Being a Big City is exhausting, n’est pas?

“Deux lattes, s’il vous plaît.”

“One shot or two?”

I’ve played out this fool’s charade a dozen times in Quebec City, with only minor variations. It happens in every major foreign city where you feel moderately comfortable with the native tongue: you take your best shot at a simple phrase in the local language, keeping it as simple as possible, avoiding verbs at all cost, lest you make yourself look like une imbécileTraductor traitor, they say (but we say “the translator is a traitor”). So you say something like “a Coke please.”

But your accent or pronunciation gives you away, and the seemingly kind person behind the counter is onto you. They suss you out for a fake, and respond to you in a confident English, just to rub it in. Maybe they sense you’re trying out your French (or German, or Italian) on them, so they respond by trying out their English on you.

Quebec City is majestic, gorgeous, even magical. But it feels like it’s trying itself out on you too, showing off a bit. Meredith has wondered aloud why Quebec City felt just ever so slightly like Disney World. I think she’s onto it.

Maybe this is the major difference between a city like Philadelphia or Quebec City and the relatively anonymous villages and hamlets we’ve stumbled upon. Big cities have a reputation to live up to, an image to maintain, expectations to fulfill. They are on stage for all the tourists like us who rock up expecting them to be on their A-game. They have to give the people what they want.

It must be exhausting being a city like Quebec City, always performing, always putting on your best face. As a tourist in such a place, you can’t help but feel the tension along with all the charm, which may be partly why tooling around innocently in A-list cities is always so tiring. In Stanbridge East, or in Way’s Mills, I never felt this way.

There is no pressure to perform when no one knows who you are.

I don’t feel it in Rochester, Vermont, either. We are here for the week at a Suzuki violin camp. Meredith and the two older boys are in classes all day, while I write stuff, tool around on bikes with George and Oliver, and make meals or order them from the local café. There is only one.

Rochester is a lot like the town of Popperville was before Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel built the new town hall. It has all those qualities one expects from “classic Vermont,” and the description of it in the WPA Guide for Vermont is full of adjectives like “gracious,” “orderly,” “quiet.” Rochester, as it happens, “was awarded the prize at the Jamestown Exhibition (1907) as the model town of the United States. The highway curves in on the northern end past close-set wooden dwellings to the large broad level green, evenly shaded and attractive at the village center.”

As an official “model town,” Rochester is probably not innocent of a little catwalk-strutting of its own.

The WPA Guide is not wrong about the town, though. We’re on our third evening on the green at the center of town, while the boys run around flying balsa wood airplanes with other kids in the Suzuki camp. And the curvaceous road into town—state road 100—is as iconic a mountain road as I’ve seen. It’s almost like they invented Vermont for the convertible.

And don’t think that the Guide is just maple-syrup-coating things for you. It’s not afraid to call a spade a spade, oh no. Just listen to how the next village up the road fares:

“HANCOCK consists of a T-shaped collection of unpainted old houses, a white-fenced cemetery and an ugly church.”

Not exactly a place to pull your convertible over, unless you’re into unpainted old houses and ugly churches. And T-shapes.

Rochester is in permanent airplane mode; there is no cell phone service to speak of, and wifi is available occasionally at a handful of spots in town. It’s refreshing, even surprising. Like Stanbridge or Way’s Mills, Rochester is small enough that you don’t have to pretend that you’re not a tourist. Your secret is out by the time your big ass landcraft crosses the township line.

Ordering a coffee will not feel like an audition.There will be no trying out your language skills on the cashier, no anxiety about saying the wrong thing.

All that energy can be spent on something else, like just being yourself.

A shameless visitor.

A curious human.

Just some guy.

2 Replies to “Being a Big City is exhausting, n’est pas?”

  1. The finest breakfast I have ever had….reading your words was/is like having “Babette’s Feast”. Can’t wait for the next course!!! Wow!

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