3: Buried Treasure

3: Buried Treasure

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Tough Times, Tough People

Buried Treasure

If you want to understand today, you have to search yesterday.

~Pearl Buck

I’m like a Labrador retriever when it comes to travel, head hanging out the window, tongue lolling with anticipation. When my teenage students ask for overnight trips, I’m usually as psyched as they are. This year, however, some of my students’ parents had seen their jobs downsized, and a tighter budget put the brakes on long trips. A local day trip, or “staycation,” seemed more realistic, so the kids resigned themselves. “Better than nothing, but nothing new,” they said.

On most trips, we’re crackling with awareness, searching every tree and roadside building for clues foreshadowing what our destination will be like. This sense of wonder was tough to recreate in our hometown, which my students had already covered by bus and metro, gravitating between malls and movie theatres. Since I’m a history teacher, I considered travel to a different time rather than a different place. Disbelief dissolves in the haze of Old Montreal’s gas lamps and in its echoing cobblestone streets.

A vehicle doesn’t allow for intimate connection with places, so I sent the students on a walking tour. They had to discover the remnants of at least three cultures that predated 1900. Our point of departure was a triangular slice of land where Montreal’s first fort was built in 1642. The kids were shown 17th century manuscripts that designated a plot of land “400 paces” from the fort as the proposed location for the first French Catholic chapel. Each step was now charged with anticipation. The kids “dialogued” with the author of the manuscript, heads swiveling in search of a domed belfry, anxious to see if these directions still “worked.”

With free, teacher-made guidebooks in hand, the kids compared today’s streets to drawings and photos of the same places as they looked during the last four centuries. The old quarter, they observed, was like “an outdoor museum with no admission fee.” They stopped to read snippets of letters at the museums along the way and learned of hardships—fires, floods and epidemics—and more surprising, of hope and faith. They were especially surprised to learn that Marguerite Bourgeoys, who was instrumental in building the chapel, made do with a stable for the city’s first classroom. “Sort of makes the recession look like a slow day at the mall,” the kids joked.

Most of our walk to the chapel took place along the river that had delivered waves of immigrants to Montreal. “So this is the Old Port where my Irish ancestors landed,” remarked Patrick, swinging his gaze back and forth from the guidebook to the port like a pendulum. “They helped build this canal, you know,” he motioned to his friends. Patrick had discovered what Barack Obama knew when he followed Lincoln’s route to Washington. A pilgrimage connects us to those who came before and makes us participants in their tears and triumphs.

Once we reached the Sailors’ Church, the kids climbed the long staircase leading to the belfry and scanned the Saint Lawrence River, as priests who delivered blessings to mariners had done hundreds of years before. They tried to imagine how the sailors felt when they finally spotted land, and they admired the model ships hanging from the ceiling, tokens of gratitude for safe journeys. “So many things could have gone wrong on those boats,” the kids reflected.

“Well, that’s French and Irish immigrants,” they counted off. “We need a third group.” We explored stone courtyards now gracing restaurants and condominiums. We traced the eerie outlines of old brick and stone doorways in the cement walls of larger, newer structures built right over the remains. The kids wondered if the new owners appreciated the history holding up their walls.

Finally, we wound up where we had begun, at the point of land where de Maisonneuve had erected a fort. We crossed the street to the raised platform of Place Royal, the spot where the First Nations used to trade fur for European goods. Carved into the pavement is a replica of a treaty negotiated in 1701 between several Aboriginal nations and the French settlers. A peace pipe sits beneath the drawings of animals representing various clans. “There’s our third group,” commented the kids, “the grandparents of them all.”

Beneath the pavement rests the city’s first Catholic cemetery, where several natives were buried side by side with French settlers. Nathalie, a native girl adopted by French Canadian parents, stood riveted to the spot long after the others had moved on. “Wow, I used to skateboard over this last summer, and I never knew what it was before,” Nathalie gasped. “I never really looked at it.”

Back at school we discussed why people feel compelled to visit strange lands for excitement. “Our eyes get lazy,” the kids remarked. “It’s like a dog that buried a juicy bone but forgot it was in his own backyard. We forget to look deeper.” As it turned out, the “staycation” took us much further than expected. More money could have bought a change of scenery, but we had experienced a change of vision.

~Linda Handiak

You are currently enjoying a preview of this book.

Sign up here to get a Chicken Soup for the Soul story emailed to you every day for free!

Please note: Our premium story access has been discontinued (see more info).

view counter

More stories from our partners