Yesterday was beautiful, the sky arched and blue, no sign of the torrential rain. How lovely St. John’s streets in sunlight, the bright houses — purple, teal green, pink, bright blue — tilting down to the harbour. We picked our rental car and drove out to Cape Spear, Canada’s most easterly point of land. Here’s the lighthouse, opened in 1836 —
— and here’s what it looks like indoors:
I’ve never seen wilder water than the breakers surrounding the point and there are signs everywhere warning visitors to stay away from the rocks.
Later we walked up Signal Hill, above St. John’s, and could see Cape Spear in the distance. (It’s that farthest point.)
Whales and icebergs pass this way, though all we saw were ships entering the protected harbour and seabirds plunging down to the water for fish.
Today we leave St. John’s to wander the edges of the Avalon peninsula and maybe further afield, if the weather holds and we feel like the drive.
We arrived in St. John’s yesterday to torrential rain.The tail-end of a hurricane, our cab driver told us as he delivered us to our B&B from the airport, possibly the only uncharming B&B in the city. (It looked great on its website and although the rooms are large and well-proportioned, its bed comfy, the towels plentiful and big, somehow the whole ambiance is utilitarian — at best.) 42 mm.of rain fell in the afternoon. We decided to do something indoors so chose the Rooms, the Province’s Museum, Art Gallery, and Archives, and only a few blocks from our digs. It was just wonderful –though I’d have been more comfortable if my waterproof Helly Hansen jacket had actually kept me dry: it didn’t. And if my water-repellent Roots boots had been, well, water-repellent. (This is the first time either has let me down. As I write, they are hung and balanced by the heater…)
There was an exhibit, Natural Selection: An Evolving Idea of Canadian Landscape, and it was glorious. Some wonderful pieces — an Alex Colville, A.Y Jackson, Pegi Nichol (“Indian Boy at Hagwelgit Canyon”), and several John Hartman canvases, huge, which were completely new to me. “Fogo” — as moody and beautiful as anything I’ve seen in ages.
There were two exhibits which introduced me to the four aboriginal peoples of Newfoundland and Labrador (Innu, Inuit, Southern Inuit, Mi’kmaq) and those who arrived later (English, Irish, French, Scottish). The material culture was richly represented by clothing, tools, artefacts so resourceful and durable that you have to wonder about the nature of progress itself. On a case of navigational tools, there was this note:
“From Memory to GPS: Traditionally, Aboriginal peoples found their way using memory, detailed geographic language and a deep knowledge of place names, landmarks, the position of stars and moon, and wind and river direction. In the 1990s, technology entered the picture for all navigators in the form of global positioning system devices (GPS)…”
When we picked up our rental car in Halifax, we had the option of including a GPS unit in the package. We declined. And we made our way around that province using maps, the views over the hills, down long roads, in the direction of sunsets (which of course we knew were west). We saw amazing sights and didn’t get lost once. So what would have a GPS have done for us apart from having us focus on a little machine on the dash?
(Oh, call me a curmudgeon.)
Last night it was raining so hard that we only ventured out to the corner cafe, the Hungry Heart, and had a delicious dinner in this room:
Tonight we’ll walk down to George Street to hear some music and tomorrow we’ll explore some more — apparently this rain will have stopped by then…We pick up a rental car tomorrow in order to take off on Sunday to wander the Avalon peninsula…
We spent most of yesterday imagining ourselves into life in the Fortress of Louisbourg, circa 1744, when the French colony on Isle Royale, now Cape Breton, was thriving. What amazed me was how big that colony was and how unlikely its location. (The reconstructed site is roughly 1/4 the size of the original town and fortifications.) So far from France — yet that was the idea, to claim the area for France and to take advantage of the cod resource. The Fortress was besieged twice since its founding in 1713 and the second time, in 1758, resulted in its destruction at the hands of the British.
Parks Canada began a massive reconstruction in 1961, basing its work on foundations and so forth at the site itself but also on the massive documentary archive in France and Quebec. Everything — maps, building plans, records, etc. — was filed in triplicate and although the records at the Fortress itself were destroyed, the other copies were extant. So I think the reconstruction is very accurate.
Visitors can use maps to take a self-guided tour or they can arrange to be guided through some of the wonderful buildings by costumed animators. We did both and were delighted to be taken into houses, guard buildings, and storerooms by a soldier, several servants, a captain’s wife, and others. We had lunch in a period restaurant and were provided with a single pewter spoon for our meal as well as a huge napkin to tuck into our collars to keep our clothing clean.
Perched on its headland on the edge of the Atlantic, Fortress Louisbourg has the magic of a place that has known significant history and which continues on, redolent with the past — the geese in the little fenced areas behind a house, some sheep, chickens of a breed I’ve never seen before but imagine must be authentic to the period, the bobbin lace worked on by a woman in a fire-lit corner of a stone house, wind carrying the sea’s iodine into the streets, rough blankets on lumpy mattresses, the smell of musket powder… so far away in time yet close enough to touch, to almost recall later as a moment in one’s own life.
We left Sydney early in order to spend most of the day at Louisbourg. Yesterday it rained all day and so we were glad to have gone underground in Glace Bay. Today was wild and windy but the grey clouds tumbled overhead, mingling with clear blue, and didn’t release any water they might have held. We took the slow road to Louisbourg, the one that wound its way through Mira, Main a Dieu, and the loveliest fishing village imaginable: Little Lorraine. It wasn’t on our map (didn’t Melville say that the true places never are?). We drove off the slow road onto a gravel road above a few houses with mountains of lobster pots in their yards. While John took a few photographs, a couple of guys called out to him. They were friendly and when John said that they lived in a beautiful place, they agreed in the most forthright way. “Yes, boy, it’s nice alright.”
Some places hold themselves proudly in the world and I thought that Little Lorraine — founded in 1716, population 62 — was one of them. A place to inspire stories and music. I could imagine myself into one of the houses on the quiet bay, hidden behind lobster pots, where wildflowers swayed in the wind. I thought of Alastair McLeod’s No Great Mischief, its rugged characters, who wouldn’t have been out of place here.
Louisbourg is worth a post of its own and I’ll do that soon. It was absolutely magical with its reconstructed streets and buildings evoking the French colony of the early to mid 18th century.
Tomorrow we leave to drive back to Halifax to be ready for a flight to Newfoundland on Thursday morning.
We missed the Men of the Deep in concert last night in Glace Bay but we spent most of today in the Miners Museum, learning about life underground. The coal seams in this area run out under the Atlantic and no, we didn’t tour any of those; but we did follow our guide, Eric Spencer, into a series of coal tunnels to learn something of what life was like for a miner during the 1920s in Cape Breton. The tour took an hour — before that we watched a film on the labour history of these mines. It was a fascinating documentary made the NFB during the 1960s, with footage of people who’d lived through the tough years of low wages and unsafe working conditions. When working men were in service to the company and the company was not particularly concerned for their welfare. We learned of children working for 50 cents a day, of strikes and brutality. My grandfather was a miner, though not in Cape Breton, so crouching in half as we made our way through the tunnels — some of them just 42 inches high –had me thinking of him. And all the men who went underground daily to put bread on the table. Of the ones who didn’t come up again because of collapses or explosions. We learned how canaries were used and saw the cages they lived in. It was cold down there, and damp. And dark. After an hour, my back ached. But those guys worked long shifts — it took 45 minutes just to travel down to the deep dark where the seams were. There were rats. But also lots of camraderie, jokes, games of bish as the carts descended.
The mines are all closed (since 2000) though there’s still lots of coal. And one day, these men hope, the mines will open again.
Yesterday we ambled along Nova Scotia’s South Shore in a rented car, through Chester (impossibly beautiful) and Lunenburg, founded in the mid-18th century and very beautiful, though crowded with tour groups. We had lunch at the Magnolia Grill and this was our view as we ate haddock cakes with fresh salad and lovely warm baguette:
We drove up to Annapolis Royal where we had reservations at B&B and explored the fort and cemetery before dinner at Bistro East — maybe the best pasta I’ve ever had: Digby scallops and a generous amount of lobster in a lemon cream sauce over handmade noodles. We headed out this morning and were delighted to arrive in Paradise, founded in 1650, or at least that’s what the sign said (but surely that’s late?).
These residents of the outskirts of Paradise were particularly interested in our presence in the community:
We drove all the way to Antigonish (known to readers of Canadian literary magazines for the review published at St. Francis Xavier University) and found a comfortable hotel. A light supper at the wonderful Townhouse Pub (oh, the local Knoydart cheese!) served by beautiful young women floating around the room like graces. And we’ll return a bit later to hear Gabe Minnikin, part of the fabled Halifax folk supergroup The Guthries. Everywhere we go, we find music, or it finds us.
And tomorrow we’ll drive to Cape Breton for three nights. I anticipate music in abundance.
We spent the morning in the Canadian Museum of Immigration. John’s family came to Canada from England in 1953 on the Atlantic. He was five years old. He had a memory of a large hall, some paperwork, then continuing on to Quebec City; his family boarded a train and went to Calgary to begin the rest of their lives.
It was quite a morning. The film, the tour, the cases of exhibits — photographs, suitcases, recorded stories of those who’d come to Canada from every possible place on earth.
In the Scotiabank Family History Centre, the wonderful staff helped him find a passenger list with the names of his father, mother, sister, and himself typed neatly into allotted spaces. He arranged to have a photograph copied of the Atlantic, a copy made of the passenger list.
A young man asked if he could help me. After determining that he could find materials from vessels which docked at other ports, I asked him to try to find information about my grandmother’s arrival in 1913. I have the passenger list at home, downloaded from a database; I knew she arrived with five children, having travelled with them from Antwerp to Saint John on the Mount Temple, in steerage. (The mattresses, according to one report, were stuffed with seaweed.) However, this helpful guy parsed the list for me so that I learned that my grandmother had 100 dollars, that she was literate, though her children were not, and their date of arrival: March 4th. I know they continued on, by train, to Drumheller where her husband Joseph Yopek was waiting for her.
How far they came. John’s family, my grandmother (my father 13 years in the future), from one soil to another, one language (in my grandmother’s case) to another, from tired countries to this one, with its promise and its raw space.
I will write about this over the winter. It will be a chapter in the book I’m writing about the last fractured century and what my grandparents made of it with their hope and the inevitability of their otherness in a place both foreign and finally embraced as home. It occurred to me this morning that we are the vessels of their yearning for something impossible to express in a language they were still learning when they died.