Posted tagged ‘Newfoundland’

The realm of the unexpected

April 19, 2014


Þingvellir National Park

Þingvellir National Park, where the European and North American plates are separating at a rate of 1cm per year.

When I was small enough to be stuffed in the back of the car with my brother and toured across the continent, my dad would sing a repertoire of traveling songs. Our favourite was about a man’s first night of marital bliss. The couple are alone in the bedroom, and the woman takes off her eyelashes, which were fake. She takes off her hair, which was a wig. She takes off her false nails, the blush on her cheeks, and her leg, a prosthetic. She removes unexpected parts of her body, everything besides the clothes the man had hoped to see in a puddle on the floor.

I was thinking about this song on the Icelandair flight back to North America from Europe. How appropriate it was that my dad only sung this one during road trips. In Iceland, I went to a geothermal pool in Reykjavik and had to shed my very North American notions of shameful nudity, to strip down in the change room and shower in front of other girls and women – how liberating! (see #4 here) Also in Reykjavik, I shrugged off my tendency toward nothing but mellow music, and, after seeing Sin Fang perform at an art gallery, I went to a heavy metal show at Gamli Gaukurinn – how ear piercing! I loved every minute of it (after shoving tissue in my ears to block the high notes). I learned that heavy metal has a basis in classical music (thanks, Gemma!), and that, as a lake-lover, there are public pools I can handle – the kind with no skin-drying chlorine.

This is what travel is all about: a stripping away of the expected, to step into the realm of the unexpected.

Travel is also about making new connections in a world of endless possibility, beyond the borders of daily life. In a Reykjavik café called Kaffibarinn, Gemma and I met a couple from Bergen, Norway. The man was fascinated when I told him I live in Newfoundland, because he is a journalist and friend of Todd Saunders, the world-renowned architect who designed the five star inn for the Shorefast Foundation on Fogo Island, NL. I was struck by the way the couple talked about art – his painting, her adoration of music, the people they know and the communities they adore. I said goodbye, determined to incorporate more art into my own life back home.

I booked this trip to attend the Iceland Writers Retreat. I wanted to do something special and memorable, and selfishly indulgent for my 40th birthday. The week knocked “special” way out of the park. The workshops were fabulous, with take-away inspiration about immediacy in literary beginnings, story arc, character and voice, and the emotional beat to end on. Every time I turned around there was another writer with a fascinating story to tell. Each and every one of us like a turtle poking our heads out of the shell of self-consciousness we wear, downplaying every small thing we’ve ever accomplished, and giddy to be in the presence of published authors.

home of Halldór Laxness

In the home of Nobel Prize winning author Halldór Laxness.

We met the President of Iceland, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, who told us with a smile that in his country there are no statues of presidents, but you can find many statues of writers.

The day of my birthday we went on a tour of the Golden Circle (even the weather cooperated with mostly clear skies), and that evening, we enjoyed two author readings by Gerður Kristný and Ragna Sigurðardóttir, and a performance by Lay Low. As we left KEX to head to another bar, the northern lights appeared. Only in non-fiction do things work out this perfectly.

My husband was worried I’d be sad and lonely to be away from my family for my birthday. I admit I did choke up once: during the final Q&A with the authors, when Susan Orlean said, Give yourself a break if you are writing into the void (without deadlines or promise of publication). I decided, if there’s nothing else interesting about me, this is it. The fact that I am committed to my writing, without any concrete goal besides maybe being published, someday. So committed, I take time away from my family and other pleasures to pursue it, to work at it, so committed that I’ve invested in it, in the best ways possible.

When asked her opinion on pursuing an MFA, the very wonderful and inspiring Geraldine Brooks suggested a writer could take the thirty thousand per year she’d spend on an MFA, and travel instead.

I couldn’t agree more.


First impressions of Newfoundland (and seventeen grocery bags of dirty laundry)

March 20, 2011

A view of cliffs overhanging the ocean.

Here’s the top 5 things I’ve learned after living in Newfoundland for two weeks:

1. There’s weather here like I’ve never experienced anywhere else in Canada.

I’ve lived in several Northern Canadian towns, and before now, I thought that anywhere around the Great Lakes in Ontario experienced the wildest snow, wind and rain storms. But the weather in St. John’s is like no other place I’ve ever been. You know the expression, ‘if you don’t like the weather, wait 5 minutes?’ Never more true than here. It comes out of nowhere, a clear, sunny sky, moderate winds turn into gusts around 25-50 kms/hour, and the heaviest – I mean, this stuff weighs a tonne – snow on earth. Last Monday I turned on the radio and heard the words “school closures” but didn’t think they could possibly be talking about St. John’s. Sure enough, my daughter’s fourth day at her new school was canceled. Not a drop of precipitation in the air. I took the kids to a movie. By mid-afternoon, there was a heavy snowfall happening. Still, it didn’t seem that bad. Until the next morning, when my rental van was stuck in the thickest, stickiest slush I’ve ever tried to shovel. Luckily, a kind man from across the street helped to dig me out. Which leads me to #2.

2. Never underestimate the kindness of strangers in Newfoundland.

Seriously, that man didn’t have to help dig me out. Neither did our landlord’s parents have to stock our rental home with some basic essentials, milk, juice, margarine, fresh muffins AND homemade jelly. My gosh, can you imagine anyone in Toronto doing something like that? In that city, the tenants would move in and get a restraining order for the weirdo landlord trying to stalk them. No, people here are genuinely friendly. They even SMILE. Finally, I’m living somewhere, where other people smile even more than I do!

3. Another new experience for me: the English language (I think?) spoken by some Newfoundland natives.

I couldn’t understand a word the man said, but he shoveled that brutally heavy snow out from under my tires, I gave him  my biggest grin and said a million thank-you’s, he mirrored my smiles and gave a high five and away we went! So, despite the fact that you may not understand the Newfoundland dialect, a thank-you and a smile goes a long way.

4. I’m not sure if I’ll ever get used to hearing the CBC news at the bottom, rather than the top, of the hour.

It seems quite fitting that Newfoundland is a half-hour “off” the rest of the world. This is a place where no one is in a big hurry. Good thing, because with the intersections their forebearers created in this city, if anyone tried blasting around the way they do in other capital cities (picture Montreal, where drivers don’t even adhere to red lights, let alone speed signs), there’d be an accident about every 5 seconds. Yes, everything here is a little “off” and a little slowed down from any other place I’ve ever lived. But in a good way. A delightfully, down-home, endearingly good way.

5. I think I finally realize what “Where ya to?” means. Where ya from. Or maybe it’s, where ya living? Where it is? Where ya going? Something like that. Once I’m more certain, I’ll let ya know.

So we arrived in St. John’s on Friday, March 4 after 17 nights on the road. That was two nights of hotels in Thompson while our house was being packed up; another in Winnipeg; then Thunder Bay; next was Wawa (although we had hoped to make it to Sault Ste. Marie that night, but after fueling up in the town of the giant goose, we were about to pull back onto the highway when the road block was just going up….due to weather. Luckily, we got a great room – a cabin with a fireplace! – and enjoyed an evening together as a family while the snow gusted around us outside). We spent three nights with each of our parents in Southern Ontario. Two with my brother and his family in Montreal. One stopover in New Brunswick before landing in Nova Scotia for the last of our family visits for this trip, with my aunt and uncle and cousins (who greeted us with fresh lobster – welcome to Atlantic Canada, aaahhhh yeah!). One night there turned into two, once we realized there was only one ferry option still available that week.

By that time, my husband was getting very anxious to get to St. John’s, as his assignments were piling up while we were on the road. We hadn’t booked the ferry yet because of all the weather delays. The only tickets available were for the overnight boat. We’d hoped to take the daytime one, to see the view over the ocean; as it turned out, I don’t think we would have seen much anyways, as the weather was foggy all week.

That night, we rocked and rolled across the channel from Sydney, Cape Breton to Channel-Port aux Basques, NL. I can’t even imagine the size of the waves that caused that giant boat to sway so. I lay in my bed in the cabin, worrying that my son would roll out of the top bunk, while trying not to roll on my baby who was sharing a mattress with me.

In the end, we were glad we’d taken the overnight ride, because the next day’s drive would have been deadly had it not been daylight. We drove through Wreckhouse, where winds are known to gust up to 200 kms/hour. They weren’t so strong that day, but it was certainly wild. Every time we crested a hill, the road became more slippery and ice-covered. As we descended into valleys, the trans-Canada seemed to thaw.

Our last night on the road was in Grand Falls. By then, the baggies of dirty laundry were piled in the truck, and we were so excited to empty the vehicle for the last time.

And now, living in a furnished rental, our belongings in storage, it’s a humbling experience of existing without all the things we’ve gathered over five years of home ownership. I have mixed emotions about this old home, more than 100 years of history. I’ve always wanted to live in an old home, but it does come with it’s price. The other day I said to my daughter, it kinda smells like old man armpit in here. She laughed and laughed. I cleaned and cleaned, and finally gave up, listening to the creaks and echoes, hoping to hear the stories these walls could tell.