Thursday, October 24, 2013

"Bury Your Dead" and Experimental Travelling: following fictional footsteps through real streets

Last spring, in May 2013, I came up with a playful framework for my solo vacation.  Using simple investigatory tools -- a book and a yellow highlighter pen -- I tracked one of my favorite fictional characters, Inspector Gamache, through the streets of Old Quebec City as he solved a mystery there. Then I used two Internet applications -- Google Maps and Trip Advisor -- to document and share my experience. A good example of using technology to amplify a very traditional reading experience.
Gamache mused at
the murder victim's odd
street address

As an article in Wikipedia explains: "Experimental tourism is a novel approach to tourism in which visitors do not visit the ordinary tourist attractions (or, at least not with the ordinary approach), but allow whim to guide them. It is an alternative form of tourism in which destinations are chosen not on their standard touristic merit but on the basis of an idea or experiment. It often involves elements of humor, serendipity and chance."

I'd come to love the "Inspector Gamache" series by the Montreal writer, Louise Penny, through my book club. The other members insisted that I get past my prejudice against murder mysteries by reading one of hers. I was immediately hooked by her ongoing storyline and characters - not to mention that she is Canadian. I'm not alone. Her latest book, the ninth of the series, debuted this fall at #1 on the New York Times Bestseller List.

The sixth of her books, "Bury Your Dead", is set very concretely in the same neighbourhood in Old Quebec where I lived for a summer back in the seventies. I was taking an immersion french course at Laval and had sublet a garret (complete with low doors and geranium window boxes) from a girl I met in a laundromat. Thirty years later, as I read the book last winter, I recognized names of streets I knew. From my midnight armchair in Vancouver, I went through the book again, using my iPhone to call up Google Map's Street View and look at the streets and locations Penny named in the book. With Street View I could look around, and realized that I'd lived close to Chez Temporel. I visualized Gamache sitting at a table there, looking out at that same street.
Chez Temporel in Street View

When I noticed that there was a youth hostel a block from the Scene of the Crime, my vague desire -- for taking another kick at the French-language can-- became a plan.

My first morning in Quebec City was spent drinking my own bowl of cafe au lait in Chez Temporel, going through the book to plotting a path to visit the specific locations in chronological order.  I then drifted through the narrow streets, surrounded by tourists, but experiencing the city through the filter of the story.

Much of the action takes place in an old library, the Literary and Historical Society (also known as the Morrin Centre). When I talked to the volunteer librarian, she said that I was not the only "Penny Person" to arrive on pilgrimage and get excited at seeing the real old leather couch, described in the book, where Gamache spent time observing and solving the mystery.
Gamache's couch in the reading room

And as it turns out, I wasn't even alone in my "walking tour" idea. A few weeks later, as this article and radio clip on the CBC site describes a local tourism company began offering one too.

Lucky me, that I did a DIY walking tour, before the official one was launched. Before I left Quebec I contributed my own review and photos of the library to the travel advice website "Trip Advisor". I also did a cartographical art project, making my own personal Google Map of the sites I found and the related story excerpts. Although it works pretty well with a laptop-size screen, there isn't enough real-estate on the screen of my smart phone to get past the text to the pins on the map. So my recommendation to experimental travellers reading this posting is this:  Grab their own paperback and highlighter, buy a plane ticket, and head for that window table at Chez Temporel.

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