30 hours in St. Pierre, France

For the best context, read this after my previous post, 30 hours in St. John’s, Newfoundland.

St. Pierre… it’s even harder to explain why I went. No one has ever heard of it and I have to explain what I know: when I was learning Atlantic Canada geography, I learned there were some islands near Newfoundland that don’t belong to Canada but to France. I hadn’t thought about them in years (decades) but when I thought about visiting St. John’s for the first time ever, I couldn’t let go of the idea of finally visiting St. Pierre et Miquelon (okay, just St. Pierre).

The reason didn’t seem like it held a lot of water and on top of that, the scheduling was awful and I had yet to learn what “off-season” meant. I’m never going to have a chance to come back again, so I grabbed it. Honestly, I didn’t have much more to do in St. John’s either.

As I did my research on what to eat and where to go, I had a pretty short list of what to eat (especially when the French custom is to eat four meals and there aren’t that many establishments) and even shorter for places to visit when even some large sites were closed for the season.

My visit schedule was dictate by the Air St.-Pierre schedule whose three-flights per week worked only if I went Friday to Sunday. (Perhaps I could have gone to St. John’s from Vancouver and then St. Pierre on Sunday through Wednesday but I’m so glad I didn’t.) So there I was, flying to St. Pierre on Friday night, arriving at St.-Pierre Airport after a 45-minute flight with 26 other people.

I surreptitiously glanced around at fellow passengers. Not all were tourists but it was hard to distinguish as many of their tourists are Francophone or actually French. Not people I was likely to talk to. It’s a task for me to be normal and friendly and the language in which I am not fluent is an additional barrier.

The airport was tiny with just one baggage claim belt and two customs control booths. I thought it was that laidback a place that a passenger’s dog was allowed to wander around the baggage carousel until I saw he was being guided to sniff every piece of luggage – duh. I was merely asked if I was coming on vacation and when I was departing (“Jusqu’a Samedi… no, Dimanche!”) and I got the most unique stamp in my passport.

Outside, there was a taxi stand but just one taxi and it was unoccupied. I didn’t know what to do and tried not to act bewildered. No one else was fretting about the lack of taxis because they weren’t tourists. When I made a motion to go inside, a tall young man asked simply, “L’Auberge St. Pierre?” So he’s the one the inn arranged… I hoped. He took on two more passengers in his Peugeot Partner (or some vehicle of the same shape). That made me feel just a bit better. He played French rap and we zipped through the deserted streets. Everything was so European from the get-go and I hadn’t braced for it.

I dared not hope too much from the inn – it’s no Nuits St. Pierre that costs 20 Euro more per night – but it turned out to be perfect and the host is a darling man. Breakfast is included and the 2L bottle of water in the room was free of charge. Sweet.

The meal times in St. Pierre are as follows:
– 7:30 a.m. Breakfast
– 12:00 p.m. Dinner (a bigger meal)
– 4:00 p.m. Tea time
– 8:00 p.m. Supper (a lighter meal)

I was on track for dinner and I hadn’t really eaten except at lunch. So I faced the new town in the evening and looked for dinner. There were no more spots at Le Feu de Baise so I ended up at R3volution. The elder gent to my right at the bar counter amused himself staring at the bar – I didn’t understand it. The younger gent on my left amused himself on his phone. I was sooo Canadian with my flurry of writing and using my phone. Wine truly is cheap at 3 Euro per glass for all varieties but I hardly felt in the mood and got a ginger ale for 2 Euro. My main was a cod in green piquante sauce with a side of creamy rice with chives. It didn’t leave enough room for dessert and I was eyeing the lemon tart in a jar.

I wondered if I looked oddly alone. I wondered if it looked like I booked a vacation to the wrong place, like people who end up in Sydney, Nova Scotia instead of Sydney, Australia. Especially when show up off-season.

It sounded like going out to a bar would be a popular activity on the weekend and there were a number of them, all open compared to the restaurants. But upon arriving in town, walking around town, I concluded without any regrets that it wouldn’t be my kind of scene. It had been so epic and fun and friendly in St. John’s nothing could hold a candle – I wasn’t going to bother and instead enjoy the retreat atmosphere.

Meal #1 per the above schedule was breakfast gratuis at the inn. It was a modest Continental spread but I ate more than I would at that hour. The host chat with a couple I saw when I was checking the night before and I tried to listen in a little. Mostly I surfed the net and plotted and planned my day.

I was eager for daylight to see what the town looked like. It was still foggy so some imagination was required again what it’s like in the summer and with more people. Through the mist, it looks smaller town European than I’ve ever been to, maybe what the maritimes looked like in the past. Like in St. John’s, many of the houses are really colourful, so-called saltbox houses. Except for the main streets, all the others looked ad hoc with fluidity between road, parking lanes and sidewalk, like it had all eroded over time.

At the last minute, I booked a van tour of the island. I looked for a goal, something high to climb, but I wasn’t equipped with proper rain-protective footwear. After breakfast at the inn, I head towards Hotel Robert at the waterfront and was a couple of minutes late for the tour. I forgot to specify and the van operator informed me the tour was in French. Okay… I would essayer. It turns out he spoke slowly enough for my level of French to figure out most of what he pointed out – I didn’t try to follow the conversations he had with the three other tourists.

He pointed out the salt houses that lined the shore – ach so, each was brightly painted and so the houses’ colours alluded to that. He pointed out utilities and government buildings, explained that most of the town was employed by them. Then, there is the tourism industry which is seasonal and construction. We drove to westward on Route de la Cléop&aague;tre and got out to take photos of south shore Atlantic waters. It was pretty cool, the real thing. On the way back to the town, I saw the only chain company on the island, a Home Hardware Centre. (There is also a Rona.) The tour guide kept referring to people going to Terre-Neuve and I would swell with pride over NS before I remember to translate and he was talking about Newfoundland, like if needed, hospital patients could be rushed to hospital in St. John’s. He definitely mentioned Halifax as the origin of the provisions the islands receive on a weekly basis. And their cars.

I am endlessly fascinated with L’&Iague;le-aux-Marins which you can see from St. Pierre. It has a ghost town, an abandoned settlement that you can visit by taking the ferry. On the northeast section of the island and therefore hidden from view from St. Pierre, lies the remnants of the Transpacific that was shipwrecked on their shores in 1971. Cool, huh? I also wanted to see the fine sands on the 10-km isthmus connecting the two parts of Miquelon, another ferry ride away. But Miquelon is really tiny, like 600 people and a whole day trip away.

Meal #2 was at the Creperie du Vieux Port. It is in the Hotel Robert which is as close to the water as you can get and looks from the exterior like a diner. It is sparse and plain inside but the crepe menu was what I was after. After weighing my choices, I went with a seafood stew and crepes Suzette. Seafood stew for vegetables and fish and local food. Crepes Suzette because it was a creperie and a proper French creation, I think. Did the server chuckle under her breath when I ordered? Whatever!

The stew was massive and I was so full. It was plainly luxurious with huge chunks of cod and salmon, large shrimp and really tender octopus. I didn’t think I could tuck away crepes but I did.

I walked around after lunch but it was no where enough distance to burn off anything and I could feel my rings tightening on my finger, haha. The van tour wasn’t the hop-on hop-off type so I walked around to photograph the sites near the core. Then, when the shops were supposed to open after lunch break, I tried to go to the gift store… which was suddenly closed. I walked some more and found a poor selection of postcards at Re-Creation, i.e., the photography was so amateur. But no matter, I was still going to get to send it from St. Pierre!

One schedule stop was the Saint-Pierre Cathedral. I stopped in the chapel first and had my conversation. Two in three days is a bit of a record and what a different the two days makes. I prayed for myself this time, to accept God should do what’s right and for the serenity to accept it. I wasn’t pleased to see a big white screen still erected in the main cathedral.

Meal #3 was tea and I embarked on that earlier than 4:00 p.m. so that I could just have more time to recover before dinner, haha. I went to, as planned, Les Delices de Josephine. I didn’t see a lemon tart and asked what was in a Hummingbird cake. Everyone had to ask and it consisted of nuts, coconut, pineapple and a banana bread like cake. They carried Mariage Frères tea and I had a pot of Wedding Imp&eague;rial scented black tea. I spent 90 minutes there surfing the net and writing my postcard, a special message… to my future self.

It started raining heavily when I left the tea room and I forgot to switch my umbrella to my current bag. Drat! So when I got back to my room, I was too happy to get under the covers and surf and chat for a few hours. It’s a whole five hour time difference between St. Pierre and Vancouver.

When I returned to my room after tea, I contacted L’Atelier Gourmand through their web contact form for a same-day reservation but received no response. I went to the restaurant around 9:00 p.m. and was turned away – a quick peek confirmed they have no bar seating. Reluctantly, I went to Le Caf&eague; du Chat Luthier which serves sushi. What kind of sign is that? When I checked in on Foursquare/Swarm, the one tip mentioned the pizza was good and that set my focus. As it turns out, it was a practical decision because I could pack some for my flights the next day. I got the most French combination I could pick since the delicious seafood pizza was not available. The pizza had goat’s cheese, honey, emmental, and green pepper. And since I didn’t eat my full pizza – but surely I wasn’t actually hungry – I ordered a crème brul&eague;.

It was another pretty fitful night of sleep but my sleeping hours and patterns are worrisome and out of whack.

My last morning was devoted to getting pastries, finally, at one, both, or all three of the patisseries recommended. Turns out one of them was closed on Sunday or for the season. And one was a former location of the only one open. It was busy and when I looked left and right at the airport later, other people were carrying a box of their pastries. I selected one of each of several for NPY to try.

I checked out of my hotel and hung out in the breakfast room and in the lounge until it was time for lunch.

I aimed to try highly recommended and such oddly named Cyber Poly Gone Home. It was open the day before but not when I tried. But I remember L’Atelier Gourmand had some lunch hours and, thank goodness, it was open. Or else I was going to have to eat pastries all day long.

The server seated me at a two-top in the corner so I could see the whole restaurant and immediately I could feel a difference. I was bracing for such casual and slow service that I’m not accustomed to but sometimes the wait was really baffling. What do the servers do with all that spare time? At L’Atelier, the server was almost prompt and even tried to talk to me. We exchanged details of where we are from (he’s from Paris) and he seemed surprised that I’m Chinois. Is it difference because he is a male server compared to all of the female servers so far? Is it a difference because it’s probably the best restaurant in St. Pierre and he is trained better?

I was set to settle in to waiting a while for food and writing when I heard a crash to my side – a guy I recognized from my Friday flight tried to open a door that wouldn’t open and I expected him to come in through the main door at any moment. When he did, I thought it was the perfect opportunity to ask him my burning questions: whatever possessed you to come to St. Pierre? Honestly, the reason why I recognized him from the flight is because he’s Asian. I was bracing to hear he’s from Newfoundland, a prosaic reason for visiting.

So after I was partway through my first appetizer and he just received his, I walked by his table and asked him if he arrived on Friday and if he was leaving this afternoon. Yes to both. So I invited him to join me at my table. I wonder if it looked so odd and if my server was disappointed because we wouldn’t be conversing any longer.

Kai and I traded stories about our past two days on the island and recent travels to St. John’s. He will be staying at the same B&B where I stayed in St. John’s and I gave him the scoop, and to try not to get scammed by the cabbie leaving the airport. It was a brilliant lunch with my delicious and artful appetizers, commendable level of service and stimulating conversation.

I can’t say I wished Kai and I had met on the flight and thus spent yesterday together – no. But I’m really glad we could spend the last few hours from lunch until we were back in Canada trading stories. (In another post, I detail more about meeting Kai.)

On this day..