Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

August 10, 2006. St. Pierre

From the bird sanctuary I headed back north, and then down the next peninsula - the Burin Peninsula – for a quick side trip to France. Seriously. Off the south western coast of Newfoundland are a few islands, referred to collectively as St. Pierre et Miquelon, that are French overseas territory. I’ve had a hankering to go there for ages, but a few years back, when I looked them up on the web, even Newfoundland seemed incredibly distant, so heading to islands off its coast was out of the question. Even once I made it to Newfoundland, the islands are a very expensive two-hour passenger ferry ride from a town called Fortune, pricey enough to deter most curiosity-seekers from bothering. But now I was determined to get there, just to see what a bit of France surrounded by Atlantic Canada could be like.

Kind of like Newfoundland in French costume. Low hills covered with scrub, bog, blueberry bushes, ponds, and stunted pine trees. Winding coves and harbors, dotted with

small islands and large rocks, and splendid views of land and sea from a dozen vantage points. Only a few paved roads circle the islands, and most of the land is left to nature, unusable for agriculture or construction. The houses look like old Newfoundland, before vinyl siding – brightly colored square wood structures with steeply pitched roofs, climbing up the hillsides and dotting the coves.

The people, though, are adamantly French. Most of the folks I talked to had grown up there, though the gendarmes come from “le metropole” on rotations of a few years. Their mindset is towards France, thousands of kilometers away, rather than towards Canada, a mere thirteen kilometers across the water. Their goods come from France, shipped via Halifax. Renaults and Peugeots are parked in front of the houses instead of the Japanese and American cars predominant in Newfoundland. Though they did have a branch of Home Hardware, the Canadian equivalent of Home Depot, and many of the foods in their one supermarket were Canadian brands.

Culturally, they definitely are French. Unlike Quebec, I understood their speech with no trouble. And whereas in

Quebec everyone uses the informal “tu” even when speaking to strangers, in St. Pierre it was always the formal “vous.” If they talked to strangers at all, that is. Quebecers are like people in the Maritimes, outgoing and welcoming. Not the French in St. Pierre, who seemed as disinterested in the tourists on whom their economy depends as their compatriots in Paris. And like the Parisians, they all smoke all the time. I’d thought I’d splurge on dinner at one of the nice restaurants in St. Pierre. But their rules on smoking are even laxer than in Paris, so I regretfully left, not wanting to smell like stale cigarettes for the rest of my stay on the island.

The weather while I was there was perfect, though, and the island was magically beautiful as I biked along the shore and over the hills. One hill was so steep that I had to push my bike up it – and then hold it back as I walked down, not trusting my brakes to keep me from going head-over-heels into the sea. From the top I had a clear view of the Île aux Marins, a small island once inhabited by a few fishing families, and now dotted with a dozen or so tidily restored houses and a white church. In the dazzling sunlight it looked like a stage set, or cardboard cutouts of houses, not a village of real three-dimensional homes that someone once lived in. For a long time I'd been wanting to try my hand at drawing, and this view as a lovely place to start.

On the far side of the island I found, to my surprise, all kinds of new homes being built near a completely sheltered cove where small children splashed in the water and their mothers lay on the beach in bikinis. I was baffled. Who could be building all these new houses here? Perhaps French families wanting summer homes in the territories? St. Pierre is not easy to get to, though, so that didn’t seem likely. Later I asked the woman who ran the B&B where I put up for the night. Seems those houses are being built by residents

of the town of St. Pierre. Tired of the big city (population 5000), they felt a need for summer homes by the sea, ten minutes drive from their home in town.

You go figure.

Life in St. Pierre et Miquelon has to be strange, though. The whole territory has fewer than 7000 people, 5000 of them in the town of St. Pierre or scattered “out in the country” around that island. Unlike a town of 5000 on the mainland – or in Newfoundland – they are largely cut off from the communities near them. Their physical neighbors in Fortune and Grand Bank are not their community. So it’s just the few of them, living together in a small fishbowl. Two grocery stores, a handful of hardware stores, perhaps half a dozen restaurants and a few more bars, two bakeries. And no bigger town to drive to, only Paris, 4,500 kilometers and several flights away. And a quite deliberate effort to identify with the distant metropole instead of the much closer communities in a different country with its foreign language and ways.

It’s a beautiful place to visit if you luck out on the weather, but I sure wouldn’t want to live there.

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