Friday, 11 April 2014

Down Home

Shivering, I put my hands between my knees to warm them. A strand of hair blows loose from my ponytail and whips across my face; the wind is getting steadily colder, but still I stay, not wanting to seek the warm refuge of the car just yet. I’m fascinated by the sight in front of me.
It’s early April in Newfoundland, and far from what most people would consider a pretty time of year around here. Blustery winds seem to cut right through you and, with the sun scarcely showing his face long enough to thaw us all out, it can seem downright miserable. A carpet of dead, yellowed grass underfoot and a leaden sky overhead seem to go hand-in-hand. Looking up, I can literally see fingers of gray clouds reaching across the occasional patches of blue, like great wolves’ teeth chasing the white cloud-sheep across their pasture.

Looking out at the ocean, which matches the sky, I see a couple of herring gulls playing tag. They don’t seem to mind the approaching storm, cavorting like a couple of youngsters and screaming insults at each other.
Looking around, I have to wonder what it is that draws people about this place. There’s just something about it that pulls one back… it’s common knowledge that every Newfoundlander, or “Newfie” as we’re sometimes known, will find his way “down home” at some point or another, no matter how long he’s been away.
As I gaze out at the grim, frowning cliffs, with their faces eternally washed by rains and  decorated by moss and gull’s nests, I wonder what the early settlers of Newfoundland thought of their first glimpse of the rock they would come to call “home”. What possessed them, I wonder, to stay and eke out a living here?

The sensible part of me, of course, knows the answer to that; a wealth of fish. Early settlers were fishermen who made their living battling the ocean and forcing it to give up its codfish treasure. They came home at night exhausted from their work, but never too tired to enjoy a song and a few tales around the fire. Brave wives fed their families with what little they had… a bit of hardtack, (we call it “hard bread”) soaked in water overnight until it became edible, a few potatoes and turnips grown in the rocky soil out back of their houses, and salt fish from the sea. Even now, you will commonly find fish, potatoes, and hard bread cooking in many a skillet across the Island. We call this dish, “Fish’n’Brewis,” (Pronounced “brews”) and it remains a favorite with down-homers and a special treat to folks from “away.” (If you want to try cooking Fisherman's Brewis yourself, there's a recipe HERE.)
The earliest settlers of Newfoundland, my ancestors, passed down many traits through the generations; kindness, a genuine concern for one’s neighbor, generosity, a willingness to work and to work hard, and a kind of cheerful stubbornness that always keeps one looking for the sunny side of things. And, of course, a lilting accent spoken by young and old alike which instantly identifies one as a Newfoundlander.  That manner of speaking has been made fun of, had songs written about it, been captured in “Newfie Dictionaries” and everyone wants to speak it, although it’s hard to learn...
Thinking it over, it’s no wonder so many people call this chunk of rock sitting in the Atlantic Ocean “home” and why so many visitors either elect to stay or wish they had. There’s something about this place that’s magnetic… whether it’s the good home-cooked meals, the lively and sometimes haunting music, the tall tales and good old laughs, the feeling of being called, “My darling” by perfect strangers, the rugged and awesome landscape… perhaps it’s a combination of all of that.
Or maybe it’s a little something more; a sense of pride and ownership of this rock that belongs to each and every person that sets foot here.