March 15, 2010
Quaerite Prime Regnum Dei. When someone asks me where I”m from, usually after listening to me speak, then curiously cocking their head in a vain attempt to place my accent, I hesitate.
I don”t hesitate because I”m not sure where I”m from. A few months off from high school trying my hand at door-to-door encyclopedia sales in the bitter Atlantic winter, meeting thousands of our hardworking men, women and children. An elderly mother in a small port village told me she had 22 girls, and then switched her fisherman husband’s diet from pork to chicken and finally bore a boy. Why not fish, I asked?
I don”t hesitate because I”m embarrassed. The first colony of the British Empire, the most strategic north-easterly point of land, the origination of the first transatlantic wireless signal, the birthplace of the gas-mask, the worlds largest dog. We can be proud.
Nor do I hesitate because I have some dark lust to forget my origins. I love my old stomping ground, the language, the food, the arts and culture, the friends and friendly enemies, the deep seeded community feel, the lack of “chip on the shoulder”, the fish “n chips, the benign nightly news, the low crime rate.
I hesitate because the reactions to my proud, confident, and passionate answer range from “Huh?” to “What did he say?” or “Where’s that?” or the most soul-destroying response “Ahhh, New Zealand. You don”t sound like a Kiwi!”. The latter makes me gag like a vegan in a slaughterhouse.
Newfoundland. Born 1497 when, as a great (or soon to be great) man offers:
“In fourteen hundred and ninety two, Columbus sailed the ocean bloooo, in fourteen hundred and ninety seven, Cabot sailed his way to heaven” (at the behest of King Henry VII). The source of salt fish for the Empire, wood for the boats that carried it across the Pond, and soldiers for the Great Wars that protected Her. “Hells Angels on steroids”, the Vikings set out to ravage Northern Europe in the ninth century, and left in their brutal wake a settlement in L”Anse aux Meadows, on the northern tip of the island, which coincidentally shares its latitude with London, where the future of my postman’s forbears was decided with impunity, and not generously so.
Newfoundland. With eyebrows of terraced houses high above the most northerly ice-free harbor in North America, each wooden salt-box inspired two-story painted in jellybean colors, the hues of rainbow left over from the identifying hull tint used by a fisherman to point his boat from the boats of his countrymen. Defended during the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries against invaders from every member of the future European Union, who then in the twentieth century, with advanced knowledge of science, politics and economics proceeded to rape its fisheries to within a shred of extinction, and then take the fast lane back to their ports to unload the last of le morue, el bacalao (or bacalhau, if that’s the way you”re facing).
Who hasn”t read the book made famous by that limpy bloke from the films, the movie of the same name which wasn”t actually filmed here; seen the reality footage of a highly strung polar bear tranquilized on a cliff; watched a one-legged woman (formerly of ill-repute, now proven of ill-mental health) struggle to communicate her impression of the winter hunt (while our eyes were watching Sir Paul squirm in the cold). How can it not be known that our capital city, the oldest city in North America; the home of the second Pan monument; and the landing site of more than a few of those brave transatlantic flight pioneers; that it shares a latitude with Salzburg, Satu Mare, and Seattle. ITS NOT IN THE ARTIC CIRCLE!
Granted we have pack-ice on-shore for six weeks a year, I”ll give you that. And that we see icebergs for three months, peppered with seals, the odd polar bear, and multitudes of whales. That you can have as well. Choose between any of our well-deserved titles: the foggiest, windiest, cloudiest, wettest (?) and snowiest. We are also the some of the happiest.
So ask me where I”m from, after a few nonchalant jokes to powder your ignorance I”ll tell you “I was born in Newfoundland” Your response will make me chuckle, a warmth will emanate like a mother watching her infant try to take their first steps. You”ll say “Ah, Noo-FOWND-Lend?” and I”ll say “No, say it like this… Un-der-stand New-found-land”. I”ll say “You know it?”, you”ll muster all your educational chestiness, and say “Of course, its way up North, right?” with the glint of a first-time smoker, teary eyes and held back choke intact. And I”ll tell you, with no uncertainty, that it’s further south than London, the fifteenth largest island, half the size of Great Britain with one-hundred-twentieth the population, and that it’s a land of beauty unparalleled. I should let the conversation die there, before you ask with simple incredulity “Did you go to school there?” as if my intelligence could only have been nurtured by a foreign service…
I write this dispatch from London, where I am a minority. I may possibly be the only Newfoundlander some will ever meet, dine with, or share a hearty guffaw. You may be a member of the lucky few who really get what it means to have grown up in the pine-clad hills, where summer spreads her hands for only days of the year, but where traditions and dialects exist in modern times.