The large, bearded man had just put his tongue into the mouth of a fish. I watched, eyes wide, as it was then thrust towards me.
“Your next, b’y,” another man said, holding an oar in one hand and the lifeless fish in the other.
Wait, did that guy brush, I thought?
When kissing a dead fish it’s best not to think about sanitation. Sure, other questions like “Just where did that thing come from?” or “How many lips were on it before mine?” and “Are you sure it’s dead?” may race through a mind swimming in the haze of whatever liquid was consumed moments before you were face to fish with the frozen cod but there’s not much time to come up with the answers. After all, there are about 30 other people waiting in this fish kissing frenzy egging you on, some of them actually licking their lips, and we all paid twenty bucks for this! One has to wonder how much fish you can purchase that you don’t have to get intimate with for that price but this is not a time for logic. It’s time to close your eyes and pucker up. Welcome to Newfoundland!
This odd scene is called a Screech-In and some places on St. John’s fabled George Street do them every hour. The popular and extremely bizarre Newfoundland ceremony is for the Come From Aways, a ritual to welcome people visiting The Rock and make them honorary Newfoundlanders. It’s unsure how far back this tradition dates but I can only assume the origins have something to do with a fisherman realizing he could get $20 from a tourist while simultaneously acquiring a hilarious story to tell his buddies about what said tourist did with the catch of the day.
“‘Deed I is, me ol’ cock! And long may yer big jib draw!” the Screechers are asked to say after downing a shot of rum, eating a piece of Newfoundland meat and, of course, getting jiggy with Codzilla. Now, before you think you wouldn’t kiss your mother with a mouth that had uttered such a phase –which is probably a good thing because, let’s face it, you just kissed a fish with it– this sacred oath actually translates into: “Yes I am, my old friend, an may your sails always catch the wind.”
Gentle ribbing aside, Screech-In’s like the one I attended at Christian’s are great fun in all their absurdity. Brian Day, the pub’s owner, has been performing the ceremony for over 15 years and, dressed in his sou’wester and carrying the oar he looks the part of a man who may have just dredged the fish out of the ocean. He really gets into it on a near nightly basis. The place boasts 60,000 plus Screech-ins! That’s one lucky fish!
Now that you’re a Newfoundlander why not experience some traditional music?
Elsewhere on George Street, in O’Reilly’s or Kelly’s or Birdie Molloy’s, you can hear tunes like “The Night Paddy Murphy Died”, “The St. John’s Waltz” and “I’s the B’y”.
Fiddles, bodhrán and guitars make for a toe-tapping good time on the city’s most popular street.
It’s two-blocks of nothing but bars, pubs and clubs so it’s not hard to understand the draw.
You can take in a comedy show at Trapper John’s, head over to hear some Blues at the Fat Cat, join a traditional sing-along at the Shamrock and then merge with the younger set above the Rob Roy for something a little more electronic and pumped with base.
All that without walking more than 25 feet!
If you want a party, there’s something for everybody on George Street.
“I’ve only been in jail for three hours,” slurs a local trying to pick up an attractive German tourist who may or may not understand him.
Granted, this isn’t a good opening line in any province, but Newfoundland does have a rather unique dialect coming out of arguably the friendliest people on the planet, even the one’s who did a marginal stint in the slammer.
The accent is what happens when the Irish, French and English all settle on an island and mingle. I discovered it early.
“I’m just ‘bout gutfounded, b’y,” a man said to me twenty minutes after I left the airport. An acknowledging nod seemed like the best reply.
I later learned he was hungry and was probably somebody I could have asked where to find some fish and chips. I would soon learn that everybody has an opinion on what place served up the best. Some say Ches. They’ve been in business for 50 years. Some say you have to go out of town where they practically fry it on the boat after it’s caught. Other’s still will point you to the Duke of Duckworth, made even more a local hot spot by its inclusion in the CBC series Republic of Doyle which, despite him starring in five episodes, has nothing to do with Great Big Sea’s Alan Doyle.
Though the band retired last year, they are still beloved and everybody in St. John’s seems to have a story about meeting Alan or Séan McCann. Music is just one of the things that unites the islanders and, in St. John’s, the songs of Newfoundland are especially celebrated during the George Street Festival’s day long Kitchen Party and at the Newfoundland and Labrador Folk Festival where, this year, local bands like The Once and the beautiful melodies of the Ennis Sisters wowed the crowd.
If “Rock” music is what you’re looking for you really have to wander into only one place: Fred’s Records. Located on Duckworth, it’s been the go to spot for local music even since opening four decades ago. Their goal is to have the largest selection of Newfoundland music anywhere, which makes sense it being Newfoundland and all. Well, they succeeded! From compilations of oldies, island mainstays like the awesomely named Shanneyganock, to new musicians like Amelia Curran and The Dardenelles, you can flip through it all on Fred’s shelves. My favourite find was Ron Hynes, a local folk singer who passed away last year. His songs are just part of the fabric that is Newfoundland.
Newfoundlanders really embrace their culture and they are not afraid to tell you about it. The Great Fires, the Battle of Beaumont-Hamel and even a few ghost stories like those told on the Haunted Hike. It’s recommended to do one of these on a foggy night where, dressed in period costume, a guide will tour you around the city to chill you with tales of the city’s spooky past. The skeptic can even enjoy this as it’s a fantastic history lesson but even they may have trouble figuring out what that strange specter is in the photograph on one of the walls of the Anglican Cathedral.
I happened to take one of these on a night of torrential rain which creates street-side waterfalls in a city full of hills. Seriously, when going to St. John’s prepare to walk up…a lot! Of course, what goes up must come down, as they say, and there’s certainly a lot of great excuses to rest. Jellybean houses, for example.
The colourful homes line many of the streets near the downtown core and each turn can seem like a postcard waiting to happen inside your camera.
Speaking of streets, Water Street in St. John’s is the oldest in North America. It’s just one of many firsts for Newfoundland like the first place to host a transatlantic flight, the oldest continuous sporting event in the Regatta, the first province to respond to the distress signal sent from the Titanic and the only province to have its own pony, dog and dictionary. It’s also the place where, on December 1, 1901, Guglielmo Marconi discovered that transatlantic communication was possible, ear pressed to his rudimentary headset, to hear the faint sounds 1,7000 miles away from his spot on Signal Hill.
These days, Signal Hill brings most people there for its half-dozen hiking trails and the views you acquire by walking them. You can start out in the Battery, where some of the oldest homes around still remain, working your way up paths like the North Head Trail or the Gibbet Hill Lookout. If you’re fast enough you might make it up in time for the noon day gun. In fact, you might even get to shoot it. If thinking the kickback might blast you clear through Cabot Tower, have no fear but you should cover your ears. The 19th century gun once used to protect the city from invasion is still mighty loud.
“You know those blueberries are edible,” says a man on the trail pointing towards a patch of ground near my feet. “Except for the one’s that ain’t blueberries.”
“How can you tell the difference?” an out of breath me asks.
“Oh, ya’ don’t really know until you pop one of ‘em in your mouth.”
“Are you some sort of horticulturalist?”
While I didn’t eat the blueberries or the ones that possibly weren’t blueberries, I did hike the hill trails a few times while out there, even the spots where you need to brace yourself against the cliff by holding onto a chain drilled into the rock. The needed exercise aside, the views are spectacular. When you look out over the Narrows at St. John’s what you see down there is a lot of history.
You can read about it on all those plaques scattered about the city urging self-guided walking tours or visit The Rooms, St. John’s Newfoundland history museum but you really feel it standing high above being hit by the ocean winds.
A good way to end a day in St. John’s is with a beer. Well, that’s a good way to end the day anywhere but it’s only in Newfoundland that you can get Quidi Vidi. How do you say that exactly, who knows, but this neighbourhood in St. John’s is more like a fishing village frozen in time, a place to peek back at the past though nowadays it’s become a place to visit the biggest microbrewery on the island and snag yourself an Iceberg!
When a 250 million ton iceberg found its way off the coast of Twillingate, the brewers in Quidi Vidi got an idea: all this fresh water might make a pretty tasty brew and they were right. Bottled in its signature blue glass (so much a collector’s item that they had to take out ads to ensure they were returned), Iceberg beer became so popular that even at producing 1,100 cases a day they couldn’t keep up with the demand.
I’m not sure where they get the icebergs when one doesn’t just happen to float on up to their door but, and this could very well be psychosomatic, it was the coldest, most refreshing beer I’ve ever tasted. Besides, there’s nothing like 25,000 year old iceberg water to wash the taste of just kissed fish out of your mouth, b’y!