Many years ago, my parents began a tradition of initiating guests to their New Brunswick home into the culture of the Maritimes, our little Atlantic Coast section of Canada. I’m not sure how the three challenges of becoming an “Honorary Maritimer” were chosen – for I was a child when this all began – only that they have been posed to many a visitor over the years.
First, you must eat a lobster.
Next, swim the channel at our beach.
And last, slurp a raw quahog.
So, it wasn’t a surprised that Bruno, upon arriving at my parents’ little home on the beach in early August, was presented the mission of becoming an Honorary Maritimer.
This, of course, was not his purpose in being in the Maritimes. It was to meet all the family and friends I hold dear (so that everyone would finally believe he’s real!) and to get to know why this region of the world holds such a special place in my heart.
And so, we took Bruno to the nearby tourist town of Shediac. Situated directly along the Atlantic Ocean and boasting the warmest waters north of South Carolina, Shediac is the [self-proclaimed] lobster capital of the world. A giant lobster statue, which my brother and I used to climb when we were kids, sits at the edge of a bay to memorialize this fact.
Shediac is also the original home of the Chiac vernacular. Chiac is the fascinatingly incomprehensible old French mixed with a bit of English and a few made-up words that is spoken by the Acadian people of the region. Much to the dismay of my mother, Bruno was excited to hear Chiac spoken and to learn a few phrases. We took him to the Shediac Sunday Market so he could wander around and soak up the local language. He didn’t understand much.
A couple weeks later, on August 15th, we ventured into the larger city of Moncton to witness the tintamarre performed every year for the Fête des Acadiens. The Acadians are a proud people, mainly because they are a marginalized minority with a different history and culture than the dominant Canadian one. Every year, they parade down main streets around the province, making as much noise as possible with kitchen utensils and home-spun instruments, dressed in the French colours of blue, red, and white, but with the yellow stars that demarcate their flag as not-France. Anglophones, we exist, their noise seems to say.
The Moncton tintamarre was small compared to the internationally-recognized one in Caraquet, in the Acadian Peninsula further north. But Bruno enjoyed the experience, as well as the big concert along the muddy Peticodiac River that followed. In an act that is unlike him, he was the last to want to leave.
Isn’t it strange how there can be places so close to home that you want to see, yet you can spend an entire life not seeing them? And isn’t it wonderful that, when a visitor comes to town, you finally go and visit those places? This was the case on two occasions when Bruno came to the Maritimes this summer.
Our first never-before-seen visit was to Johnson Mills to watch the migration of the semi-palmated plovers and sandpipers. After spending their summers in the Arctic, these birds migrate to South America, stopping over in New Brunswick to fatten up on crustaceans before their 72-hour nonstop journey south. They choose Johnson Mills, and a few other sites in New Brunswick, because the unique union of mudflats and the highest tides in the world make for excellent feeding.
The birds arrive in early August in three waves – first the mothers, then the fathers, and last, the newborns (who have just learned to fly). During the week that all three groups converge, there are 100,000 birds at this one site alone! When the tide is high and the birds cannot feast, they fly around in a single united drove, swaying this way and that in the sky as though a well-rehearsed dance recital. They are, of course, exhaustedly awaiting the return of the beach as they desperately avoid the ever-present falcons.
Bruno was, of course, in his absolute element watching the birds, and I was thrilled to finally witness this most-impressive performance of Nature that occurs in our humble little corner of the world.
Our second visit was to Halifax, Nova Scotia. The unofficial capital of the Maritimes is only a three-hour drive from my home, but I hadn’t been here for tourism purposes since I can remember. Bruno and I needed to come here to pick up our Toyota camper van after her ferry ride across the Atlantic, so we opted to make a trip of it.
Mom and dad came along for the day and acted as tour guides, as they had lived in Halifax for years as nearly- and newlyweds. They showed us the funky shopping main street, the citadel on the hill, and the historic properties and beautiful pedestrian walkway in the harbour front area. We wandered in a small Victorian park as well as a large one at the edge of the peninsula, admired relic boats parked along the harbour, and read about the maritime history of this all-important port city. Best of all, our personalized private tour guides showed us the area around my parents’ alma mater, the University of Dalhousie, and some of the pretty homes and viewpoints in that non-touristy, residential part of town.
While mom and dad drove home that evening to New Brunswick, Bruno and I got a Bed & Breakfast for the night so that we could pick up our beloved Totoyaya the following morning. I dragged him to a vegan restaurant I’d found online called EnVie, and this place absolutely blew my mind! We shared three dishes that were so tasty it was hard to believe there weren’t meat or dairy products in them – a charcuterie platter with almond “brie”, sundried tomato and “goat’s cheese” spread, seitan (fermented soy), tomato jam, and fermented onions; coconut “shrimp” made with king oyster mushrooms; and the creamiest “ricotta” ravioli I’ve ever had. The meal was so good it almost overtakes picking up Totoyaya as the highlight of our time in Halifax!
As I showed Bruno around my dear Maritimes, I realized how badly I wanted him to like my country. It was the first time we were in Canada together (and Bruno had only visited British Columbia briefly eight years before), and I found myself emphasizing Canada’s qualities – like its safety, large spaces, and friendly people – while excusing its flaws – rigid rules, cost of living, ugly overdevelopment.
I also found myself acting as a sort of accidental interpreter. I showed him the denominations of our funny, fake-looking money (who calls a coin a “loonie,” anyway?); I explained driving etiquette and road rules to him; and I clarified the country’s policies on things like sales tax and tipping.
It’s the first time I can remember being tour guide for Bruno – until now, we’d only ever visited places he’d been to, or that we were both seeing for the first time together. Being Bruno’s tour guide painted seemingly regular things in a new light, so that even a bike ride along cottage country lanes became a cultural experience.
In fact, I began to see “culture” everywhere. Seeing Canada from Bruno’s eyes was like seeing my culture from the outside, and realizing – for the first time in many instances – how many things I’ve always seen as normal are, in fact, cultural.
Take, for example, our family reunion at Walton’s Beach, near the bridge to Prince Edward Island. This is a tradition that my dad’s side of the family has been doing for as long as I can remember, so for me, it’s a normal yearly family gathering. For Bruno, though, everything about it was cultural. The gathering took place in cottage country, a concept almost every middle class Canadian understands. Going to a cottage, for a Canadian, means going to a rustic second holiday home of a family member or friend, usually along some body of water (in New Brunswick it’s usually the Atlantic Ocean), but also occasionally in the forest or in the mountains. At cottages, people do leisure activities that range from going to the beach, doing water sports, playing board games (on rainy days), and having barbecues and bonfires.
Our family reunion at Walton’s Beach was no different. And while Bruno could relate to the idea of sitting on a beach in the sun (for they do this in France, too, though definitely not all around the world), it was a big culture shock for him when we played our annual baseball game. Bruno had never even put on a baseball glove! There wasn’t much time to explain the rules to him because the boys of the family wanted to get down to business, so we stuck Bruno in right field and were ready to yell out to whom he should throw the ball should he catch it (telling him which base to throw the ball to would have been lost in translation!). The ball didn’t go his way, but he still had to bat and run the bases. Though his stance and swing were funny to look at, he did hit the ball, and then counted on his teammates to tell him when and where to run. I think he played the entire game without understanding a thing.
The post-ballgame barbecue was no less cultural for him. French people have grillades, where they stick high-quality cuts of meat on tiny round grills and serve them as the second course in a long multi-course sit-down meal, with wine bien sur. Our Canadian barbecue amounted to patties of ground meat (or fake meat) char-grilled and thrown between cakey buns, served on paper plates with buffet-style salads on the side and eaten at random picnic tables and camping chairs strewn out behind the cottage.
Walton’s Beach taught me that my idea of “normal” is nothing more than Canadian culture in action.
During Bruno’s month in New Brunswick, he experienced Canadian culture on a daily basis, not least of all at the dinner table. Bruno had his first ever brunch of pancakes with maple syrup, fresh berries, and hash browns; he tried his first ever smore (and roasted his first every campfire marshmallow); and he had his first ever poutine (fries smothered with cheese curds and gravy). He also sampled the region’s delicacies – deep fried clams, lobster, and quahogs (which he loved so much he slurped half a dozen). I was impressed that Bruno dug right into the cold (but cooked) shelled lobster with his bare hands, adeptly tearing into the shell and finding even the small, hidden bits of meat (like in the cheek and the tail fin) – for though French people eat langouste (which is similar to, but much less tasty than, lobster), they almost always serve it de-shelled, warm, and as part of, rather than all of, a meal.
Was Bruno a Maritimer hidden in a Frenchman’s skin? Most visitors manage the lobster only with help, and swallow the quahog with their noses plugged, and only to complete the final challenge and become Honorary Maritimers.
It was swimming the channel, the most difficult challenge for him, that showed Bruno’s true Mediterranean colours. The first few times he had an opportunity to swim, he declined because he wasn’t warm enough. One afternoon, though, when the wind was down and the sun was out, with an audience of only two, Bruno finally shimmied his way into the water and made it across the channel!
That day, Bruno may have exposed his non-Maritimer-ness (for what true Maritimer would scoff at the weather in August?), but he did prove himself to our family and friends. He became an Honorary Maritimer.
And this Maritimer wife couldn’t be more proud.