The French connection

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THE French tricolor flew above Place du Général de Gaulle on a misty morning as white-gloved gendarmes in snappy blue uniforms, rifles across their chests, stood at attention and the band struck up "La Marseillaise." It was July 14, Bastille Day.

I was in France, surrounded by patriotic French, yet I was 2,800 miles and an ocean away from Paris, in St.-Pierre and Miquelon. The two islands, 18 miles off southern Newfoundland, are the only remaining French outposts in North America.

For three days, as the thermometer hovered around 55, I had been peering through a low-lying fog that blanketed St.-Pierre and its harbor. But someone up there must love the French, because on Bastille Day, the sun broke through and by midday, when a sizable number of St.-Pierre's 6,000 residents gathered in the plaza to toast the motherland, the temperature had climbed to 70.

Twenty degrees more and I could almost have been in Iowa on the Fourth of July. Red, white and blue balloons floated skyward. The Rotarians and Lions staffed food booths. Burgers and hot dogs sizzled on grills. Children with red, white and blue-streaked hair queued up for carousel rides.

But, this being France, there was vin rosé for washing down those dogs, and plenty of barbecued demi coquelet (half-chicken) and gateaux (cake).

St.-Pierre and Miquelon — the two, separated by six miles of ocean, are referred to as one — once was a thriving cod-fishing community. St.-Pierre, the capital and home to most of the islands' population, is French to its core. There are good French restaurants serving escargot and frog legs. Pâtisseries sell plump, flaky croissants. Peugeots, Renaults and Citroëns dash through the narrow, potholed streets. (Unlike in Paris, they brake for pedestrians.) Restaurant patrons puff away on their Gauloises. When friends meet, they kiss on both cheeks. French is, of course, the native tongue, and many locals speak little English. (Fortunately, my French was good enough to get by.)

It's not the easiest place to reach, which may help account for the paucity of first-rate lodgings. I flew to New York, connecting to Halifax, Nova Scotia. Fog and rain had caused cancellation of most flights into Halifax airport. (As the Halifax Chronicle-Herald headlined, "Tensions rise, jets don't…. ") We were one of the few that got in.

The next day, I boarded a high-wing twin turboprop for the 350-mile trip to St.-Pierre, where I'd arranged for a rental car. Because of a mix-up, Garage Marie Norbert knew nothing of my booking but could offer me a car. The credit card machine wasn't working (a common problem on the island), and I had no euros, but they handed me the keys — no questions asked — and asked me to drop by in the morning.

I decided I was going to like this laid-back place that calls itself terre insolite (unusual land).

Tip of the hat to Big AlI checked into Auberge de l'Archipel, a bed-and-breakfast on a residential street uphill from the harbor, one of several similarly modest accommodations. The no-frills room — no phone, no TV — had just enough space for a bed and small chest, but it was clean. (Nearby Chez Hélène, which was highly recommended, looked more upscale but was full.)

For a different experience, I also spent two nights at Hôtel/Motel Robert on the waterfront, where a little lobby museum in the original 1920s building is testament to St.-Pierre's onetime prosperity as a transfer point for Canadian liquor smuggled into the United States during Prohibition. There's a straw hat that belonged to Al Capone, who was heavily involved in same. I wondered whether public enemy No. 1, whose criminal enterprises included liquor smuggling, actually stayed at the hotel. "Oui, oui," said the woman at the desk, holding up an index finger. "One night" (in 1927).

At St.-Pierre, the liquor was taxed and warehoused — legally — until it was picked up by American rumrunners who smuggled it — illegally — by boat into the United States. As many as 300,000 cases a month passed through. When wooden cases proved too noisy, alerting authorities during offloading in New York, they were abandoned in St.-Pierre in favor of jute sacks with straw. The wood helped build many a house, including a cottage called Villa Cutty Sark, made entirely from whiskey cases.

It's said that flags here were flown at half-staff upon repeal of U.S. prohibition in 1933. The island went into economic decline and has never again been as prosperous.

Before there was whiskey smuggling, there was cod fishing. Its zenith was in the late 19th century; by 1992, overfishing had seriously depleted cod in the Grand Banks off Nova Scotia, and Canada imposed strict quotas. Today, diners will find fresh local scallops, mussels and salmon on menus.

At the contemporary Musée de l'Arche overlooking the harbor, visitors can gain an understanding, through old-ship memorabilia and vintage photos, of life in the heyday of fishing.

Just in back of the museum is a plaque dedicated to Gen. Charles de Gaulle, with his words of June 1940, when Germany occupied mainland France. "France has lost a battle but not the war." The islands were not occupied, but collaborationist Vichy France had control over French territories, which at the time included St.-Pierre and Miquelon. St.-Pierrais, as residents here are called, recount that on Christmas Eve 1941, four ships of De Gaulle's Free French forces landed at St.-Pierre and, without a shot being fired, liberated the islands. A plebiscite was held, with residents overwhelmingly voting to join the Free French.

Nearby is a World War I monument. St.-Pierre and Miquelon sent more than 400 men to that war. One-fourth did not return.

Daunting weather reportHAD I not been lucky enough to be in St.-Pierre on a glorious Bastille Day, I might have declared it rather gloomy. At times there was almost zero visibility on the roads, which haven't a single traffic light. (The island is only 10 square miles, so it's easy to cover in a short time.) On a cold, rainy day I asked a young woman at the Musée de l'Arche, "If this is July, what's winter like?" She just smiled and said, "Worse."

Perhaps it is the weather that inspired residents to paint their clapboard houses in vivid blues, greens, yellows, pinks and purples. They're built out to the curb on the narrow streets above the harbor, and they typically sport lace curtains and tambours, enclosed front porches the size of a closet. Very practical for keeping out winter's cold.

Wedged among the homes are shops selling French wine, clothing and perfumes and such oddities as "leather" goods fashioned from codfish skin. Local crafts tend toward nautical-themed kitsch.

It is St.-Pierre's remoteness, besides its Frenchness, that makes it seem otherworldly. Television didn't come to the islands until 1967. Computers have arrived, but no Internet cafes. My cellphone, which works most places, didn't here. (I bought a French phone card.)

The islands were discovered by Portuguese explorer João Alvarez Faguendes in 1520. In 1536, when French mariner Jacques Cartier visited, he found fishermen from France plying their trade in the islands. Many of today's residents are descendants from the French who settled here permanently in the 17th century. Others trace their roots to Acadians, French who were deported from Nova Scotia by the British in 1755 during French-British territorial disputes.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, St.-Pierre and Miquelon bounced between Britain and France; in 1816, the islands were returned to France.

The mother country, which St.-Pierrais refer to as the Métropole, heavily subsidizes the islands, providing money for projects such as the new airport. Officially, St.-Pierre and Miquelon is a self-governing collectivité territoriale.

Miquelon, geographically larger than St.-Pierre, has a population of 700 and is connected by a sand bar to Langlade, which is inhabited only in summer. No wonder. There's neither electricity nor running water, and in winter the temperature dips well below freezing. There's a small chapel, a cafe and a colony of summer homes. St.-Pierrais come to hunt, fish and escape "city" life.

At the suggestion of the St.-Pierre tourism office, I boarded the passenger ferry St. Georges one foggy morning, along with a few other tourists, some locals and a dog or two, for the hourlong journey over a gray and gently rolling sea to Langlade, where we anchored offshore and took a Zodiac in for a beach landing. There, our tour group, myself and two Canadian women, were met by Bianca, our English-speaking guide.

As our minivan drove the narrow dirt road past vast sand dunes, Bianca told us about the many ships that have met their end on these rocky shores. In the 16 miles from Langlade to the village of Miquelon, we saw ring-billed gulls and semi-wild horses that roamed a treeless landscape.

Fishermen from France's Basque region were among early settlers in the islands, and the Basque influence remains strong. (Miquelon is a Basque word meaning "Michael.") Bianca took us to the 1865 church on the square, Notre Dame des Ardilliers, which has pillars fashioned from the masts of wrecked ships and a ceiling resembling a ship's hull.

The town was decidedly sleepy, save for a workman scrubbing the fountain in the square in preparation for Bastille Day. Crime is so low that it's really a holiday for the two French gendarmes posted for three to four years on Miquelon, Bianca said.

Sending help from the Métropole is a centuries-old tradition. The Musée Héritage in St.-Pierre has trunks and other memorabilia brought by two nuns from Toulon assigned to the now-closed local convent in 1826. Brave souls — they knew nothing of the island, except that it was cold and that fish were abundant.

The museum occupies the old building of Northern Trading-Northern Export, once the most important Canadian whiskey importer. It's a nice exhibit, with photographs of the halcyon Prohibition days, as well as old bottles, barrels, jugs and whiskey crates.

A jubilant Bastille DayTHERE'S no better time to be in St.-Pierre and Miquelon than on Bastille Day, when French celebrate the storming of the Bastille in Paris in 1789, the event that signaled the start of the French Revolution.

A handful of elderly World War II veterans were VIPs at this year's opening ceremonies in St.-Pierre. I spoke with Fernand Lafitte, 86, a St.-Pierre native who was studying in France at the time of the German occupation. He escaped through Casablanca, Morocco.

"We were on an old boat full of chickens and geese," he said. "We weren't sure we were going to make it — until we saw the Statue of Liberty."

He served in the American Navy and, at war's end, came home and worked as an electrician on fishing boats. This proud Frenchman has attended every July 14 celebration since 1945.

Later in the day, as the square filled with celebrants, little boys wearing backward baseball caps wielded water pistols and tossed confetti. Madame Mayor Karine Claireaux, wearing a large République Française medal around her neck, worked the crowd. Women and girls from the Basque community entertained with circle dances. Down at the shore, there were dory races. Joie de vivre filled the air.

I wondered whether the St.-Pierrais thought of themselves as different from those other French. When I asked Bruno Arthur, a carpenter and town council member who's visited mother France three times, he said, "We live like North American people, but we are not American. We are French. We think bigger than in Europe. And we're not nervous, like in Europe. There's no stress out here. We take the best of France, the food, the cheese…. "

A world apartBY evening, the streets were laced with rivers of silly string. The public dance was underway in the Place. A heavy mist had crept in, and we waited in vain for the feux d'artifice (fireworks). A young woman from the tourism office said they had been postponed, perhaps until August and clearer skies. "Last year, we could hear them, but not see them," she explained.

I bought a glass of vin rosé, sat down at a picnic table and gathered my thoughts about this quirky outpost.

It had been summed up well, I decided, by Bill Marshall, a professor of modern French studies at University of Glasgow, Scotland, whom I had met here. He is researching a book, "The French Atlantic," essays on the cultural and literary histories of the French diaspora, including St.-Pierre and Miquelon.

He viewed Bastille Day in St.-Pierre — and St.-Pierre itself — as a "theater of Frenchness. They put on a good performance of being French."

"But then," he added, "the French put on a good performance of being French."

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Chilling out on St.-Pierre and Miquelon

GETTING THERE:

From LAX, connecting service (change of planes) to Halifax, Nova Scotia, is available on Air Canada, Continental, American and Northwest. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $448.

Air Saint-Pierre has direct daily flights to St.-Pierre from Halifax (other cities available). Restricted round-trip fares begin at $261. (877) 277-7765, http://www.airsaintpierre.com .

SPM Express offers daily passenger ferry service from Fortune, Newfoundland, to St.-Pierre. 011-508-412-426, http://www.spmexpress.net .

TELEPHONES:

To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 508 (country code for St.-Pierre and Miquelon) and the local number.

WHERE TO STAY:

Hôtel/Motel Robert, 11 Rue du Commerce, 412-419, fax 412-879, www2.st-pierre-et-miquelon.info/cv/6.html. Good location near harbor. Choose the 1920s building, where Al Capone stayed. Doubles from $127, including continental breakfast. Hôtel Île de France, 6 Rue Maître Georges Lefèvre, 410-350, fax 410-380, http://www.hoteliledefrance.net . This 24-room in-town hotel has an inviting restaurant-bar. Doubles $109, including continental breakfast.

Auberge de L'Archipel, 19 Rue Beaussant, 417-200, fax 417-246; www2.st-pierre-et-miquelon.info/cv/9.html. No-frills bed and breakfast on close-in residential street. Doubles or singles, $62.

WHERE TO EAT:

La Voilerie, 12 Rue du 11 Novembre, 415-300. Attractive, popular waterfront restaurant featuring fresh seafood and French cuisine. Entrees $14-$23.

La Feu de Braise, 14 Rue Albert Briand, 419-160. Up one flight in a less-than-promising location, it's short on ambience, but the food in this French-style brasserie is good. Entrees $14-$22.

Le Maringouin'Fre, 22 Rue du Général Leclerc,413-679. Busy nautical-themed cafe serving crepes, burgers, salads, soups, pizza at moderate prices.

TO LEARN MORE:

Tourism Office, Place du Général de Gaulle, 410-200, fax 413-355, http://www.st-pierre-et-miquelon.info , English www2.st-pierre-et-miquelon.info.

— Beverly Beyette

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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