Posted by: Bob Fisher | May 9, 2009

The Traveller as Cultural Anthropologist, with Julia Bayly


A dialogue with Julia Bayly, news reporter, travel journalist, social scientist … and musher.

The nature of human culture

Human culture has been an area of study for a long time and through many disciplines. Culture as a universal concept or culture as an expression of a particular society, group, or even sub-culture (for example the world of adolescents) is both about the diversity of the human experience and the commonality. If you Google “culture” you will discover many definitions of what constitutes culture. One of my favourites comes from The Centre of Intercultural Learning of the Foreign Affairs and International Trade Department of the Canadian Government. With an obvious socio-political-economic goal in mind, this organization also encourages people to “think globally and act interculturally.”

“Culture rules virtually every aspect of your life and like most people, you are completely unaware of this. If asked, you would likely define culture as music, literature, visual arts, architecture or language, and you wouldn’t be wrong. But you wouldn’t be entirely right either. In effect, the things produced by a culture which we perceive with our five senses are simply manifestations of the deeper meaning of culture — what we do, think and feel. Culture is taught and learned and shared — there is no culture of one. And yet, culture is not monolithic — individuals exist within a culture. Finally, culture is symbolic. Meaning is ascribed to behaviour, words and objects and this meaning is objectively arbitrary, subjectively logical and rational. For example, a “home”, is a physical structure, a familial construct and a moral reference point — which is distinct from one culture to another.

Culture is vital because it enables its members to function one with another without the need to negotiate meaning at every moment. Culture is learned and forgotten, so despite its importance we are generally unconscious of its influence on the manner in which we perceive the world and interact within it. Culture is significant because as we work with others it both enables us and impedes us in our ability to understand and work effectively together.”

Robert Lepage: a unique Québécois artist

From a cultural point of view, Québec has always been distinct — actually that goes without saying — but it also has evolved as an avant-garde and intellectually and artistically courageous society. In my view, this has been a survival skill for the Québécois. Although they have always embraced the traditional elements in their heritage (you don’t know where you are going if you don’t know where you have been), at the same time (especially since their Quiet Revolution) they have always felt free to express their cultural selves in innovative ways.

And Robert Lepage is a perfect example. To call him a multimedia artist would be an understatement.

In one section of the port of Québec there is a series of tall and formidable grain silos. Who would ever have thought that they would be the perfect backdrop for the world’s largest outdoor historical slideshow? Well Robert Lepage did. To see this amazing work of art, go to his website (see link above) and click on “Other Projects”.

The photographic art of Julia Bayly

Among her many talents, Julia is also a very skilled photographer, and has taught photography at the University of Maine at Fort Kent where she has also been a guest lecturer and a Director of Public Relations. She has also won numerous awards for her photography and her writing. Julia is one of those people who has “an eye” for meaning; but it is also through her mind’s eye (that of a cultural anthropologist) that she sees clearly, and with great respect for her subjects.

The cultural anthropologist from Mars

I often wonder what a cultural anthropologist (or travel journalist) from Mars would think about the human species. How would they use detail to extrapolate to see the larger patterns? And if they were sent to a great 400th anniversary party to do field work or to write a piece for the Red Planet Daily News, how would they “see” or interpret what they saw for their readers?

Each of the images in the slide show below suggests some aspect of the distinct collective personality of Québec, some historical moment, or some other cultural characteristic.

slideshowiconQuébec City and Cultural Anthropology


Hôtellerie Champêtre

This association of independently-owned and operated hotels is interesting in itself from a cultural design point of view; it is also an interesting business story and a travel industry role model. The French word champêtre evokes a rural setting (champ means field), however in terms of décor and design it also suggests earth tones, heritage architectural features, and an ambiance that is not over the top and unnecessarily chi chi. One feels quite at home at each property. Each establishment has a unique architecture and physical setting. And as gastronomical destinations in themselves, the three we stayed at (Manoir des Érables, Manoir du Lac-Delage, and Hôtel Royal William — the latter in the St. Roch area of Québec City which is being restored and is less touristy than other areas of Québec) were excellent points de départ for exploring the regions they are located in.

Musée maritime du Québec

Near the town of Montmagny on the south shore and downriver from Québec City, this gem of a museum is many stories in one. Above all it embodies the maritime culture of Québec over time.

Grosse Île

For more information on this very important historical site, click on the above link.

Gastronomic Québec

Québec is known as a chef’s destination, where young cooks from around the world can make their mark. However, Québec’s culinary culture is not taken overly seriously, nor is it taken for granted. Being closely connected to the land, the Québécois simply assume that good food and good cooking are the norm. We can recommend the following: the Hôtellerie Champêtre restaurants we ate in; and in Québec City the Manoir Montmorency, Le Batifol, Ristorante Il Teatro, Restaurant du Musée, L’Échaudé, L’Utopie.

Les Producteurs toqués de l’Île d’Orléans / Farmers in Chef Hats

Québec is also a great agritourism destination, especially on the Île d’Orléans, a short drive from Québec City. On this island known as, le berceau de la civilisation française en Amérique (The cradle of French civilization in America), food is a reality-based travel experience. For more information see (and order!) the wonderful new bilingual food history and recipe book Les Producteurs toqués de l’Île d’Orléans / Farmers in Chef Hats. And do not miss La Chocolaterie de l’Île in the village of Sainte-Pétronille, a pilgrimage site for die-hard chocolate lovers.

And when you are touring the Île d’Orléans, I recommend a stop at Le Parc maritime de Saint-Laurent-de-l’île d’Orléans where you will get another great view of the St. Lawrence and an enhanced understanding of the culture of boat-building in Québec.

APEL and Le Marais du Nord

As we often say at Travelosophy, landscape shapes culture. This is especially true in Québec where outdoor activities, environmental awareness, and sports are not only priorities but the essence of a truly connected lifestyle; in this particular case only 20 kilometres north of the city. And I can personally recommend Le Relais and its hébertisme aérien — “aerial adventures” is only a close approximation of the term.

Le Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec

Québec City’s Museum of Fine Arts is in a perfect setting, with perfect light and architecture, and is one of the city’s greatest treasures. During the 400th celebrations, the museum is particularly “content-rich” because of the visiting exhibition from the Louvre in Paris. This artistic partnership gives la francophonie a whole other depth of meaning.

Espace 400e and “Passengers”

This is the heart of the 400th celebrations. For a soupçon of what is in store see Do you have anything to declare?

Le Festival d’été de Québec

Like so many great destinations, Québec City is both context and content. And that is also why its summer festivals (there is also the New France Festival in August) are completely integrated into the cultural environment of the city. As a visitor, you will never feel that you are on the outside looking in.

During this year’s 400th celebrations one of the big stories was the appearance at the festival of both Céline Dion (or as the Québécois would call their homegrown star, notre petite Céline) and Sir Paul McCartney, the latter not your average Brit laying siege to Québec.

Croisières Le Coudrier

To really understand why the city of Québec played such a vital role in Canadian history, you need to see it at fluvial arms length. The perspective of the city and the great St. Lawrence Valley is best revealed from mid-stream in the might St. Lawrence.

Tourisme Ville de Québec

An embarrassment of riches

Tourisme Chaudière-Appalaches

Québec is also un pays de villages and following the south shore of the mighty St. Lawrence to this region is heritage travel at its best.

Tourisme Jacques-Cartier

Adventure travel (soft and hard), ecotourism, birding, great water routes, great getaways from the madding crowd. And to think that in 1535 Jacques Cartier almost missed the mouth of the St. Lawrence.

Bonjour Québec (the official provincial tourism website)

One of my favourite Québec marketing slogans from the past is still “Hospitalité spoken here.” It is comforting that some things stay the same.

My favourite way to travel to Québec? VIA RAIL, Canada’s passenger rail service.

Julia Bayly can be reached at

Thanks Julia Bayly for her participation in this multimedia narrative and for permission to use her copyrighted images.

A few of Julia’s mushing photos

Other cultural anthropological stories from the Philosophical Traveller…

Gotta Dance!

The Quiet Hands and Mind of Dora Tse-Pe: Matrilineal Potter

Le Cheval Canadien: A Historic, Cultural, and Genetic Legacy

Golfing by the Book


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