Scoffin’ Scuffin’ and Firkin’ in St. John’s

Here you’ll find my travel stories–the latest, the longest, the funniest, the ones that were so rewarding to write. Let’s begin with the story that I consider to have started it all.

Scoffin’ Scuffin’ and Firkin’ in St. John’s.

It is not so much the invitation to sign the guest book that has me gobsmacked, it’s who’s doing the asking.

High above St. John’s Harbour on Signal Hill

“I get meeting so many different people,” explains taxi driver Mike Rodgers as he pulls the fat, ledgerlike book from between the front seats of his baby-blue Bugden’s cab. “This way I find out what they got to say, learn about things in the world.”

I read what Rodger’s customers have to say as we wind our way through the higgledy-piggledy streets of St. John’s, the oldest European settlement in North America. The guest book entries reveal a cosmopolitan group – mainly Canadians and Americans but also Danes, Irish, Greeks, Egyptians, Chinese and Italians as well. Each page has three columns for names, addresses and comments, a number of which are written in foreign languages. I ask Rodgers what that’s about.

“For a while there it seemed like the only language in the world was English,” explains Rodgers of his early guest book days. “So now I ask people to write in their own language. Someone later on will do the translation so then I find out what it means.”

Most of the comments are of the “Thanks for the ride, this guest book is a hoot, Newfoundland is great” variety. I particularly fancy this entry: “Very nice people. Very nice place. Very awful weather.”

I couldn’t agree more with the first two sentiments. Regarding the third, well, I was warned and so am dressed in warm, waterproof gear (minus the screaming yellow sou’wester that one friend offered). I’ve come to St. John’s for a conference and, although my days are to be filled with plenary sessions and workshops and (gag) networking, I’m determined to explore this legendary city that British travel writer Jan Morris described as “the most entertaining town in North America.”

It’s 2:00 a.m. in St. John’s when I have a revelation: the four-and-a-half-hour time difference between Vancouver and St. John’s is a gift from God. How else could I still be awake after flying clear across the country? And not just awake but twirling and clapping and dancing like a fool with Steve Line, the white-haired leprechaun in tap shoes who inhabits O’Reillys Newfoundland Irish Pub (15 George Street) most Friday and Saturday nights. OK, Steve’s not a leprechaun, but with his short stature, impish grin and lively dance steps, I swear he could be the grandfather of the Lucky Charms guy.

Some convention colleagues and I had decided on a scoff ‘n’ scuff — dinner and dancing – for our first night in town. I was all for trying the local fare, like seal flipper pie at Chucky’s Fish ‘N Ships (10 King’s Road) or fish and brewis (fish always means cod, and brewis is a sea-biscuit soaked in water and boiled) at Velma’s Place (264 Water St.). Others wanted finer cuisine at The Gypsy Tea Room (195 Water St.) or at Two Chefs, the “in” spot owned in part by Alan Doyle from Great Big Sea (106 Water St.). In the end, we decided to scarf down free hors d’oeuvres at the convention’s cocktail party and head straight for the bars.

Choosing a bar was tough because, don’ t you know, St. John’s is full of drinking establishments. We walked to George Street, a single city block wedged tight with bars, and, on the earlier advice of a clerk at Fred’s Records, sought out O’Reilly’s.

When we walked in at 9:30 p.m. an earnest group of local musicians were gathered round a table playing traditional Celtic music with button accordions, tin whistles and the like. Two hours and many Guiness later ($6.50 a glass, poured the right way, in three stages), The Matchless Men took to the stage and the pub got raucous. Locals jammed the dance floor and sang along to lyrics I couldn’t begin to understand. I slowed my drinking in hopes of recalling the finer points the next morning.

When my alarm clock goes off the next morning I realize the time difference actually sucks. I manage to get down to breakfast, get breakfast down (at 7:30 a.m. — yes, that’s 3 a.m. Vancouver time), and drag myself through the morning sessions.

Anyone who thinks a convention lunch can’t be a cultural activity has never eaten a Jiggs Dinner (boiled salt meat with root vegetables) at noon in Newfoundland. Lunch is served in the Johnson GEO Centre, a remarkable museum that uses the province’s four-billion-year-old rock to tell the story of the earth’s geology. Bernadette Walsh, special projects officer with the City of St. John’s, warms up the crowd, proudly reminding us that, compared to the rest of Canada, “Newfoundlanders donate the most to charity, drink the most beer, and have the most sex.” Martha, my tablemate, leans over to whisper, “This is sometimes called donating to charity.”

What follows is a kind of Newfoundland dim sum, a little bit of everything. First there’s pea soup, then pan fried cod with scrunchions (crispy fried bits of salt pork), fish and brewis, roast turkey with dressing and the boiled salt meat. One of the diners at my table, a quasi-vegetarian, is aghast at all the animal fat. “Praise the lard,” I say and ask Martha to pass the tautons (bits of bread fried in pork fat).

It’s either go for a postlunch walk or crawl under the table to sleep, so I spend a couple of hours just firking, a delightful Newfoundland word that means “wandering aimlessly.”

I begin just east of downtown at Signal Hill National Historic Site, the wind-swept promontory at the entrance to St. John’s punch-bowl harbour, where Marconi took the first wireless transatlantic message, and where the British battled the French for centuries.

Then it’s down to the Lower Battery for a walk past modest, colourful homes that cling to the rock like lichen. A few minutes later I’m downtown, hiking the steep streets that run from the heights to the harbour.

I wander past rows and rows of jellybean-coloured homes on my way to the Basilica of St. John the Baptist and the Presentation Sisters Convent. Here, Sister Perpetua Kennedy welcomes me warmly to “our home, not a museum” and ushers me in to a room where the Veiled Virgin is displayed. This white marble bust of the Virgin Mary, sculpted by Giovanni Strazza, was brought to St. John’s around 1862. The veil flowing across Mary’s face seems made of chiffon, not marble. It’s exquisite.

The convention folk organize a tour to nearby Cape Spear National Historic Site, home to the oldest lighthouse in the province and North America’s most easterly point. Standing on the weather-battered shore, watching the waves explode on the rocks, I gain a new respect for the fishers who sail such wild seas.

The tour also includes a visit to Quidi Vidi (pronounced “kitty vitty”) and Petty (originally “petite”) harbours. Guide Mark McCarthy gamely answers all questions. What does Quidi Vidi mean? “It comes from the Portuguese porto qui dividi, meaning ‘a port which divides’,” he explains. Why the odd pronunciations? “In Newfoundland, no language is safe.” And how has the recent rash of movies set in Newfoundland affected the province? “No doubt Shipping News and Rare Birds have put us well on the weirdness map.”

Too soon, it’s time to leave. I call Mike Rodgers to drive me to the airport. As I’m writing in the guest book Rodger’s wife of 39 years calls to discuss dinner plans. “Irish stew tonight,” Rodgers says as he hangs up. “Know how to make it?”

I admit I don’t and he proceeds to give me the recipe: cook up some rice, open a can of stew, and pour it on top. I suggest that with such culinary prowess, he should start a cookbook alongside the guest book. We have a bit of a laugh, then shake hands at the airport. I walk through the departure doors and realize I miss the place already.

Visit Newfoundland and Labrador Tourism to learn more.

First appeared in The Georgia Straight, 2004.

Winner of  The Canadian Tourism Commission Norther Lights Award for Travel Writing Excellence and the Travel Media Association of Canada Destination Newfoundland and Labrador Award.

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