Articles

The Isles of CODFISH AND CHAMPAGNE

Nestling under Newfoundland like eggs under a hen are the French islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon where vintage wines at $1 a bottle foam every night in the cafes on the quay to brighten the fading traditions of the Old World

EDNA STAEBLER November 1 1950
Articles

The Isles of CODFISH AND CHAMPAGNE

Nestling under Newfoundland like eggs under a hen are the French islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon where vintage wines at $1 a bottle foam every night in the cafes on the quay to brighten the fading traditions of the Old World

EDNA STAEBLER November 1 1950

The Isles of CODFISH AND CHAMPAGNE

Nestling under Newfoundland like eggs under a hen are the French islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon where vintage wines at $1 a bottle foam every night in the cafes on the quay to brighten the fading traditions of the Old World

ST. PIERRE, the merry little port that was a reservoir of liquor in the daze of American prohibition, lies just 12 miles from Newfoundland’s Burin Peninsula and 70 minutes by air from Sydney, N.S. It is the capital of the Territory of the Isles of St. Pierre and Miquelon, the oldest and smallest possession of France. The tiny metropolis clings to its motherland and governs its colony of 4,800 people with 10 gendarmes sent over from France and 300 civil servants.

There are no bootlegging boats in the harbor now, the smell of cod is stronger than that of rum, empty liquor warehouses on 11th of November Street are used for prize fights and French movies. In the cafés fishermen drink champagne, on the waterfront straw-stuffed sabots clatter, and Chanel No. 5 is displayed in a hundred shop windows with leeks, Benedictine and gay things from Paris.

It was fish that brought the French to the islands in the 14th century. While France and Britain fought to possess the New World the British captured and burned St. Pierre three times before the Treaty of Paris, 1814, finally allowed France to keep the islands as a fishing base. Nestling under Newfoundland like eggs under a hen, the archipelago with its four villages and one town, its 93 square miles of hills and bogs, its reefs and rocky coasts dimmed by fog or hidden by winter snow, is all that France has lcrt of her vast North American Empire.

The largest, most northerly island is Miquelon (pronounced Miklon) with 500 people in one melancholy bourg that has no harbor. Joined to it by a seven-mile sandbar is beautiful green Langlade with a few summer homes, two farms and a stony beach. St. Pierre Island, though smaller, boasts the capital, two fishing settlements, half a dozen farms, about 18 miles of road and a harbor facing France. Roughly rectangular in shape with a bulge on the east side where all the people live, it is about five miles long and less than half as wide. Most of it is volcanic rock. It has no trees; if a sapling appears it is cut down for firewood or a fence. Scraggly bushes try to cover its mountains (so-called) but they give up near the summits which are bald and grey and present a thrilling view of more hills, clear pools, deep bays, the dim coast of Newfoundland and the huddling little port.

Not many travelers find their way to St. Pierre (which is one of its charms), if they do they are never sure how or when they can leave it. Maritime Central Airways sends a 21-passenger plane up from Sydney every week if there is no fog, no rain, no wind. The Blue Seal, a freighter with accommodation for 10, calls monthly en route from Montreal to St. John’s but not for a return trip. The most reliable way of getting off the island is in the Miquelon, the rolling little steamer which belongs to the French Government. M. Morazé, her manager in St. Pierre, can predict her departure almost to the day. Of course, emergencies arise: the soccer team may want transportation to Newfoundland; it may be necessary to run over to Langlade to fetch someone home for a funeral; sometimes the Miquelon takes a trip to France. Usually she runs to and from Halifax or Sydney three times a month. Anyone who happens to be where she is can get a ride for around $50.

I flew to Sydney to be one of seven passengers on the crowded little vessel. We took 18 hours to reach St. Pierre. My shipmate was a flirtatious matron with an English vocabulary of three words: okay, thanks and water-closet. M. and Mme. Dagort, returning from an annual visit with their daughter in France, shared their tiny cabin with a young man who, like all well-to-do St. Pierrais, had spent a year learning English in Canada. “St. Pierre is just like one family,” they said. Mme. Flahaut had with her an 11-year-old niece from Montreal with lively Canadien manners and slangy patois.

“We cannot interpret her French; it is of Jacques Cartier’s time, not moderne as in St. Pierre and in Paris,” they explained.

They all addressed me in English but spoke to each other in French, which I do not understand. We watched the sunset from the deck, we smiled at each other and felt very friendly.

I learned that everyone loves St. Pierre. On its lonely little island in a cold and foggy sea it is a welcome haven where the crews of French trawlers unload their fish and find a bit of comfort, where schooners from Canada’s coast come in for un taxed U. S. cigarettes. It is a town of 4,000 people, it is wellbehaved, its feeble electricity, which comes on at dusk, fades out gently at midnight except in the cafés.

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EDNA STAEBLER

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The young man sharing the Dagort’s cabin told me, “In every house a woman sits behind lace curtains watching everyone that pass. If I take out two, three girl I am bad boy; if I take always one I am expect to marry wis her.”

“What does St. Pierre do for a living?” I asked.

“Fishing and shopkeeping,” someone said. M. Dagort ordered a round of grapefruit juice.

La Mode from Canada

Next morning everyone in the Miquelon peered anxiously into a fog. The engines stopped. “Always this happen when we come near our little country,” they said. The engines started, stopped, started, the foghorn blared. At lunch the steward announced, “We arrive.”

A ridge rising high above the sea crowded the town round the harbor where ships pointed to the Quai de la Roncière, a broad open space—partly macadamized—with a fountain that didn’t play, and a roofless little bandstand on an oblong of tufted grass in the centre of it; with faded, flat-faced buildings round its three land sides like the backdrop for a stage set long ago and far away. It was a town from the Old World, not of America at all.

As we approached, St. Pierrais rushed over the quay to the wharf till it was crowded with people and dogs eagerly watching. The berets on the men came from France, I was told; the clothes on the women from Eaton’s and Simpson’s mail order in Montreal. The blue eyes and blond hair came from Brittany perhaps 450 years ago with the first settlers, the dark handsome faces from the Basque country, the sparkling black eyes from Normandy.

The solemn-faced pair standing aloof in high pill-box hats and khaki uniforms were gendarmes waiting to conduct me -—a foreigner from Canada—to the Customs where I became wealthy by exchanging a few trim dollars for handfuls of tattered franc notes too limp and too large for my wallet. Today’s legal rate of exchange in St. Pierre is 100 francs for 63 cents—double the rate of France.

Bystanders offered to carry my bags across the quay to the wooden Hotel Robert with its 14 rooms and several baths at 450 francs a day with meals and l'in ordinaire. Preferring a place more intimate I rode in a truck to the restaurant-home of Mme. Dutin which had been recommended to me by a man on the quay.

A Kiss for the Cabbie

Her daughter, Marianne, petite, 17, and lovely, was laughingly kissed by my driver who refused my tip and ordered a round of liqueurs. “Me good St. Pierre boy,” he said, “me wery correct wis you for learn English. You dance wis me tonight?”

Madame, stout, sharp-eyed and generous, spoke like a Newfoundlander. Half the working people of St. Pierre, she told me, are slightly Newfoundlandish. Because maids have always been a problem men, years ago, went over to the outports and brought back fLhermen’s daughters who were eager to work in the fabled gay world of St. Pierre. They were taught French, they enjoyed F’rench wine, they learned to

make crêpes suzettes, leek soup, patisserie and potatoes fried crisp and golden in olive oil. They married men of St. Pierre.

After tea and hot buns Marianne invited me to walk with her on the quay. This is the heart of St. Pierre. Life flows to and from the vessels at the piers, to and from the cafés, the shops, the fish company o’ffices, the buttercolored post office with the bonnet-like roof on its tower. The quay is crossed by everyone who goes to the fine white church and yellow government buildings just around the corner. Saltscarred trucks rattle over it. B ue and silver bicyclettes flash across it. Little crowds gather round the workmen on the wharves.

We saw a child get a basin of fish heads from a man in a dory. A priest zoomed down the hill on a bike, wearing a beret, a beard, a long-skirted robe and a cape that flowed behind him like wings. There were dozens and dozens of dogs, Newfoundland, poodles, hounds and their odd combinations. Young mothers walked two abreast with very new perambulators: men in rubber boots or sabots lounged against café walls; crusty golden loaves bounced in a dogcart led by a little girl with blue hair-bows.

When Homesick, They Strike

We heard rapid French conversation on the windy square; the bleat of a Renault sedan, the roar of a gasoline engine, the noise of hammers. We heard sleigh bells, yes sleighbells, jingling in summer as a milkman’s horse drew a two-wheeled cart with cases of milk frothing in champagne bottles.

At the nearest pier the Miquelon was unloading coal. Beyond her the rusty old Fuydroyant had been pouring out salt for a week. She was victim of the last piracy on the Atlantic. In the days of prohibition she used to come over from France to sell liquor to boats which stole out from the II. S. coast. One night she was boarded by gangsters who held her officers captive till they sold the cargo themselves.

Marianne spoke proudly of the Joseph du Hamel, top trawler on the Banks and winner of the Croix de Guerre for gallantry during the war her brother is one of the 66 men aboard her. In a week they’d be fishing again before going to France for the winter The Téméraire was waiting to come in. The Capitaine Armand's men were on strike; they wanted to go home. The tubby little freighter Béarn, half of St. Pierre’s navy, had just arrived from Langlade where she goes every Tuesday in summer and during the September partridge shooting.

A Canadian freighter was going out; she’d brought vegetables, chickens and calves. Seven rowboats had come from Newfoundland with sheep tied to their gunwales. Four high-masted schooners were in for the night and the harbor was swarming with dorios. A seaplane took off from the roads.

Everyone in St. Pierre m-cmcd to bron the quay. It is fashionable to come there to learn what is going on. No newspapers reach the island I though some magazines do), radio reception is rare, telephones are installed in business establishments only. But mail comes in almost once a week, Western Union trans-Atlantic cables are relayed at St. Pierre, a blackboard in front of Henri Morazé’s announces events to come, and of course anyone you mead might give you a morsel of gossip.

“They’ve not yet found Mlle, de Gasse who prayed at a hillside shrine and wandered away on a foggy morning last week,” we were told.

“Yves and Gabrielle are betrothed,” we hurried home to tell Marianne’s maman.

Waiting for me in the Dutin’s kitchen was a dapper gendarme who had come to collect a fine of 800 francs ($5) because I’d entered the country without a passport. Mme. Dutin poured him an apéritif. He settled down to tell how bored he is in such a good town as St. Pierre: the guillotine is never

needed, perhaps once a year there is a theft, only occasionally a rum-fired sailor is taken to the gendarmerie with the broken bottles sticking out of its

“Ees mostly stranger drink in St. Pierre too much.” He sipped his thimble of wine. “St. Pierrais have only a leetle bit often: to make pleasure with a comerade, at a meal c’est necessaire for ze digest, a liqueur in the coffee ees very nice and brandee before bed, onless there ees veesitor, den opens POP! ze champagne.”

After dinner at eight Marianne took me to a hole-in-the-wall café. Seated at tiny tables were men in ship’s officer’s uniforms, young sailors wearing berets, boys in jackets, very black men from Senegal in the whitest shirts. Newfoundland fishermen in heavy peaked caps looked wistful, “Can only dance the squares er the Kintish Rambles. I’d thank ye, dear, ef ye wouldn’t moind settin’ out,” they said to the girls, the laughing, pretty girls of St. Pierre who could have a hundred partners.

Lace at 20 Cents a Yard

A woman with hair dyed red was busy behind the bar. Marianne ordered juice. Everyone else drank champagne

and almost behaved with decorum. A little boy changed records on a loud and ancient machine (“Cruising Down the River on a Sunday Afternoon”). We watched the couples swaying on the greasy softwood floor.

“Dansez, mam’selle, s’il vous plait?” With dignity and gaiety Juliette joined the dancers.

“Mama does not me allow to have a boy till I am another year,” she said as we ran home before the street lights faded.

Next day I wandered around the town. Streets radiate from the quay, they parallel the waterfront, they dwindle away to the hills. They have no sidewalks, no trees, no grassy lawns; the 107 shops are scattered among the 700 clapboard houses that touch one another flat against narrow gravel roads where cars and trucks with handmade license plates up to No. 151 have to honk at pedestrians and sleeping dogs to get the right-of-way.

There are butcher shops and baker shops and some that specialize in ship’s supplies, in hardware, stationery, china: most have a general mixture and some have empty shelves. In dim interiors are rows and rows of bottles with prices marked in francs: apricot

brandy 105 a quart (about 70 Canadian cents), creme de menthe 134, anisette 138, Benedictine 242, muscat, Malaga, St. Rafael, Napoleon 165, Pernot, Dubonnet, Cointreau, cognac, champagne, whisky, rum and beer.

Shelves of groceries and clothing have Canadian brand names and prices. Most popular are cartons of delicate wafers, boiled sweets, chocoate and pickles from France. Handmade French lace is 20 cents a yard. There are dainty kid gloves, Swiss watches for $15, pipes, jewelry, cameras, for a song, and cosmetics, the very best, for 50 francs a box. Perfumes that

are $40 in Montreal are $4 in St. Pierre.

No one tried to sell me anything except M. Ledret, who stands on the quay and hands out cards which tell of delights in his shop on Rue Sadi Carnot. And he is frowned on in St. Pierre where high-pressure salesmanship is as rare as insurance salesmen because neighbors contribute enough money to rebuild a house that is burned down.

Dominique Borotra, one-time mayor of Miquelon and member of the governing Conseil Général waited quietly alone in the most modern shop. His deep-set eyes were sad as he looked at halfempty shelves. “Almost everything we need is bought from Canada,” he said, and we have not enough dollars to pay. France makes up the difference for us. But will France keep pouring money into St. Pierre forever for nothing but codfish?”

The old man sighed. “Perhaps because I am old my heart is full of fear. It would not be easy to see our country sold; we have preserved here well the French way of life; to us it is more than precious. I don’t know, I don’t know what will happen to us. We go up and we go down. I am perplex and very tired.”

The largest shop on the quay belongs to the man who owns the theatre, the rink, a dance hall, a farm and summer home on Langlade. He didn’t talk to me, he shouted, “France will never let us go. St. Pierre-Miquelon will soon be top place for visitor in North America. On Langlade I will build a swell hotel and a casino bigger than Monte Carlo. Everyone will come to play the games and drink French wines, to dance, swim, and fish in the sea. St. Pierre will be like night time in Paris.”

Bedrooms Full of Bubbly

The flashy red Nash in front of Landry and Co.’s tobacco and wine shop was waiting for genial Georges Landry who, as president of the Bank of Commerce—and father-in-law of the Governor—insisted on special permission to import an American car because every day he must drive out to inspect Le Frigo, the great concrete fishfreezing plant that stands on the edge of the roadstead. Except one room, used for storing food and bait, the decaying building, which cost 17 million francs, has not been freezing fish for 30 years, yet it represents the colony’s only industry: the shipping of fish caught off the shores of the islands and the transshipping of salt cod brought in by the trawlers.

“The hundred motor dories of St. Pierre go out every day the weather gives permit yet they bring in less fish in a year than one small French trawler will unload after three months on the Banks,” Landry told me, “but the fishermen, usually the poorest people of any land, can live better here than they could anywhere else in the world. France gives allowances to every child, to all wives who stay home, assists unemployment insurance, subsidizes three schools, gives scholarships for study in France, pays old-age pensions, gives care to mothers and babies, provides an old people’s home and a hospital with two military doctors. All but 50 families own their homes which have hot running water, electricity, central heating and always red wine on the table. Of course, we have taxes but they are not high or France would have to pay them herself.”

Le Frigo was built after World War I to store fish for the French trawler fleet but in 1923, when the U. S. was thirsty, St. Pierre forgot about fish. Le Frigo held a million bottles of

Scotch. Spare bedrooms and basements were filled with champagne, the ancient naval barracks stored cognacs and liqueurs, warehouses for rum and Canadian rye were built along the waterfront. A hundred boats waited in the harbor to take on contraband.

The traffic was perfectly legal, of course, from St. Pierre’s point of view. Boats were dutifully cleared by the Customs. There was no trouble till they left the islands to hide their treasure along the mainland coast.

Repeal and Recession

Fortunes were made by the American racketeers who established offices in St. Pierre and by less than 10 St. Pierrais who were their agents. A government tax on liquor balanced the budget of the colony, provided a reserve, built roads, wharves, reservoirs for water. Merchants imported fancy goods, hotels were filled, cafés overflowed, private finances soared.

In 1933 the U. S. decided to drink honestly again. Soon St. Pierre's easy money was gone. Le Frigo was empty. The fishermen mended their nets but they had forgotten how to live like fishermen. The little town grew shabby.

Then came World War II. When the Nazis entered France, St. Pierre was in a dilemma. The entire French fishing fleet out on the Grand Banks rushed into her little harbor and 1,400 lusty, hungry, unpaid men swarmed all over the port till, two months later, they made a run for Casablanca.

Meanwhile the governor of the colony arranged for the use of French credits in New York and Montreal to provide his people with food. He tried to keep them submissive to Vichy but most of the veterans of the World War I became enthusiastic De Gaulliste. There were unarmed battles on the quay and 150 young men and women escaped to Newfoundland or Canada to join the Free French forces.

Early in the morning of Dec. 23, 1941, four French corvettes came in battle line to St. Pierre. The sleepy people tumbled down to the quay shouting, “Vive de Gaulle.” In half an hour steel-hel me ted landing pirfies carrying Tommy guns and flasks of ein ordinaire had taken over the town. The Vichy executives were held on the flagship of the little flotilla. Next day a plebiscite was taken and 98%, of t.y colony voted for Free France. The m :!o population was mobilized at Iasi and troops were stationed in the colony till the war was over.

Tombs with Portholes

Now France has a 10-year social and economic plan for her colonies and it is well begun in St. Pierre. A new school is being erected, an orphans’ institute, a fish-drying plant, and an office building have been planned; an emergency landing field is being prepared on Miquelon; before another year a large pier will he ts-gun for the trawler fleet, there will Isa power plant on the hills and Le Frigo may be in operation freezing fish).

I stayed two weeks in St. Pierre and could have enjoyed myself longer. People smiled at me shyly, some stopped to talk they loved to practice their English, to laugh at my groping French. They drove me to see their three unprofitable fox farms and the strange cemetery with portholes in the cement tombs; they invited me to their homin for a glass of their prize imported wine and a chat.

The Baslés over on Gallantry Point in a very Hmall house by the sea gave me tea with bread and cheese and pâté. Jean-Baptiste was lightkeeper not

long ago and they live on a pension and fishing. Their son is a carpenter and earns 40 francs an hour. They’re hoping to find enough dollars one day to smuggle in a bow for his fiddle. They wrapped up two fine fat mackerel for me to take along for my dinner. Let me pay? “Oh no, mam’selle, it is such a pleasure to have a visitor from the world.”

Over to Lonely Miquelon

One evening the St. John’s football team came to Mme. Dutin’s for dinner. Marianne, in charming French custom, put her arms lightly around the captain’s neck and touched both his cheeks with her lips. A shout went up from the rest of the team and the captain, of course, was transported. “I’ve never met people like these St. Pierrais,” he glowed, “they’d give you anything. In the cafés they treat us to drinks, they won’t let us spend any money, they gave us a dance, they’re paying our board for an extra day and when we won a game they cheered louder than when they beat us.”

One day I voyaged in the Béarn to the queer lonely village of Miquelon, which was established by Acadians in 1755. It is 25 miles from St. Pierre at the northern end of Miquelon Island on a flat strip of low land between two seas whose winds and tides and fogs try to obliterate it.

The 500 people there live as their forefathers did—every family fishing, cultivating a sliver of land and raising a few animals. Their ancient houses and connecting barns stretch out in two long rows separated by a muddy, grassy sort of boulevard with gardens down the centre closely fenced by unpeeled saplings to keep out the goats and dogs and fowls that wander everywhere. Fishing cabins stand on a parallel strip of beach where dories are drawn up by capstans and codfish are dried on the stones. The young Miquelonnais love to visit St. Pierre but the older ones piously say it is much too giddy.

Not Good But Plenty Fun

The young people in St. Pierre complain about boredom. Every morning I saw Marcel Maxine on the quay. A good-looking young man with smiling blue eyes he came there to throw rocks into the water to repair the wharf. “Dem big ones is hard work for we,” he said. “We got always too much to do at one time and none at de odder. In winter there is for us only shovelling

He looked wistfully at the boats in the harbor. “Don’t you tink Canada should take all dis like she take Newfoundland? When schooner come in I go on board and listen to fishermen talk. Dey got more money now dat dey got Canada. I like to go dere to see what is like but I French and I got no trade. Can’t git trade in St. Pierre.”

He shrugged his shoulders and smiled, “You go to café? Every night I go. Notting else to do in St. Pierre. Too much drink, not good, but plenty fun, eh?”

As I stood on the deck of the freighter that took me away from St. Pierre I regretfully watched the little town fading softly into its mists. A French warship on a routine visit had anchored in the roads, red pompoms on the berets of its sailors enlivened the cafés, hearts fluttered when a naval officer crossed the quay. And in the Great Hall (once a liquor warehouse) the governor and his lady, the civil servant and his wife, the fisherman, the butcher boy and his girl, danced the samba, the tango, the twirling French waltz while the champagne sparkled on every table, it