St. John's, Newfoundland, is a city that makes you happy just to be there.
After all, who can be be crabby in a town that is crammed with jellybean houses? How can you sulk in a city with a street (George St.) that has more pubs per square foot than any other in North America? Or when someone will stop to help you the minute you pull out a map?
But St. John's doesn't make a big deal about such things.
You won't find a dozen plaques about its being the oldest city in North America. (Historians will quibble, but Sir Humphrey Gilbert claimed the place for Britain in 1583, and Europeans were living there year-round before 1620.) It doesn't strut about being the provincial capital (of Newfoundland and Labrador). It doesn't preen about being the commercial bull's eye of the province.
Nope. St. John's is like, Hey, I'm cool, okay? Now I've got other things to do.
Despite its colorful, self-confident face, St. John's has had a difficult past. Cannons on Signal Hill are still aimed at "the Narrows" through which all sea traffic passes. It's a historic site now, but Signal Hill was once was the city's most important defense during the decades when France and Britain were duking it out for control of this corner of the New World. (Guess who won?)
Those brightly painted jellybean houses are all wood-sided (none of that vinyl or aluminum stuff). But none of the city's buildings are particularly old because they've burned down so many times. Three fires have leveled parts of St. John's, but only the fire of 1892 was deadly enough to qualify as "great." And all it took was a spark from that lit pipe that someone dropped onto a pile of hay in Timothy Brine's stable. Most of St. John's burned down that day.
On a cheerier note, the "Battery" is no longer a military fortification. Now it's one of the older neighborhoods in St. John's where jellybean houses are perched on (and sometimes built into) the rocky hillside below Signal Hill.
On a recent Tuesday night, I tagged along with my daughter to check out the action on George Street -- the two-block street with nothing but pubs. (Yeah, Tuesday is lame, but we weren't in St. John's on the weekend, okay?) The plan was that she'd pick the pub and that I'd stay for no longer than was necessary to experience George Street at night.
Since Julia's been traveling with me in a tiny trailer for over two months, she needed a little hair of the dog to carry on. A little attention from that guy crooning Irish tunes on the guitar might not hurt, either.
But I was really hoping she'd get screeched in.
According to local lore (or, actually, according to the local barista), when the fishing and sealing boats came into the harbor, the townspeople would rush out to welcome them with bottles of screech. While screech is a cheap rum that is made nowhere near Newfoundland, the island has adopted it as it's own special brand of hootch.
Now, really, how can you be surly in a town that hands you a shot right off the boat?
To become an honorary Newfoundlander, you must be screeched in. The details vary, but generally, this requires you to drink a shot of screech, kiss a codfish (a real one) on the lips, and answer the question, "Is ye an honorary Newfoundlander?" with "Indeed I is me old cock and long may your big jib draw." That's it. Now you're an islander. Sort of.
Instead of silly tourist rites of passage, however, Julia stumbled (almost literally) across the real deal -- authentic Newfies on their own turf, which in this case was Bannerman Park with lots of screech and... other stuff.
One of them was Donnie Dumphy, a.k.a. Leon Parsons.
Donnie Dumphy is a character created by Parsons and Nik Sexton. They've produced a series of music videos that they call "gib rap" set in St. John's and starring their very own Donnie Dumphy, who is like a Newfie-style homeboy. The clips have gone viral, and "Donnie" has gigs all over Canada.
Nice going, Julia.
Here's one of my favorite Dumphy clips:
Now I ask you, how can anyone be grouchy in the city that created Donnie Dumphy?