I was around 8 or 9 when I first began to question my forefathers' decision to inhabit the island of Newfoundland. After a year in the comparitively tolerable climate of Quebec City, it became clear to me that June snowstorms, horizontal ice pellets and airborn shingles weren't common occurences in other parts of the world. A weather-dependant sporting event scheduled for early August taking place in September? Entirely fathomable when you live on the cold shoulder of the continent, North America's nipple.
It was a weekend trip to Montreal that put me over the edge: skyscrapers, stadiums, zoos, an entire city beneath another entire city. The image of punks with 2-foot mohawks smoking on concrete slabs and prostitutes counting money in the street lingered in my mind for years. I had glimpsed a world of wonder, anonymity, and excitement where wildlife didn't wander the downtown core and nobody ever asked "Who owns you?"; a world that didn't experience two seasons in one afternoon, and where homeowners didn't change their siding every six months. Newfoundland's shortcomings were exposed, and the glimmering sparkle of the mainland shone brighter than Cape Spear Lighthouse through an engulfing patch of morning fog.
For a time, I'd satiate my wanderlust by temporarily inhabiting the worlds of my favourite musical artists, voyaging vicariously to mystical places like Brooklyn, The Bronx and Queens (I had a pretty heavy Lil' Kim phase). After graduation, my urge to escape grew overwhelming, and escape I did. To twenty-two countries (and counting. Always counting). I visited grandiose, decadent cities, and nauseatingly desolate villages; I saw iconic places full of precious artifacts and ancient landmarks of human civilization, and other more somber places that still bore the palpable residue of man's brutal past; I saw places of unspeakable natural beauty, and vibrant, lovable people, and other deserted wastelands where people clung for their lifetimes to dreams of one day visiting a town that, for me, was a mere $15 bus drive away.
World travel only contributed to my fascination with cities, though my yearning for their wonder, anonymity and excitement has been supplanted by an appreciation for the accessibility, variety, and efficiency they afford. After nearly 8 years between Toronto and Montreal, I've unraveled, at least partially, the mystery with which they once beamed. And I have to admit that with all of her tantalizing charm, even Montreal bears some unsightly blemishes that the lighted vanity mirror that is time only serves to exacerbate. As enticing as they are, big cities fall short in some aspects.
One of those aspects struck me at 7 a.m. on an October morning while walking to the harbour: The sun. The actual sun - not the reflection of it off of an abandoned factory or office tower window. It shone on the city as if the city were the sole recipient of its rays.
Then, another aspect hit me at Cape Spear: waves. Graceful evanescent ocean waves plummeting jagged coastline.
And again, while walking along the Trans-Canada in Gros Morne, another aspect: nothing. Absolutely, positively, resolutely nothing. A nothingness louder than the busiest city street; a nothingness heretofore buried beneath the hum of the urban jungle; a nothingness with an allure more magnetic than that of the most mind-boggling metropolis.
St. John's has changed in ten years. There's a shawarma place. And a kimchi spot. There's an actual hooker hangout, and a Jack Astor's! Yet, it feels different, and its not the new Fortis building. Its not the yoga studios or meditation centres. It's not the 5 sushi places or the hookah bar or the Indian-accented couple on a business trip discussing the TSX over tikka misala. Not even the 6-foot-5 Armani-clad model on location at Cape Spear for a GQ cover shoot. Yet, it's different.
It's partly my own world travel, partly time itself that have transformed what I once saw as a barren economic and cultural wasteland devoid of excitement into an irresistibly charming and peaceful collection of streets with just enough amenities to satisfy my needs. It's still small. Still desolate. Still a far, faraway land dangling off the edge of the world, but somewhere along the line, that became cool to me.
I'm the proverbial boy from that old country song who has seen Paris and is actually seriously pondering going back to the farm. Except in my case, the farm is a rugged coastal frontier city that boasts a history more storied than that of virtually any other in North American; a city that receives the light of day before anywhere on the continent, and where the unforgiving elements are a constant reminder of man's total insignificance; a quirky and unique city of unparalleled character and irresistibly gentle people where coastal hikes, hilltop lookouts, forest trails and serene lakes are all within a 10-minute walk (albeit, up some fairly steep hills).
And so, without a shadow of concern about committing a nauseatingly cliché, I can attest with utter abandon that Newfoundland feels different because I feel differently about it. What I previously saw as a lack of culture and variety I now see as enough. What I previously dismissed as a boring, bleak and empty landscape I now see as an expansive untrodden terrain that hasn't yet been fully exploited by man's ferocious appetite for more. What I once saw as a lack of privacy, I now see as the the price you pay for swapping anonymity for close community ties. And I'm inching more and more toward the idea that that might be a fair trade-off after all.