Thirty-six years ago today, my wife Linda and I, our standard poodle, Yaz, and my daughter Kate, visiting from Switzerland, set sail for a place we’d never been before.
We’d been traveling in Atlantic Canada for a while, camping in our little motorhome, seeking some distance from the tragedy of our son Sean’s death in Maine.
Here, we pick up the story in an excerpt from The Expat Files: My Life in Journalism:
On Bastille Day, we took the 11:45 a.m. ferry from North Sydney, Nova Scotia, to Port aux Basques, Newfoundland. Seven hours on the high seas. Sat on deck as the sunshine turned to fog and back again.
Breaching pilot whales welcomed us to The Rock. As did a fisherman in a fast skiff, showing off his catch, hoisting a large cod with a smile – the smile was on the fisherman, not the cod.
The next day, driving up the west coast of the island province, we passed the town of Stephenville and its abandoned U.S. air base, opened during the Second World War, when Newfoundland was still a British colony. It did not become Canada’s youngest province until 1949.
Outside of Corner Brook, we stopped at a visitor center where I added a lasting lesson in my continuing Canadian education. “How do you pronounce the name of your province?” I asked the nice lady behind the counter.
She smiled. This was obviously not the first time the question was asked. “It rhymes with understand,” she said. “So the trick is – understand, Newfoundland.”
I understood. And never forgot it.
I also quickly understood that this was like no place I’d ever been in Canada, or anywhere else. It was rocky and mountainous, bleak and barren. There were peaceful fjords in one direction, wild ocean in the other. Little pastel-colored houses perched on hillsides.
Some of the people were as alien as the place, spoke with an accent difficult to understand. Understand, Newfoundland? Sure. Understand Newfoundlanders? Not so much.
And, it seemed, they found us odd as well – the Canadian-American couple with the Swiss-American girl, the giant black poodle and the little motorhome with New York plates.
One day, we stopped at a picnic ground in a village off the highway to have lunch. Dozens of children, from tots to teens, came out of their houses to watch us eat ham and cheese sandwiches. When I tried talking to them, asked if they wanted to pet Yaz, their faces went blank. Maybe they didn’t understand New Yorkese.
We made our way up the coast to Gros Morne National Park, with its mountains rising out of the sea and picture-postcard fjords.
Our neighbors in the Shallow Bay campground were a couple from California, roughing it in a motorhome the size of a Greyhound bus.
On Saturday night, we all went into the nearby metropolis of Cow Head for a drink at the only tavern in town. When a rock band started to play, and the noise became unbearable, we moved into an adjoining restaurant, which was closed. The manager, however, assigned a waiter to our beck and call after the Californian flashed a wad of Yankee greenbacks. Eventually, a bottle of scotch was left on the table.
On July 23, two months after Sean was born, we took the overnight ferry, sailing from Port aux Basques back to North Sydney. We gained back the half-hour we lost on the first crossing, since Newfoundland has its own, weird time zone.