Not all Canadians know that France is our second closest neighbour, due to their tenacious hanging on of the l’il islands of St Pierre et Miquelon that are only 25 kilometres off the coast of Newfoundland. Before 1996, if you were born in France and you wanted to avoid 2 years of mandatory military service, you could instead spend 2 years in one of France’s territories. Most of their territories are in nice, tropical places, so you would be considered particularly unlucky to be sent to St Pierre et Miquelon, which has some of the bitterest weather Man can survive in. I used to wonder, since the fisheries collapsed, why France is still so “into” keeping St Pierre et Miquelon, but by the time we got there I understood so much more about the French vs. English struggle for dominance in Canada I knew sheer stubbornness might be enough of a reason not to let go. Like I mentioned in the last post, rumrunning is also very profitable and indeed, St Pierre views the years of prohibition its “golden era”. Also, while St Pierre et Miquelon only has domain over a tiny strip of ocean, it’s the part where the best fishing is to be had so the fishery is not as inactive as conservationalists would like.
For some reason the the charter boat company, the SPM Express, that was ferrying us to the town of St Pierre from Fortune decided to park us last, into a tiny space in their loosely graveled “overflow” lot. The Boogie Bus is not a small van by any means (although it is also no oversized—just full sized and tall) and I am not a confident driver so Step was in charge of parking. There was a colourful local guide offering directions, which were needed as the heavy bus couldn’t get any purchase to back into the loose gravel of the lot. We were entertained by his running specifications delivered in the strong Newfoundland accent: “Okay, Give ‘er the gas now, don’t be shy, give ‘er the gas! Turn ‘er hard!”
Finally the Bus was parked and the boat was able to leave. It was a commonly foggy day and we couldn’t see much landscape but the ride was still wondrous for the Puffins and peaks we could see through the mist so we stayed out on deck for most of it. About half-way there the Captain took the Canadian flag down and replaced in with a French one. (On the way back we asked how could he be allowed to do that and he explained the charter boat was registered in the Grand Caymans so they had the right of a “flag of convenience”. This is a law where you can fly the flag of the port your visiting and it helps with liability somehow. I think you can also avoid paying taxes this way).
After what seemed like a long time the fog lifted and we could see the charming town of St. Pierre, which, despite being French, looked very much like the other fishing villages of the east coast, with brightly painted houses all built very closely together, and of course, marinas and ‘rooms’ and a lighthouse all along the water’s edge. Once you dock you have to go through customs and show your passport, and right in the customs house there is a tourism kiosk where you can ask advice and get a little map. The population of the islands is only about 6000 people, so almost everything worth seeing is within walking distance of the marina.
St. Pierre takes it’s Frenchness very seriously, and the streets have European charm for their cobblestones, scooters, Citreons and Peugots. If you’re not there at the right time to take an Al Capone tour of sites relevant to the “Golden Era of Prohibition” (you can see a house made of Cutty Sark crates!), which we weren’t; there is not much to do but eat, shop, and rubberneck. I was entertained by seeing the paradox of a brightly coloured Carousel on the waterfront and an abandoned WWII torpedo just rusting on the street a few blocks away. There are a couple shops that sell “fine foods” and at one called Arts et Delices we bought some salt for Bart and Undrea and a couple blocks of fancy nougat for all of us. When we explored the other one I laughed to see an entire shelving unit of beautifully displayed instant Ramen and bottle Thai curry spice. One man’s instant junk food is another man’s exotic cuisine.
I bought a couple post cards so I could send friends greetings from France. Unlike French Canada, a lot of St. Pierrians either can’t or won’t speak English to you so I had to rely on my broken French. At least I had been taught France French in school and not the patois of Quebec. Anyway, I had a little trouble buying a stamp at the post office but otherwise I was fine.
Because they are French the people of St. Pierre take a really long lunch break and everything but the restaurants is closed between noon and 1:30, so there is nothing to do but eat and walk during that time. We scoped out the different eateries and finally went to La Butte, which is a little out of the way and more café like than the other options, but also more interesting for it is also a live music venue at night and an art gallery all the time. I had the lunch special of a ham and cheese crepe with an apple tart for dessert and a glass of red wine, and Step had a ham and boiled egg sandwich and beer.
Then we wandered around, mostly hanging out at the base of the lighthouse and wondering at the bright yellow lichen by the sea.
By the time the boat left we felt we had “done” St. Pierre. The ride back was enjoyable for the many whale sightings, and we were even followed by a pod of dolphins for a few minutes, and we docked back in Fortune at a conveniently early 4pm, and were quickly cleared through customs, where the official was shocked and amazed we would spend $20 on nougat.