Updated: Feb 1, 2021
I'll start by saying that overnight ports are rare and should be treasured, by guests and crew alike. For guests, it gives you the opportunity to see the city or island in a totally new way. Feeling the Caribbean breeze at night, hearing the waves under a sky full of stars, it's so peaceful. Also, so many cultural things happen after the sun goes down! Or.... bar crawls. Those too. My favorite overnight ports I've experienced have been Bermuda, Quebec, and Cuba, all of which I'll get around to telling he story about in due time. Nathaniel got to see St. Petersburg, Russia after dark, and the lights of New Orleans shining on the Mississippi. For crew, it lets those crew members who work all day have a chance to get out and explore. It's also nice to have a chance to snag some extra free wifi and talk to your family, on the other side of the world, when they're actually awake! What made Quebec so special was that it was entirely spontaneous. During my Canada run a few years ago, we had to deal with an overactive hurricane season, an overactive Atlantic, and higher winds than usual. It felt like every cruise a port would be rescheduled or cancelled, and on this one in particular it was our last port of the cruise before we arrived in Quebec for debarkation. The captain, determined to end the cruise on a high note, got permission from the authorities to dock twelve hours early so that we would spend an overnight docked instead, giving the guests who were flying home the next day the chance to really experience this beautiful city and all it has to offer. My best friend and I heard the news on the PA system, grabbed hands, and jumped up and down with excitement. I called my Assistant Cruise Director to see how our schedule would change, and he said so many guests were already lining up to get off the ship that it didn't really make sense to add more activities. It looked like I would be finished with work around 9 pm, and my colleague would go ahead of me onto land to explore while I wrapped up my duties.
She greeted me in the atrium at a quarter to nine, dressed up and ready to hit the town, and practically dragged me to my cabin to get changed. She was basically throwing clothes at me while explaining where we were going. She met the most amazing bartender and wanted to introduce me to him. But they close at 9:30! So we really had to hurry. We flew down the gangway and past Canadian customs guards. She had given them a heads up that she would be in a hurry coming back into port, so they waved her by with a laugh as she pulled me along. When we reached the main courtyard I had to stop for a second. It was so beautiful. Quebec has a large French population, and it is reflected in their architecture. The hanging flower baskets, sprawling parks, and cobblestones looked very European, and the dew clinging to the ground reminded me that I hadn't been outside at night in a very long time. The little things that you don't notice until you notice them, like the fact that you forgot how the night breeze feels, what an empty street looks like, and how the dew seeps through the suede of your shoes. Walking across the pool deck after working a party just wasn't the same.
The bar was close by. I wish I remembered the name. We spent most of our time in Canada going in and out of Irish pubs, and this was just another one of those, but the difference was the bartender. A dashing young Belgian man named Francois, who my friend had spent all afternoon chatting with. He saw us come up to the door, glanced at his watch, and told us we have fifteen minutes, so we had better make it quick. We promised we would chug a beer and move on, so he poured us one. It was a grapefruit flavor, and lightly pink. One of my favorite ones that I've tried. The reason why they got along so well is because Lizani is South African, and speaks Afrikaans, which is remarkably similar to Flemish. They could speak to each other in their respective languages and understand the gist, kind of like how I can use my Spanish to decipher just enough Portuguese to get by.
We finished our beers, and immediately he pulled down the tap to refill our glasses. The clock read 9:35 but no one seemed to care. He locked the door and started wiping down the bar while we talked. I asked how he came to Quebec. He followed a girl here, got a work visa that only allowed him to work in this particular bar, and left his whole life behind for her love. She found love with his best friend and roommate instead, and broke his heart when he came home unexpectedly early one day. Now, he is passing his time in Canada. He emphasized that he didn't want to let a broken heart ruin his life, and he worked so hard to get to Quebec that he may as well stay.
Lizani and I both had break up stories of our own to share. Her boyfriend had just signed off the ship, and things were fizzling out. I had my now-ex back home who was no longer speaking to me at this point, and we shared our stories of love lost. He poured us generous shots of Jameson, and we toasted to his broken heart, then another for mine, and one more for Lizani's. It was 10:30. At this point he decided he really did have to close the bar down, as people were passing by and trying the door, and he was unsure of how much longer he could turn them away. I went to the restroom, and Lizani paid our tab, which was only for the initial two beers. We thought this is where we would say goodbye to Francois, but he had other plans. He asked if we wanted to accompany him to a bar just down the street. He described it as, "tucked away. Only locals, no tourists." We could stand to walk a few blocks, so we followed him down the road, and then down a steep flight of stairs, and into a door shaded by an awning that was barely visible from the street. Tucked away indeed. Immediately upon entering the atmosphere changed. From the quiet of the street we were greeted by neon lights, chiming pinball machines, and a karaoke rendition on "Bohemian Rhapsody" sung entirely in French. We looked at each other. Reminded ourselves that we had to be back to the ship before our crew curfew at 2 am, and joined Francois at the bar where he had a much darker, much stronger beer waiting for us.
We were introduced to all his friends, and the news of the foreign girls swam around the bar until we had been greeted by everyone, in several different languages. I learned that I can basically understand French after a few shots, but that I still can't speak a word of it, and that I'm just as bad at darts as I am at French. As the clock turned later and later, Francois asked if we wanted some fresh air, and a tour of the city by night. We burst out of the bar, sealing the balloon of lights and noise behind us, and were once again embraced by the cool, damp, night air. A few blocks around the city later, after having passed the banks, the restaurants, the bad thai places, and the place where he gets his coffee in the morning pointed out to us, we arrived outside of his apartment. Lizani had to use the restroom, so he punched the code into the lockbox and led us into a lobby with old, worn marble floors, furnishings that would have been beautiful a few decades ago, and an impressive front desk. The elevators were to the side. The whole building felt alive with old-world glamour somehow. Up the many floors to his place in an elevator that was too fast for comfort, we arrived outside of his door. He lives alone now, and has a modest place that is still impressive to be able to afford on a bartender's salary. One bedroom, one bathroom, a kitchen tucked into a hallway, a dining room, living room, and a balcony. I stepped outside with Francois to take in the view while Lizani checked out the restroom. It was just stunning. From the fourteenth floor you could see the entire city, the air was clean and fresh, and far off in the distance glowed the lights of our ship. We gave him a long distance tour of our home. "Do you see that long strip of light at the front? That's where we lead out game shows and parties. And that long line of windows in the middle? That's our coffee shop!"
It was 1 am. We were deeply absorbed in photo albums, he was pointing out his family and friends back home, showing us pictures of him as a child, and remembering his life back in Belgium. He was determined, however, to make a life for himself in Canada, even if those prospects looked very different than they had when he arrived. Reluctant to go, we said we had to start walking back to the ship if he could point us in the right direction. He asked us to wait one more moment so he could walk us downstairs. When we exited the lobby there was a car waiting for us. he had called an Uber from upstairs, apparently. We tucked into the back of the mini-van and waved goodbye, mentioning that we would be back one more time, just for a few hours in the afternoon, since this overnight wasn't scheduled. He said he had our Facebook information and would send us his work schedule. We bid him farewell, and five minutes later we were back at the port, early, exhausted, and buzzing with the excitement of connection with a total stranger.
Usually when I start this story people think it's going somewhere sinister, or inappropriate, but it really was just a wholesome night where we made a new friend, shared some heartbreak and some whiskey, and added our footsteps to the thousands that pass through those streets every day. We were planning on having a drink, walking around, and seeing some city lights, and because of Francois we got to do all that and more. It is such a beautiful memory that I visit every now and then, to remind me of the strangers waiting in every bar and every city, all around the world, experiencing the same sadness and happiness that we are. Three nationalities, a myriad of languages, and a bit of French karaoke stand out in my mind as one of my favorite overnights I've had. The thought of it keeps me company until I find myself docked in a foreign port again.