Thursday, October 6, 2011


We spent two days at sea because it is a long way from Greenland across the Labrador Strait and the Davis Strait to Newfoundland. Cruise ships have many activities (see Party, Polar Bear, in my last installment), and we got to do two activities in which we have never before participated.

The first was the Marriage Game Show (think Newlywed Game) in which three lucky couples are obliged to share their intimate secrets before a live audience. The cruise director cleverly induced us to appear by talking to Dianne and me separately, convincing each of us that the other agreed to participate. How well do I know my spouse? Not as well as the other two couples knew theirs. We had two lawyers in the group, but fortunately no divorce lawyers. we were asked mildly embarrassing questions like "which part of your spouse's body would you like to change?", and "the most unusual place you've made love?"

The other activity was karaoke. Now I've never done karaoke before in my whole life. In school, I sang in Mixed Chorus, and the teacher suggested that I drop the class. Needless to say, I don't sing very well, though perhaps I can do hard rock, or whatever passes for popular music nowadays. The young lady running the karaoke, the lovely Australian dancer, Felicity conned me into performing I'm a Believer, the Monkees' song written by Neil Diamond. I did a somewhat respectable Neil Diamond imitation in duet with her while her proud parents whom we had befriended cheered us on. Their sage advice to me was "Don't quit your day job!"


The unusual thing about Newfoundland, other than the jokes mainland Canadians make about the locals is that it has its own time zone, 30 minutes ahead of Atlantic Time, or 1 1/2 hours ahead of Eastern Standard time. So when you re-set your watch, you are a half hour off. Newfoundland used to be an independent country in the British Commonwealth until 1949 when it agreed to become a province of Canada. The Newfies had one non-negotiable condition to becoming a part of Canada--they must be allowed to hunt the common murre (a/k/a turre) for food all year around. These large seabirds, called guillemot in Europe, can't fly very well, but they swim very well, even underwater, catching fish. In their nesting grounds, they are relatively easy to catch. Since the rest of Canada didn't know what they were, they readily agreed.

We docked in St. Johns, the capital of Newfoundland on their municipal holiday, August 3rd, their annual Regatta. It has been held the first Wednesday of August since the 1820's. In this city of 100,000, about one-third of the people attend this extravaganza. Most stores and banks in town were closed. The Regatta consisted of a series of rowing races in long narrow sculls pitting 5 teams of 3 rowers plus a navigator. Presumably the spectators bet on the outcomes or what would be the point?

The event is like a large county fair with carnival rides and food stands run by local restaurants. It reminded us of Taste of Chicago or Milwaukee Fest. We walked the mile or so to the event and returned on the city bus. We got off by the Yellow Belly Brewery built in 1725.

The bus ride was memorable for one reason--we almost ran over actor Russell Crowe. Crowe was filming a TV series with local actors around town. We encountered the film makers at a red light. The bus driver told us to look for Mr. Crowe. I don't know what he looks like, but Dianne does, and sure enough, he was standing in front of the bus. She pointed him out to me, and I admit he looked familiar, but I wouldn't have picked him out of a crowd.

Other than visiting the Regatta, we did the usual tourist spots in St. Johns, a city totally unfamiliar to most Americans. The Easternmost point in North America (if you don't count Greenland) is Cape Spear which is known for its two lighthouses, the old one and the new one. We are intrigued by lighthouses, and we visit and photograph them all over the world. The lighthouse keeper is a member of the Cantwell family. The original Cantwell saved someone's life and, in gratitude, was granted a wish. The guy actually wanted the lighthouse keeper job, and 7 successive generations have continued the tradition. Standing on the rocky shore, we spotted whales spouting offshore. The famed Grand Banks, renowned for their fishing, are close by.

We went up to Signal Hill where they built a stone fortress Gothic Revival building in 1897 to commemorate John Cabot's discovery of Canada in 1497 while sailing under the British flag. Cabot's real name was Giovanni Caboto, but his descendants quickly became British. The Cabot Tower was considered a white elephant when it was constructed. St. Johns had burned to the ground in a huge fire in 1892, and the Newfoundland banking system had crashed in 1894. Local sentiment compared it to "putting a silk hat on a man who can't afford to buy a pair of boots."

The hill was enshrouded in fog, so we couldn't enjoy the view although we learned a lot at the museum. For centuries, the British had used this site for signaling ships with maritime flags. This national historic site achieved new significance when another Italian guy, Guillermo Marconi, in 1901 demonstrated his new invention by receiving the first wireless radio signals from Europe.


This stop was almost an afterthought on our trans-Atlantic cruise, but it's interesting for a couple of reasons. First of all, St. Pierre & Miquelon (pronounced MICK-a-lon), little known except to philatelists, is the last French possession in North America--Quebec doesn't count. These anachronistic islands, 10 miles off the coast of Newfoundland are considered part of France. They are totally immersed in French culture. They fly the French flag, and the people speak French. France goes to huge expense to maintain this token presence in the New World. They built a large international airport, but hardly anyone flies there. To fly to France, you have to first fly to Canada. Of the 6000 inhabitants, about 75% work for the French government. Their currency is the Euro, and many places won't accept American or Canadian money, although credit cards seem to work. Other than government, their main industry is fishing.

We took an hour tour of the country and enjoyed the brightly painted houses and stores. For lunch, we went to a French restaurant for escargots with our Aussie and New York friends. They don't put mayonnaise on everything like the Brits do.

The islands have one other claim to fame. Although it is not mentioned in the guide book, the most significant event in their 500 year history occurred when Al Capone came to town to set up his bootlegging operation, and all they have to show for it is his hat. Back in the 1920's, Capone established his headquarters at the Hotel Robert which we visited. With 43 rooms, it's not exactly the Ritz. When Capone left town, the hotel manager asked him for a memento. He gave them his straw hat, which is today locked up on display in a glass case. Al Capone is like George Washington--hotels all over creation like to boast that he slept there. We weren't impressed because Capone DID sleep everywhere we go, back home in Chicago. In any event, when Prohibition ended, these islands sank into depression for decades.

We caught the 5 o'clock Ocean Princess headed for New York and back to warm weather and the real world.




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