Thursday, 11 December 2014

Newfoundland Returned

A First Visit - August / September 2014

Every place has it’s history, but Newfoundland has had more than most. 

The Twentieth Century has been a constant stream of dramatic, often tragic events for the Island.

Independence in 1907, the two sealing disasters of 1914, the 1916 slaughter in one day of most of the young men making up the volunteer Newfoundland Regiment in France, the collapse of self-government and establishment of the Commission in 1934, the contentious Referendums of 1948 and Confederation with Canada in 1949, the Resettlements of outports in the Sixties which are still continuing today, the devastating Moratoriums for salmon and cod fishing in the early Nineties.

It is remarkable the little sense outsiders such as ourselves have of Newfoundland. We were not sure what we would find. Would we be welcome dropping in on any little harbour? Would we be able to walk along the coast? What would the inhabitants be like. As per those fantastic television ads, would we find the quaint harbours surrounded by box houses, the dramatic coastlines (but wait, no helicopter!), the old men building wooden dories, the smiling locals with their strange speak? How could we check our email?

I went to Newfoundland having read books set on the island, and with some idea of what I thought Newfoundland was. The typical tourist hodgepodge of romantic images, which tourists then seek out with disregard for what’s really there. In a way, it felt as if I just missed the place I most wanted to find. As if it had just ended yesterday. The sea, the coast, the islands, the inland is of course still as stark and beautiful as it ever was. The people were unique, even if they were mostly seeing us as tourists. A few boats still chug out of harbours, although the only dories we saw looked like someone’s hobby. 

I must say the business of tourism is well developed, without seeming over developed. We had no lack of activities in any location. Coastal trails were well mapped out and maintained. There were historic homes, museums, churches and lighthouses to visit as well as more advanced interpretation centres. There were boat excursions for sightseeing, whale watching, or iceberg viewing (although the icebergs and whales stayed out of our sight without fail). Even puffin colonies were accessible. All of this was offered without undue hype and by people who were genuinely friendly and interested in helping us experience their home world.

Indeed the people we encountered we liked immensely. Our hosts in the five bed and breakfasts we stayed at invariably made us welcome, and in two cases, there was no doubt that we were literally in their home, passing through the kitchen as they ate their supper, or invited to watch TV in their living room. That these homes were not typical, for obvious reasons, did not detract.

The one issue we faced was food, having some strong dietary preferences. I suspect this has knowingly or unknowingly been an issue for Newfoundlanders as well. The poor soil, low standard of living and limited exposure to other cuisines meant the ubiquitous restaurant sign “Specializing in Fresh Seafood” usually referred to seafood any way you wanted it, as long as it was cod, fried. We noticed immediately the tendency for Islanders to be of a generous weight.

In the old world, you lived by the sea, you travelled by the sea, and almost everything came from the sea. One look at the interior and it's obvious why roads took so long to develop. But this year we drove from end to end on the Trans Canada Highway in only about nine hours. Everyone seems to have a car (or usually an SUV, reminding us that we were seeing the Island in the most favourable season).

Newfoundland is today part of the modern world, but the past and the uniqueness of the island can still be sensed. In the farthest corner of the farthest offshore island we visited, a woman asked us, “Where are ye from?”. I had the feeling that the Island was completely different just 50 years ago, that so much had changed just before I got there, and I had to be careful not to miss the present because it didn’t fit some romantic image.

Perhaps the most poignant images of Newfoundland I have seen online are photographs of houses being floated and towed, somewhat precariously, across the water from an outport as part of the government resettlement process. An older world almost literally moving unsteadily and perhaps reluctantly closer to the new.

And we found email access everywhere.

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