15.10.2014 - 19.10.2014 20 °C
Being stuck away on the East coast of Canada makes Halifax just a bit awkward to leave. My plan had been to catch an overnight ferry which runs from the south of Nova Scotia down to Portland, Maine but it finished running for the year a bit before I was ready to leave. Then inspiration struck: why not go to an even more remote place? A while ago, I read Theatre of Fish by John Gimlette, who wrote about his touring around Newfoundland, tracing the footsteps of his great-Grandfather and noting the devastation to small maritime communities when they could no longer fish for cod, and more recently I read The Shipping News. They both made me want to spend some time there. While I wouldn't have time to get out and explore the Rock, I could at least have a few days to St John's and fly on to the States from there.
Halifax didn't seem all that keen to let me go: I was well in time for the hourly airport bus, but it was not there. Other buses came through, and I found out that there was a gas leak which had led to the road being closed and big traffic jams, and that's where my bus was stuck. I got talking to three others waiting for the same bus - three New Zealanders, as it happens, on their way to a wedding on Cape Breton - and we decided to share a taxi. Of course, then there were no taxis and none of us knew how to get one, but eventually one turned up to drop a passenger off at the bus stop, so we were finally on our way - with the airport bus pulling in just as we left.
St John's turned out to be a great wee city - first settled in the early 1600's, it only formally incorporated in 1921 and has about 200,000 residents. It was the kick off point for the first transatlantic flight and has a Marconi history of its own, as the first transatlantic radio message was received here. It was largely a fishing port until the fishery collapsed in the 1980's, but has had an oil boom - the main CBD is in much better health than Halifax. It is essentially two long main streets (Duckworth and Water) running along the harbour's edge, so close that you'll ships tied up at the ends of some streets.
The whole town is built on the side of a hill - I doubt that there are more than about 10 square metres of naturally flat land in the whole place. About three kilometres up the hill is where they've put both the public library and the university - so I spent my time there trundling along the main streets, climbing the hills up to the university and, of course, doing some work there, getting claustrophobic in the extremely high shelving.
One of the unique features of the place is its colourful houses, with about as many stories about how they came to be that way as there are colours - the two leading contenders for most accurate story are that fishermen painted their houses the same colour as their boats, so they could find them or that it is the St John's way of giving the finger to the fog and general grey weather - I didn't see the sun until my last day, and that only happened because we got hit by the tail end of a hurricane, which cleared away all the cloud.
That last picture is of a very cool record shop, Fred's, which had lots of local music - I spent a couple of hours in there and came out with a couple of discs, including one by Ilia Nicol. I was looking for something to do that night and more than a little surprised to find that Ilia Nicol had a gig that very night. I'd talked a bit about local music with the guy at Fred's and he never mentioned it, and he obviously knew she was playing as I saw him there. The gig was in a venue called the Levee in St John's infamous George Street, made infamous by having the greatest concentration of bars in all of North America, most of them playing music, loudly (once they finally open, that is, at 10:30 at night).
Ilia was actually up first in the line out - on her CD she's quite mellow, but live there's quite a bit more energy - she needed it, because the Levee is in a little courtyard it shares with three other bars - one doing very loud rock and roll, another doing some sort of goth-heavy metal mash-up and the other, who knows, no-one could hear what was happening. The next band up was another local band called the Domestics - it took me a while to warm to them, but then they did this amazing song called What Kind of Man Are You, where the band took a back seat and let the rather mournful vocals shine. I also enjoyed their last song - You're Never Coming Back. They were kind enough to tell us that Gonzales (the former hurricane) had been further downgraded from a tropical storm, then spent a few minutes telling us how to prepare for a storm.
The main event was a band called the Naysayers, three bearded guys and a rock chick, 30's, in from Dawson City, Yukon - very loud, with an acoustic guitar, played furiously: in that venue, I found the music relentless. Most of the crowd disappeared when they came on, although a different group came in so it wasn't deserted. I'm afraid I deserted, however, they just weren't doing it for me. Outside I had a fairly random confrontation with an attractive enough woman in a green greatcoat. She came toe to toe with me, raving about some sort of implement she wants from US, waved her hands around to illustrate its size. The only thing I understood is it is for smoking, its like smoking 5 cigarettes at once, not e-cig, not hookah and it won't kill you. Sounds magic. After all that, I needed a bad kebab.
Downtown had very few chainstores - a couple of Subways, a Hortons, a Starbucks, but otherwise it was all local shops and cafes and one thing that struck me was the number and quality of the menswear shops - I went into one, Chafe & Sons, which has been going for more than 80 years. It was a sizeable shop, so much stock I could hardly move. One illustration of the depth of their stock: they'd put up a shelf which ran the entire length of one wall, maybe a metre down from the ceiling - the shelf was stacked to the ceiling with caps! I'd been planning to buy a cheap belt from somewhere like Walmart, but I was happy to pay these guys a bit more. Just along from there is an amazing cafe - the Rocket Bakery - which I came across in my first walk and made a point of going to every day I was there - a couple of the staff were a bit off, but the rest were great, nice food, nice coffee but it was the shop itself which spoke to me.
Just along from there is another cafe I swore I wouldn't go into (I think that cafes which can't do better than name themselves coffee or bean or variants thereof don't get my business), but I was wandering past Coffee & Company and there were a couple of old guys doing some really authentic music, the woman behind the counter was rather, um, appealing and they had fantastic cakes. Another cafe I stumbled across was in The Rooms - the local museum - which is where I took the elevated photos of the harbour. I mentioned I had a bad experience with cod on Cape Breton Island - here they had codcakes, so I thought I'd give them a go. Alright, I guess. I had a third go at cod - coming back down the hill, I was hit by a downpour just as I passed a cod shop - I think its official, I don't like north Atlantic cod.
Last couple of pictures don't really fit anywhere else - the Newfoundland Supreme Court, and then up past the Cathedral, the entrance to another church caught my fancy.
I need to finish by talking about the hostel - in some ways its one of the worst I've been in - just two toilets, so that I had to go to the cafe next door, and four chairs to sit on in the kitchen area. But it was one of those "it was the worst of times, it was the best of times" kind of places - one of the best hostel experiences I've ever had. I happened to mention to Elizabeth in the office that I was finding it weird that there was nowhere to sit - apparently the office is where people come to chill: I met heaps of people but best of all were the three women who worked there, Elizabeth from Toronto (obsessed with Brazil), Jeannine from Germany (obsessed with whales) and Laura from Bulgaria (obsessed with rum). I had been planning to go for a final night out on the Saturday, and was occupying 25% of the seating in the kitchen pre-loading (having ONE quiet beer!) when they came in. I fell for all three, as a collective.