortable second, and the man with the best dimples in F1 history a lucky 3rd, but it is the fight between Kimi Räikkönen and the Force India boys along with Vettel’s heroic charge from 18th to 4th that keeps us on our feet for almost 70 laps. Vettel’s patience and precision as he pushes his Ferrari to the limit systematically overtaking car after car is a breathtaking lesson in control and predation. By the end of the day, I feel as giddy and spent as Sir Pat Stew must be to do that shoey with Daniel Ricciardo. And after, for the first time in 20 years, I feel the faintest desire for a cigarette.
The next day we wander hand-in-hand through the romantic streets of Old Montréal perusing the shops and feasting on croissants, letting the kids skip ahead in search of souvenirs. The bookstores with their proud displays of Margaret Atwood’s canon and the haunting beauty of the Inuit art in the gallery windows serve as a soothing balm to the previous day’s excitement. As I watch our children, I wonder whether the experience of this weekend in Montréal will be lost to them in the years to come, if they won’t remember how it feels to be here. But as my son purchases some vintage Quebec license plates in one shop, my daughter a hand-made dream-catcher in another, I see that notions of cars and dreams are what they want to take with them. And I know they will remember.
Enquiries: Circuit Gilles-Villeneuve, Montréal, Québec, CA | 514.350.0000 | www.circuitgillesvilleneuve.ca/en
Dunn’s, 1249 Rue Metcalfe, Montréal, Québec, CA |firstname.lastname@example.org | 514.395.1927 | www.dunnsfamous.com/en/
Le Bateau Mouche de Montreal, Quai Jacques-Cartier, Rue de la Commune Est, Vieux-Port de Montréal, Québec, CA | 800.361.9952 | www.bateaumouche.ca/en/home.html