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Beyond the sea & fog

Two little French treats off the coast of Newfoundland

Email|Print| Text size + By David Arnold
Globe Correspondent / May 9, 2004

MIQUELON -- I have just stepped off the ferry and onto this French island off the coast of Newfoundland with a hundred other people, but they disappear into the fog as if they belong to another dimension. Within minutes, I am standing alone on the pier.

We had crossed from Saint-Pierre aboard the Maria Galanta, a jet-powered capsule that docks here a few times a week and is the only water link to the outside world. The little harbor faintly smells of fish, but it has no fishing boats; there are a few parked cars with keys in the ignitions, but there are no drivers. I start walking.

The village square is empty, ringed with vinyl-sided houses in pastel colors softened by the fog. Somewhere a door slams, a dog barks, a person laughs. But it happens out of sight.

A block farther down the road I run across a police station. It's locked. Next door is a tourist office -- with someone inside!

"Puis-je vous aider?" the woman behind the desk says in perfect Parisian French, as she inquires how she might help. I learn her name is Anne-Marie Drake, and our chemistry is good. I think I am the first tourist this woman has run into in weeks.

With hand motions and guttural noises, I try to explain that I had seen a poster in Saint-Pierre advertising a "Fte du Cheval," or horse festival, scheduled to take place on the island. For five minutes Madame Drake listens patiently, offering a word here and there as I bludgeon the language to eke out details about the event.

Finally she says: "So you think you've got all you need, eh?" Perfect English from a Newfoundland native. She moved here to live with her French husband.

While Drake's Canadian lilt was clear, so was her message: There may not be many folks at this outpost of an empire that once stretched to New Orleans, but the retreat stops here. The embers of the empire are glowing, and here we speak French. Vive la France!

Saint-Pierre and Miquelon, two French-owned islands just 16 miles offshore, spin in a mutual orbit inside the giant shadow of Canada without the slightest inclination to become anything but more French. In fact, Americans will find it generally faster and cheaper to fly to Paris than to Saint-Pierre & Miquelon.

Saint-Pierre is far the more cosmopolitan of the two, a rocky nubbin that boasts a choice of five-star restaurants and perhaps the highest ratio of superb wines to land mass on the planet.

Miquelon is the quieter, more modest big sister with a slightly out-of-this-world wardrobe. Flecked with weathered mountains, grassy sand dunes, tropical lagoons, and expansive beaches, it is part-Scottish highlands, part Cape Cod National Seashore, all mixed up along a 30-mile island tucked into the North Atlantic.

The islands, with only a genealogical link to Quebec, are what the French call a "collectivit territoriale," or an outpost with its own seat in the French Parliament. In Saint-Pierre and Miquelon they fly the tricolor, drive Renaults and Peugeots, spend euros, annually celebrate the storming of the Bastille, and nap at noon.

"France loves you," President Charles de Gaulle trumpeted from the town square of Saint-Pierre in 1967. "France will take care of you!" And it has.

When the fishing industry fell through the cellar in the 1980s, the islands became -- and remain -- a 6,500-person welfare state where everything is imported: cars, windsurfers, cement trucks, even the "pav de fltan rti du lard" (roasted halibut with bacon) served at the restaurant La Violerie. Each summer, the French government flies all 200 or so students from that year's high school graduating class to Paris to begin free university studies.

Inhabited by the descendants of fishermen from Brittany, Normandy, and the Basque coast of southern France, the islands claim 100 percent employment. Almost everyone works for the government.

Consider the little village of Miquelon (pop. 700), the only community on the island of the same name. It has a police force of four full-time officers. No one recalls a crime committed here during the past century.

It was on an August day last summer that Drake was offering me details about the horse festival -- and how to reach it some 10 miles away.

"You might try to hitchhike. Or just ask anyone for a lift," she suggested. There are no taxis, buses, rental cars, or bicycles for hire.

Miquelon is basically a barbell-shaped spit of sand flagged by three massive, eroded granite mounds -- not exactly mountains -- suggesting that little has changed here geologically for a few billion years. Because both islands lie in an area where warm and cold ocean currents collide, a key element to the landscape is fog. This is not the whimsical ether that creeps in on feline feet, but the thick suffocating stuff that can drive the spirit inward and isolate like a bell jar.

About two suicides a year take place on the islands, according to government officials, which translates to about 30 suicides per 100,000 people. The US average is 12 per 100,000. Locals blame the fog.

The fog also gets nefarious credit for more than 900 shipwrecks in the region, including one 1841 grounding just offshore where French Navy sailors who knew they were doomed aboard the crippled La Verdette could be heard administering their own 21-gun salute.

The day after my arrival, however, the weather had cleared, and at the far end of town I stuck out my thumb. Just as Drake had promised, the first car stopped.

The driver was Zach Bowring, manager of SPM, the local telecommunications company. He and his family were headed for the festival, as was everyone else on the island.

"We have two seasons," the Canadian-born Bowring explained, thankfully in English. "Winter, and not-winter." So what's the attraction? "You are going to have a hard time finding another community in North America that still sets its pace by church bells in the village square. Or turns out en masse for a horse show."

The two-day festival is one of the big events of the year on Miquelon. It is one of the only events on Miquelon. About 40 riders, ranging in age from 12 to 50, converge on a beach and meadow to test their skills in creative ways that will never make the program in Wenham or Hamilton, Mass. These folks engage in no-rules drag races down the beach, chariot sprints using 50-gallon plastic drums, rodeo barrel races, and an array of obstacle courses employing eggs, soccer balls, glasses of water, and a fence gate, to name a few.

The event takes place at La Grande Barachois, a large lagoon where shallow seawater on a sandy bottom can reach temperatures approaching 80 degrees in summer -- at about the same latitude as Quebec City and Minneapolis. Here, half-wild horses roam the shoals and dunes on one side of the lagoon's barrier beach, while sea lions haul out on the other side. Out of this world? Paulette Boissel, who runs Pension Chez Paulette on the island, put it this way: "Visitors say they sometimes feel they have come to another planet when they come here. But we are another planet."

At 10 a.m. sharp, a shirtless Cyril Dearburn, sporting a plastic cowboy hat, announced that the 20th Fte du Cheval was underway. Then with a mighty "Allez!", riders and lathered horses exploded into an all-out, mile-long gallop down the beach. Many rode bareback with cigarettes dangling from their lips and extra cigs rolled up in T-shirt sleeves. No one wore helmets. Thierry Poirier, 26, a resident of Saint-Pierre and definitely a source of heart throb, wore hardly anything at all: Pants and a Corona beer cap were the sartorial highlights.

For two days, this stud (Poirier, not his horse) basically led the competition, steering with leg pressure and inclined to finish events with undulating hips and hands held high, touchdown style. A remarkable equestrian, Poirier certainly would add flavor to a polo match at the Myopia Hunt Club. Membership might be a challenge.

"I ride maybe twice a week. I love horses. I love these people," Poirier, a swimming instructor, explained at the conclusion of the festival. Ultimately, the honors would go to others, not Poirier, who admitted a night's partying might have led to his decline.

And so as the fog settled back over La Grande Barachois, I stuck out my thumb, hitched a ride from the first passing car to the harbor, and took the ferry back to Saint-Pierre.

Saint-Pierre is a little island (about one-quarter the size of Martha's Vineyard) that thinks big. Many residents have two residences, a winter home in the main town and a summer cottage perhaps just over the hill to the west. Amenities in a space not much bigger than Edgartown include indoor tennis courts, a sports complex, a theater, two cultural museums, a nature preserve, a half dozen hotels, five gourmet restaurants, seven nightclubs, entrances to 30 miles of hiking paths, and one bus tour -- all thanks to the government and de Gaulle's promise of eternal care.

"I suppose the French never quite know when they are going to need us," said Michelle Degroot, who was born here and returns each summer from her home in Los Angeles.

The island has had two celebrities of sorts, according to Jean-Pierre Andrieux, a local historian who owns the former Neptune Hotel.

First was gangster Al Capone, who used the island during Prohibition as a transfer station for Canadian booze. Bottles were repacked from wooden crates into padded hemp bags here so they could be loaded more quietly into the rum-runner vessels waiting just off the New England coast. One of Capone's famous straw hats remains a featured attraction at the Hotel Robert on the waterfront. At least one home still stands that was made entirely from the wood from crates of Hiram Walker Canadian Club Whiskey.

Then there was one Neel Auguste, who on a foggy night in 1849 committed a murder and wound up a star of "La Veuve de Saint-Pierre" ("The Widow of Saint-Pierre"), a French and Canadian film about the incident made in 2000. Briefly, no one wanted to serve as executioner when a guillotine (also called "veuve") was imported from Martinique for the job. Finally, a wife abuser took the job, but botched it so badly that poor Auguste had to be administered a coup de grce with a fisherman's knife.

"We took it just a little bit hard when they made the film because none of it was shot here," said Andrieux. It did not help island pride that practically at the same moment Andrieux was speaking, another movie was being filmed on Saint-Pierre because fog was vital to the story line. But because the island was experiencing a rare run of sunny days, the crew had had to import a fog machine. I bid adieu to Andrieux, collected my bags, and grabbed a taxi for a trip to the airport that I easily could have walked. It just so happened that the previous night, a feature about the horse festival had aired on local television. Although verbally impaired, I had been interviewed because journalists are so rare at the event.

At airport security, I asked an officer if he would refrain from X-raying my film. I started explaining why when he interrupted.

"Yes, yes, I saw you on television," he said, adding with a chuckle, "but here we speak French!"

David Arnold is a freelance writer who lives in the Boston area. He can be reached by e-mail at norwester@comcast.net.

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