My kind of soup

The ships route from Trois Rivieres to the open Atlantic takes 7 days as we crawl along the St Lawrence River stopping at little towns no one has heard of on the way. The scenery is beautiful. But it appears that Oceania has not googled the best time to visit Eastern Canada and Newfoundland. Early May is clearly not it. The tourist season doesn’t start until June 15th and that is because it is too bloomin’ cold before then.  We are more than a month early. Trees are still bare and the occasional host of golden daffodils in a carefully tended garden are the only flowers to be seen, causing me once again to marvel at these beautiful flowers that stand up, out and proud long before anything else is willing to make the effort.

The temperatures hover below freezing first thing in the morning and reach a few degrees above by the afternoon. We stop at charming little villages but no one greets us except a few hardy but cheery volunteers from the neighborhood who hand out little maps and maple syrup sweeties as a consolation prize,  while shivering in the cold despite their down jackets, gloves, scarves and woolly hats. They happily point out the highlights of their village, such as the library, the church and the one room museum featuring photos of the town in years gone by.  We walk a block or two before realising that the only other people we see are people from the ship. Coffee shops, restaurants, diners, tourist shops even the museum and the church are all closed. The library opens two mornings a week and this is not one of them.

In Saguenay the locals are celebrating that the long cold winter is over, but to us it most definitely isn’t

People lead a very different life here. It is all about hunting and fishing. But you still need to get around and obviously cars are not the most suitable form of transport in the winter. So next to the garage you have one of these

or one of these

Notice how, now winter is over,  the picnic table is all set to go!

We have rented a car and fortunately the roads are now clear.  We drive to the National Park to see the famously beautiful Saguenay fjord.  Sadly the wind is so bitingly cold that we can only tolerate being out of the car long enough to take a photo. Actually I take the photo while Gordon yells instructions from inside the car

The highlight of the day is seeing a porcupine disappearing into the forest. This time Gordon gets out of the car and and takes a very blurry photo

In the bustling metropolis of  Cornerbrook Newfoundland we meet  a young man with long straggly hair and beard dressed from head to toe in army surplus gear. We are glad to note that he has left his rifle, crossbow and axe at home. But he has brought with him a huge Irish Wolfhound. He stops and tells us the dog is friendly if we would like to pet him. The dog has already delivered the same message by sniffing my crotch, wagging its tail and licking my hand. Why is it that only dogs do that? We play with the dog for a few minutes and thank the young man telling him it is the highlight of our day.

“I knew it would be” he replies “that’s why I brought him out to meet everyone”

Eventually we reach a tiny island called St Pierre. St Pierre and the neighboring island of Miquelin, are notable because they are not Canadian. They are both French although they are 2,730 miles from the nearest point in France, which is Brest.  St Pierre is just 10 square miles of barren rock where little grows but scrubby yews and junipers. Farming is virtually impossible. The only industry is fishing but that has been in steep decline since 1992 due to the loss of fish stock. Unemployment is a serious problem. The winters are long but relatively mild for the location, but they still have 4 or 5 months when the temperatures are below freezing, even if only by a few degrees. The tourist season, such as it is, lasts from June to August when the temperatures manage to stay above 50 most of the time. However July is spoiled by heavy rainfall.

So dear reader, you probably have the same question as I had. WHY?

Why does anyone live here and why are we spending the day here?

The first view from the ship has, I have to admit has a certain storybook appeal.

But as one guest said “When I realised that I could count the number of houses on the island from the ship, I also realised there was little point in going ashore”

But to us it looks picturesque and inviting. The sun is out, the temperature is an unexpectedly balmy 40 degrees and the little town is charming. The islanders have a wonderful sense of color. All the house are painted in bright colors. The steep hills on the outskirts of town are dotted with reds and purples

while downtown the colors are even brighter

But nothing quite matches the beach huts and the dories in front of them

Actually that’s Gordon in front of them. These are the dories

We notice that one of the beach huts is open. Feeling nosey we wander along to have a look. There we meet a small group of locals, four to be precise which is probably a crowd on St Pierre,  who are having a barbecue on the beach.

They immediately invite us to join them. They ask if we would like some soup. We feel we are intruding but they insist. We ask what kind of soup they have.

“We have red or rose”  they say laughing loudly at their own joke. This was obviously going to be a good picnic. The wines are in large boxes with a tap and they pour very generous helpings. It is getting better by the moment. The barbecue is still cooking

but meanwhile there are baguettes, butter and  salami  and lots more soup. They even have Edith Piaff singing in the background

Hot dogs and  capelin are cooking on the barbecue. Capelin is a tiny little fish mavbe 5″ long. They show us how to eat them. You pull the head off, hold it by the tail and put the entire thing in your mouth except the tail. They are delicious.

Meanwhile Jean starts talking to us about their lives and their boats or dories. They are particularly proud of one that was built in the 1940’s in a particular old fashioned style.

It is listed as a historic monument and he tells us rather proudly it is on the same list as the Eiffel Tower. Because it is a national monument the French Government sends them money each year to keep it in perfect condition and they still use it for fishing and tourist boat trips. The boat next to it is even older and was built by Jean’s grandfather but not in such a notable style. Being such a small island parts are always hard to obtain and so you have to be creative when repairs are necessary. At one point his grandfather installed a Toyota engine in the dury which meant there had to be a clutch, gear stick and accelerator  as well.

As the soup flows he talks more about his life.  There is no higher education on the island so you have to go to France for a university education. Everything including the flight is paid for by the French government. He had been to France for two years when he was eighteen and then on to Edinburgh for a year. There have been four generations of his family living in St Pierre and he couldn’t wait to get back.

There are no specialist doctors on the island and for medical care they use something akin to skype to have online consultations with a doctor in France. If the doctor decides that he needs to see them or a hospital visit is necessary they have to fly to France, but again everything  is paid for by the French government.

The only woman at the barbecue is Marie.

She is a well built jolly woman in her  30’s dressed simply and much like the men in jeans, boots and a blue jacket. She has shoulder length dark hair, an easy smile, an infectious laugh and limited English. She clearly enjoys the company of men and a glass of soup. Don’t we all.  She tells us that she came to the island 13 years ago after applying for a job. The job soon vanished but she has stayed. She has no work but has a husband instead which she tells us in broken English is just as much work as a full time job. She loves the island and has no intention of leaving. However she makes it quite clear that she would love to join us on the cruise. We say we would love to have her with us.

“But what about your husband?” we ask

She shrugs. “C’est la vie” she says. And laughs that infectious laugh.

And what a life it is. We have spent a wonderful two hours with these welcoming people. We have imbibed more soup in two hours than we normally have in a week. We have made new friends, heard a many great stories and laughed a lot. Maybe St Pierre has a lot to offer after all.



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8 Responses to My kind of soup

  1. I just watched the Anthony Bourdain episode about Newfoundland and he made a side trip to this island. So you are right up there in the fabulosity scale.

  2. Pamela Varga says:

    Hi Guys. I must say, I would be like Gordon and staying in the car telling Bill how to take the photo! Bloody cold place for a cruise ! Anthony Bourdain was just visiting St Pierre and Miquelin. Last week we watched him enjoy a great feast of seafood and wonderful baked goods with a hardy group of French. Was the soup Red Clam Chowder?

  3. Dan Blackwelder says:

    That sounded like a totally charming experience. I remember something I read by a travel writer years ago…..”one of the great joys of travel is the discovery of small things” … guys are very good at welcoming those experiences. Steven and I are doing an Alaska cruise in a few weeks…….take care, and safe travels.

  4. Monica J says:

    St. Pierre sounds wonderful! It’s so pretty–what a treat. Would have loved to see a photo of the Irish Wolfhound from Cornerbrook–he would have made a fun companion back onboard. Happy continued travels

  5. Dale McGhee says:

    Whoa there, wait a minute. It took you 7 days to get from Montreal to Saguenay, and now, overnight, you’re in Ireland?

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