After traveling through miles of hayfields and rolling hills, we are suddenly beside the sea. Houses are scattered haphazardly across the dunes. They are tidy little boxes with dips rather than peaks in the roofline.
What happened here? I think. This looks different.
Isn’t this the eternal query of the stranger: What is this? Why is it like this? Where did this come from? What happened here?
Then we make things up about whatever it is we don’t understand. We create plausible stories. Rational explanations. And sometimes, if we’re lucky, someone local sets us straight, usually quashing all our explanations.
I eventually found out that this town looks different because it’s Acadian, not Celtic, like the other tidy burgs I’d passed through.
The town is Chéticamp, gateway to the Cape Breton Highlands National Park. This is the place where you gas up, stock up, and grab your last hit of culture because once you’re in the park, the amenities are over, folks. (Not that the distance is so far, but it is so fetching that you’ll want to take your time.)
The main road through Chéticamp is along the sea. Lining it is a mélange of heelworn establishments for ordinary folks and slightly more gussied-up shops trying to turn a trick with the tourists.
Signs are now in French rather than Gaelic. Streets have become les rues, and old St. Pete’s, the local church, is Paroisse Saint-Pierre.
“For most of us here, 90 percent I’d say, French is our first language,” said Connor, a young docent at Trois Pignons, a tiny museum that I was instructed not to miss. (If you go to Chéticamp, I am instructing you not to miss it, either.)
Apparently, the hardy Acadians arrived in Chéticamp after the massive British deportation when it was once again safe (or perhaps merely legal) to return after 1765. It was a bootstrap life for generations—fishing, farming, making-do.
And, eventually, rughooking. More on that later.
Now it has a lively musical scene, some restaurants, a great bakery, cafes, and shops full of artisanal items, mostly the hooked rugs I was mentioning.
Chéticamp is also where Mi-Carême is celebrated with gusto. In fact, it’s one of the few places in the world that still observes this medieval French festival.
Mi-carême means “the middle of Lent.”
Once upon a time, back in the Motherland, the jolly French, becoming weary of Lent’s long and arduous course, decided to break up the gloomy season with a party. As if Mardi Gras weren’t enough. Accordingly, on the third Thursday of Lent, mi-carême is celebrated with music, food, drink…
People disguise themselves and travel from house to house where food and drink and musical entertainment is provided. The hosts must try to guess which friend or relation is behind the sometimes elaborate disguise.
The event became so popular in this Acadian region of Cape Breton that, not only was the tradition kept alive, but it has expanded to fill an entire week smack in the middle of Lent.
On Sunday evening, everyone gathers at the Acadian Center in Chéticamp for the first party: Laissons Entrer la Mi-Carême. That’s like the opening bell. Throughout the week, the costumed mi-carémes travel around visiting the pre-announced party houses.
Apparently, the sheer number of mi-carémes sometimes overwhelms the hospitality of their hosts, who don’t fancy all those partiers traipsing through the house in the middle of February, so partie s often happen in garages now.
“How many people dress up?” I asked Connor. “Hundreds,” he said.
The whole she-bang winds up on Saturday night with the Gala de la Mi-Carême at the parish hall in St. Joseph-du-Moine, a neighboring village.
Sounds like fun, hey? This is what happens when the tourists go home–the really good parties happen. Bummer.
You can see the masks and learn more about the festival at Le Centre de la Mi-Carême, right on the Cabot Trail in Chéticamp. Not as good as the real thing, but…