Sunday, February 6, 2011

Curling in Quebec City

Quebec City's famed Winter Carnival is underway, but I began my visit recently not at its ice sculptures, tube slides, skating rinks or 'caribou' (hot wine) stands. Instead I went straight from my hotel to the 98th Bonspiel, a curling championship held at the Jacques Cartier Curling Club. There I'd meet Serge -- wearing a tassled hat and red sweater filled with commemorative pins from past Bonspiels -- who bought me beer and chocolate, then explained some of the game.

'It's a SOCIAL event,' he said with a deep Quebecois French accent. 'If you wait, maybe you can try.'

Curling's a game that's sometimes seen with a smirk. Apparently Scottish in origin, it's only been a part of the Olympics since 1998 and is getting a bit more serious looks since last year's coverage from Vancouver's Olympics.

I'd never seen it in person. Teams were playing side by side on four 'sheets,' or lanes. They were from around Canada, and also the US and Switzerland: mostly gray haired guys, some with wool sweaters with curling themes stretched taut over front guts.

Ted, an English speaker with inoffensive bad breath from Montreal, noticed me struggling to comprehend and helped explain the strategy. 'People think it's a mistake when the first stone stops short of the house' -- or ringed target area. 'That's what you want to do: guard your house.'

I pretended to understand. On sheet one, the team with the red stones overshot the house on their first try. Ted shook his head, then turned away. He already knew they were going to lose the match. And, soon enough, they did.

Before long, Bonspiel 2011 was wrapping up, and I did get to try. Serge introduced me to Marcel, a solid Quebecois man speaking zero English and wearing a look like he might enjoy seeing a Yank fall on their face. We walked onto the coarse ice, and Marcel demonstrated twice, flawlessly, how to lean onto the ice, push off, and gently send the stone down the sheet. Usually you wear a special shoe, and a soul to glide on the ice, coarser than a skating rink. I'd be wearing my own.

I didn't fall, nor did I glide, or make much of an impact with my attempts. But back by the bar, the fellow curlers appreciated my willingness to join the club. One goateed curler from Regina, Saskatchewan -- whom I earlier had spotted high-fiving a teammate and bragging 'the last rock of mine was dead perfect, eh?' -- shared the secret: 'Years of practice, and years of after-parties. Mostly this is just social. We play to win, sure but we're friends on the ice.'

I want more friends on the ice too.

By the way, you can just show up and probably get lessons. But you may have to buy your own chocolate and beer.

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