THE MERRY TIMES
It’s early spring in the Maritimes still. Trees are not fully leaved, the rain lingers and mists, and the wind blows cold and consistent once the sun falls over the western hills of the Appalachias. Because of this I have to go back to the car for my windbreaker while sitting on an afternoon patio in downtown Fredericton eating a lobster clubhouse sandwich and drinking coffee. Coming into New Brunswick in the dead of night is disorienting. Losing an hour, covered in fog, streets empty, you feel a bit like a ghost. Especially when you sleep in a dorm room in an old colonial building at the University of New Brunswick which is built on a hill. Sneaking up the backsteps in the middle of the night while everyone else sleeps. Getting lost in the laundry room. Feeling lost is probably the way a ghost feels most of the time.
Fredericton is a cool city. It’s about a million times more hip than Moncton which is where some days later I will eat a pound and a half of fresh lobster bought on the cheap from American lobster fisheries as opposed to the more premium and fair price of the Islander lobstermen that’s caused a bit of a rift between the provinces. It lays on a pile of Island clams and mussels though, so I stay neutral that way. It’s also in Moncton at a bar called the Pumphouse where you sit in industrial sized beer casks, and fresh Atlantic oysters cost twenty dollars a dozen, and you sip microbrewed beer and douse the oysters in Tobasco sauce and lemon juice before slurping them down like minnows.
But it’s also in Moncton where the Peticodiac River with its muddy brown bottom flows in like chocolate in high tide from the Bay of Fundy and it rains too much and the polite gentrification of the downtown southside industrial area has curdled the mixture of old and new architecture, and a Soviet era telecommunications tower stands straight up non-ironically at the centre of town, grey silicon satellite dishes blossoming out like fungus at the top. Fredericton, on the other hand, is a relaxed sort-of cool like it’s not even trying to impress you but it just does.
I grabbed a Canadian espresso from a vegan cafe lined with dazzling acrylic paintings of famous musicians before I found the lunch spot. Built on the side of the St. John River Valley over looking a series of trestle bridges that bring the county together at the provincial capital, the valley city is lush with greenery, sparkling blue river side parks, coffee shops, and adorable Victorian warren homes. There are young, well dressed people everywhere. Buskers play the fiddle. The people are friendly and the pace of life is dynamic but not bustling. The city is cramped but to its benefit as it doesn’t take too long to get anywhere by foot, bike, or car. It reminds me of a smaller Victoria in a lot of ways as the coastal lifestyle, college town feel, and the bilingualism make the city more cosmopolitan than somewhere say in the landlocked west. And Fredericton is literally three hours from everywhere: Maine, Quebec, Halifax, Miramachi, the Newfoundland Ferry, and the Confederation Bridge to Prince Edward Island. It’s the last one I am headed to next.
The roads aren’t good in eastern New Brunswick and I am not entirely sure why because it’s the busiest link of the Trans-Canada between the continent and the Island. After you leave the valleys of skinny lakes east of Fredericton and enter the coastal hills closer to the ocean passed Moncton the roads crumble toward the shoulder and you are forced to drive in the middle. It goes on like this for some miles until you reach a giant round-a-bout junction at the coastal town of Port Elgin, swooping around to the third exit to head north takes you on a straight line to the edge of the Confederation Bridge, the longest bridge in Canada. It’s thirteen kilometers long and takes nearly fifteen minutes to cross.
It’s concrete mostly. So it’s not the prettiest bridge you will ever see. And it extends upward about a hundred feet right at the end to account for shipping vessels who use the Northumberland Strait to take Island potatoes to the St. Lawrence River. You can’t really see much if you are in a car either as the concrete sides of the bridge reach up just high enough to block most of your view east and west. It was cloudy when I crossed. The grey of the overcast spring afternoon turning the ocean into something metallic and inhospitable. A lonely lighthouse stands at the corner of New Brunswick and the sun shines fiercely from the west. The water is empty. I find this curious. Because out west the water is usually filled with boats and shipping vessels, wildlife and air traffic. But it’s mostly quiet here.
Prince Edward Island emerges out of a blanket of marine layer like an old friend, chill and content but also somewhat familiar. The iron rich red cliffs are startling against the deep green of rain logged rolling hills and white sand beaches. Because of the McCain potato processing plant at the Island’s centre the air always smells deliciously like french fries. The Island is mostly wilderness and farm fields. Red barns litter the overgrown potato farmlands. There are some cows, sheep, chickens, and horses. Two lane highways run in through the Island like veins criss-crossing at small towns that used to be stops along the now abandoned CN railway. All the while the sandstone red cliffs jump out and arrest you every time the road takes you close enough to the coast to see them. They are a geological oddity. Prehistoric silt deposits from eroding glaciers, they are brittle and full of iron, and they are being eaten away at by the eroding salt waters of the ocean. One day Prince Edward island will be gone. That’s a weird thought. Until then, its quaint rural sensibility will entertain visitors for generations. It did for me.
“I don’t know if the pub in Kensington will be open, I guess it is Friday night.” Rebecca says. She is the guide for the weekend on the Island. It is her parents house I stay at in the Summerside suburbs. She looks just like adult Ann of Green Gables: long red hair, orange freckles, chalky white skin, unassuming green eyes, and a quirky sense of humour. I come to find that a lot of people in P.E.I. have this same general look. Must be something to do with the red soil.
“Do the pubs close early here?” I say.
“Well it’s still early in the season.” Rebecca says as we walk down from the North Coast of the Island after snapping a few photographs of the sandstone cliffs near Cavendish. My feet are numb from the spring sand. “The tourists haven’t started to arrive yet.” She combs her red locks behind her ear while she says this almost apologetically. She is sweet like that.
“I hope it is. I could really go for a beer tonight. You Betcha.” I say you betcha like an Albertan because I always feel kind-of like I need to remind people I am from out of town. I think it’s nerves most of the time but it just happens. Like Tourette’s.
“Ya, well, we can look. Kensington isn’t far away. Nothing is on the Island.” She smiles nervously and plays with her her again.
The Islandstone Pub is in an old brick train station at the heart of town. It is lit up by oversized white Christmas bulbs and a wooden boardwalk takes you up to the side entrance which opens up to the pub. There is a circle of younger people smoking cigarettes out front on the planks. And there is a general hum of conversation, laughter and bustle coming from the open door of the pub.
When we walk in there are four young men standing in the corner tuning a set of acoustic guitars behind a pedestal with a laptop on it. We grab a seat at table in the crowded pub, borrowing a chair from the restaurant side. There is a Stagette party happening just next to us, a half a dozen beautiful drunken Nova Scotian women hollering at each other, and the booths along the wall are filled with older couples with half-empty glasses and some nachos between them. At the bar rail, single men and what looks like some hangers on from the band — two young men with funny hats playing with their cell phones.
I stick out like a sore thumb in this pub. Bright tourqoise green shorts and a stylish black button down are too light for the weather. Not to mention the flip-flop sandals and the wavy slicked-back hair. I am not from around here but I try to blend in, ordering a pitcher of local Island beer and some potato chips (naturally). The band keeps up a Bob Marley track and one of the skinny boys from the bar comes over to sing the lyrics from his laptop. The bar starts to sing-a-long. We down the first pitcher and more beer finds its way to the table. The boys sing The Beatles next and the back booths eat it up. People from the restaurant side come over hemming in the pub and the door is propped open to keep it cool inside. We drink. We sing the words louder than we should. We talk about Arts funding and the shitty conservative government. We talk about Quebecois language politics because that’s where I am headed next. We talk about books and the institution. We drink.
And the pub swells with the merry times — people, food, laughter, beer, singing, and, of course, potatoes.