Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

August 7, 2006.
The Rooms

Two days into my stay in Newfoundland, I realized I wasnít going to have enough time there. I wanted to visit St. Pierre et Miquelon, islands southwest of Newfoundland that are still French territory, and I wanted to cross the Straits of Belle Isle at the far end of the Great Northern Peninsula (or the Great Northern Pen, as the locals call it) to visit the Labrador coast. I was already at the easternmost corner of the island Ė indeed, Iíd just visited Cape Spear, the eastern most point in all of North America. That itinerary meant going down one long peninsula to the south west, another to the north east, and then another to the southwest to catch the ferry back to Nova Scotia. And Newfoundland isnít a small island Ė not to mention the price of gas in Canada! Either something had to give, or I didnít have time to dawdle as I had through Cape Breton. I decided, for a change, to travel efficiently. I didnít want to give up St. Pierre or Labrador, and I couldnít postpone my return to DC.

Or maybe I wouldnít. I had to be at a work meeting September 7th and 8th, in Washington. I could perhaps tell them theyíd have to fly me in, instead of getting there by road. But I decided not to. A few more weeks on the road wouldnít change anything, and Iíd have to give things up whenever I returned to live in a house. So I decided to be efficient.

Notwithstanding which, I decided to stay on another day in St. Johnís, to poke around the city, and head down to the bird sanctuary Tuesday instead of Monday. I spent most of the day at the Rooms, a museum of Newfoundland culture, history, art,

nature, and anything else you can think of. You canít miss the Rooms if you go to St. Johnís. On top of the ridge above downtown, it towers above the city, looking like a traditional home blown way out of scale, but constructed of modern brick, glass, marble, and steel.

Both its name and its design are significant in Newfoundland culture. European culture on Newfoundland is the creation of the cod fishery, based in tiny villages strung along its rough rocky coast. Called outports, because they could only be accessed by boat, each village was the creation of a single fishing company. The companyís workers went to sea each day, bringing home loads of cod that had to be split, gutted, salted, and spread on wood frames - called "flakes" - to dry. In the early days the fishermen did that at night. Later, as the communities became more settled and the companies were owned locally rather than by firms in England or on Jersey Island, women came to work, marry, and raise families, and they did the land work. Each village had a building called the rooms, where the fish were processed and the community gathered. It was a big open structure, with the steep pitched roof of all Newfoundland houses. So itís appropriate for a museum devoted to Newfoundland to take the form and the name of those outport structures. There are still a few outports in Newfoundland, along the southwestern shore, and some of the rooms still stand, though the way of life that created them is gone.

The museum is an unexpected and interesting place, a jumble of all kinds of things that make up Newfoundland; displays on plants, traditional crafts, photographs and

The high glass windows of the Rooms make for great views - and great reflections of those views.

Photo pinched from the Tate Modern website, where Forty Part Motet was also installed.

quotes of people living in the outports, exhibits of military outfits, contemporary painting, modern versions of native sculpture, and all kinds of mixed-media creations. Museums in the US donít seem to have that engaging potluck mix of subjects and media; the Rooms reminds me more of the Pompidou Center in Paris.

One of the quite wonderful ďdisplaysĒ was a sound creation called Forty Part Motet, by Janet Cardiff. It uses a work by 16th century composer Thomas Tallis, Spem in Alium nunquam habui, written for eight five-voice choirs. But instead of one speaker broadcasting all forty voices, there are forty speakers in a circle around a large room, one voice coming out of each speaker. You could sit on a bench in the middle and hear the piece as a whole, or walk close to individual speakers and hear as the balance shifted among the singers. It was lovely.

My favorites were two modern works, one put together by Andy Jones, a well-known (though not to me) Canadian stand-up comedian who hails from Newfoundland, the other written by Michael Crummey, a Newfoundland novelist. The Roomsí website describes these creations as ďdocumentation of the latent meanings and hidden stories that reside within historical objects and archival representation.Ē Oy vey! (Sorry, Shauna, I hope you didnít write that bit of text! Thatís Shauna McCabe, curator of the show, who in typically friendly Newfoundland fashion promptly replied to an email I sent her about the exhibit, and suggested that I drop by if I'm in St. Johnís again.)

Andy Jonesí piece combines a narrative by about growing up in an outport with photographs from the Rooms archives and delightful illustrations by dozens of different artists. The narrative, written by Abbie Whiffen, an elderly relative of Jonesí, is projected onto a wall along with the photos. It has also been transcribed by hand onto long wooden boards, where it is decorated with the tiny paintings and drawings of the many artists. Itís an interesting tale of a different life, but for me it was really the illustrations that made it. Small doodle-y sketches, just a few inches in size, but warm, clever, colorful, and and skillful. I sat for a long time by those wooden boards reading through the life story of Jonesí relative and scrutinizing the tiny pictures.

Michael Crummeyís piece was directly inspired by items in the Rooms archives. He picked out an array of things Ė photographs, correspondence, objects Ė and pulled out of his imagination the context surrounding them. One of my favorites was a piece he wrote about a photo of three people, an older couple and a middle-aged woman, sitting stiffly on chairs in their kitchen, c. 1940. Now I couldnít photograph the items, or at any rate I donít think it was allowed. But no one stopped me from writing down anything I liked. So I scribbled madly - I hope I'm not violating anyone's copyright by putting this text up on the web! Youíll just have to imagine the photo as you read it.

This was his piece in response to the photo of the kitchen.


This is my kitchen, mine and Gaskerís. Him with the hands on his knees like heís about to help himself to his feet. Even set still he seems on his way to some bit of work or other. But thatís only show these days. Canít get out of his own way most of the time, spends his nights turning like a spindle on a lathe, the aches working at him. He got old of a sudden and I never saw it coming.

Thereís people claim the second sight and I count myself lucky to have the first. Twenty seven when my sister died. Gasker left with two young ones and I never saw it coming all the same, him proposing. Not the marrying kind was what people said, and me along with them. Aunt Annie sat me on Motherís stomach when I was born and said Put a pair of boots on that one, Sarah, sheís ready for the woods.

That one over there is my daughter Patience. First child of my own. I had no time for youngsters in those days and I thought it would be a nice reminder. Itís hard to stand in the middle of a room yelling Patience without feeling like a fool.

It didnít always work. But nothing ever does.

She still got the look of it about her. Like the firmament could fall into the ocean and her with the hands folded in her lap like that, calm as you please.

Donít mind the dress and the apron on as I was never happier than in the backcountry hauling wood or setting snares or picking berries in over the barrens. Canít be at that sort of business now though. Gasker the way he is. And sitting donít bother me like it used to. Had near enough of life to do me, I guess. In my mind Iím still knocking around the woods most of the time I sit by this window, washing out in the light.

This the kitchen, like I said. First time I ever set for a photograph. Some American stopping in on the coastal boat. I thought the man was simple is the truth of it, ducking in behind that box of his, waving at us to hold still. If Iíd known it would mean being gawked at by you crowd Iíd have told the man to put the machine away, sit to a cup of tea like a sensible person.

Saved myself all this gabbing.

And this one was inspired by the bureaucratic correspondence between a retiring lighthouse keeper, Mark Waterman, and the agency that employed him, concerning his pension and his medical benefits and the like. The letters were dry and businesslike, but Crummeyís reaction is anything but.

Mark Waterman, Lightkeeper (Retired),
Addresses his successor, c. 1931

So this is Ragís Island,
sheís yours now and welcome.

Thought I might have a few words
to hold you in good stead

some small bit of wisdom
but Iím starting to have me doubts.

Keep yourself occupied
or the place will muzzle your head

send you gabbling about
the cliffs after the birds.

My first winter I heard
voices adrift in the wind

sat awake for days on end
scribbling notes of what was said

before I come to my senses.
Go on and laugh, it sounds

like so much foolishness
to someone just come aboard.

All told the lifeís not that bad.
The Duty chart is a fair guide

of what the job asks of a man.
Drink as much as you can afford.

Any more I could think to add
youíre too green to understand.

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Unless otherwise indicated, all text and photos on this site © Joy E. Hecht.