‘The battery’s gone’, I said as I emerged from under the bonnet of the car. ‘And without the battery, the car won’t start’.
‘Shit’, she said, and then sniffed the baby’s nappy. ‘Speaking of which, it’s your turn’. She handed the baby, our young daughter, over to be changed.
What were we to do? The car was a beaten up Plymouth Reliant, bought not long before in the notorious second-hand markets of Montreal, Canada. Now it was full of children – two young boys and a baby girl – and a month’s detritus from being on the road (for some of the journey, even my mother had joined us). That month had been spent travelling through the Canadian Maritime Provinces – Quebec, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, and then Newfoundland as our outermost point. Now we had a few days to go on our return journey, but the car had run to a halt on some forgotten road in the midst of the forests of New Brunswick.
Thus far, it had been an incident free journey, in the glorious sunshine of a Canadian summer. The children were well-behaved and cooperative, the five-star hotels clean and welcoming. Actually, that would be my idea of a nightmare journey. With little money and a love of back roads, we had explored the quirkier side of eastern Canada. Our preferred option was youth hostels, at a time when they were far from uniform, even in one country.
So in a Quebecois town like Trois Rivières, the hostel evinced the Francophone reality that the combination of style and cleanliness is an oxymoron. Or is that style is able to cover many sins? In Trois-Pistoles, the student accommodation doubled as a holiday hostel. Here the young attendant could make neither head nor tail of my pitiful effort at French, so we ended up paying for one person, not five. Encouraged, I was keen to try my French on all and sundry. At a petrol station, I knowingly asked the attendant directions to the ferry across the St. Lawrence River. He poured forth a stream of French; I nodded, said ‘merci beaucoup’, and promptly drove off in the opposite direction.
Winding down from the Gaspé Peninsula into New Brunswick, we happened upon the seaside town of Campbellton. Lovely clean sheets, a quiet town, with a wonderful view of … a massive pulp and paper mill that stank to high heaven. Further on, we stayed in the student quarters in the university town of Antigonish, where my younger son promptly told a man smoking a cigar that his lungs would turn green (or so he had been told at school). On the Arcadian coast of New Brunswick, we encountered a young Arcadian French man who talked long into the evening about finding his identity. He deepest wish was to practice his English, so we did our best to make sure he picked a few of the more colourful Australian expressions. On we went, swatting our way through the mosquitoes of Cap Pelé, with its creepy holiday house; finding the only strip of white beach sand on Prince Edward Island; occupying a functioning light house, the lower quarters of which had been turned into a hostel; and making our way up the forgotten yet stunning east coast of Nova Scotia.
Yet, we had barely made it this far in one piece, for we had almost been mugged the day before in Halifax. The youth hostel had wisely been placed in the seediest part of town. On our walk back after a day exploring the city, we were followed by three sinister looking types. Closer and closer they edged, seeing that we were vulnerable with three children and my mother (who was with us on this part of the trip). Just in time, the Youth Hostel door appeared and they veered away, having enjoyed the fright they had just visited on us.
Day after day we changed nappies, amused the children, and drove. Or, rather, I drove, since I was the only one with a Canadian driver’s license. I finally had a reprieve on the ferry to Newfoundland. This was an old school ferry, with limited entertainment, a fog horn that made your heart skip a few beats and drop whatever you were carrying, and more tickets sold than beds to sleep in or seats to occupy. Actually, it was quite practical, for much of Newfoundland is unemployed for periods of the year. Few can afford a cabin with a bed, so anywhere on the deck will do. We occupied an inside corner for the 18-hour crossing. The children soon fell asleep on the travelling mattresses we had brought, while we did our best with the two seats. In the end, I too joined the children on the floor.
Rocky, foggy and bleak – Newfoundland in the early light was all these and more. Sparsely populated, much of it is covered by forest. Once the Beothuk made the place their home, but they were wiped out by European settlement. But not before they had despatched the Vikings some centuries earlier. Erik the Red and his seaborne thugs had settled at L’Anse aux Meadows, only to be driven back by the superior technology of the Beothuk.
With its tough but unique history, its endless wilderness, its outports (villages you can reach only by boat), its extraordinary houses built into cliff-sides, its moose that can write off your car should you hit one, its hardy people and travellers (we picked up a hitch-hiker on his way to Labrador), we loved Newfoundland. To be sure, it was full of black flies that ripped out a hunk of flesh on each bite. It was also full of crackpots, like the oceanographer in Trouty whose research consisted in deciphering the language of whales. He paid for this innovative project by running whaling tours in tiny boats that were spectacularly unsuccessful in finding whales. We, of course, were sucked in.
Eventually, by other ferries and new roads we had not travelled before, we made our way back to our home in Montreal. Or did we make it back to Montreal? Towards the end of the journey, the car was showing its age. A front bearing had been making a delightful crunk-crunk-crunk sound for some time. Water leaked inside every time it rained. Now it refused to start. Fortunately, it was a simple machine, so I devised a simple strategy. Given that the battery drained every time the car stood still for a while (such as at lunch or overnight), I removed the leads at each stop, so that there was power enough to start the machine again.
Through it all we couldn’t avoid the local sense of humour. It may have varied from place to place, from the Francophone parts of New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, through the Gaelic towns of Nova Scotia, to the deeply Irish heritage of Newfoundland – the only country in the world that had gained independence only to relinquish it soon afterwards and ask to join Canada. One moment where that humour shone forth was as unexpected as it was delightful. Rolling through Quebec, we spied a sign that announced Saint-Louis-du-Ha!-Ha! Given that nearly every village in Quebec is named after a saint, this one gave the finger to the lot of them.
But the Newfoundlanders (or Newfies) were not to be outdone. In the midst of the island, we happened upon a town called Dildo. Yes, Dildo! Who wouldn’t kill for an address like that?