It's a bird, it's a plane, it's a Newfie!

While driving around, by and by,
We spotted some doors 8 feet high.
Not sure what’s the reason —
Are stairs out of season?
Or maybe these Newfies can fly!

This limerick illustrates one of my favorite travel mysteries. Why do people in Newfoundland have front doors many feet in the air? I asked a number of local residents, and they just scratched their heads. Then one fellow, who was particularly fast on his feet, said with a grin, “We call those ‘Mother-in-law doors’.”

Newfoundland house with door and no stairs
Newfoundland house with door and no stairs
Newfoundland house with door and no stairs
Newfoundland house with door and no stairs

Giving thanks for Canada

Thanksgiving: The re-enactment of the harvest feast celebrated by the Pilgrims who came over on the Mayflower. Does that make the holiday exclusive to America?

Not precisely. The Pilgrims weren’t exactly citizens of the U.S.A.. And Thanksgiving, with turkey and stuffing and pumpkin pie, is a concept we share with the Canadians, who are quick to remind us they are not part of the U.S.A. either.

Of course, today, while we were cooking and eating and catching up with family, the Canadians were working, business as usual. That’s because they had their big family feast last month.

Canadian Thanksgiving is a three-day weekend, the second Monday in October. One woman told us her family always has their big dinner on Sunday, after the Thanksgiving church service. Her husband’s family — atheists — does the meal on Monday, making it possible for the couple to enjoy both.

I searched the Internet for menus, certain that an authentic Canadian Thanksgiving dinner would feature a different menu. But what I found was more familiar to me than last year’s Thanksgiving in New Orleans, where I discovered merliton stuffing.

The Canadian Thanksgiving feast we shared with our friend Kris in Lunenburg was a little smaller than the one we made today. We cooked outdoors, so I guess you could say the kitchen was actually bigger than Barry’s Mom’s (which is the largest kitchen I’ve ever cooked in!). But we only had a two-burner propane stove and a cooler. No fridge, freezer, food-processor, or bread machine. Instead of a 22-pound turkey, we stuffed a huge Hubbard squash. Instead of four desserts, we had just one. I still managed to include sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, and gravy.

The view of the bay was just as lovely as it is here, and we had good weather that day. With plenty of Screech — Newfoundland rum — on hand, it was a very festive holiday, despite our rustic surroundings.

Next year, I think I just might celebrate Canadian Thanksgiving again, even if I’m not in Canada. Not because I feel like enjoying two days of gluttony instead of one. I’d just like to spend some time giving thanks for our kindly, quirky neighbors, the Canadians.

The Romance of Québec

Someday, I’d like to see Paris. It’s supposed to be such a romantic place. Barry and I would sit in a sidewalk cafe, holding hands and listening to charming waltzes played on the accordion.

But if I never make it there, that’s all right, too. After all, I’ve been to Québec.

For me, Québec has always been a magical place, even before I visited the city. My mother never saw Paris, but she and my father had a romantic interlude in Québec, one summer while my sister, Julie, and I were at summer camp. They ate huge lobsters, went to mass at Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré, and stayed in a charming hotel just a few doors away from the famous Frontenac, the most-photographed hotel in the world. For years afterwards, my parents reminisced about Québec, and their faded color slides are imprinted on my memory.

Sixteen years later, when we were adults, Julie and I headed north to see Québec for ourselves. Our parents’ charming hotel was still there, unchanged, as was the river and the promenade it overlooked. We stayed a few blocks further away, in a garret — charming in its own way, and much less expensive. We walked all over the upper and lower towns, saw the cathedral and museums, ate fondue and rode the funicular. With my handy French dictionary, we puzzled out menus and signs in shop windows.

One week after that vacation, I met Barry. For 16 years, he has listened to my tales of Québec.

If there is anything better than seeing Québec, it’s watching someone you love discover Québec. Just a few weeks ago, in October, I led Barry through the arched stone gate, along Rue St. Louis with the old stone houses I remembered. Horse and carriage operators trotted along the streets, lending an anachronistic feel. I showed him the promenade, the Frontenac towering over us with its green copper turrets.

Carrying a French dictionary to puzzle out those same menus and signs, we ordered quiche and French bread and pastries in a tiny cafe. There were sailboats on the St. Lawrence, an opera singer busking outside the funicular, couples kissing in the park overlooking the water. We walked along the top of walls that once protected the city from attack by the United States and strolled the cliffside promenade under blue skies with fluffy clouds.

The hotels were still there, unchanged. Château de la Terrasse, where my parents stayed, and around the corner, Cap Diamant Hôtel, where Julie and I shared the garret. Barry and I, on a tighter budget, snuggled up in the Squid Wagon in the Wal-Mart parking lot. We make our own romantic places.

We ducked down the alley where local artists sell etchings and paintings and came out by the cathedral. Just outside, in the square, I stored up my most precious memories of Québec. A superb accordionist was playing in the square, his audience only a young couple with a baby. Barry and I sat on a nearby bench, snuggling close to each other and enjoying the cafe-style waltzes and lilting romantic tunes. The man had a charming smile and, oblivious to the numbing cold, made the complex fingerings look effortless.

Now, when I return to Québec in my mind, it will be to that little square full of music and romance. Perhaps I’ll be back in another 16 years. Maybe by then, I will have been to Paris.

Wildlife, including two kinds of moose

Ask us about the wildlife we’ve seen on our travels this fall, and the list is quite lengthy. From chipmunks to crows, squirrels to seagulls, not just these ordinary critters, but some extraordinary ones.

Driving down the highway in Newfoundland, we passed beneath an eagle. He was surfing the air above the road. A bear ambled from the shoulder into the woods. In Nova Scotia, a ring-necked pheasant strutted in the ditch beside the road, its jewel-toned plumage startlingly vivid against past-its-prime fall foliage.

In some places, we were overwhelmed by the sheer number of birds. On a chilly Quebec morning, we watched — and listened to — enormous flocks of snow geese migrating down the Saint Lawrence. Cape Saint Mary’s, in Newfoundland, was even more dramatic. There, Barry and I sat alone at sunset, about 60 feet from a huge sea stack, the nesting place of thousands of northern gannets. Youngsters, their dark speckled feathers matching the white-stained black rock, stretched their wings and practiced flying. Adults took off for brief flights — when they returned, couples would “fence” with their beaks, sort of a “Honey, I’m back” greeting. We watched them until it grew too dark to see.

And of course, there are the moose. We’d been warned numerous times not to drive at night, when they are most active. “My son hit one last year,” an older fellow on the ferry told me. “Put its head right through the windshield. On the passenger side, though, so nobody got hurt.” Even the moose, evidently, who walked away unscathed.

Moose are not native to Newfoundland. In the end of the 19th century, someone introduced a couple of them. In the beginning of the 20th century, somebody added about four more. Now there are thousands and thousands, all descended from that original six.

Even restricting our driving to daylight hours, we have seen a few of them. In Maine and Newfoundland, we saw mama cows with calves, gangling oversized creatures. And an occasional solo moose grazing by the roadside. They are impressive, massive animals, weighing up to 1000 pounds.

But on the Gaspe peninsula, there was another kind of moose, and we saw dozens of them. Legs splayed out, head hanging over the edge: Dead moose in the back of a pickup truck. We had arrived at the height of hunting season.

It’s an eerie sight, these huge animals brought down with a gun and winched into the back of a truck. Hearing stories about them walking away after totaling a car makes me think of them as invincible, and I half expect them to shake themselves and jump out of the back of the truck, “You think you can kill me? Ha!” Their dead faces look surprised, as if their last thought was, “Oops! I forgot it was hunting season!”

The eeriest part is what the local hunters do with the heads: They mount them on the grill or hood of the truck as a grisly, lifelike trophy. One car had two heads, one on the grill and one on the hood. I guess it’s their way of getting back at the moose. Instead of worrying about a moose crossing the road and totaling your car, all you have to worry about is the one coming behind you, in your rear view mirror.

Joyeaux Halloween!

In a recent e-mail, a friend asked us whether they celebrate Halloween up here. As we drove through Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Quebec, we were overwhelmed with the evidence that they do. Some towns sponsor interesting competitions, like the artistic scarecrows in Mahone Bay (we photographed dozens of them).

In Kentville, we drove for miles enjoying displays of “pumpkin-head people.” The theme of this year’s competition was “sports,” and around every bend we found football, soccer, and basketball teams, pumpkin-head skiiers, archers, badminton-players, and weightlifters. I think our favorite was the pumpkin-head scuba diver!

But aside from these organized events, there are hundreds of decorated houses, with witches, ghosts, and spiders. Some people go crazy, filling their yards with tombstones or their porches with spiderwebs. Inflated pumpkins and Frankensteins are all the rage. Depending on which part of Canada you are in, the banners read either “Happy” or “Joyeaux” Halloween.

In Lunenburg, evidently, setting prank fires used to be the favorite activity on Halloween. The fire departments stayed busy, but nothing really dreadful happened, until about ten years ago. Then they burned down St. John’s Anglican church — the second oldest church in all of Canada. Now October is “fire prevention month,” and they take the pranks a lot more seriously. It’s rumored that you can be arrested for lighting a match on Halloween!

Here are some of our favorite Halloween decorations. Enjoy, and don’t let the ghoulies get you!

Laid-back decorations in Montreal…

Dangling pumpkins in Quebec…

The dance of the eight veils…

Lifelike scarecrows…

Harry Potter and friends…

Outrageous yard display…

Dinghy scarecrows!

“Whosoever pulls the sword from this pumpkin shall be the true king of Mahone Bay.”

Plate Tectonics and Oreo Rocks

When I was a child, they taught plate tectonics in grade school. Looking at a world map, it made perfect sense. You could see that the hump of South America would tuck perfectly into that indentation in Africa’s west coast. It just took a little imagination.

A couple of weeks ago, my father told me that in the early 1970’s, he read of plate tectonics for the first time. It was in a science magazine, and the article was illustrated with crude drawings, but he was fascinated by the new theory.

I was flabbergasted by his revelation. When you are a child in school, you never stop to think that what you are learning about the world might be different from what your parents learned. Puzzled, I asked my Dad, “What did they teach in school before plate tectonics? Where did they say the mountains came from?”

Traveling through Newfoundland and the Gaspe peninsula, we have had a chance to see the results of plate tectonics, in all three dimensions. In museums, we read exhibits and studied diagrams. Dad was the resident expert, having read John McPhee’s “Annals of a Former World.” He mentioned it often, and Barry and I got used to hearing him begin sentences with, “McFee says…”

The best illustration was the guided hike we took at Gros Morne, with a guide named Fred. Using human volunteers, he illustrated how the continents came together and moved apart several times, bouncing off each other like very slow bocce balls. I starred as Laurentia. My counterpart, Gondwana, slid a rock up my arm until it reached the top of my head, a very tall mountain indeed, formed of old rock from far beneath the surface.

We were walking on the Tablelands, an eerie moonscape-like scene. The ground was a jumble of rust-colored peridotite — not just any rock, but the earth’s very mantle, normally found miles beneath your feet. Little grew there, because the earth’s mantle contains toxic levels of chromium and magnesium. Not exactly fertile ground for farming. But fertile for the imagination.

Later, bundled in hats and gloves, we stood on the bow of a tour boat, imagining massive glaciers thousands of feet thick. The glaciers carved this lake, formerly a fjord, and smaller, tributary glaciers carved the distinctive U-shaped hanging valleys above us. The glaciers were so heavy that they compressed the land, allowing the ocean to flow in when they melted. When the land sprang back — a fast word for a slow process — the ocean was cut off, and the fjord became a landlocked lake.

The three of us strolled along a boardwalk in Cox’s Cove, admiring the view of the water. Then we came upon a steep, ladder-like staircase and followed it down to the rocky beach. What started as a short stroll turned into an orgy of rock hunting. One rock was black, with a white peace symbol in the middle. Dad and I fought over that one. “Hey! This one looks just like an oreo with a couple of bites taken out of it!” We snatched them up, greedily, dropping them as we found even more spectacular specimens. Our pockets were bulging, weighing us down as we climbed the steep steps to the van.

In the U.S., we are used to thinking of the Appalachians as an inland place, far from the ocean. But driving along the Gaspe peninsula, they go right down into the ocean. And then come up on the other side, in Newfoundland — Cox’s Cove, and similar places.

Looking at these ribbons of rock, swirled and tilted sideways, is like looking at a layer cake that got dropped on its side. It was laid down in a nice, orderly horizontal fashion. Then somebody took it to a party, over on the other side of the world, the other side of the equator, where it was smashed and shoved in all directions. Some parts of it are still on the other side of the Atlantic, in Wales.

Now, we’ve left the drama of the Appalachian mountains behind, moving up the gentle St. Lawrence river. But everywhere I travel now, I am aware of geology. Even now, as I see a couple of kids playing on an enormous boulder by my campsite, I think “glacial erratic.” And then, in my mind, I am carried away from here and now, transported to a time when sheets of ice covered the land and dropped boulders the size of cars. When I was a child, I thought geology was dull, plate tectonics boring. But now I find it fascinating. It just takes a little imagination.

Mayor Betty and The Big Bike

In 1497, Giovanni Caboto, known to most of us as John Cabot, landed in Bonavista, Newfoundland. Of course, it wasn’t Bonavista then. And back then, they didn’t have bikes, let alone The Big Bike.

We arrived in town at the same time as a yellow school bus, loaded with passengers from a small cruise ship. “The mayor has come out to greet you,” announced their amplified tour guide. “Here’s Mayor Betty.”

Each cruise ship tourist shook hands with the mayor, an attractive blonde lady in a red blouse with an elaborate gold chain around her neck. “That’s my chain of office,” she told the folks as she shook their hands and handed them a Bonavista lapel pin.

Barry and Dad and I attached ourselves to the end of the cruise ship line. That way, we got to shake Betty’s hand, too. I got a great picture of her with my Dad, who told her he’d met a lot of mayors, but none as attractive. My Dad’s a flirt, like me.

After dinner that evening, we drove back to town because we’d seen something unusual there: A bicycle with seats for 30 people. Known as “The Big Bike,” it’s used as a fundraiser for the Canadian Heart and Stroke Foundation. In exchange for fundraising, local groups were entitled to a 15-minute ride. This I had to see.

The bike has a footprint about the size of a big bus, with ten rows of three seats on a red metal frame. The front left seat has a steering wheel and, most importantly, a brake. In the rear is a fancy, high seat, without pedals, used for dignitaries. All the other seats are normal black bicycle seats, each with non-steering handlebars and a set of pedals.

When we arrived, there were lots of people milling about The Bike. We were on the fringes, taking pictures, when along came Mayor Betty, who remembered us. It turns out that as mayor, she gets to go on all the 15-minute rides.

Barry and I admitted that we’d love a chance to ride, and the next thing we knew, Betty had signed us up as volunteers, since one team needed more riders. After a group photo (they’ll wonder about those two strangers in the red hats later, I’m sure) we all clambered aboard.

Everyone else went for the back of the bike, with Betty, the driver, me, and Barry at the front. I was surprised, expecting the mayor to take the special seat at the rear, the one without pedals. “Oh no,” said Betty, “I have my hone pedals!” She’d recently lost about 100 pounds, partly by participating in every fundraiser walk, run, or bike ride in Newfoundland.

First, some instructions. The bike had lights, but no turn signals. When the driver wanted to turn left, he would shout over the PA system, “LEFT! ” and everyone on that side put their arm out. But not like a regular bike or a car: This was a special animated turn signal. Even now, I laugh my self silly at the thought of ten people flapping their thumbs, making “alligator hands,” and hollering “dinker-dinker-dinker.”

At 1900 pounds, the bike was heavy enough to give us all a workout on Bonavista’s hills. Fortunately, the CD sound system put us in the mood, with “Bad Moon Rising” ringing out from the speakers as we charged out of the parking lot. Our route was a loop with one nice downhill, and our pace was slow enough that neighborhood kids ran along beside us.

I was smiling and laughing the whole time, amazed at this crazy experience. When we coasted into the lot to let the next group ride, I could understand why Mayor Betty took advantage of the chance to ride every time. The Big Bike was a blast, and the ride, like our visit to Bonavista, was way too short.

Author’s note: You can learn more interesting things about Mayor Betty Fitzgerald by running a Google search on Bonavista Newfoundland Mayor Betty.