It’s a year today that we sailed in to St Pierre; ushered by dolphins and with the air clear, clean and crisp.
Looking back on the year I can now see that winter is in fact the natural state of these islands. Like Oman in reverse, where a few short days of glorious chill – usually at the beginning of February – are variously welcomed or dreaded (depending on whether we had a charter of winter-fleeing Europeans who wanted the WARM sun that they had paid a fortune for!); St Pierre’s brief sunny days are gone almost before you notice they have arrived.
The temperature hits 20 and the locals are steaming, ‘Il fait CHAUD’ they all sigh whilst stripping to the waist and debating whether it’s too hot to work outdoors.
I have to say that this lack of summer was harder on me than I had expected. There was so much focus on the WINTER – whenever I was introduced to someone new they would invariably ask ‘So are you staying here through the WINTER?’ Even our old Muscat friends in Halifax quizzed me about my preparedness for the winter. ‘It’s the GREY’, they said. ‘It gets you down ….’
But circumstances were such that I was indeed here through the whole winter, and I found it far from unpleasant. First of course there’s the build up to Christmas, with the lights and the little market and the forever anticipation and delight that goes with my favourite festival. Then the fact that it’s a real winter with snow is actually really nice, especially as it isn’t the kind of beastly meters deep snow that they have in Canada that stops you from going out of the house. The coldest it got was -10; which is the same as it gets in Germany, and the largest dump of snow we had was about a meter and a half. That combined with quite a few sunny days each week and we were out and about all the time, well rugged up, with no issues.
I was worried about the dogs acclimatising – they arrived at the beginning of October – and bought them booties and coats but shouldn’t have worried a drop. Their natural winter coats, developed immediately, were impressive (and impervious!) unlike the booties which didn’t last the first walk. They didn’t recognise each other in the coats which was hysterical, but I soon figured out those were really only useful if it was wet, so they didn’t get much use. The cats were only fazed by the snow when it covered the doorstep …or if it melted on their paws. I think they thought it was some kind of bizarre sand ..
Yes; there were storms but very few days indeed where we felt we could not leave the house; and the joy of a roaring fire and central heating that keeps the orchids blooming while it’s snowing outside can’t be exaggerated.
No, it’s not winter that is hard in St Pierre. It’s “summer”.
I was fortunate enough to be off to Germany at the beginning of April – spring – and was there for six glorious weeks while the leaves came out, the cherries blossomed and the magnificent gardens of Keukenhof in Holland were at their peak. Soft days that rose from 12 – 15 to 25 and even 30 degrees in May meant sitting outside eating ice cream or drinking Campari; trying not to ride at midday and laughing over our ‘stable tan’ arms and white legs.
But the temperatures in St Pierre were ominous – highs of 3 or 5 degrees during the days. While I was regretting not taking daily photos of my favourite avenue of trees as they went from bare branches to full green glory, St Pierre was coming ever so slowly into a thaw.
When I got back in mid May, temperatures were hovering around +10C … not exactly warm, huh. But the ice and snow had gone, and the mountain had opened up again – the as most of the paths are also streams they become terribly dangerous once they are frozen, and frankly apart from the one day that I went showshoeing with Artemis we hadn’t ventured off the roads in our walks. Though cold, the spring was showing and those six weeks went by …
Then I made my mistake. I returned to Germany and glorious full summer for three weeks … and when I came back to St Pierre at the beginning of July it was to the most miserable period I think I’ve ever spent in my life! While Europe, Canada and the US were going through heatwaves, all we had was fog! The cold waters around us – the Gulf Stream having, incomprehensibly (apart from climate change?) moved away from us, we were surrounded by cold water …. And that cold water, being met with the warm upper air, meant impenetrable, everlasting, ghastly fog. Unless it was raining. Which it did a lot. This lasted for two full weeks … cold; wet; dull and just down and out nasty.
And the ‘tourism season’ had started! I bumped into some people who had come in on the first boat of the season (they call in here on tours of the Newfoundland coast so that they head into ‘international waters’ and can open the duty free stores etc …) Poor things were here on a Saturday afternoon (yes, there is a country where things are worse organised by the Tourism powers that be than Oman!) so everything was shuttered tight; the streets were empty; you literally could have fired down the main parade and hit nothing (nor alarmed anyone!).
“So what do you think of St Pierre?” I asked, grimly wanting my fun.
“It’s a miserable little place, isn’t it?” said the lady.
Oh dear. Couldn’t argue with her, actually. Did I mention she was Scottish? So presumably she would know more about miserable places (or at least weather!) than some …
Just about when I thought I would be performing blood sacrifice of the dogs for some sunshine, BANG! Out it came!
Everyone, including me, went instantly bonkers. Dig out the shortest possible Daisy Dukes! Put on the crop top! Expose your shoulders! Where the hell are the sandals? OMG it’s HOT! 21 degrees, vraiment! C’est beau! C’est magnifique! Let’s go on a hike; a picnic; a trip on the boat! And HURRY, because, dammit, it’s not going to last.
When we first visited here in 2016, I insisted (against the GC’s advice) on being here for July 14, Bastille Day. After all, I reasoned, we would be in FRANCE; it’s a NATIONAL HOLIDAY and surely, like .. it would be fun. And, you know, summer. The GC did say that summer didn’t really arrive until August, and damn him but he was right – again! I see from my diary that on August 1 in 2016 we went on a picnic with the Undertaker and his family and I clearly recall thinking that while it was gorgeously sunny and clear it was a shame it was too cold to wear any actual summer clothes … acclimatisation doesn’t seem to take very long!
There was also much joking in 2016 that went something like : “Oh, yes, last summer, it was amazing! I remember, it was a Tuesday ….” Ummm unfortunately like many really good jokes, this one had a huge helping of truth to it …
Anyway; back in 2016 it was 6 degrees on Bastille Day and this year it was 16, so that’s a big improvement. But it did take another two weeks for the sun to come out. August 1 & 2 this year again were spectacular! And, really, until today, we’ve been able to pretend it really IS summer; keeping the attic windows open and managing – FINALLY – to air the whole house so that it no longer smells musty as you walk up the stairs. All in all I think it’s taken the full year to get this house back into normal shape; which isn’t surprising considering it was uninhabited for over ten years and only occupied in the summer for the ten years before that.
The really funny thing about St Pierre is that while it doesn’t really have a summer the people all act like it does! They talk it up like anything! So the place is thronged with bewildered looking tourists who have come over from Newfoundland on the ferry (as the residents pretty much book up the plane flights to Montreal, Halifax and St Johns which are so expensive most tourists rightly prefer to go to, oh I don’t know, Martinique or Bali instead).
It’s also full of emigres to more salubrious parts of the French diaspora; mostly of course the Hexagon (did you know this is what they call France? Drop that into your next conversation if you want to seem like you’re just too worldly for words!) who come home it seems mainly to tut tut over those who are still here and rail against the incredible waste of taxpayers euros that it takes to keep their erstwhile homeland going ….And of course bulk up the numbers of partygoers at the outdoor events that are the hallmark of the summer of St Pierre.
Somehow to me it’s these that most effectively draw the comparison between the little Gaulish village of Asterix and our little community. You remember the great feasts they would have, with the bard tied up? The major difference here is they let the bards loose; most of these events are focussed around music.
As in that ancient Gaulish village, everyone turns out for these; and everyone chips in to organise them as well. It all begins the weekend after Bastille Day with the extraordinary DuneFest – a weekend extravaganza of music and food held on the island of Langlade; a location that can be reached only by boat or a 40 minute drive from Miquelon – which poses logistical issues that are easily overcome by all the multitude of willing volunteers. Everyone camps out or bunks with relatives who have summer houses on Langlade, or sleeps on their boat. As I refuse to camp out in temperatures of below 20 degrees and in a place that houses mosquitos and midges that appear to be on steriods, and our boat is also in my opinion not suitable for human habitation overnight, we visited for the day.
It was so foggy that – having gotten over there using our fabulous electronics and found a buoy to attach ourselves to there was no way we could even see the beach (though we could hear the music over the roar of jetskis!) and decided we were not willing to take our chances of actually hitting the island if we ventured away from Pinball Wizard! No photos for obvious reasons …
But the fact that they were in pea soup fog didn’t deter them at all. These Gauls are crazy. I guess at least it didn’t rain, which it did back in 2016 and I’m sure innumerable other years as well.
Then there followed the hysterical three days of Rock n’Rhum which saw us on a Saturday night watching the closing act, Lisa LeBlanc, with more fog around the stage than they were producing, rather defiantly, I thought, from the stage …
The next outdoor event, the following weekend, the open air concert on Ile aux Marins, was thoughtfully moved from the Friday night as it was raining torrentially – but the Saturday dawned fair and clear and that night’s concert was a real highlight; picnic cum boozefest with the group and the audience sharing the ferry ride home to St Pierre …
And finally, the Basque Festival!!!! This actually lasts a whole week and consists of people playing incomprehensible games that look a lot like Scots games (things like throwing a bale of hay over a high jump and smashing a rock upwards at a steel bar – which I assume have some relevance to farming Basques but seem completely out of place in a fishing community. But there you go, community history is a strange thing. At any rate it seems to give the crew of the Fulmar – 10 naval stalwarts who man our vital defence, a patrol boat that was once a fishing trawler that I have never known to leave the wharf – something to do as they launch a team to compete doing incomprehensible Basque things …
On the Sunday afternoon after a couple days of really nasty weather (surprisingly!) it cleared up perfectly so that we could go to the finale of dancing, prize giving and feasting (and drinking). This means sitting in the sun and feeling happy that it’s sunny, surrounded by people wearing old fashioned dresses or red bandanas with the Basque symbol on them … we bought a couple for the dogs to show that we were in the mood too!
But with the finish of the Basque Festival I have to say that it feels like summer is coming to an end too; and I don’t feel like I’ve had enough! The blueberries are out in force on the land by the Cape and I’ve been gathering them; we can also see that we will have cranberries ripening soon and tiny wild blackberries galore. I didn’t manage to kill the apple trees while pruning them, and indeed the little cooker tree looks like it’s going to give me plunder for weeks of jelly making … we also have juniper berries to gather but I’m afraid it all seems just a tiny bit like getting ready for winter again.
Oh well. At least we know we can cope with winter, if not with summer!