A TASTE OF FRANCE
27 August 2011 | St. Pierre, France
Given the current economic situation, the declining value of the dollar and the increasing difficulty of avoiding visa limits in the EU, more than a few of our sailing friends have reluctantly left European waters and others have decided that this is not an auspicious time for that long-dreamed of Mediterranean sojourn. Yet for those in the Northeast hankering for some baguettes and a chance to parler francais, there is an alternative within a week's sailing of New York City. For a real French experience right in our own backyard, we'd recommend a summer voyage to France - without crossing an ocean.
Lying just west of the Burin peninsula at the midpoint of the south coast of Newfoundland, the tiny island of St. Pierre with its several thousand inhabitants and its larger but largely unpopulated neighbor, Miquelon, represent the last enclave of what was once an extensive North American French empire. In the 18th century, France controlled most of the land on either side of the St. Lawrence River right to the Great Lakes, all of Quebec, a good deal of Nova Scotia (or Nouvelle Écosse) and most of Newfoundland (Terre-Neuve). They also claimed the vast territory of Louisiana until Napoleon was forced to sell it to Jefferson at a bargain rate to finance his mounting war debts. At that time, tiny St. Pierre must have seemed no more than the period at the end of the long list of French holdings in North America, not even worth the ink to write it.
The history of St. Pierre is the history of war between England and France; the importance of St. Pierre lies in its proximity to the almost mythic Grand Banks cod fishery. The British always seized the islands when at war with France in an effort to cut off the dried cod which fed France's army and bolstered her war chest. Throughout the 18th century, the little group of islands changed hands with every peace treaty and were invaded during every petty conflict. The original Norman and Breton families who settled St. Pierre were removed again and again for periods measured in decades before they or their descendants were allowed to return with the re-establishment of French control. France has been willing to trade almost anything to maintain her precious toehold in the North Atlantic fishery - the 1763 Treaty of Paris reinstated her control of St. Pierre after a 50-year hiatus while stripping her of the remainder of her North American possessions. Though she lost and regained the islands yet again after that treaty, France has now held St. Pierre and Miquelon without interruption for almost two centuries.
And in all that time, this tiny outpost has remained determinedly, delightfully French. Les St.-Pierrais lift their noses in disdain at the Canadian French spoken in nearby Cape Breton. They greet us in perfect Parisian French with "bon jour" and wish us "bienvenue." After arriving with the OCC fleet yesterday, we changed our remaining Canadian dollars into Euros and prepared to enjoy la vie Francaise.
We savored café au lait and licked our fingers to get every last delectable crumb from the flaky pain au chocolate. We gazed into the plate glass window of the boucherie where long saucisson hung from huge hooks and pigs' heads and trotters were displayed next to delectable cuts of veal and marinated legs of lamb. We climbed narrow streets without sidewalks, barely wide enough for two cars to pass, lined by steep-roofed houses painted in a joyful palette of bright colors. Delicate lace curtains framed every window, and gaily decorated garbage bins labeled "poubelle" stood outside most doors. We waved at white-helmeted Vespa drivers with baguettes clamped under their arms, walked around the curvaceous Citroens and toy-like Renaults parked within inches of the house fronts and dodged the boxy Dhiatsu trucks belching black diesel fumes.
St. Pierre has changed since we last visited in 1999. The population has declined as young people have accepted opportunities to study and work in their mother country. The exodus has been exacerbated by the collapse of the fisheries and the lack of economic opportunity. Tourism has become the biggest industry on the island, with immersion programs in French a not-so-close second. The development of oil and gas reserves off the coast of Newfoundland has rekindled the hope of a new natural resource to replace the depleted fishery. That possibility gives the locals some confidence that France will not desert them in this time of economic uncertainty and increasing austerity. Without generous French subsidies, it would be impossible to import the French lifestyle wholesale to this tiny island an ocean away.
For the truth, one we've learned in two decades of sailing the world's oceans, is that France still has an empire. She is the last major colonial power. The French empire stretches from the Kergulen Islands in the far reaches of the Southern Ocean to tiny St. Pierre south of Newfoundland in the north, and girdles the equator in a series of tropical islands. France still has departements and regions territorials in every ocean of the world, and she pays dearly to maintain them. Our French cruising friends can work in Gaudeloupe and Tahiti and New Caledonia and Reunion, and their citizens can go to France for schooling and to find jobs. Her empire has bought her little in the way of reward and cost her much in the way of treasure. Yet she so far has resolutely hung on to her far flung possessions. That seemed surprising to us during the prosperous 90s and oughts, but seems incredible - and even unwise - now as the financial pressures mount on all of Europe.
So we were very glad of the chance to visit St. Pierre once again and to eat baguettes and converse with native Parisians. For it may well be that France is going to get a lot farther away in the not so distant future.
This is our last stop with the OCC cruise; the participants will be heading their separate ways from here. It looks like we have two days of easterly winds beginning tomorrow, so we plan to get underway at sunrise and head for Nova Scotia before the normal westerlies set in and make progress back down the coast difficult.
A bientot! Beth and Evan