Over the last two weeks in Newfoundland, I’ve seen moose, caribou, hares, shooting stars, an iceberg and an old man’s white rump.
What these have in common is their fleeting nature, the idea that I saw them once, briefly, never to be seen again, perhaps by anyone – although given the tendency by some not to lock their shower stalls, I make no guarantee for white-man rump.
This is what draws tourists to Newfoundland, this notion that you can see something you’ve never seen before. Icebergs, for example. We caught what was reportedly the last one of the season, a chunk of ice that by now may be gone. We chased up a hill to get a better look. A piece of ice in the ocean was a highlight of our trip. That’s how it goes with things like icebergs.
We came upon a moose and her calf by the side of the road, stopped and took pictures, even though moose are everywhere in Newfoundland; they were introduced to the island around the turn of the last century, and they have done, as they say, very well. But for us mainlanders, they’re a rarity. And the pair we saw, perhaps no human will see them again.
This is Newfoundland. Geologically, socially, you get the sense that we are living the smallest of moments in time. We’re a blink, like the meteor showers of August, and then history washes us away.
But don’t be depressed; some things last.
We travelled up to L’Anse aux Meadows, at the tip of the Northern Peninsula, site of the only known Viking settlement in North America. It was more of a truck stop than a settlement, and the Vikings only stayed for a decade around the year 1000 before packing it all up and abandoning the joint. A millennium later, all that remains are the humped outlines of their buildings and a few remnants.
A decade is about the amount of time I’ve been at my current job. What will remain of me after I’m gone, besides the box of barely touched business cards that I was issued when I started out and still can’t figure out who would want one?
The Vikings, the Beothuk, the French and English settlers, the outports that the government strong-armed the people into abandoning in the Forties, the death of the cod fishery, the out-migration for mainland jobs – Newfoundland is a history of people come and gone. Far from being beaten down by this, Newfoundlanders seem to feel that you’re a short time here, so you’d best make the most of it.
Newfoundlanders are famous for their friendliness, and I have no evidence to dispute that claim. But there’s more going on here than that. I’ve experienced friendliness often, but as a cynic, I’ve read motives behind that friendliness. Americans are friendly, but they want your money. Nova Scotians? It’s a busybody friendliness. Quebecers? A bit condescending. I heard an Ontario man call his waitress “sweetie,” and my skin nearly crawled out the door.
By contrast, all the ladies in Newfoundland call you “my dear,” and it’s not a tourism industry-mandated policy. It feels sincere.
There’s not just a friendliness to Newfoundlanders; there’s a kindness. I can’t be cynical here.
At Twillingate, we spent the evening enjoying a concert by The Split Peas, a group or retired or soon-to-be retired women who sing traditional songs in Touton House, home of the local Orange Lodge. The group started up over 20 years ago to raise money for the hall, which had fallen into disrepair. Now, two nights a week all summer, every summer, these amateur musicians charm the tourists like pros. No, not pros: hosts.
(Touton, by the way, is a type of fried dough, which the women served at break. “If my mother knew we were charging five dollars for fried dough,” one of the singers said, “she’d be rolling in her grave.”)
So why kindness? Because things come and go – cultures, towns, people, tourists with questionable bathroom skills – but something always remains. Feelings remain, so why not let those feelings be ones of kindness and hospitality? Why not send people on their way with not just souvenirs and selfies but a sense of goodness and a belief that everyone is deserving of a little friendliness.
That’s a pretty good way to live, my dear.