Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

August 6, 2006.
St. John's in the Sun

The next morning I woke early to bright blue skies and glaring sunshine pouring in my windows. As soon as I was awake enough to realize what I was seeing, a flag went up in my mind – up, now, camera, capture this city before the fog rolls in again. So packing up my bedding and brushing my teeth, I left the parking space across from the craft center where I had spent the night, and headed up Signal Hill, which towers over the north side of The Narrows. Halfway up I decided perhaps this hill was too steep for Matilda, so I left her in front of a geology museum and continued on foot.

On the way up, my path fell in with another woman on the road, and she told me how much she likes living on the island, a litany repeated by everyone I met over the next three weeks. Love for the place, and regret that they, or their children, will have to go to the mainland to find work. In the parking lot at the top, a sweet-faced dog poked her head out of a car window, and two Parks Canada staff were scratching her ears and chatting with the man in the car. I’ve developed a great fondness for other people’s dogs, so I joined them, as the dog happily lapped up the attention of three people at once. The park staff told me about the trails heading down Signal Hill, while the man laughed at us and his dog, and we all enjoyed the lovely morning.

From the top, the beauty of the city was fully revealed in the morning light, and I worked both of my cameras hard, taking far too many pictures of the same stunning scene. (You folks don’t want to see all the

pictures I don’t put on the web – the same scene, over and over and over!) I set off down a trail that the Parks Canada staff said headed out to the Atlantic coast and then swung around Signal Hill along The Narrows to land up at what’s called The Battery, a neighborhood of old fishing shacks balanced precariously on the edge of the rocks. The Battery is next to the road I’d driven up, so this seemed like a reasonable route.

“Down” was the operative word, though. This wasn’t a trail, it was a series of stairs, hundreds of them, thousands of them perhaps, running down the hill to the rocks overlooking the ocean, then up and down around the hill and through The Narrows. I was glad I’d taken the road up and was taking the stairs down – going in the other direction looked much harder, though a woman of seventy or so told me she did it every day. Much nicer than going to the gym, at least on a sunny summer morning. In one spot a deep crack ran through the rocks on the land side of the stairs. A man

walking in the other direction showed me that if you threw a stone into it, you’d hear it bounce along the rock walls and finally splash into the sea far back at the bottom of the crack. I couldn’t throw rocks with such precision, but I passed on this tidbit to the next pair of people – also tourists – whom I met on the steps.

Gazing at the view towards the end of the trail, I got to chatting to a man with an impressive assortment of camera gear. It turned out he wasn’t a professional, he was making a video about St. John’s for some friends who live far away. We talked for a long time, though. He was Cuban by origin, and had come to Newfoundland as a refugee sixteen years earlier. Traveling for the Cuban government at a time when planes still stopped to refuel in Gander, he’d walked through a door marked “immigration,” held out his passport, and apologetically asked for asylum, not knowing what to expect. They took one look and welcomed him to Canada. They drove him to St. John’s, where they put him up in a furnished apartment while they handled routine background checks. Three weeks later they gave him his papers and told he was welcome to settle anywhere he liked in the country. But by then he’d found Newfoundland a good place, and didn’t see any reason to leave. Sixteen years later, this is still his home. He had to change professions in order to make a living, but he managed that, and has found St. John’s a

quiet and congenial place to live. When we parted ways at the end of the trail, we exchanged email addresses so, as he said, I’ll know at least one person in St. John’s if I decide to come back.

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