Strange Brew

What exactly is the appeal of Tim Horton’s to Canadians? As one friend commented, “I don’t know what they put in the coffee, but it must be addictive!”

Since we crossed the Canadian border on September 1st, we’ve seen more Tim Horton’s than any other restaurant. Surprisingly, Subway is almost as ubiquitous, with MacDonalds, Wendy’s, and Burger King showing up occasionally. I laughed to see that in Quebec, KFC is actually PFK — Poulet Frites a la Kentucky!

One morning, with my Dad, we decided to try Tim Horton’s for a quick breakfast. The line stretched out the door. “What is this?” I quipped, “the line for the men’s room?” I was the only female customer, the rest being young men in plaid shirts.

The breakfast menu at Tim Horton’s would make an Atkins follower cringe. Barry and I could see no protein available, unless you count cream cheese on a bagel. The rest was donuts, muffins, fritters, and biscuits. The infamous coffee was available in several sizes, from small to unbelievable. The latter, called The Big Tim, was an insulated jug holding nearly two liters.

My glucose level spiked vicariously, watching Barry eat a Nanaimo bar. Dad ordered coffee and a muffin.

A few weeks later, Barry and I walked through a New Brunswick shopping mall early in the morning. A series of plastic tables were installed in front of Tim Horton’s, lined up side-by-side like a 30-foot banquet table. The customers were all men. Elderly fellows, not young ones in plaid this time. I could picture them there every morning, sharing war stories, hunched over their steaming styrofoam cups of coffee.

I’m glad my Dad made his own coffee while traveling with us. Had he drunk more than one cup of Tim Horton’s coffee, he might have become addicted. And then he would have to leave his warm, sunny home in Florida and move somewhere like Campbellton, New Brunswick to get his “fix.” Rain or shine, every morning, sharing stories with the geezers over that strange Canadian brew, Tim Horton’s coffee.

The American Impact

In the middle of the 20th century, Newfoundland was a backwards place. Europeans had begun settling there in the beginning of the 16th century, and generation after generation of their descendents hadn’t made too many changes.

Cod was the key to survival, and Newfoundlanders fished the Grand Banks, drying their salted catch on wooden flakes and packing it in barrels. The advent of refrigeration was bringing competition to the fishing grounds and centralizing the processing of the cod, but there was still plenty of fish out there.

There were no roads as we know them; people and goods moved by boat. Inland were only a few mining operations and some lumber camps that cut the small pine trees for pulp. No farming, either, unless you count kitchen gardens of cabbage, carrots, and that Newfoundland staple, the turnip. Scurvy was common.

One thing was uncommon, and that was cash. At the market, the day’s catch was tallied and exchanged for sugar, flour, cotton, tobacco. Sometimes the wives would buy on credit — a friend in Nova Scotia described the way they do this, even today. The minute the man slips his lines, his wife is headed into the local grocery store. Woe to the fellow who has a bad day fishing!

Into this pastoral picture came the U.S. government. At the time, Newfoundland was not even part of Canada; it was still a British colony. It was also the perfect stepping stone to Europe, where World War II was raging. Negotiations were quickly completed for 99-year leases on three pieces of land to be used as military bases. When the Americans arrived, they were in a tearing hurry to build barracks, airfields, and hangars. Locals, used to a slower pace, joked, “What’s their hurry? They’ve got 99 years!”

The expropriation of the land was a sad ordeal for the Newfoundlanders, who had no idea what hit them. Communities were broken up and people were given menial sums for their holdings. The amounts were so small that relocating was difficult, especially for older people who were just barely scratching out a living on the “Rock” anyway. But there was a positive side to it: The Americans brought a huge influx of money to the region, and young men and women flocked to the bases for jobs.

It would change a lot of lives and split up families. At a restaurant in Trepassey, we met Mary, a widow from New York traveling with her son and his wife. Their clothes and accents seemed very American. But Mary was born and raised on the eastern shore of Newfoundland’s Avalon peninsula, part of a large family. In the mid-50’s, she and two of her siblings had the chance to work on the Navy base. That’s where she met her husband, an American serviceman. She’s been back a few times, but it’s been over 18 years since her last visit. Newfoundland is not her home any more.

It’s a common story, and there are thousands of women like her. They and their husbands are returning to Newfoundland now, as tourists in their retirement years. On the ferry from Nova Scotia, we met a couple of fellows who were stationed on the base in the 1940’s. Their group numbered over 20, all retired military men. For many, it was their first visit since they were stationed in Newfoundland over 50 years ago.

Down the road, in Fermeuse, we stopped at a medium-sized grocery with attached restaurant and gas station. I stuck my head in the office. “Are you Jerome? Your sister, Mary, said to stop in and say hello.”

The elderly man at the desk looked surprised. “Oh, do you know my sister from the States?”

“No,” I replied, “we just met her two days ago, at the restaurant in Trepassey!”

Unlike his sisters, Jerome never worked on the base and never left home. His Newfoundland accent is thick, full of “dis” and “dat” and extra s’s on the ends of verbs. He invited us in for a cup of coffee, and we sat in the restaurant (closed for the season) overlooking the harbor.

The store, which Jerome owns with his son, looks to be a profitable operation now. But he admits that the 90’s were “a bad time.” In 1992, the Canadian government closed down the cod fishery, leaving many fishermen without a livelihood. Jerome seemed more sad than bitter. “You can’t even go pleasure fishing now. If I wants a piece of cod, I have to buy it.” I tried to imagine the impact of this for people who ate fish at almost every meal. “Everybody eats chicken now, instead of fish,” he said.

Two years after this fatal blow to the codfishing industry, the Americans left. There were many years to go on those 99-year leases, but nobody needed a stepping-stone to Europe any more. They closed the three bases, leaving acres of abandoned buildings and crumbling concrete runways. One portion of Stephenville looked like a ghost town, every pane of glass broken, weeds growing through cracks in the pavement, graffiti unchecked.

Newfoundlanders are unhappy about the closure of the codfishing industry, but we didn’t hear any negative comments about the Americans. As a matter of fact, we talked with a couple of people who think Confederation with Canada in 1949 was a mistake. “We shouldn’t have gone with Canada,” several of them told me, “We should have gone with the Americans.”

What a funny thought: Newfoundland as the 51st state? I guess in this day and age, it’s nice to know somebody still likes us.

Why Newfoundland?

One hot evening July evening in Florida, we sat at dinner with my father, discussing our itinerary. We’d bought the Squid Wagon, but that decision, on top of our premature departure from Cayenne, had left us drained. What to do next?

“I was really bummed at not making it to Nova Scotia on the boat this season,” I said. “Maybe we can take the new van there.” Dad was immediately excited. Spreading out a map, he began pointing out places he and my mother had visited during a couple of unforgettable trips there in the early 70’s.

My eye was drawn even further north, to a dotted blue line stretching from the top of Nova Scotia to the edge of the map. It was labeled “Ferry Service.” It led to a tiny inset box with the outline of Newfoundland, as if the sparsely populated island was too insignificant for Rand McNally to waste paper on.

Despite the fact that we were committed to traveling over land, I wanted to get far from the USA. I wanted to find a place that felt foreign, where my country’s fast food and Hollywood hadn’t obliterated someone else’s culture. As Margaret Atwood once said, the border between the USA and Canada is a one-way mirror. The Canadians look across and see Americans. The Americans look across and think they see Americans, too.

All three of us were intrigued by that dotted line to Newfoundland. We made plans to meet on Dad’s birthday, September 8th, in Halifax, Nova Scotia and take the ferry north for a couple of weeks. From Florida, Barry and I had about six weeks to get the Squid Wagon to Halifax.

Once we started traveling, we discovered that everyone wanted to know where we’re from and where we’re headed. After explaining the former, we’d tell folks we were headed for Newfoundland. When we met someone who’d been there, the reaction was dramatic. “You’re gonna love it up there!” they all said.

The first time that happened was in a lady’s restroom in the U.S. I started chatting with two women as we were washing our hands. One of them was from Newfoundland and the other had visited her there, and they started telling me funny stories about the ferry. The three of us were in that restroom for a half hour, leaving the men to wonder why we didn’t come out.

At a karaoke event in Vermont, I met a couple from Gander, Newfoundland. Melba is a retired music teacher with a lovely voice, and her husband and I both urged her to get up and sing. I wanted her to do it because the people who were participating were horribly off key. Jack wanted her to do it so she could return home and put on her resume that she had “international” singing experience!

Newfoundland is about the size of the state of Virginia, but has only a half million people. When I told that story to someone in Newfoundland, it turned out she knew Melba!

A few days before our rendezvous, there was a minor hitch. With winds of 85 miles per hour, Hurricane Frances hit Vero Beach, Florida. Dad weathered the storm easily at his new townhouse, but the aftermath was grim. He had no electricity, water, or telephone. Worse than that, the storm had destroyed the home of his good friend, Joyce. He postponed the trip to help her sort the rubble. He’d meet us in St. John’s instead of Halifax.

Barry and I headed for the ferry in North Sydney alone, but we didn’t mind. It was our wedding anniversary, and the most time we’d spent aboard a commercial vessel since our marriage on the Flying Cloud, 13 years earlier. In a state of euphoria, we wandered the decks and chatted with the other passengers. I sat down to listen to a couple of elderly Newfoundlanders talk about boats they had built. It was my first experience with the local accent, and I could only make out about half of what they said.

Since we were only running on three engines, our 14 hour crossing was to take 17 hours. “At least we’ll be getting our money’s worth!” I quipped, thinking of the over $200 fare. One of the other passengers used the mechanical failure to make a joke about Newfies, Canada’s favorite scapegoats. “I heard they got that engine running again,” he said, “but they had to take parts from one of the other three.”

The ferry was a far cry from the small ferries we’d recently taken on Lake Champlain and the Bay of Fundy. Not only was it huge, it had a huge name: M/V Joseph and Clara Smallwood. After leaving Nova Scotia, we enjoyed blue skies and no sign of land for many hours. Eventually, we spotted the Newfoundland shore, but it was still hours before our landfall. We hung over the rail, studying the rocky cliffs and wooded shoreline, but there was no sign of habitation. When we finally arrived, well after dark, there were only a handful of lights to greet us on shore. I didn’t begrudge the 17 hours. It was just the right amount of time needed to adjust our attitudes, and we were now ready for something truly different — Newfoundland.

Getting out of the car in North Sydney

“This is different from what we’re used to,” I told Paddy, who was sitting next to me.” In Seattle, we get out of our cars for a concert!” He just laughed good-naturedly.

We’d arrived in North Sydney, Nova Scotia, with 12 hours to kill before the scheduled departure of our ferry for Newfoundland. So we strolled — slowly — up and down the main street, taking in the aging, mismatched store fronts. We bought ice cream cones, licking them carefully to make them last as long as possible. We drove, leisurely, to a farmer’s market to buy fruit, selecting a handful of apples from the piles of potatoes, turnips, and cabbages. At a yard sale, I spent a loonie (a Canadian dollar coin) on a couple of hair scrunchies in UW colors. The woman who sold them to me was returning to North Sydney after ten years in Spokane, Washington. She didn’t say why.

Our slow, deliberate pace made everything seem a bit surreal. And then we ended up in this park, where things were surreal for a different reason.

It was a concert, the band playing in a small, temporary bandshell, well-amplified. Not Cape Breton’s Irish music, but “cryin’ in your beer” country music with a twang. Though the instrumentals were fine, many of the vocals were off key, like karaoke.

The band seemed a bit lonely, because the audience wasn’t very close. About 50 feet from the bandshell, a handful of people sat on benches. Further out was the real audience: Dozens of cars, with about a hundred people in them, were parked in the gravel lot that surrounded the picnic area. I wanted to ask someone why they were sitting in their cars, but they had their windows rolled up!

My curiosity about this strange breed of entertainment led me to Paddy, a cheerful older fellow sitting by himself on a bench. We struck up a conversation, chatting during the songs. I noticed Paddy occasionally looking over his shoulder, and he explained, “I’m waiting for my girlfriend.” There was a twinkle in his eye, and I found myself looking around for some matronly older lady who might be heading our way.

But Mary was both younger and more vivacious than I expected. She arrived with her father, 84-year-old Clarence, and we all moved over to make room on the bench. Despite the music, it was a delightful evening, and the five of us chatted and laughed and watched the people. Between songs, the cacaphony of appreciative honking from the cars was deafening, drowning out both our conversation and our polite applause.

There was a great deal of teasing going on, and I teased Paddy about his young girlfriend. Mary protested, “I’m a senior citizen!” She told us she’d had her first child at 15, and then went on to have 7 by the time she was 22. She was the youngest great-grandmother I’d ever seen.

It was apparent that she enjoys spending time with her father, the only great-great-grandfather I’d ever met. Clarence is short but spry, describing himself as a “jack of all trades, master of none.” He has lived his whole life in North Sydney, but he’s never taken the ferry to Newfoundland. Clarence showed us the watch he wears that his now-deceased wife of 53 years gave him; when it stopped working, he had the face replaced with her portrait. You can tell that he misses her.

Mary and Clarence had come late to the concert because they were at St. Mary’s Catholic cemetary, attending a mass for the dead. They told us that the red candles placed on the graves would burn all night, and that it was a sight to see. They each had a spouse buried in that cemetary, along with Clarence’s father. One of Mary’s daughters was murdered 13 years ago in the neighboring community of Sydney Mines. She’s in the cemetary, too.

Sipping hot tea, we huddled closer on the bench as it got dark and started getting cold. But we all stayed until the end to hear the band play Clarence’s request of “Fallen Leaves.” Then we exchanged hugs with our new friends and went on our way, buoyed up by the encounter.

With a few more hours to kill, we drove to the cemetary, where tiny red candles flickered every few feet across the hillside. We parked the van and strolled among the tombstones, our way lit only by the stars and those tiny red candles. A loon called from the darkness, making the hair on my neck stand up. Nobody else was walking through the cemetary. In true North Sydney fashion, they came to see the candles, but they all stayed in their cars.

Central Newfoundland: Where are the children going?

In the middle of nowhere, at a Newfoundland Tourist Chalet, we were engaged in conversation by the middle-aged attendant, whose nametag identified her as Rita. She was curious, friendly, and so garrulous that I suspected we were the only people who’d stopped in since she’d opened the place that Sunday morning. She asked the three questions that almost every Newfoundlander asks us: “Where are you from? Is this your first visit to Newfoundland? Are you here on holiday?”

Eventually, the conversation came around to Rita’s children. Her son has graduated from university, but had to move to Halifax for a job. Then she spoke about her daughter, who is in her sixth year of university at St. John’s. The girl hopes to become a teacher in Gander, but such jobs are very hard to come by, and the competition is fierce. “You have to have French,” Rita said, “and music. That’s why it’s taking so long for her to finish.”

That is the story of Newfoundland’s younger generation. The fishing industry collapsed in 1992, and there’s not much else to do here. To get a job, you have to leave. Or, in the case of Rita’s daughter, study for years to land a teaching job in a community with fewer than 10,000 people.

At a restaurant down the road in Grand Falls-Windsor, the waitress asked the usual three questions, surprised that we had no family or other connections to bring us all the way to Newfoundland. When she heard my dad was from Florida, she said her son was at school in Prince Edward Island, studying to be a chef. “When he gets done with school, he wants to work either in Florida or on a cruise ship. We don’t have chefs in Newfoundland. Just cooks.”

Another example of an 18-year-old Newfoundlander who has left the island and probably won’t be returning. His mother has never traveled farther than Ontario; she has no desire to.

Our next stop was the logging exhibit outside Grand Falls, where we hit a treasure trove of information. The guide there was a talkative fellow about my age who answered dozens of questions that Barry and I had saved up. “I talk a lot,” he said. “My friends tell me I have a longer tongue than a fur-lined gaiter,” referring to boots used by lumbermen.

Like many Newfoundlanders, the man was shorter than me, the product of generations of malnutrition. His ancestors had plenty of fish and turnips, but not much else. He’s a third-generation resident of Grand Falls, his family originally from a fishing community on Trinity Bay.

Grand Falls-Windsor is not a dying town; there are jobs there. In the beginning of the 20th century, an English publisher built the largest pulp mill in the world on the falls of the Exploit River, and it’s still in operation.

Talented and articulate, the guide admitted that he could get a better job outside Newfoundland but doesn’t want to. He and his wife have a 7-year-old daughter, and he loves the fact that there is so much open space here. “There are only 500,000 people in Newfoundland, and half of them are over there on the Avalon peninsula,” he told us. He raved about the free land in Newfoundland, “Crown land” where you can hunt, fish, hike, cut wood, or camp. By comparison, he described a hunting trip with relatives in Ontario, where they had to drive “for hours” to find a tiny patch of Crown land. He made me think of a cowboy from the West, unable to fathom life in a city with all the people.

But I wonder about his daughter. What will Newfoundland be like when she grows up? Will she stay or leave?

At our hotel that evening, the clerk was a woman from Ontario who moved to Newfoundland 13 years ago. I expressed my surprise, saying, “That’s different. Mostly we hear of people leaving Newfoundland.” She’d come to tiny Robert’s Arm at age 18 with her parents, who were originally from Newfoundland and who bought a little hotel for their retirement. She met her husband in Robert’s Arm, married and had children. Just a normal family, but a rare one to buck the trend. Adding Newfoundlanders, not taking them away.