The first time I had any sense of connection with Newfoundland was in January 2018, at the start of my Ancestry.com research. I got a lot of information from a cousin I hadn't known about, Lynn Polsino. She traces her origins to John Joseph Brideson, and I trace mine through his sister, Laura Brideson, my great-grandmother. She was baptized in the baptismal font of what is now the basilica of St. John the Baptist in St. John's, Newfoundland.
But I didn't really feel like a Newfoundlander until three months after that discovery, when Judy and I saw the Broadway musical Come from Away. The play gave us a visceral sense of how much the townspeople of Gander and the surrounding communities had done for the roughly 7,000 "plane people" who descended on them when the 9/11 attacks forced the closing of American airspace. I remember walking out of the theater with our friends and feeling a bit of pride about this one strand of my ancestry. Minutes later, when we met other friends for dinner, I learned of the existence of "Newfie jokes," a genre of humor akin to Polish jokes. As a newfound Newfie, I took mock offense.
A few weeks ago, Judy and I saw Come from Away again, and as she likes to put it, she came away with her face hurting, from smiling so much. It reinforced our excitement about the two weeks in Newfoundland that lay ahead. Now that our trip is over, I can say that my sense of Newfie pride is even stronger.
Newfoundland is a profoundly beautiful place, only sparsely populated, by comparison to New York. But everyone we met there was extraordinarily kind and helpful. That kindness even followed us back to New York: Somehow, Air Canada had managed to lose one of our suitcases. As we stood forlornly in the baggage-claim area, someone came up to us and helpfully pointed out the tiny office where we could begin the process of finding it. He had a Newfoundland accent, and I asked him if he was from Newfoundland. He said he was, and I told him: "I knew it, because you're so nice."
You could make the argument that Newfoundlanders need to be nice, now that tourism is so huge a part of their economy. In Come from Away, the opening song is "Welcome to the Rock," and the title is a spot-on description of an island whose solid rock does not exactly welcome agriculture. For nearly 500 years, though, from the time Giovanni Caboto (John Cabot) arrived in 1497, the people of Newfoundland had made a living from a bountiful resource: codfish. But a quarter-century ago, overfishing brought about a codfish moratorium, and Newfoundlanders had to look for other ways to make ends meet. The rise of tourism helped to fill the void.
So, OK, there's an economic incentive for niceness, but my brief time there persuaded me that it's a pervasive Newfoundland trait that needed no incentive. Certainly, the people of Gander and the surrounding communities needed no incentive other than the needs of the stranded "plane people" to find ways of helping them.
One night on our trip, our tour director, David Harris, arranged for us to hear from Claude Elliott, who served as mayor of Gander on 9/11. The most important words that Elliott said were these: “People in need you’re supposed to help.” I found myself liking him and immensely touched by the description he gave of Newfoundlanders helping strangers. Though I later read that he had declined to perform same-sex marriages, which seems very much out of keeping with the spirit of welcome that his town embodies, I'm still glad we got the chance to listen to him.
In short, I liked pretty much everything about Newfoundland and Newfoundlanders, including their charming speech patterns, such as the addition of the letter "h" at the start of some words that begin with a vowel. In a place that became famous for its airport and the aircraft that landed there, it was impossible not to like the words "hairport" and "haircraft."
So, after only two weeks on the island, I feel comfort in knowing that, if the rise of authoritarian government in "the land of the free" should become intolerable, I have roots in an island of sanity, a rock with a heart, a place of welcome for refugees. As the opening song of Come from Away put it: "I'm an islander. I am an islander."
First in my class in Officer Candidate School. Late to the conclusion that our attitude toward the military is idolatrous.