France in My Backyard: Some Words About St. Pierre et Miquelon

My first trip abroad was to France. It cost me just a few hundred dollars, and it only took an hour to get there by ferry from Newfoundland.

Photo courtesy of Miquelon (click photo)

Photo courtesy of Miquelon (click photo)

St. Pierre et Miquelon is a group of islands owned by France just chillin’ out in the Atlantic Ocean. Hardly anyone knows they’re there, and I suspect they kinda like it that way.
 
The place is bloody old. According to its website, the islands were used for more than 8000 years by the Beothuks and Paleo-Eskimos. Then the Europeans swooped in, set up fishing industry and the islands grew prosperous from there. SPM is also notoriously known for its rum-running history during the USA prohibition.
 
I assume one of the reasons the islands are so isolated is because it’s friggen hard to get there. There’s only one airline (Air Saint- Pierre), and there’s just one ferry which leaves from Fortune early in the morning. This means that driving to Fortune from St. John’s or any other urban areas when you get to Newfoundland is a hassle, and Fortune isn’t exactly the most fun place to visit.
 
Breaking it down: St. Pierre is the most populated island with about 6,500 people, and Miquelon is the larger island but has just a tiny village of 600 people. Then there’s the deserted Ile aux Marins, and a small farm-inhabited island called Langlade. AND THEN there’s a bunch of places I’ve never even heard of until just five minutes ago, like l’Ile aux Vainqueurs, l’Ile aux Pigeons and l’Ile Verte. I just got unreasonably excited.
 
 I haven’t been there in about eight years, but I remember the ferry ride and the young school children vomiting with seasickness. Then: stepping onto the pier, the whole downtown area opening up with colourful storefronts, old French-styled architecture and adorable little European cars (how the hell do you get cars to SPM?). And a man yelling at me to clear the plank.

Photo courtesy of Miquelon

Photo courtesy of Miquelon

 

Literally, the moment you step foot onto St. Pierre, you’re in a different country. English is barely spoken, and European voltage replaces North American standards. Euros are the currency. It feels like Europe, but you can’t ignore some of the Newfoundland vibes poking their way into the town like colourful saltbox houses, fishing boats, and damned chilly weather.
 
We were studying French at the Francoforum, Memorial University’s French institution. Me and a few girls stayed with a little old lady named Madame Luberry. We adored her food — the rich butter, the salads with vinaigrette sauces — and watching Friends dubbed with French. There was an albino lobster mounted on the wall in her living room.

We spent the next few days immersed in French culture, enjoying French cuisine and touring the ghost town on Ile aux Marins. Washed up on the beach was the hull of a ship. The 8 mile sand bar between Miquelon and St. Pierre has wrecked at least 500 vessels.

Shipwreck courtesy of transpacif

Shipwreck courtesy of miquelon

We were 16 at the time, bar-going age in St. Pierre. The discotheque reputably had the best light system “this side of Montreal,” which means perhaps two strobe lights instead of one. But it was our first real experience at a bar, sober, and we had more fun than a 16 year old ever could in Canada. I distinctly remember the woman dressed entirely in denim dancing with her eyes closed in the corner.

When not in classes, we’d stroll around the town with the smell of French bakeries flowing out from the streets. I bought $40 worth to bring home. $40. Pain du chocolat, croissants, French bread.

I can actually smell the town and imagine walking through fog so dense we couldn’t see our feet. Then there’s the shop where I bought the silver dolphin ring with the green stone, the one I lost just a few months ago.

Photo courtesy of Miquelon

Photo courtesy of Miquelon

The whole time I’ve been writing this post, my brain’s been bubbling over with excitement. Road trip, anyone?

Check out some more St. Pierre et Miquelon images in the Flickr group.

On another note, if you have time, check out this site I’ve lately discovered called Dog Meets World. It’s a unique project designed to allow travellers to make “real connections to other people in other cultures, in essence to become photo-diplomats.” Have a look!