Campobello Island – a Warm Welcome to a Cold Country
When I originally planned my Canadian trip I pointed out for myself a few key places that seemed attractive. Fundy National Park and the Cabot Trail were priorities. Most everything else I was vague about. I knew I was attracted to Newfoundland, a name I heard since childhood, carrying an aura of mystery, stormy oceans and abundant wildlife, but it did not seem practical – too big, too much driving, too far perhaps. I could not clearly gauge what I would be capable of driving-wise until I actually did it.
My dear friend, concerned about my plan to go camping for two full months, looked up for suitable couch surfing opportunities in sourthern New Brunswick. He came across an ad posted by a middle-aged lady living on an island right on the American border. The island was called Campobello.
I have encountered the name Campobello back in Israel when I was searching for border crossings. It sounded like paradise, and I’m in love with islands, all the way from tropical to subarctic. The suggestion seemed to have presented itself as if by divine hand. It would for sure make things easier if I started my Canadian adventure in the comfort and intimacy of a private home. I’d need to take some time to get acclimated to the new country, and get my initial bearings. Pacing the driving was an added bonus, as well.
Still, I was a bit apprehensive. I never couch-surfed before, and felt it would be unfair to the system if I wouldn’t welcome people into my home in Jerusalem in exchange for the generosity I received abroad. My space is small, the couch is in the living room… But I later learned that there are always people who would be willing to accomodate, even to my humbler conditions. This is the beauty of the system…
From the Stars and Stripes to the Maple Leaf
Following road 1 along the Maine coast I eventually reached Lubec, the easternmost town in continental U.S.A.
A local farmer, selling vegetables off a small stand near his house, struggled with my written instructions for a while, then said:
“I think it is on the ‘other side’….”
Well, Mary apparently forgot a small detail – after Lubec, cross the border!!!
I eventually reached the border bridge, aptly named in honor of FDR, the American WWII president, who practically grew up here, in Campobello.
Having an American passport, I did not expect any complications. In my naivete, I believed that as a U.S. citizen I would be warmly welcomed by the friendly northern neighbor. I forgot that any border crossing could be challenging, and worth spending a few minutes of advance preparation.
So here I was on that bridge, facing a fully armed and bullet-proofed policewoman. Something about the situation seemed to make my IQ level drop several points. She asked about my work, and I answered that at the moment I wasn’t working, but would soon look for work again to supplement my retirement payments. I tried to impress her with my ambition to become productive again, but that was the wrong answer – too much information, wrong mind set. In my innocence I forgot they were supposed to weed out people looking for work in Canada, even, perhaps, from the friendly southern neighbor …
I was instructed to pull over to the side and wait for another officer. He promptly showed up, also attired in a bullet-proof vest, increasing his size to that of an American football player. Luckily, when he interrogated me about my profession, I remembered I just got a confirmation of my new scientific publication. I showed it to him on the cellular, and he nodded and said: “Interesting, interesting”, seemingly impressed, but it wasn’t enough to do the trick.
He moved on to ask how long I intended to stay in Campobello, and if I’d come back to the U.S. through the same bridge. I flanked again. I did not know most Americans came here just for the day (and the Canadians crossed over to Lubec to buy cheaper gasoline and shop). Because the crossing was done on a causeway, I even blanked out that I would probably need a boat to get on to the Canadian mainland.
It is, indeed, strange, that Campobello’s residents commuted to their own country through Maine, U.S. A… Locals might prefer to drive their cars to Calais and cross the border twice, rather than take the ferry to Letete, NB. To my astonishment, I found out that, in the winter, it was their only way to reach the Canadian mainland, as the ferries stopped running!!!
But I did not know any of that when I was being interrogated. My geography was fuzzy. I wasn’t prepared. Instead, I trusted (rightfully), that once at Mary’s, everything would fall into place and I’ll get all the information I needed. The officer, on his part, kept drilling me with repeated questions, trying to confuse me – where I was heading, what for, where I’d stay on the island.
My lucky card came unexpectedly, when I mentioned I was going to couch-surf at Mary Fowler’s. Once her name was mentioned, a broad smile broke on this face, his demeanor changed, and I could momentarily glance the pleasant local boy hiding underneath the tough façade: “Ah, Mary…”
Later Mary told me she knew all of the border officers in person, was on friendly terms with them, and that on this island of 850 people everybody knew everybody. She ran an insurance company the locals used, and was clearly a celebrity here.
On Canadian Soil – Campobello Island
There’s always something exciting about crossing a border. Those bridges do not feel like regular bridges, there is a special feeling driving over them. Even if you do not expect earth shuttering differences in mentality, landscape, ethnic composition or a different language, there is still a feeling of freshness and newness, the thrill of an unknown.
So here I was, finally on the island. Islands are my favorite travel destinations. I could travel the world “collecting islands” like people collect mountain peaks, and I had actually accumulated a fairly large “collection” by now. Islands, from the tropics to the subarctic, are small universes. In general they are easier to navigate, harder to get lost in, more manageable in every way; their inhabitants tend to be forthcoming and friendly. You can “cover” an island in a limited amount of time and get a sense of both familiarity and accomplishment. You get to know the store owners, restaurants, places to stay and things to do. Islands are relaxing and peaceful, and they are surrounded by water, a fact I temporarily forgot at this border crossing!
Once on Canadian soil, I took some deep breaths, trying to relax, tune back into myself and then take in the surroundings, as I started driving again. Is anything different?
On the way I stopped at a local store, got a snack. I had no Canadian money, but it was no problem. They will take American dollars. Everybody took U.S. dollars on the island, and everybody was very friendly. I asked where I could change. They said possibly at the post office, but they would not change my money there either. I soon discovered there was no place to change money on Campobello Island, no bank and not even a gas station, but one could get along just fine with American dollars. If the locals make a little dividend off the exchange rates, I was perfectly fine with that.
Once here, following the instructions worked beautifully, and I soon landed in front of Mary’s door. It was a bit up on a hill, overlooking the seaside and some neighboring houses, and it was a beautiful old house.
Home at Mary’s
Mary and Rachel
As I went up the stairs to the front door, I heard voices discussing whether I was coming. Throughout all my travails, they were waiting for me…
An impressive-looking Mary, dressed up for office work, greeted me in a friendly manner and rushed out the door, leaving me with her gorgeous niece, Rachel. An amazing young lady, with a boy’s cap turned backwards, she was staying at her beloved Auntie for a while now, doing renovation work around the house.
That day she was pulling out heavy-duty carpet staples from the floors (Mary already removed the original ugly carpets when she moved in, but the staples remained. Even the bathrooms were carpeted…). The next day Rachel was up on a ladder, cleaning sluices on the roof, as naturally as if it was never considered a “men’s job”. How refreshing.
The house was built in the beginning of the 20th century, and when Mary purchased it a mere three months before, there was a lot that needed to be fixed and repaired. Rachel explained that at one point the original house was expanded, perhaps doubled, and showed me where the old house boundary laid. The original kitchen was tiny, so Mary turned one of the rooms into a second kitchen.
Cooking, I was soon to find out, was a major component of Mary’s life and one of her fields of excellence. A proper kitchen was a necessity. In the middle of the new kitchen she installed an island, with several high bar chairs, around which it was easy to eat or snack. The official and classical dining room, a spacious hall with the proper long table, lined with multiple chairs and china behind glass, was reserved for special occasions.
I love the atmosphere of old houses, the vibrations of past times, the stories. These are relatively rare in modern Israel, where most houses are new, and intense new construction has been ongoing since the establishment of the state.
After I got my belongings into my room upstairs, me and Rachel sat in the new kitchen. A large fridge with a top freezer was covered with magnets – family photos, children’s paintings and memorabilia of London’s phone booths… Space was created for my perishables on the lower shelf.
The new kitchen walls were papered with a delicate flowery design, pink and light blue. A framed picture of kettles and flowers announced: “Making a friend takes a moment, being a friend takes a lifetime”. The huge Roman-lettered standing clock showed I needed to move the time an hour ahead.
A large collection of cookbooks featured titles like “The Quinoa Revolution”, “Mad Hungry”, “How to Feed Hungry Men and Boys”. Vegetarian cookbooks indicated “a passing phase”, as Mary called it. At one point she wanted to drop meat, but found out she could not handle it for long. I’m sure it is harder in that climate.
Mary explained that the electrical circuits needed to be rewired for the stove to function at its new location. She would have done it herself, having the know-how, but the cellar, where the electrical connections were, was full with spiders and snakes (non- poisonous). That, apparently, was the limit of her feminism… She was promised to have it connected a long time ago, but the electrician did not deliver yet.
In the meantime we cooked on the plate. She also used the crockpot and the toaster oven. It was obviously very frustrating to her she could not cook properly in the comfort of her own house.
The older kitchen was all wood, the floor darker. Heavy cabinets with vertical golden handles hung over a T-shaped counter. A double sink. I washed every dish as I used it, trying to be as non-intrusive as possible, but when I left pots with water in them to soften, an invisible hand washed them before I had the chance to do so myself…
The ceiling lamps in both kitchens were turned off and on by pulling cords with seashells handles. There were no switches by the doors. At night, I had to turn on the lights successively to find the next hanging switch. In the end it was easier to simply use my flashlight, as the rooms were large and the darkness a bit spooky, but that was part of the charm.
The most amazing fact about this house was how little it cost. Mary said she waited one season for the price to come down and eventually got it for a mere 55,000 USD! I couldn’t believe my ears. My smaller house in a low middle class suburb of Jerusalem costs about 10 times as much. Actually, if it wasn’t for inheritance, all my life salaries combined could not have covered the cost of my house! I have no idea how people manage.
“I can’t understand why I need to suffer so much in the Middle East. On top of everything else, the real estate. Can these prices here be real? A person can actually buy a house outright from several years of salary? Despite myself thoughts arose: why struggle so hard when I can buy a house or two here or in Europe and live forever off the rent alone? I’ll move from one magical house to another, sit at my desk and write…”
Stuffed Animals and Foaming Soap
I was given the granddaughter’s room, since an Italian couple was expected to stay in the nicer second-floor bedroom. They eventually cancelled, but it wasn’t worth the hassle of moving, and I did not need the extra “luxury”. It was fun to sleep in the kid’s room: the pink phone, stuffed animals, the huge pink dollhouse and the slanted escritoire. The bed rolled on wheels and tended to do it all by itself… part of the fun…
There were no ceiling lamps in the bedroom, only table lights… The house must have been built in the pre-electrical period, and had to be wired in a special way, or perhaps it was a fashion.
To me, that’s what travelling is for – defy expectations, break stereotypes and fixed concepts, even regarding something like house lighting…learn, learn , learn…and some riddles will always remain.
The bathroom was another marvel. It was as big as a bedroom and had a beautiful large bath I was all too eager to plunge into. The wooden floor was not even, some of the boards were blue and some brown, adding to the charm. The wallpaper was a beautiful flowery blue. A cat’s bathroom was located in one corner, a stationary bike in another. No ceiling lighting here either, only the strong lamps over the sink unit. From the bathroom there was access to a huge closet with towels, sheets, etc. The hand soap was some foaming marvel I never encountered before with a delicious smell. A woman’s paradise.
Stunningly, even though this is a border town, nobody locks their doors. At night Mary closes the house on the inside with a hook. Only when leaving for a trip does the house get properly locked. Rachel told me nobody locks their cars on the island, either. On one occasion people lent her a car, and when she called to find out where they left the keys, the answer was: “in the ignition”…
I was too paranoid to do that with my rental car, but, what a life…Such tranquility!
So, Campobello. Once Rachel got back to work and I brought in my essentials, I finally got out the door. As always, I looked for the nearest beach, as the surest way to get my “sense of place” on that beautiful island.
As I walked down towards the beach, I soon discovered the East Coast Ferries Wharf, where a printed schedule was posted, the venue out of the island.
A Memory somebody left on the beach.
When I came back, Mary was already there, preparing the meal. We sat out on the porch as the food kept cooking in a slow cooker. Strangely for me, neither woman minded the direct sun…. I, an Israeli, ran twice into the house, once to put some sunscreen on my face, and again to bring my wide-rimmed hat!
Mary is a superwoman with multiple talents, spanning the spectrum from what we consider masculine skills to the very traditional feminine skills.
When I fumbled over the change from miles to kilometers, she calmly studied my car’s manual, shifted this and that, eventually switching the gauge to suit the metric system.
This woman is a gifted cook, artist and seamstress, and, as I was just about to witness, was just as skilled at the manly arts.
We were sitting outside, enjoying the last rays of the sun, when a delivery boy came with a big elongated box, the long-anticipated porch screen. Mary ordered it several days before for more privacy.
I would never have started a project of this magnitude that late in the evening – there was a need to follow a manual, take exact measurements, pre-position the heavy folded shade – but she was adamant. It would be done then.
Mary and Rachel were soon up on the low wall, lifting and measuring, marking and drilling. To center the screen they divided the remaining distance in half, and Mary drilled accordingly. But, oops – a mistake. Never mind. Mary fixed it there and then, adjusting the measurements, drilling new holes, then installing the brackets, braces, whatever these contraptions are called. The screen was up within the hour.
This was not her first house remodeling project, clearly. She said she changed the entire pipework in her cottage on her own.
As the years go by, I collect little and big instances of female role modeling, breaking through barriers, achieving in the larger world and still being true to their womanliness and humanity. It helps to assuage the knee-jerk female helplessness I absorbed from the environment I grew up in, especially regarding the technical fields. Channelled into a very limited number of possible professions, most of which do not bring significant income, and therefore cannot bring about real independence, we women live in a limited world of possibiliities.
I wondered if Mary was a typical representative of Canadian country women. Living on her own in this Northern land through cold winters, having to manage everything by herself. Last year the door wouldn’t open due to several meters of snow. She described temperatures as low as -56ºC!!! In her words, you felt as if your body was going to crack into two!! That must toughen one up ….
A Canadian Reference Point
Rachel’s father is a minister. He presides over an Anglican congregation, something between stern mental Protestantism and emotional artsy Catholicism. Rachel told me the church was very beautiful. I later read in Wikipedia that Canada “built up the Anglican church as a counterweight to the largely American Methodist and Baptist churches”.
Rachel was intending to become an elementary school teacher. She loved kids, and raved about the incredible working conditions teachers got in her country. My heart ached with envy remembering 40-kids classes in Israel, low salaries, the lack of respect. At that moment, though, doing the refurbishing job, she seemed like the ultimate tomboy. I liked the independence and energy she demonstrated at her work. Her aunt seemed to have given her carte blanche, trusting her with the job.
It was nice to see that Rachel saw her world through a Canadian lens. Being so used to an American-centrist view, it was novelty for me to have that different reference system: studying in Alberta, travelling to Newfoundland, planning a future in British Columbia. California, New York, the prime destinations of so many Israelis, were not mentioned. This was, indeed, I finally realized, a different country, and young Canadians plan their future here. It’s not all about America, and the name America itself is a misnomer. America, after all, encompasses two large continents with a land corridor, itself divided by seven countries. Why should one country usurp that name?
For a moment I am swallowing my immense ignorance – where is Alberta? I do not even have a physical general map of Canada or a mental picture of where things are. Basically, I just hopped across the border and here I was, a complete ignoramus. I’ll learn now, I made a commitment to myself.
Rachel and Mary helped me with the planning of my trip. Rachel was once in St. Johns, Newfoundland, and loved it. She showed me cellphone pictures of colorful houses and of her uncle rowing a kayak next to an iceberg. I told Mary I wanted to go to NL but did not think it was feasible. She said of course it was, and showed me how to plan my time so I could visit Gros Morne National Park, and perhaps even further. She searched the ferry timetables for me, claiming I’d be in the park 3-5 hours after landing. I could sleep on the boat to save time and money.
So upon quick revision, PEI was out, Cape Breton perhaps shortened, or at least postponed, while Newfoundland started to become a reality!
After a good night’s sleep, I was in for a Campobello surprise…