Well, it’s over. Nothing left to do but kick my feet up, take some heavy sedatives, and prepare myself for the long trip home. The fifteen-hour ferry ride from St. John’s, Newfoundland to North Sydney, Cape Breton – which I am presently on – is just the beginning. From there, it’s about a 30-hour bus ride home to TO.
It’s not looking good.
I just spent the night twisting and contorting myself in a lounge chair and trying to ignore the midnight wails of infants, the sugar-induced yelps of chubby adolescents, and the infernal crackle of pop of coke cans being opened by an ensemble of caffeine addicted adults. Regardless of what family sitcoms and social optimists are trying to ignore, little Canadian children are irritating, and older Canadian children are fat. If you don’t agree, just ask the pudgy 12 year old sitting beside me, hand-stuffing bits of bacon and sausage down his gullet, or ask his parents sitting beside him giggling and dropping more fried pork on his plate. In fact, I can’t help but observe that as a people, we are steadily looking more and more like a herd of overfed Buffalonians, fresh off the Greyhound from Cheektowaga.
OK, I am in a bad mood, and at this point, I’m already getting to jump ship. But, as much as the process of leaving St. John’s is proving to be quite an ordeal, the process of getting there and experiencing the city and its arts scene has been one of the many high points of my tour.
If you just want to find out the goods on St. John’s, skip my diatribe and head to the bottom of the entry.
There are two ways to get to and from St. John’s without flying: a fifteen-hour ferry ride to Argentia and a two-hour drive, or a six-hour ferry ride to Port Aux Basques followed by a ten-hour drive.
Take your pick.
Either way, you’ll soon find out that Newfoundland is an enormous island and that you can’t get further east in Canada than St. John’s. The landscape of Newfoundland is unlike anything I have seen. One of the guys I hitched a ride from, Terry, told me that the tectonic plates that make up the island have drifted together from all parts of the world. Whether this is true or not, it might help explain the diversity in land formations across the island.
On getting off at Port Aux Basques, on the western point of The Rock, as it’s called, my first impression was that of a lunar creator, covered by a thin amount of grass. Then came the mountains, which reminded me of the range of older mountains around Chilliwack, BC. Then came the lakes and seacoasts, which reminded me of Muskoka and Georgian Bay in Ontario. And then finally came the vast expanse of trees and forest, which somehow reminded me of the Australian outback, but green. It was at this point, that I, only a tiny collection of senses in a great emptiness, experience the size of the place. The green, the trees, went on and on for hours, out of sight in all directions. Never had the vehicle I was in, felt so important. All the while I kept on thinking, “if I’m let out here, I am done for.”
But I wasn’t let out, and despite the feeling of emptiness I got from the place, people kept on popping up along the highway. Children, old men, and women would periodically appear from the bushes, walk in the wilderness with the cadence of walking to a corner store, and then vanish into the brush from where they came. I was informed by both guys who drove me that despite the vast look of the terrain, Newfoundland was dotted with communities and roads all along the Trans-Canada highway. It seemed hard for me to believe that somewhere hidden behind the endless veil of trees, towns and villages existed.
Having missed my chance to get on the overnight ferry to The Rock, and spent my bus money on a motel room, I had little choice but to get a ride with someone on the morning ferry. As luck would have it, the second set of people I asked, a couple of Newfoundland boys coming from Edmonton were heading where I wanted to go. Both Terry and Bryan were driving their cars down home for the winter months, having finished a summer construction contract in Alberta. I drove with Terry most of the way to St. John’s. He was the quieter one of the two, and seemed to have a preoccupation with moose.
“I sure hope we don’t run into any moose,” he’d say with a healthy Newfoundland accent. In fact, the whole island seemed to have a preoccupation with moose. On the ferry ride over, several announcements were made to remind drivers to be careful driving at night because already this year several serious accidents have occurred. Given that it no longer has any natural enemies on the island, it is said the moose has infested Newfoundland. Both Terry and Bryan knew people who’ve had run-ins with moose on night roads, and both could tell you about the strength of the beast, the hardness of its bones, and the thick toughness of its skin. Thick enough, Bryan mentioned, that you’d be lucky to stab a sharp knife through it. I think part of the reason Terry and Bryan gave me a lift was to be a second set of eyes for them both.
Moose paranoia, by the end of the ride, finally got to me. Once, upon nearing St. John’s, I switched cars to ride with Bryan, and shortly after that Terry fell behind. Bryan pulled to the side of the Trans-Canada, and there we waited in the dark, both of us watching car after car drift passed that wasn?t Terry?s and both of us dreading the possibility that so close to home, a moose had at last got him.
As it turned out, Terry had just stopped to get a coffee, and Bryan was kind enough to drive me an hour out of his way to drop me off in downtown St. John’s. Not only that, showing exceptional courtesy, especially after driving for five straight days, he gave me a tour of the oldest harbour in Canada, pointing out the different kinds of boats and how far they went out to sea to make their catch. If you are reading this Bryan, you have a place to stay when you come to TO.
St. John’s was awesome. There I stayed with fellow poet and writer Kevin Hehir. He not only put me up for a few days, but organized a couple of readings for me as well. He lives with his girlfriend, Cara, in the old part of the side, in the “bowl” of the harbour. His neighbourhood, like most in the bowl, is comprised of wooden townhouses, old and crooked and leaning into one another with their slanted walls and floors. Most are painted with different colours or covered with different kinds of vinyl siding. To compensate for having no front yards, the back yards of the townhouses are cluttered jungles of trees and fences and gardens. In other words, the place has a charm about it that I already miss.
In St. John’s, it was my first time to be labeled CFA, or “come from away.” You could always tell the locals from the CFA’s as soon as they open their mouths. The locals speak with the stereotypical accent, which is to me, a combination of Irish, French, and Australian. Outside Newfoundland to hear the accent is usually a cause for a joke, but to hear that accent on the island, and all the idioms that come along with it, evokes in me a sense of age and untouchability and remoteness. And once I climbed up out of the bowl and onto the rocky cliffs above the harbour, and had a look at the vast expanse of land, it became evident to me timelessness of the place, a city kept and held away from the world in a pocket of stone.
If that isn?t enough for you, downtown St. John’s doesn’t even have a Starbucks.
Even Beijing has a Starbucks.
The art scene in St. John’s is phenomenal. For place of about 300,000 people, what I was shown in the three days I was there, could very well rival Toronto with its energy. While the Toronto arts and writing scene is large and it feeds off a more competitive nature, the St. John’s scene is only a fraction of the size but thrives on supportiveness and cooperation. While in the city, I took part in a reading at a 24 hour art marathon in a factory-turned-studio down by the water where artists, musicians, and poets alike worked together to produce and exhibit their art from 2:00 in the afternoon Friday, to 2:00 in the afternoon the next day. The next day, those who had manage to discern our flyers from the cluttered mosaic of flyers posted throughout the city, turned up for my reading at the Ship’s Inn, a venue that Kevin Hehir had been running up until a few months ago. He revived it for the visit, and I hope that he will continue it again on a monthly basis. Even if he doesn’t, there is no worry. I hate to speak for him, but just contact him if you are going to make a visit, and Kevin will be happy to set something up for you. So will the rest of the St. John’s art and poetry lovers. Though they have more than enough potential to stand on their own, they are also hungry to watch and listen to someone who has come from away.
See you in TO, folks. The Latchkey poetry feature for September is J Dennie, and the photography feature will soon be announced. So give the site a look and a few comments.
Also, as for the Latchkey National Word Calendar, myself and Kevin Hehir will be combining forces to produce a calendar that will provide information about spoken word and poetry events from more that a dozen Canadian cities! The calendar will be released a few weeks from now.