Newfoundland is an island in the Atlantic Ocean not far from where the Titanic met its destiny. It’s the easternmost point of North America, off the coast of Canada. Even though the location might seem remote, and the icy surrounding waters may be cold, the people here have the biggest hearts on the American continent.
When I told people I was moving to St. John’s, they arched their eyebrows and said: “Really?!” I myself rented the movie Misery Harbour, based on a book by Danish-Norwegian author Aksel Sandemose, to get an impression. It was intense and raw, but I hoped things had developed during the last hundred years – and luckily they had.
St. John’s is one of the oldest cities in North America, a historic shipping and fishing hub with a working harbor. After emptying the oceans of fish in the 1980’s the oil industry has now taken over. Several promising oil fields have been found and set in production far off the ragged shores.
You can actually feel the optimism for a new era, and the poverty has been reduced significantly the last 8 years, from the highest levels of poverty per capita in Canada to the third lowest in the country.
But the people have always had a special spirit, from back when they worked their way over on sail ships, mainly from England and Ireland, hoping for a better life. However, what awaited them was hard work, a harsh climate and very little food. They wouldn’t have survived if they hadn’t helped each other to survive.
After moving to a new development, still with few houses, my doorbell rang one day. A smiling unknown lady stood on my door step and said: “I’ve seen your car passing my house and know you have a little baby. I guess your husband is working off shore, so if you should need anything or just a friendly chat, please do not hesitate to come to my house. We’re all in the same boat. It’s the blue one, no. 88.” I thanked her, and didn’t have the heart to tell her that my husband worked down town…
This is how the Newfies are. When they ask “how are you?” they really mean it. It’s not just a North American phrase. When we got the worst winter since 1874, with 6,43 meters of snow and a handful of blizzards, people helped their elderly neighbors before they even thought of clearing their own driveway.
The English spoken here is quite unique, it includes some seven dialects and about 60 language subgroups, all based on where people live along the coast. It’s not the language of love, but it certainly adds an extra layer of charm. Speaking of which, the hilly streets of St. John’s are lined by small wooden houses painted in the colors of the rainbow, just like a string of happy jelly beans.
To kiss a cod
On our first night out, we ended up in a bar called Christian’s, a small wood-paneled tavern. But first we had to be screeched-in, an old tradition to become honorary Newfoundlanders.
“First you have to kiss a cod and then you have to down a shot of rum,” the bartender said.
“Ok”, I replied. Feeling a strike of panic, I shot my eyes, kissed the slimy cod and drank the rum. “Yes, I made it!”
“Congratulations” the bartender said and gave me a yellow certificate as proof.
The bar was packed with people hugging and laughing, and you got a wonderful feeling of belonging. This fantastic island off the coast of Nova Scotia has an allure unique from other parts of Canada. Where else can you dip your toes in Conception Bay or visit towns called Cupids or Heart’s Content?
The plane people of 9/11
The tragic event of 9/11 really shows how the Newfoundlanders are. When the United States airspace was closed that day, Canadian air traffic landed as many flights as possible in Gander (a small town 200 kilometers north of St. John’s) and St. John’s. They landed 33 000 people in a couple of hours, and the Newfoundlanders opened their homes and their hearts to house “the plane people”, as they called them.
My husband got a phone call from his assistant’s mother that day.“Do you speak German?” He replied that his German unfortunately was limited. She followed up by saying: “Then I’m not going to ask you the second question!” My husband got curious and asked what that was, and she answered: “Japanese”.
Ten years after the tragic attack many of “the plane people” came back to thank the Newfoundlanders who answered the terrorist attacks with kindness for strangers, and not with fear or suspicion.
A piece of my heart will always be in St. John’s wherever I may live, and a physical part will always stay, as I have a paver with my name and heritage in their walk of fame. Even if I’m also an honorary Newfoundlander, I have to admit that I haven’t had the courage to eat seal flippers – yet….!
Text and photos by Heidi Nesttun-Sunde, October 2013