Le Grand Voyage to Les Maritimes

(2000)

U lukomorya… mezh berez dozhdi kosye…
Alexander Gorodnitsky (aka Pushkin)

General

Alexander Pushkin was the first old world poet to write about maritime Canada, even though he did not know it. He described fossil rocks and flowerpots on fowl legs (see Arisaig and Hopewell Rocks parks) in his famous (in the old world) poem Ruslan and Ludmila.  Next, was Alexander Gorodnitsky, and he knew it was Canada he was writing about, not Russia, even though it “looked like Russia.” He wrote from experience: he got to inspect Halifax, NS, personally. In between, came such luminaries as our townsman H.W. Longfellow, our former countryman Leon Davidovich Bronstein (aka Trotsky) and the widely famous in a very narrow circle author of Baddeck and That Sort of Thing (he is primarily famous in Baddeck, NS). To be sure, Leon Bronstein came not to praise Nova Scotia but to do time in a local internment camp, according to the promotional tourist literature. The brochure is silent on the when and the why of his stay, as well as on any traces of such a stay, except to say that it happened in Amherst, NS, a town named after another countryman of ours, Lord Jeffrey Amherst, primarily known these days for the eponymous sports teams of Amherst College, the Lord Jeffs. Lord Jeff happened to be the guy who conquered and destroyed most of what there was to conquer and destroy in the Maritimes to make them French-clean.

According to a tourist guide, the Maritimes are home to many ethnic groups, among them Micmacs, Scots, English, Acadians and New Englanders. I had no contact with Micmacs, the local Native Canadians – to use the Yank flavor of politically correct naming, except to buy a children’s book with parallel texts in English and Micmac, so I will have to postpone their description. The only certifiable Scots I saw were the kilted, bear-hatted guards in the Halifax Citadel and the equally kilted truly Scottish gentleman watching those guards change (their postings, not kilts). Sadly, all the Keltic parties or Ceilidhs were scheduled for the days we were not in their vicinity. The English are the topic of a completely separate essay, and I still have to digest the fact that my fellow New Englanders are actually an ethnic group. That leaves the Acadians as the only fair game for now.

Acadians and Acadianness

Jack Verazzano was an intelligentsia chap who knew his Greek mythology. He named these parts l’Arcadie but could not assure that the coming generations would keep the “r” in, so l’Acadie it became. He did assure that the Acadians would stick to the newly discovered shores even in the face of war and deportation. In contrast, the enlightener of l’Acadie, the great Pascal Poirier, derives the name from the Algonquin word Cadie that Verazzano picked up in Massachusetts, the actual place he named La Cadie – hence l’Acadie. And hence the Cadiens or Cajuns of today.

Le Grand Derangement happened yesterday.

Like the Great Patriotic War in the stagnating Soviet Union and the battle of Kosovo under Milosevic, this is the great defining event of Acadian history. Tune into an Acadian station and you hear these words at least once a minute, interspersed with mostly mournful Acadian songs, which date, like their language, to the late renaissance – early baroque times. It was the deportation of those unwilling to swear loyalty to the British crown and it happened 250 years ago! But then the Battle of Kosovo just turned 610. And which anniversary of the destruction of the second temple did we commemorate recently?  There are many uses of the Derangement, one as a ticket to the powerful club of oppressed groups. A Native American (formerly American Indian) chief visiting Acadia endorsed his affinity with the people of l’Acadie on just such a ground thus certifying their claim.

Radio stations.

Talking about tuning in, here is what you are likely to hear about in Acadia:

  • The coming world meeting of the Francophonie in Moncton, NB. Artists of mostly African origin (Mali, Burkina Faso) are being interviewed on the importance of protecting the French language and culture from various assaults
  • Wailing and sometimes whaling (like Pique la baleine) Acadian songs taking turns with lively fiddling and African pop
  • A youth call-in show from Saskatchewan on the topic: where I spent my summer vacation. Among mundane Canadian destinations, one boy called in to tell about a visit to his cousins on the Cote d’Azure. It turned out that his trip was a gift for his upcoming bar-mitzvah, to which the hostess reacted with: que ce que c’est – bar-mitzvah?

Culture and identity

It appears that the most famous Acadian author was not born there and did not even write in French. He was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, a Bowdoin graduate and a life-long Cantabridgian. He, of course, penned Evangeline, that masterpiece of Acadian literature, in English. To fix the matters somewhat, his opus was translated into French and in 1884 the Second Acadian Congress (the first one is never mentioned, just like the first congress of RSDRP) adopts the national flag, the tricolor with Stella Maris, and the national anthem, Ave (you guessed it) Stella Maris. According to the already mentioned Pascal Poirier, the author of Le Glossaire acadien, the language of Acadia comes directly from the XVIIth century France, namely Touraine, and personally Messrs Corneille, Racine and Moliere, thus being the best and the purest form of French. It’s not your low-life patois, keeps hammering in the Acadian encyclopedist. Yet he insists on calling the speech Acadien. Among the 3000 words in the Glossaire are some really unique ones, like aboiteau, a drainpipe adjusted to the world’s highest tides of the Bay of Fundy. It lets the excess water from the fields flow through but closes to prevent the salty tide from entering the ditches.

Like with all oppression politics there is a backlash. The extremist Anglo society of New Brunswick engineered a skirmish when a Stella Maris flag was about to be raised during the Acadian fete in Moncton.

Civilization

When talking about civilization, all countries come for some drubbing compared to these here United States of A. The only contender I used to give a clear ticket to join this exclusive club of one was Canada. Not anymore. The offences are small, to be sure, but quite puzzling. For instance, flies. They are around in any place where food is exposed. Waiters even joke about them. And it’s not even that Canada is technically unequipped to handle bugs. Unlike such renowned pits of third world backwardness as Switzerland, in Canada there are mosquito screens on windows and doors.  I am at a loss to resolve this puzzle and could charitably assign it to something special in the maritime climate. I must admit that toilets in the Maritimes are even cleaner than in the land of the brave, another stake through the putrid corpse of the overhyped Helvetia, where a urinal in a 5-star hotel in the capital spews forth its flush on the public’s white pants, automatically. But oddities crop up every once in a while: a gas station equipped for the automated use of credit cards, actually requires going into the booth and dealing with a live human. In Switzerland, you could feed your 20 francs bill and get benzin any time of day and night (but not your Visa plastic – only your MasterCard!). But enough about civilization. With these small gripes Canada is still the closest foreign land we can have even if we are divided by hero myths, us patriots, them loyalists, eh?

P.S. VIIIe Sommet Mondiale de la Francophonie has happened since then and major American newspapers reported on it extensively. Jacques Chirac came but unlike De Gaulle in Quebec 35 years ago he did not proclaim  “l’Acadie libre.” He was more like “can’t we get along people, n’est ce pas?”

Canadianness

Yes, we are divided, and not only by “the longest unprotected border in the world.”  It is the search for Canadianness that they have while we lack a corresponding search for Americanness (well, mostly). But let’s assume we know what Americanness is. What is Canadianness? It turns out being Jewish helps to understand it.  For instance, Canadians are always on a quest to find out if someone prominent in America is in fact a hidden Canadian. Usually, people like Peter Jennings and Mike Myers head the list. Canadians are apt to suddenly say in a conversation about one of those secret clan members: “By the way, he is Canadian.”  For Canadian Jews, this game doubles. Sometimes there are false hits as well as false misses. A guest on the NPR program discussing this topic, himself a Canadian Jew long since settled in Washington, DC, told an anecdote about a prominent woman considered a twofer, but who turned out to be an Armenian from Maine. The news was shrugged off as a near hit: Armenians are very much like Jews and Maine is right near Canada!

Day 0, Thursday night, 8/12

Portland is billed as the cosmopolitan cultural metropolis of Maine. The shore drive to the International Ferry Terminal was as dreary a concrete wasteland as they come. At the terminal we camped for about an hour entertained by “sea dogs” in neighboring cars whose owners were not afraid to drop them at the ship’s kennel for the night. The nearest neighbors were Max and Maggie, a chihuahua and a micro chihuahua, respectively. Even Max could sit in Ben’s palm quite comfortably. We remembered the ordeal of our friends, a few years back on the same ferry, when they had to barricade in their cabin for the whole night to protect their young puppy from being deported to the pet deck hell by the sea kennel nazis. We were glad Ram stayed back with his bitchfriend at camp Chez Lora. The next morning however, Max and Maggie are still alive, pettable and apparently unharmed and are still our neighbors on the sardine-packed car deck.

“Kak provozhayut parohody, sovsem ne tak kak poyezda,” crooned Edward Hil’ more than 30 years ago. Nevertheless, our cabin was very much like a luxury train compartment. It even had a lobby with mirror and a private loo. We ignored the enticements of the all-night on-board casino and “live” entertainment and even sacrificed great savings from the coupons we were given as valued passengers. Good ideas come when you float on a bunk over the Bays of Maine and Fundy. They come unexpected and sometimes uninvited, when they are related to work left behind.

Day 1, Friday, 8/13

We roll onshore in Yarmouth, NS. At drive through customs everybody produces some forms apparently prepared in advance. We are waved right through, apparently just on the strength of our American passports (where is everybody else from?). The landscape is empty of almost everything, until we come to the famous Crescent Beach in Lockeport, formerly on the $50 bill (Canadian). We can see why it did not stay on the money and move along.

The next stop, Lunenburg, is still on the $100 bill (Canadian). We can also see why. Otherwise, it’s a tourist trap. At the harbor restaurant, tasting “catch of the day” gives birth to another one of our travel locutions: “catch of the month.” It joins the pantheon of such gems as “chicken from scratch” and “restaurant quality fish” (both from Oregon, the latter describing the diet Keiko the Whale was presumably fed at the aquarium in Newport, OR, prior to his repatriation to Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland). Another feature of Lunenburg is unequal treatment of ethnic minorities. While high on a hill a monument to Norwegian marines who trained there during WWII proclaims “ALT FOR NORGE”, down at the port an antique police van is painted with the image of a redheaded bully looking through the bars, trying to bend them, gorilla fashion. The caption under this masterpiece reads “PADDY WAGON.” This would surely be banned in Boston as politically incorrect.

The target of the day is the famous Peggy’s (aka Peggys) Cove. This place seems to be the one they picture on fun postcards all over the world with captions like “X in the fog.” Sure enough, “Peggys Cove in the fog” was sold at the mega-junkshop on the granite head next to the famous lighthouse overlooking (when you can see it) the harbor, where the luckless Swissair Flight 111 went down a year ago.

Day 2, Saturday, 8/14

This day is supposed to be the emotional peak. Screaming “nad Kanadoy nebo sine!” almost as wildly as we do “zdanie uzhasnoye, izdalya napominavshee OON” on FDR Drive, we drive right into Halifax. Not many birch trees right there, but who counts.  We would see some mighty birches over granite sea cliffs and Scottish lochs later on Cape Breton.  Thus, “hot pohozhe na Rossiyu…”  Scottish guards at the Halifax Citadel change with less pomp than in London but some of the spectators also wear kilts.

After less than exciting Halifax, the Tidal Bore in Truro proves to be true to its name, too. The Bay of Fundy may have the highest tides in the world, but the resulting bore (the counterflow wave up the river) looks puny at 2 ft of height. Still, a crowd containing more than its fair share of German tourists dutifully watches this unique phenomenon.

Arisaig Provincial Park on the way to Cape George, reputedly full of fossils on the beach, is a nod to Pushkin (tam na nevedomyh dorozhkah sledy nevidannyh zverey). We do not detect any beasts or even fossils but find a piece of driftwood looking like a dragon.

Day 3, Sunday, 8/15

We have known Louisbourg Square, the top Boston address on Beacon Hill with a little garden in the middle. You have to be a resident of the square to get a key for the garden gate. To be a resident, you pretty much have to have inherited a mayonnaise fortune (as in Heinz). Being a U.S. Senator also helps socially. Now, the time comes to see the Louisbourg it was named after. This original Louisbourg was founded by the French in 1713 and captured by ethnic New Englanders (read proto-Minutemen from Massachusetts) in 1745. Names were exchanged, hence, New Boston is the closest neighboring town, and the citadel of Brahminism has adopted the L word. The fortress reminds nothing more than the one named after SS. Peter and Paul and founded 10 years earlier by Peter the Great, due east across the ocean. The difference is in the French chateau style here vs. a more Dutch brown granite there. Unlike the old world monument preserved by the Czars to have a handy lock up facility, the new world site was eradicated by the British in 1760 and reconstructed by the Canadian government in search of a big project two centuries later.

The compound is personned by costumed characters including guards, maids, drummers, friars and goats, each playing their assigned, time appropriate roles. The goats are somewhat of an exception, being not costumed and probably not playing a role. The ones with speaking parts (talking about humans again) can even explain them: e.g., the Dominican friar knows exactly why he is a Dominican. Guided tours have an English and a French option. The story is mostly about French mismanagement of the place allowing the British to take full advantage. The French tour’s story just might be different. When a much smaller French group flows through the English multitude, I hear a comment spoken in passing by the French guide: “toujours les anglais” [these Brits again].  The significance of costumes is explained during a separate lecture at the Frederic Gate. Short pants and turned outward ballet steps were to show off the king’s excellently developed ankles.  The pedigree of Baryshnikov’s craft is laid bare.  As if goats and hogs were not enough for authenticity, they also bake authentic bread at the authentic boulangerie. The rock bottom dark and heavy bread is intended for the lowliest of conscripts and the guide warns that most people who buy it end up using it as a doorstop. It turns out to be the authentic Russian black bread that even Brooklyn, NY, cannot quite conjure, and we wolf down a whole round loaf while making our fortress rounds.

Day 4, Monday, 8/16

We are off to see the puffins. I am told I had seen them already in British Columbia floating in the Pacific. In my recollection, I saw at most a place where there must have been a puffin, so I am eager to bridge this perception gap.  An authentic captain outfitted with a cap, salty beard, and a Dutch name of Van Schaide takes us out to a pair of very Icelandic-looking islands called inventively Bird Islands. While the brochure declares that “puffins are guaranteed”, it’s really their presence, not necessarily whether we can see them, that the guarantee covers. This season, the eagles came early, consequently the puffins are not as relaxed as they might be otherwise, and who can blame them. Instead of sitting on the cliffs waiting for tourists to focus their equipment, puffins or in this case a puffin, floats on the rough waves. It’s essentially the British Columbia story again except this time I have an actual dot on a photograph to gaze at. To compensate, the bald eagles are sitting on the cliffs ready to be clicked at. They also perform picturesque flyovers.  These eagles have been successfully imported to Quabbin Reservoir near Amherst, MA, the one time home base of the notoriously ubiquitous Lord Jeff. The stars of the show are the seals who pop up all around the boat like the protagonists of the antique arcade game “Bang the Beaver” (terminology mine).

We end the day by looking back at Bird Islands from the dizzying heights of Cape Smokey, then pull into Castle Rock Inn spectacularly located in the (sparsely ) inhabited point of Ingonish Ferry.  The Keltic Lodge within a mere short-range missile shot form our nightstand, promises nightly entertainment, but just for us on that night it’s not of a Celtic variety.

Day 5, Tuesday, 8/17

Next morning, we stop by Le Shed (apparently a shed of the highly bilingual Cape Breton Highlands National Park Administration) and then hike past the Keltic Lodge with its phantom Celtic entertainment. A seagull following us on this ocean-side walk brings irresistibly an old soviet pioneer song “Chaika krylyami mashet, za soboy nas zovet…” to my memory. Its stupid cheer includes such lines as “if it rains we’ll also be glad, if a wind blows, the trek will be easier.” Apparently, the authors would not conceive of someone going against the wind. I could not figure out where the seagulls would come from on a soviet hike, until I realized that the song was probably written for the privileged class of pioneers on a junket in Artek. Mighty birches on seaside cliffs complete the improbable scenery.

On, through the pretty high highlands and past the famous Sunrise Snacks sausage dogs stand in view of Giovanni Caboto’s landing, we reach the celebrated town of Cheticamp, the capital of Acadianness, if not of l’Acadie. It’s the home of Aucoin Boulangerie (no match for Louisbourgeois inmates’ bread) and Chez Luce [kin] convenience store. The latter was named by Ben after watching a highly educational Canadian TV program detailing adventures of Otto Yulievich Schmidt, the chief of Cheluskin, among ice floes. Everybody in Cheticamp is Acadian and speaks the tongue.

As I register at Merry’s Motel, Ben gets very excited: he spied out a real samovar in the next room. I step in and indeed see an authentic-looking samovar surrounded by books in German, but mostly on Russian topics, like Der  Zar. Madame Merry is still here and I ask her who reads German around there. She drops all pretence and comes out as Frau Merry, nee of Bern, Switzerland. She immediately and happily switches to German. Although she studied French in France, she has trouble communicating with the locals. But her real love is wide-open spaces (shirokie prostory), which she can find, not surprisingly in two places, Canada and Russland. While she possesses some language skills for Canada (she is not very comfortable with English) where she bought this motel a year ago, her Russian communication is not as well developed. She rode the Trans-Siberian  train and made a prolonged stop in Buriatia, where local literati presented her with a volume of Buriatian epic classic and a biography of Tsybikov (the former in Buriatian, the latter in Russian). She has not been able to really benefit from either, as even her Russian is not yet of reading quality. Apparently, Buriatian will have to wait. She hopes to beef up her Russian as a do-nothing innkeeper with plenty of time to kill. She is probably right: as we walk around the town for the rest of the day, she is sitting on her porch drinking coffee. Still, she keeps lots of Russian books in German, including not only Doctor Zhivago, but also Master and Margarita and even Die zwolf Stuhle!

Day 6, Wednesday, 8/18

We tour Cheticamp. Live Acadian music is off, just for the time of our visit. Icelandic horses promised by off-the-beaten-track guides are 2 years since gone. Nothing is left but tour. We check out local cows on Cheticamp Island (we keep a dossier on cows of the world), but are much more impressed by a roadside creature: not your dinky garden-variety rabbit but a large all-natural lapin. Lightning zigzags stab the sea to terminate our cow-gazing outing. Back in town, even an Acadian museum scores a visit from us. A pretty Evangeline impersonator surrounded by weaving equipment volunteers to look busy for the picture. In the evening we learn, that while lightning was illuminating Cheticamp, a tornado in Amherst, NS, of Trotsky detention fame, picked up a caboose and threw it 15 meters away, with 2 people traveling safely inside.

Out of Cheticamp, lies the land of folk art. A large moujik in a roadside izba sells his painted wood art and speaks nothing but coarse French. We ask about the antlers nailed to the wall outside his shed. They are not even his, but $20 (CAN) induce him to part with the treasure. We carefully create casual disorder in the trunk to hide the antlers from no matter which customs hacks. Who knows, maybe deer are prohibited from moving between Canada and the US, dead or alive.  Next roadside attraction is the scarecrow world. Dozens of spooky figures include such luminaries as Lucien Bouchard and Jean Chretien (in addition to Ronny and Maggie), to the sincere puzzlement of the touring yanks.

The Bluenose II is moored in Port Hawkesbury on the Strait of Canso. It’s the one on the nickel (CAN) and belongs to the people of Nova Scotia, so you can perform free abordage any time you please.

We end the day in Pictou, home of the Hector, the Nova Scotia Mayflower, which brought the first Scots to these heavenly shores.  The lively downtown Pictou is jumping at 9pm, although with only one joint, a family place with local history mementos on the walls. A past-middle age waitress calls each of us, including myself, dear, the way they would call you honey in the south.

Day 7, Thursday, 8/19

Prince Edward Island has good marketing. It begins on the ferry. Instead of your generic souvenir junkstand, there is one called Le Cow, with t-shirts of Cow-wars, Cow-dollars and even squeezable black-white-pink toy cows that somehow look faintly indecent. Cow-dollars (Canadian) are redeemable in the capital of the island at an ice-cream store near Confederation Centre, and not just for ice-cream but for stuff with whimsical cow imagery.  Across the continent, in Tillamook, Oregon, they also perfected cow marketing to the extent that Icelandair uses their bland cheese for flight food. On P.E.I., Le Cow at least provides some value.

The bright read soil of P.E.I. is covered with bright green grass, which in turn is covered with toy-like cows. Charlottetown, the surprisingly cozy capital, is like Luxembourg in at least one respect: you can buy dog-poop bags from street dispensers. Clutches of top-hat and crinoline-wearing folks from the Confederation days roam the streets dispensing Good day sir’s to less quaint passers-by. A flock of kinder-gardeners clutching Maple Leaf flaggies pours from the Province House, that cradle of Canadian… liberty? No, wait, state? Wrong again. Oh, yes, Confederation! The much newer, and uglier, Confederation Centre, the one across the street from Le Cow, houses walruses (called oeuvres) for rent, and all the former prime ministers of the Confederation, in bronze-bust form. Both – temporarily.

Across the island we come to the shores of the P.E.I. National Park. The cliffs are the color of the brightest rust, which they actually are. We are now in Anne’s land. That is Anne Shirley, presumably of Green Gables. The first harbingers of Anne greeted us still at Le Cow on the ferry: the infamous raspberry cordials with which she got her friend drunk at a pretend high-society tea-party. The whole island has a natural picture-postcard look but the area around the imagined, as one cannot call it re-created, Green Gables is an Epcot devoted to one country – Avonlealandia – with one fabulous Magic Kingdom Mickey substitute – Anne the Redhead herself. There is an imposing visitor centre, the immaculate gables with Anne’s room, Marilla’s room, Mathew’s room and all the rest furnished with their belongings.  There are birches, Lovers’ lane, lovers’ seats (a la Trigorskoye), populated by admiring Japanese girls, some with their indulgent boyfriends, just like the guidebook promised. There is also a barn, also immaculately clean, thanks to the cows, which, while life-sized, are made of plastic. Ben cannot resist milking one into a shiny bucket provided.  He wants to use the skill he acquired with the squeezable cow from Le Cow. Lucy Maud Montgomery, the creator and model for The Anne, lies contentedly at the nearby burial ground designated as The Resting Place of L.M. Montgomery. We retire to our own very green gables for the night – The Quality Inn.

Day 8, Friday, 8/20

Across the island again, passing roadside new potatoes stands: pay $2 (CAN), pick a nice looking bag of the famous bulbs. The return way to the continent leads through the longest bridge in the world over ice-covered waters – Confederation Bridge. This being August, we don’t see any ice, but we don’t see any bridge either. It’s impossible while driving on it, and stopping is not allowed. We manage to catch a glimpse of this engineering marvel from a clearing on New Brunswick shore, but only with a zoom, and, from this distance, it looks like a row of loose stitches.

New Brunswick is desolate and quite poor on this Acadian shore. We soon reach Moncton, the world capital of Acadian studies and spirit, and, for a brief shining moment still ahead, the world capital of things French. Yet it is named in honor of the very general responsible for implementing His Majesty’s Grand Derangement policy.  We choose to visit only one sight: the “world famous” Magnetic Hill. For $2 per car (needless to say Canadian) one can experience the same level of swindle for which one has to pay $7 per human body (American!) at Magic Spot near Santa Cruz, California. In both places forces of gravity take  leave of their Sir-Isaac-Newton-prescribed duties and tilt touring objects in anomalous directions.  At Magnetic Hill, a car in neutral will roll uphill. The laws of Milton Friedman, however, remain immutable reflecting a much higher sophistication (aka deeper pockets) of the Silicon Valley nerds compared to their potato-bred Monctonien co-speciesists.

Hopewell Rocks at the mouth of the Petitcodiac River is not a national park. It’s not even a provincial park, but it made it into the science textbook for the 9th grade in Lexington as a unique example of tidal erosion. The rocks grow out of the ocean floor and have official names like “Elephant”, “Dinosaur”, and “E.T.” (surely not its original name), but they most resemble houses on chicken legs from Pushkin’s tales: thin stems, big tops, no windows or doors. We walk among these Rochers en pots de fleurs. Five hours later, at high tide, we could row in kayaks around them. In between, I get two little globes handed to me, two zeroes on the odometer to wait for another 50 years. I pretend they are orbs giving me possession of the best of both worlds from the high point above Shepody Bay.

Day 9, Saturday, 8/21

It turns out that the also world-famous Reversing Falls of Saint John take several hours to reverse and even then one is not sure what was reversed exactly. We have better things to worry about than waiting for this reversal, like hiding our Acadian antlers while crossing into Eastport, USA. We take off, make it through the customs, and 399 miles and 8 hours later say hello to our verny Ramushnik.