Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

August 5, 2006. St. John's in the Fog

My first day in Newfoundland I went to the folk festival, and that made all the difference. I arrived early in the morning, after a fifteen-hour ferry trip from Nova Scotia. I’d planned to head south to a bird sanctuary, where gannets, murres, and kittiwakes come ashore to nest by the thousands, if not the hundreds of thousands. But it was foggy and raining as I pulled off the ferry and drove up the road to the visitor center that opened up at six in the morning just for our arrival.

I milled around the center – can one person mill around, or do there have to be many? Whatever. Anyway, half the folks from the ferry were milling around the center. I picked up maps, books, brochures about craft centers, and fliers about events. I pored over the map, and considered calendars of music festivals around the island. The rain got harder.

I noticed a folk festival in St. John’s that weekend, and a chamber music concert at the bird sanctuary that evening. The fog deepened.

Finally I decided that in such weather the city was more manageable than a bird sanctuary. So I put up my hood, dashed out to Matilda, and headed up the road to St. John’s, windshield wipers flapping frantically and ineffectively at the water coursing down in front of me.

The drive didn’t do much to improve my mood. I’d heard so much about the beauty of Newfoundland, and the danger of being surprised by a moose when visibility is bad. Around me I could see nothing but gray, with a wall of dark trees looming on either side. See a moose before it stepped in my path? Not a chance.

Things improved a bit when I got to St. John’s an hour or two later, but only a bit. I found my way downtown, but it was still early on a Saturday morning, and most everything was closed – though I was cheered to pass a used bookstore on my way to selecting a parking space. Stepping out of Matilda, I realized I was going to have to give in to the weather, so I climbed into the back to find long pants, a sweater, and my bright yellow rain jacket. It was the first time I’d been in anything other than shorts and a tank top since I returned from Mongolia. Pocketing my map, I set out in search of coffee and breakfast at someplace that wasn’t Tim Horton’s.

The place I found - down the block from Tim Horton’s – helped my state of mind. Called the Bagel Café, or something like that, they turned out to serve absurdly large omelettes and even larger handmade mugs of very good coffee, in a cozy dining room filled with artwork. I relaxed, read through the materials I’d picked up at the info center, located places to visit on my map, and drank lots of coffee. Matters got a notch better when I left the restaurant and saw another used bookstore just across the street. Two used bookstores right downtown – St. John’s had to be okay.

So feeling way too full of eggs and sausages and coffee (what did I say about breaking that breakfast habit?!), I set out to see what I could see.

St. John’s is a beautiful city, even in rain and fog. It’s built around a long narrow harbor, accessed through a channel called, appropriately enough, the Narrows. Steep hills rise from the water, and the city climbs up those

hills. So walking can be a challenge – in some spots there are stairs instead of sidewalks – but the views are stunning. Well, when it’s not all socked in with fog. Most of what is there now was built in the early 20th century. A massive fire wiped out much of the city late in the 19th century, and the few buildings that survived are now guarded jealously.

The streets running along the harbor are full of trendy shops, and I wandered in and out of them to see what they had to offer. Beautiful hand-knit sweaters that I can’t wear because they are itchy, beautiful photos of what St. John’s would look like if I could see anything, jars of wild bakeapple and partridgeberry jam, notecards, stained glass, quilts, pottery. I headed to a place called Devon House, a crafts center, but it was still closed when I got there. On the way I noticed a coffeehouse with free wifi, though, always a useful resource in bad weather. And indeed the rain, which had let up while I ate breakfast, was coming down as hard as ever. By early afternoon I gave up and returned to Matilda, to drive back to the coffeehouse and settle in for the afternoon with my computer and yet more coffee.

The evening’s events at the folk festival – remember the folk festival? - I started this with the folk festival – began at seven, so at five or so I left the coffee house. The craft center was open, so I checked it out. The work for sale wasn’t interesting, but some of the work on exhibit was wonderful, especially a set of quilted and appliquéd wall hangings depicting the streets and houses of St. John’s in great detail and splendid color. Photographing the work wasn’t allowed, though, so instead I took pictures of the harbor through the rain-drenched windows. The artwork definitely had to compete with the view.

The folk festival was in a park nearby, but I took a bit of a

detour walking over there, checking out a pond on the other side of the hill and a network of walking trails from there to many other parts of the city. And then as I headed to the festival a miracle happened – the clouds parted and the sun came out. So by the time I got there, everyone was in very good spirits. I bought a two-dollar plastic rain poncho, found a good spot on the lawn, spread out my poncho, and sat down.

The festival was fabulous. The music was great fun, but the spirit of everyone there was even better. What I quickly realized was that in Newfoundland folk music is really that – the people’s music. It’s not a sixties hippy throwback, as it is in the United States. It’s not a bunch of aging baby boomers with arcane interests in English country dance or tunes from centuries gone by. It is the current, everyday music of the people of Newfoundland and Labrador. This year the festival had a particular emphasis on ties to other cultures, so there were a few musicians there from England, Ireland and Quebec, but mostly the singers were from Newfoundland and Labrador, and they sang about their own land, their own homes, their own lives. And about issues that are absolutely contemporary – the closing of the fishery, the need to move to Calgary to find a job.

The audience was a collection of real life as well – old couples, extended families, children running everywhere, teen-agers horsing around and annoying everyone near them, women of all ages (though very few men) dancing in front of the stage, a young couple to the side “hooping,” as the new fad of swinging hula hoops at music festivals is apparently called. Big groups spread out on expanses of blankets, people running back and forth to the food stands to bring back plates of fish and chips, dishes of poutine (French fries with thick gravy, which might taste good but looked awful to me), and towering soft ice creams. One stand sold steaming cups of fair trade coffee to raise funds for a community center, another stand collected donations for the food bank. Artists and craftspeople sold their wares in tents along the sides, and of course one big tent was set up to sell CDs from the dozens of artists playing the festival.

As the evening progressed the crowd got bigger, as more folks realized that it really had stopped raining. By ten or eleven, the lawns were packed with people whose affection not only for the music, but also for the musicians and for the land and the culture they represent were palpable. After a day of gloom and rain, I suddenly felt that a place whose inhabitants were clearly so loyal might be a place that could actually be home.

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