Have you ever looked at a map and wondered about the places you find: remote highways, cities with strange names, provinces with unruly borders? I had always been curious about two dots off the coast of Newfoundland. They are a different color from Newfoundland, or Canada or any other place on the map of North America. They are, in fact, a different county. The islands of St. Pierre & Miquelon are part of France, the last motes of a territory that once stretched halfway across the continent.
I've started traveling again, in my old age. I get Social Security, which is barely enough to live on. That means I need a job too, but the two together bring in more money than I've ever made before. So this summer I had the means to indulge my curiosity.
Still, the two specks of France seemed too small and too remote to merit a visit: population 6,000, and only accessible by ferry or air from the province of Newfoundland. However I've always had a special love for Newfoundland - because of a dog we had when my children were little. Our Newfoundland's name was Jonas and he was 160 pounds of shaggy strength and love and soft warm fur. Like Lord Byron's Newfoundland, Boatswain, he possessed
Beauty without Vanity,
Strength without Insolence,
Courage without Ferocity,
And all the Virtues of Man
without his Vices.
(virtues which Lord Byron himself possessed, but along with all those vices). Sentimental perhaps, but surely the land that bred such creatures would be worth a visit.
Lastly, I knew that there were great summer Jazz festivals in Canada. Since I was traveling alone, it would be good to have something to do at night. Newfoundland does has a jazz festival, the Wreckhouse Jazz Festival in the capital of St John's, but none of the performers seemed familiar. I won't pretend I know every great Jazz musician in North America, but I didn't want to travel 2,000 miles to see people I probably wouldn't walk down my block, to the Dakota Bar, for.
The harbour of St. John's reminded me of Duluth. On one side of the inlet the city marches up the hill in stages, like a diagram of urban history and the advance of technology. Down by the water is the Age of Diesel, gritty with international freighters.
The place to take it all in is the top of Signal Hall (red circles above). It's where, in 1901, Marconi took advantage of the height, 500 foot above sea level, and the unimpeded sweep 2000 miles across the Atlantic, to receive history's first wireless signal across the ocean. (Marconi got the credit and fame for inventing the radio. It wasn't until 1943 that the priority of Nikola Tesla's patents was recognized in court.)
I mention all this, because the city of St. John's and the sea itself became part of the Sound Symposium. The festival opened by the waterfront with the Egyptian songs of Maryem Tollar and Middle Eastern dancing by Roula Said. ("New music" apparently meant "music new to us." The Symposium included a Zimbabwean mbira player and a Vietnamese throat singer and it was all fresh and utterly fantastic). Then, immediately, the whistles of all the ships in the harbour opened up in a fanfare: the Harbour Symphony, which was repeated, with variations, every day of the Festival.
On the final night of the Sound Symposium, we were bussed to Cape Spear, where a park and lighthouse mark the easternmost point in America. After wandering improvised performances by all the musicians, they gathered at a bunker facing out to the ocean to play Moritz Eggert's thundering barcarole across the Atlantic to Europe.
St. John's also gave the festival a friendly, small-town feeling. It seemed like the entire arts community of Newfoundland came out for the Sound Symposium. And, as the participants and audience kept running into each other all week , a community was spontaneously generated. You met and talked to famous artists - and they talked to you.
Hearing Eve Egoyan performing with the precision of a lacemaker and her ironic delicacy was a pleasure. To meet her and talk to her was an honor - also she gave me one of her cd's. Others I got to know were Ben Grossman who played an electric hurdy-gurdy with electrodes poking out all over like a robot centipede. Also Frank Pahl and his partner Terry Sarris from Detroit. Terri is a film maker and Frank plays automatic music installations and toy instruments. He also recorded several of Eugene Chadourne's cds. They introduced me to the Parisian Tran Quang Hai who seemed to participate in and enjoy every aspect the Sound Symposium.
I did tear myself away from St John's for a couple days to take in the French island of St..Pierre: five hours drive and 2 hours on a ferry blindly churning and skipping the waves through the fog. The islands, indeed any land, were invisible until we passed a small lighthouse that marked the harbor of St. Pierre. Alongside the ferry though, we saw whales playing in the icy waves.
It was like an encounter with God. The whales were immense and mysterious and perfectly at home in the endless depths.
When we got to St. Pierre, the people spoke French, and deployed the Euro.. Indeed they speak mainland French rather than the French of the neighboring Quebequois. (Newfoundlanders too have a distinct accent, like an Irishman speaking in pirate.) The people of St. Pierre are resolutely French; even more French than the Hexagon. They still close down the island between 12:00 & 2:00 PM.
It took me an hour to walk through town and across the island. I'm sure St. Pierre was a typical small French fishing village. There were no sidewalk cafes, no used book stalls, no kiosks with 10 daily papers. Aside from several gourmet restaurants. there were no treasures of French culture. I realized it isn't so much France that I love, as Paris - the way I love Minneapolis or New York, but not the U.S.
Back in St John's, by the last day of Sound Symposium there were still two things I hadn't done: go to the top of Signal Hill and see Newfoundlands. I had seen statues of Newfoundlands and postcards; it is, after all, the national symbol. Of course, in 55 years in the United States I've only seen one bald eagle in the wild, so I shouldn't have been surprised. I asked the tourist office where the Newfoundlands were. Perhaps I had a vision of a park where packs of wonderful shaggy beasts would romp and paddle around They looked at me strangely: Newfoundlands in Newfoundland are referred to as "Newfoundland dogs".
I had had an accident with my rental car and the only way up Signal Hill was by foot. I started out late morning about a mile and a half and 500 feet up. It took me an hour, plodding on the steep places, catching my breath on the level spots. Finally, at the top, I had my panorama of the inlet and the harbour and the city. And, posed upon the ramparts like a guardian spirit, was a Newfoundland. Just then the ships in the harbor all blew their horns like a brass choir on the opening bars of the last daily Harbor Symphony.
What more could I ask for?
SOME OF THE GREAT MUSICIANS I MET
Tran Quang Hai sings Amazing Grace with overtones in one breath.