Here is a bit of weekend reading for you from my new book, Out in the Cold. In this excerpt we visit the easternmost point in North America, closer to Galway, Ireland than to St. Louis. Welcome to St. John’s, in the province of Newfoundland, Canada.
ONLY ONE SUNNY DAY, NO EXCEPTIONS
Everybody has come out to bask on that first, sunshiny day.
The crusty, balding stalwarts of the Royal Canadian Legion fill the town from across the country to debate by-laws and elect officers, to show the wife a good time and test out that new hip replacement all in one go. Banners and berets, sashes with ribbons and medals fill the streets, even a marching band with someone still hardy enough to march inside a tuba.
They spill out of George Street, the locally famous concentration of debauchery, restaurants and bars, where touts invite you to get “Screeched In,” a transaction by which they’ll call you an honorary Newfie if you gulp their booze, then kiss a fish.
Traffic stands down in good-natured deference for the old guys. We fall in with two men in berets who have peeled off from their wives for a pint of locally-brewed Iceberg lager down at the Celtic Hearth pub. Men have come not just from across the land, they say, but from Germany and even New Zealand and one man from Australia.
They comport themselves with earned honor. One old soldier gives me a Prince Edward Island lapel pin he has a pocket full of and says it is the friendliest province in Canada. I’d like to believe it, I say, but it would be hard to top the hospitality right here in St. John’s. Just come and give us a try, he says.
These two old war horses must have just come from a remembrance, for, eyes misty and each embellishing the other’s words, they relive for our benefit the bloody battle and desperate fight for survival at Blaumont-Hamel on the first day of the battle of the Somme, its centennial imminent on July 1, when 801 Canadians of the Newfoundland Regiment went in and only 68 came out alive.
Older Newfoundlanders tend toward considering themselves Newfoundlanders first and Canadians second. It was just in 1949 that a referendum bound Newfoundland to Canada, prior to which it had been a British colony after a brief period as an independent British dominion. At the height of the war some 100,000 Americans lived and worked in Newfoundland and many hoped the colony would become part of America.
And then, uh oh, the vets realize how long they’ve been away. Wide eyed, making haste, they flee to find the old ladies.
Fun while it lasts, the warmth and sunshine, but the next afternoon down at a used bookstore called Afterwords, the heater rumbles right here in mid-June and wet coats reinforce the natural musk of old books. Rain overfills the gutters, slaps against the pavement and slings itself at the plate glass.
The proprietor, upturned nose above a popped collar in some Victorian conceit, says he reads from the very poetry book Mirja buys for six dollars, prompting us to ask if he’d rather keep it. No, he’d rather sell it, he mumbles. How riveting could his marble-mouthed readings be?
Heaters chug inside restaurants up and down Duckworth and George Streets. Newfoundland cuisine is cod, cod, cod a hundred ways. Cod baked, battered, broiled and fried, cod en papillote, confit of cod, cod roasted and poached. Lapland does this with its reindeer.
A recent law, a thunderclap of sensible governance, will give cadres of regulatory officials in Ottawa palpitations. Restauranteurs may now buy what food they wish from whomever they want – meaning right off the boat. Your lobster claws may still be twitching.
Then there is fried bologna, “Newfie steak.” The local paper says that if the rest of Canada shared Newfoundlanders’ bologna fervor the country would consume 141.1 million kilograms of the stuff each year.
Poutine, dastardly poutine. “Shed Party,” made from Lamb’s spiced rum, bologna gravy, caramelized onions, pork sausage and green peas. You may plead for poutine as comfort food here in the cold and the fog and the wind, but you may not claim it promotes good health. Still, in a pub on the 13th of June, heater ablaze and rain pounding the roof, you can make a fine case for poutine’s home food attraction.
On the street in St. John’s, Newfoundland
SOME QUALITY TIME IN THE RAIN
“St. Johner” can’t be right. St. Johnsian? St. Johnite? What do you call a St. John’s resident? A Townie, it turns out. It means either native-born, or someone who has come from a Newfoundland village to the main town. In Rock-think, there is no one beyond the island.
Bullets of rain sling themselves into the door of the Ship Pub, away from the determined fun purveyors on George Street, entrance to the side, across the street from the Fog Off clothing store. The storm rumbles outside while we hear about the life of Beth Twillingate, not born a Townie. She started life as a fisherman’s daughter. St. John’s is a big city to her and a fine and comfortable home, she says as she serves up Iceberg beers.
She answers a cell phone on the bar.
“No. No, I’m a bartender. In. St. John’s.
A woman she’d never seen before was in here not twenty minutes ago and left the phone. We wonder if she has just caused a divorce. The chill makes that humor wry, not sardonic.
She plays music from the Halifax band Hillsburn, a song with the refrain, “I killed Billy but Billy wouldn’t die.” On the relative culinary merits of the local wildlife, caribou, says she, is more gamey than moose. And Newfie steak is just fine.
A retired railroadman in a red jacket, a regular named Melvin, recalls the good old days when he worked the stretch of line from Argentia to St. John’s. He remembers the days when the trains would leave Port aux Basques with five locomotives to carry 140 rail cars up the grades in the interior, but now there is no rail line in the province, and toward the end of his working days he helped to pull up the narrow gauge rail he worked all his life. They sold it to Chile for their coal mines.
If you visit St. John’s, chances are it will rain.
Rain pounds the pavement when the door opens. Here is Martin, a philosophy doctoral candidate, who helps us all handicap the prospects of the coming end of Western civilization, beginning with the then-imminent Brexit and followed by the elections of Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen, and then the collapse of the EU. It sounds just possible.
The whales ought to be here in ten days, two weeks, and they will bring tourist dollars. Things are looking up. Hard to imagine how they couldn’t be after the howling wind and spitting showers of the night before. We won’t be here, but by Saturday they’re looking for nineteen degrees, proper basking weather again. Trouble is, it’s only Tuesday.
If you enjoy this excerpt from Out in the Cold, please go and get yourself a copy of the whole book. Here are a few other excerpty bits:
France in North America, Svalbard by Snowmobile, Naked and Freezing on Vatnajokull