An ancient Scottish game gets a French twist

OUR institutional refection companions had heard me say the exposure of curling on TV during the winter Olympics might rouse interest in the sport, and that very evening our friend Peter Jennings confirmed my hope in his newscast. If people are ready, I can accordingly tell how I was introduced to curling in Canada more than 40 years ago.

Plain good fortune had made us acquainted with Jean-Louis and Marie-Paule Gauthier of Sherbrooke, Quebec, and at their invitation we were visiting them for New Year's. Marie-Paule had promised a "toot-chair" if we'd come for a Canadian-French bonne année. We needed no further urging.

A tourtière is a baking dish, and also the pork pie baked in it to celebrate the year-end holidays. Canadians brought the toot-chair to Maine, but one made in Kaybeck by Marie-Paule was another matter. Jean-Louis asked if we had ever seen a curling bonspiel. We had not, but I'd heard about curling.

Curling is described as like lawn bowling on ice. The game originated in Scotland about 1500, and the rules are laid down by the Royal Caledonian Society, with which thousands of curling clubs worldwide are affiliated. At the time we toot-chaired the new year with John and Marie, curling was already big in Canada, but curling clubs in the States were scattered. John said the curling clubs of the eastern townships were holding a tournament over the jour de l'an, and we should go.

He made a few telephone calls, and we went. Suburban to Sherbrooke, a number of small villages were called les cantons de l'Est. Not long ago, this was changed to l'Estrie, in a strange elegance I don't admire. Mud Pond becomes Crystal Lake, and so on. They should let the good old names stand.

The rink was busy with curlers, but a heated gallery obliged spectators. We settled in for the afternoon and evening. Snacks and refreshments were available, and Jean-Louis had phoned a caterer who would bring supper.

Sherbrooke is an English name, but the city is Quebec-French. The Quebec folks are proud of their heritage, as well they should be. Their ancestors were already settled before Popham, Jamestown, or Plymouth were mentioned. Jacques Cartier had a trading post at Tadousac on the St. Lawrence River before any Spaniards came to St. Augustine.

Two Frenchmen, Raddison and Grosseliers, coursed the great Canadian inland, and came one day to London with an idea. They brought about the organization of the great Hudson's Bay Company, with which the Dominion had to deal before confederation. This French heritage embraced curling, and that afternoon, New Year's Eve, we sat in the curling gallery and watched as a bunch of Scots in kilts and tams cast their curling stones and "sooped" them to the tee in merry glee.

I, we, had not expected to find Canadian Frenchmen in tartan playing a Highland game. The sporrans they sported were improbable, the sprigs of heather on their bonnets spurious. They came from St. Marie, St. Joachim, St. Juste, St. Zacharie, St. Benoit, St. You-Name-It, and they looked like Angus, Jock, and Bruce just down from the Hebrides.

They all knew Jean-Louis and Marie-Paule, so like good Scots doing their firrrst-footin' on Hogmanay, they came into the gallery to wish happy new year, and shake and say enchanté. Curling is indeed a Scottish game.

Late in the afternoon, the bonspiel ended, and shortly the caterer sent around our suppers. A pretty Asian girl brought them in, and I thought Jean-Louis's choice was appropriate: chop suey. I had, of course, expected a haggis.

But Marie-Paule's sister and brother-in-law came to join us, and they had disturbing news. He kept a fish market in Sherbrooke, and he had ordered a crate of live lobsters from Prince Edward Island for his holiday trade. The railway express had bumbled, and his 300 pounds of lobsters had not arrived on the morning train. But just as he was closing his shop on the holiday eve, too late for sales, the crate arrived. The railroad would cover the matter, but what was he to do with 300 pounds of lobsters?

Tomorrow, he said, along with the usual toot-chairs, there'd be a New Year's lobster feed at his home. He'd already invited the curling bonspiel - and about half of Sherbrooke as well.

WE DID indeed assist, as the French say, at this collation, and it was a humdinger in any language. Pot after pot of lobsters were brought off the stove and consumed. There was singing of traditional songs. Children danced intricate dances while the elders pumped player pianos. And after much coaxing, Uncle Hermanigild Vallantcourt was persuaded to do the broom dance while Madame Boisvert fiddled. In this dance, a broom is held by the handle with one hand, the brush on the floor out front, and the feet jump back and forth over the handle. Try it.

Uncle Hermanigild was 80 years old, but as there is no word for 80 in French, they said he was four 20s. In this manner, the evening was passed in happy fashion, and the Canadian National Railways picked up the tab.

I will add but one thought, and I think you can believe me. Unless you've been to a French-Canadian bonspiel in Sherbrooke, you don't know much about curling.

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