Quebec Stories: Pumpkins but no doughnuts in 'la capitale du métal'

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This may be the most European of cities on this side of the Atlantic - French cuisine, 17th-century architecture, cobbled streets. But when it comes to holidays, it is as North American as you can get.

This may be the most European of cities on this side of the Atlantic - French cuisine, 17th-century architecture, cobbled streets. But when it comes to holidays, it is as North American as you can get.

Shops start stocking Christmas decorations in September, while throughout autumn you can't avoid the outlandish Hallowe'en displays. Sophisticated it ain't. For the past few weeks, the pumpkin in particular has been taking over the city. Stroll through the suburbs, and you'll notice orange, pumpkin-faced, bin bags stuffed with raked-up leaves along lawns; in restaurants, pumpkins decorate the walls and menus; even advertisers get a touch of pumpkinitis - the squash has a starring role in TV and newspaper ads.

In the past few weeks, eager families have been racing to pumpkin farms, in a mighty climax to almost six months of enthusiastic picking - strawberries and raspberries in June and July, blueberries in August, apples in September... The activity has become increasingly popular in Quebec. So much so that a rush to our local pumpkin farm was enough to create traffic jams on Thanksgiving - Canadian Thanksgiving comes several weeks before the US version, but is significantly less popular.

If the pumpkin is the decoration of choice, there are many others hanging outside suburban homes. There are the less pleasant - stuffed figures roped up and hanging on the front lawn - and the more tacky - black and white plastic ghosts hanging from the branches of bare trees. Some households even provide a musical backdrop.

But the day after Hallowe'en, faster than you can say "pumpkin pie", the decorations are out of the shops and in comes an onslaught of Christmas ones.

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You know something's up when a Tim Horton's - the decades-old Canadian coffee chain - runs out of doughnuts. Even if it's 2am, as I discovered when I stopped by our local Tim's after a night out last week. "Why?" we asked in dismay when we saw the empty trays, bereft of the usual double-chocolate, sour-cream-and-honey, and the multitude of other flavours they stock. "The Metallica concert" was the reply.

While the thought of heavy-metal fans rushing the doughnut counter is strange, what's more remarkable is the city's love affair with Metallica, who sold out two nights in its largest stadium, the Colisee. In return for the fans' devotion, the lead singer cried "We own Quebec City!" Friends pointed out that the city has always been known for its love of hard rock - hence its nickname, "La Capitale du Métal".

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Something beautiful has been happening in the least likely areas of the city - underneath the downtown overpass and across the façades of non-descript buildings. Quebec has been promoting urban art, so that where once there were bare, grey walls, now there are murals. The latest is a historical depiction of the working-class quartier of Limoilou. A similar fresco has been engaging tourists and passers-by in Place Royale in the Old City and another is due in the Limoilou area.

While these murals have been painted by well-known Quebec artists, the city isn't necessarily turning its nose up at graffiti. Downtown, local charities noticed the artistic potential of some of the city's homeless teenagers and arranged for them to create works of art on a number of concrete pillars under the overpass. The charities provided the paint and tools and even sent some of the youths to art school. But with fewer walls to graffiti, are the murals safe from spray cans? Yes, say the teens; they will respect the artists' work, since the artists respect theirs.

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