Feb 10, 2006

Quebec City imported a passel of wenches about 325 years ago. Not quite mail-order brides, these filles du roi – the king's girls – could at least select their husbands, soon after their arrival in the French colony.

"They were orphans," the tour guide explains, as we stand scuffling in the snow to keep warm.

My Torontian friend mutters, "we always heard they were prostitutes. What healthy, well-connected woman would come freeze here?"

Indeed, the weather is bitter enough with modern miracle fibers and central heating. As I gaze at the Chute Montmorency – a waterfall 30m higher than Niagra – my skin cracks from the cold. Already, my delicate complexion is peeling, overwhelmed by icy winds alternating with the overheated Hilton.

The river's spray freezes at the cliff base, forming a mound – the "sugar loaf" – where locals toboggan.

I bury my face behind a fleece scarf. How will I endure this chill in just a bathing suit tomorrow?


And not just any swimming attire, but a bikini.

"No half measures," decide my Canadian consultants: Lynn Ogryzlo and Helen Racanelli. So after lunch at La Lapin Saute, we take the funicular uphill to Simons, a department store that dates back to 1840.

Much to my chagrin, the lingerie section has a small selection of bikinis. I think fondly of my high-necked Speedo one-piece, aka the "nun suit". As a former competitive swimmer, I prefer all the bobbly bits to stay secure, unless lounging on some gold-flecked beach in Mexico or the Mediterranean.

"Go all the way," Helen argues.

Lynn chimes in: "We thought perhaps a black bikini with the Carnaval arrowhead sash around your waist for warmth."

No, no, no. Absolutely no horizontal stripes on the stomach, ladies. And no "hair down for warmth". My shoulder-length locks would become one giant snow-sponge.

I'm skeptical even about the black bikini. But Lynn, Helen, the very amused saleslady – just about everyone agrees – the visual drama far outweighs the extra modicum of warmth.

And I was due a new skimpy suit anyway. Why not a Quebecois one? I slap down $30 and skid back to the hotel, those earlier words echoing in my head: "What healthy, well-connected woman would come freeze here?"

A fine question, indeed.

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