A Trip off the Old Rock
Sunday, April 22, 2007
A Screech-In sounds like something a frustrated ornithologist might indulge in, or a Beltway ritual for stressed-out drivers. But in Newfoundland, it's a traditional ceremony to induct CFAs ("come-from-aways," Newfese for tourists) into the Royal Order of Screechers and thus make them honorary Newfies. I find one in a pub on George Street in the capital, St. John's.
I do not take my decision to be here lightly. To get screeched, I will have to pass several tests that challenge the dexterity of the tongue, the strength of the stomach and the capacity to be grossed out. Not the least will be to gulp down a shot of the potent rum affectionately known as Screech, and also to kiss a dead fish. During my two-week stay in Newfoundland, I keep mulling: Will I? Should I? How badly do I want to become an honorary citizen of this hunk of rock?
Newfoundland (rhymes with "understand"), an island about the size of Virginia at the eastern end of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, is nicknamed The Rock by its inhabitants, and for good reason: The coastline is a jagged cragginess of cliffs, and the interior is an uninhabitable rock plateau of alternating ridges and waterlogged troughs. The weather is ruled by the unforgiving North Atlantic and is frequently mauzy (wet and foggy) and logy (oppressively humid), with bone-chilling winters. The population -- concentrated in a few cities and otherwise strung out along the coast in small fishing villages -- is about 600,000, of which 120,000 are moose.
So is this a place I want to call my honorary home? To find out, I plan to immerse myself in some of the best that Newfoundland has to offer: St. John's, one of the oldest and prettiest cities in North America, with its harbor setting and steeply rising streets; the Avalon Peninsula with its whales, birds, historic sites and fishing villages; the historic town of Trinity; and Gros Morne National Park, which has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its raw beauty and unique geology.
My goal: to become so enamored of the place that I dare to get screeched.
How's She Cutting?
I get my first inkling of what's to come soon after I arrive in St. John's in late June. I am hiking on the cliffside trail on Signal Hill -- the granite sentinel that watches over the city's harbor entrance -- when 60-mph gusts nearly lift me off my feet. I drop to the ground, wedging against boulders for security. Howling headwinds scour my face like sandpaper. Suddenly a jogger runs by. He is holding tightly onto his ballooning shorts, which have half flown off. He grins at me, "How's she cutting, me cock?" Excuse me?
Newfoundland English, as I am rapidly discovering, is a tongue-twisting, colorful blend of Irish and English dialects and sea-lore expressions. The language, which developed as a result of Newfoundland's history as one of Britain's first settlements in the New World as well as its geographical isolation, even boasts a dictionary of more than 700 pages.
I am not the first Marylander who ever contemplated calling Newfoundland home. George Calvert, a.k.a. Lord Baltimore I, tried, too. He gave up. He had founded the Colony of Avalon at Ferryland, Newfoundland, in the 1620s. Until then, Europeans came to these waters only during the fishing season. Lord Baltimore tried to spend the winter here. He hated it. So much so that he petitioned King Charles I to grant him a colony in warmer climes, and he was granted what he named "Maryland."
I spend an afternoon at Avalon's impressive archaeological site and museum. Along the battered headlands, a lighthouse stands defiantly against a mackerel sky. Herring gulls squabble in high-pitched cacophony. A whale's blow sprouts from the sea. I try to imagine the winter here. Isolation. Darkness. The constant threat of starvation. How soothing it must have been to warm the cockles with some fiery rum.
Screech was introduced to Newfoundland in colonial days, when salt cod was traded to the West Indies in exchange for what was then a no-name rum. The nickname apparently is of World War II vintage: It seems that an American officer downed a shot of this Newfoundland hospitality in one gulp and let out a screeching howl when his throat ignited.
Just offshore, the frigid southbound Labrador Current meets with the warmer northbound Gulf Stream. This convergence results in one of the richest ocean brews of nutrients on the planet and, in turn, one of the largest concentrations anywhere of whales, breeding seabirds and, in years past, cod. For centuries, Newfoundland's way of life and economy were based on cod, until the industry collapsed in 1992 from high-tech overfishing.
Remnants of the traditional way of life can be found in rural fishing villages. The road map reads like Gray's Anatomy, with place names featuring heads, necks, noses, arms and other body parts. I focus on Heart's Delight, Heart's Desire and the fascinating village of Heart's Content, the terminus for the first transatlantic cable, which was completed between North America and Ireland in 1866.