Out in the Cold: France in North America

outinthecoldcoverrightsidePublication of the book is imminent. It’s called Out in the Cold (cover, left), and as we run up to publication I’m sharing some photos and excerpts here on the blog.

In Out in the Cold we explore up north: Svalbard, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Greenland and maritime eastern Canada, including a curious artifact, the last remaining French colony in North America, a tiny pair of islands off Newfoundland called Saint Pierre and Miquelon. That forgotten bit of France is where we are today.

FRENCH NORTH AMERICA

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I can’t recall ever having to call a taxi at an international airport, but they are good enough to hang a phone on the terminal wall for you to do so. He wants five Euros for the ride. That is correct; surrounded by Canada and 2,350 miles from Brest, the closest landfall in continental France, he wants Euros.

My conjured vision of a grand Place Charles DeGaulle isn’t quite so grand in reality, not to denigrate. La Place is dominated by the post office on the waterfront and a happy tourism office with bright little displays in the windows. Scarcely a two-minute walk away, the Hotel Robert, a former police barracks, is a throwback, a tiny reminder that once, personal honor trumped personal gratification.

I must sign a pledge, a strip of paper by which I testify that “I (fill in your name), pledge that we will not smoke in our hotel room.” With a space to sign and date at the bottom.

We live in an annex, down the stairs, across the street and back up the stairs, with fine blonde hardwood floors and two big picture windows overlooking a tiny waterfront promenade and green public space, common “saline sheds” for fishermen, and I can see a bit of the airport control tower across the harbor.

The park’s picnic tables and benches are a fine place to pop across (cars yield to people) with your morning coffee. Trees still budding on the 12th of June, yellow wild flowers and thistle all sway in the breeze on a rare, almost cloudless Sunday morning.

Besides the little ferry that runs fifteen or twenty at a time over and back from Ile Aux Marins, Fishermen’s Island, a zodiac laden with prospective whale watchers is the busiest ship in the harbor, tethered sailboats and Hobie Cats bobbing in its wake. In side-by-side dry slips the P’Tit Saint-Pierre sits under repair beside a smaller sailboat that ran into a problem just beginning a solo trans-Atlantic crossing causing a “famous German sailor,” a woman surnamed Joshka, an extended, unintended Saint-Pierre vacation. The parts for her ship must be summoned from abroad.

Bicycles make more sense than cars, but Saint-Pierre is full of boxy Renaults. Just the same, none of them drive very fast and Saint-Pierre town is one of those places with short stubby blocks built all in a huddle down at the water, buildings right up on the road so drivers must slow at every block to check around them. Pedestrians rule; cars defer.

•••••

Frederic Dotte drives up in fashionably torn jeans and a colorful horizontal-striped sweater, a journalist perhaps curious who would be curious about Saint-Pierre. He has agreed to show us around.

French through and through with a good command of English, he is far too good to us, meeting us at Place Charles DeGaulle, taking us to a lookout point at the top of the island, the radio and TV studios where he works, posing for pictures out front with his work satchel, glasses pushed up on top of his head, showing off his island, freely spending time with strangers.

As it happens, his wife is away enjoying a weekend with friends on Langlade, the southern island in the Langlade/Grande Miquelon duo just over Saint-Pierre Island’s spine to the west. Her absence serendipitously affords us a chance at some of Fred’s time, aside from his fielding regular calls from his sixteen-year-old son and chauffeuring around his daughter.

Fred works as a presenter at Saint-Pierre et Miquelon Première radio and TV, where they employ 87, making it the biggest private employer on the island, although it is a curious hybrid, a government institution dependent on profit, as opposed to say, the hospital, which employs more but not for profit. (Subsidies are everywhere. Construction industry workers get some pay in the non-construction season, which runs much of the year.)

“Winter is hard here,” Fred says. A simple fact. But he and his family have stuck it out for six years. Now with an eighteen-year-old daughter at school back in France and their younger kids here, he and his wife plan two more years on the island. They will return when it is time for their boy to go to college.

They own a home in southern France, a little town toward Switzerland. To get here they swapped jobs with a Saint-Pierrais journalist who rented their house in France, but they also bought a house here. They’re not overly expensive, he thinks, certainly cheaper than in France. €150,000 will buy you 1,500 square meters.

Architecture is a jumble, buildings built right on top of one another in that waterfront clapboard style you see in sand-scoured communities here clear across the continent to the Pacific northwest coast.

Part because it’s built for winter, part because everybody knows where everything is, Saint-Pierre merchants don’t fancy up their storefronts. It’s hard to tell if shops are open, sometimes hard to tell if they are even shops.

Some have display windows but some only offer a door to the street. If you have business somewhere you’ll find it. In a place Saint-Pierre’s size it won’t take long.

It is not quite high season (high and short, running from July maybe into September), so no one bothers to open on Sunday. Everybody knows it who lives here, and there are no tourists liable to pop in and buy something. When we leave we must arrange a taxi to the airport in advance because “sometimes on Sunday everybody disappears.”

•••••

Previous excerpts: Here  from the Faroe Islands, this one, naked and freezing, from Iceland and this from Svalbard, 800 miles from the North Pole.

Click the photo for a larger version on EarthPhotos.com. Out in the Cold will be ready for purchase this spring. My previous books are Common Sense and Whiskey, Modest Adventures Far from Home, and Visiting Chernobyl, A Considered Guide.

2 thoughts on “Out in the Cold: France in North America

  1. Pingback: Photo Preview | Common Sense and Whiskey

  2. Pingback: Book Excerpt from Out in the Cold | Common Sense and Whiskey

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