Newfoundland exotic, familiar

March 27, 1994|By Jules Older | Jules Older,Special to The Sun

One destination that represents real eco-tourism is Newfoundland, Canada's newest (it joined Canada in 1949), easternmost (1,200 miles east of New York) and most financially troubled province, and also one of its most fascinating.

Newfoundland qualified for eco-tourism status July 2, 1992. On that day, the Canadian government banned northern cod fishing for two years in Newfoundland's coastal waters. A week later, capelin fishing was also banned. Other fishing prohibitions have since been added in a belated attempt to save what's left of the fish population on the Grand Banks, once the richest fishing grounds in the world.

From the moment the bans went into effect, more than 30,000 Newfoundlanders were thrown out of work. For most, it was the (( only work they and their families had ever known.

Tourism is one of the few alternatives to fishing available to residents. When they can make a living from C.F.A.'s (the Newfoundland term for visitors who Come From Away), they need not depend so heavily on cod.

But traveling through Newfoundland is not an act of charity -- it's a pilgrimage to the most unusual English-speaking culture in North America.

Consider:

* Newfoundland songs, of which there are many, are mostly about sex and codfish.

* Cod's tongue, seal flipper and mooseburger are favorite foods.

* Fishing villages -- called outports -- sport names like Come by Chance, Heart's Delight, Cuckhold's Cove and Jerry's Nose.

* The favorite drink is Screech, a fiery Jamaican rum. It got its name in World War II when Canadian soldiers from teetotaling prairie families were stationed in Newfoundland. At the time, rum cost 60 cents a bottle, and when the younger soldiers had a flash or two, their typical reaction was to commence screeching.

* During his first winter in Government House, Newfoundland's first governor froze to death. To give him a proper funeral, he was sent back to England pickled in a barrel of rum.

That's only the beginning of what makes this island culture so unusual. Take, for example, accents and dialects.

Newfoundland speech patterns vary widely by region, even by DTC town. A taxi driver from St. John's sounds right out of 19th-century County Cork. Ask him if he's Irish, and he'll answer, "No, Oi wuz barn right hair."

A cook from Stephenville echoes old Quebec when he says, "Those are my gloves, them."

A child from the southern outport of Burgeo asks, "Did you take a picture of I?"

Newfoundland music reflects the cultural diversity. Bands with names such as "Stogger Tight" and "Buddy Wazisname and Other Fellers" play Irish jigs, French reels and American rock on accordions, fiddles and electric guitars. Between bad fishing news and bad maritime weather reports, the radio serves up an endless twang of country western tunes.

Some ancient customs survive here long after they've been all-but-forgotten in their place of origin. Mummering is an example. The week before Christmas, outport residents disguise themselves in costumes and pay uninvited visits on friends and also strangers. They dance a few jig steps and demand a taste of rum while their hosts try to guess who these strange guests might be. Mummering derives from mumming, an English custom considered ancient at the beginning of the 19th century.

One of the clearest signals that Newfoundlanders form a distinct society is their choice of Provincial Flower. Not for them the Shasta daisy or yellow clover. Instead, they chose the pitcher plant, making Newfoundland the only province or state in North America whose official flora is carnivorous.

Pull all this together and you've found a place that is North American and foreign, familiar and exotic, part of our continent (or at least just a short stretch of water away) and a land unto itself.

A trip to Newfoundland should begin in the capital city. St. John's looks like it never stepped out of the last century. Through determined citizen-effort, St. John's has retained its brightly painted wooden houses, narrow streets and traditional focus on the harbor. The city is also developing a walking pathway throughout the city. Planners hope that within a few years, people will be able to walk on vehicle-free pathways from one end of the capital region to the other, taking in the scenic vistas and historic buildings along the way.

Today, starting at the top of Signal Hill, one can stroll past the site of the last battle of the Seven Years War, past the tower where Marconi received the first trans-Atlantic wireless message, past the coves where pirates, smugglers and fishermen had plied their trade for centuries. The path then drops down the side of the granite cliff that guards the city's narrow harbor and meanders through an outport just a short stroll from the heart of the city.

By all means visit outports like Burgeo and Fogo, whose brightly painted homes cling to rocks on the very edge of the sea.

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