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In which the intrepid columnist looks for flowers and thistles in St. John’s

and finds a vibrant community

In which the intrepid columnist looks for flowers and thistles in St. John’s

We all have notions about the weather in any given place. Bermuda is sunny. In Vancouver people don’t get tans: they rust. And we all know someone from Europe or the U.S.A. who thinks we all live in igloos. I had my preconceived notions about the weather in St. John’s, Newfoundland: I could expect cold, wet, windy, miserable weather in November.

Here’s what I found in November: cold, wet, windy, miserable weather. And this is not cold as we experience it in Central B.C. There we may have -20 C. But we walk outdoors in slippers over dry snow and have coffee outside against the garage wall wearing only a quilted sweater. St. John’s cold blows up your kilt. St. John’s wind makes walking at a 45-degree angle seem a normal posture. I believe that taxis were invented for St. John’s.

Because my daughter Liz lives in an older part of town, there are not many trees – just buildings (all brightly painted), cement, asphalt, shrubs and weeds. For my first few days here I saw gulls, crows, gulls, very fat pigeons. More gulls. I wonder if there is a way to use gulls as source of renewable energy. Later I saw black-capped chickadees, hairy woodpeckers, juncos and chickens.

Yes: chickens. St. John’s allows urban poultry and we visited the home of some elderly people who had one of the largest lots we saw. Just up from the harbour, their house was located on a sloping hillside lot with confers, beech trees, some sort of crabapple tree, shrub plantings and birds. Chickens were scratching with glee in the lee created by a real forest, on a floor composed of fallen leaves and fruit.

But perhaps not enough fruit. In the late afternoon, suddenly I saw a flash of white and the leghorn-descendants flapped into some trees and inched out onto narrower branches to get at remaining fruit. Imagine that: chickens with extant instincts. They reminded me of ruffed grouse in B.C.

Warm human reception
Much more significant to me, however, than either the wildlife or the wind were the people.

Your people, St. John’s, lived up to their billing just as the weather did. Most of the folks I met while walking returned a greeting: “G-day” or “Yep.” The lady who sold me taters and fried chicken squinted, looked both ways and then whispered, “I gave yeh extra chicken ‘cause dey was sich small pieces, y-know.”

The barber I visited was soft-spoken, goateed, red-haired and covered with tattoos. We talked about fishing, snaring rabbits and investing in a business instead of owning a house. The walls were covered with patriotic posters: one looked like an enlistment poster for World War II. It showed a young girl oohing and ahhing over a young man and begging him to enlist in the battle for freedom: The bold slogan said, “FIGHT HARPER!”

On Wednesday, we drove to Signal Hill, the easternmost part of Canada. The wind was, one may say, brisk. When we stopped the car at the parking lot, we noticed that the few sad pedestrians were walking at a 60 degree angle and making more sideways than forward progress. I stepped out for a timed 14 seconds and then we returned home.

Sunday was calmer, so we returned by car and walked at only a 15 degree angle to the top of Cape Spear. The slope was about 30 degrees so we almost matched the poor pedestrians of the day before.

At St. Thomas Anglican Church I was privileged to attend on a day when six people were confirmed. I heard a lovely organ chorale prelude – “Rejoice, the Lord is King” – played on the pipe organ. Over coffee, I met the bishop who had just met the Bishop of Caldeonia Diocese – our bishop in Smithers. An older gentleman told me about the days when there were “fordy-two, fordy-tree” young people confirmed at a time instead of only six. Another long-time church member replied, “And that’s about to change back again.”

Perhaps the archetypal Newfoundlander who most impressed me was Terry, host of a monthly open-mike show at a coffee shop called Heart Gallery in the old downtown. Terry is a wizard of a piano player himself. He played a variety of styles, from pop to jazz to blues. Terry and the small audience of about 20 had the gift of encouragement and used it well on those of us performing as amateurs. One man played publically for the first time in two years and received hearty applause. Our friend Derek played in public for only his second time and was thanked with applause and Terry’s hearty encouragement. My daughter Liz (vocals) and I (piano) were also warmly received and thanked for our music by our host and the audience.

Having started this column on Sunday night, I awoke Monday wondering how to conclude. I opened the drapes and found sunshine. One little strip of cirrus cloud. The tree tops were not fighting for their lives.

I have begun the process of loving The Rock. If only I can keep my personal warmth while walking bent over and sideways. 

About the Author
In which the intrepid columnist looks for flowers and thistles in St. John’s

Curt Gesch, Columnist

Curt Gesch is a farmer and writer living in Quick, B.C. He is a writer on environmental and agricultural topics. He and his wife Betsey attend the Anglican Church in Quick, which has a wood stove, no electricity, no bathroom, and which seats 33 people.