Goodbye to Witless Bay

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One of our very first days in Witless Bay.

Well, our time in Witless Bay has come to an end.  Convent life is over, and we’ve all gone back to our houses and apartments in St. John’s.  I moved to St. John’s only six days before leaving for field school, so for me, Witless Bay feels more like home than my new apartment does.  More than just being a matter of mathematics, though, Witless Bay really did get to feel like home.  Whether it was Ralph Carey coming to check in on us at the convent every morning, Dena Wiseman gifting us delicious food from her garden (and generally being a great help all round)  , Marilyn O’Dea opening up the O’Connor fifty plus club to a slightly younger than usual group of people, or any of the people who let us into their homes to make floor plans and conduct interviews, we were made to feel so extraordinarily welcome.

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We really did make an effort to document every nook and cranny of the houses we visited!

Last night, we said goodbye to everyone who came out to see our presentation about the work we did over the past three weeks.  For those who weren’t able to come, we’ll be putting the video presentation we made up on the blog quite soon, so please keep an eye out for that.  I know we all want to say goodbye and thank you so much to everyone in Witless Bay.  I, for one, am already planning a visit.

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Goodbye, and thanks once again, Witless Bay!

Silence in the Convent

We’re halfway through our last week in Witless Bay, and a near-monastic silence has fallen in the convent once more.  Last week, Sister Lois Green told us that from 9 pm to 6 am, nobody was allowed to speak.  We aren’t being restricted by convent rules, but as we all scramble to finish everything we set out to do here, we may as well be nuns, retreating in silence.  Bedroom doors are closed, and the dining room table is host to people staring intently at computer screens and floor plans.

With all this silence, it’s a bit of a relief to go out and conduct interviews.  We’ve all been talking to community members over the past few days about a remarkably wide range of topics.  My own interviews have brought me to Bernadette Maddigan for a great chat about fairies and ghosts, and to the Alderwood Estates retirement home, where I got to meet a whole series of people who either believe in fairies, or who were happy to explain why they didn’t.

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Bernadette Maddigan

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Pat Carew

For all the stress we’re feeling at the convent, it really is starting to feel like home, and I know we’ll all be sad to leave.  This week has, once again, shown us how welcoming Witless Bay is.  So many people are willing to open their doors to us, and when an interview falls through, or we need more information about something, we’ve gotten to know people well enough that we know who to ask for help.  I can’t wait for Saturday night’s send-off, when we’ll get to say thanks to everybody one more time.

The tools of the trade (photo by Saeede Niktab)

The Spirit(s) of Witless Bay

With only one week left in Witless Bay, we’re finishing up our house plans, and getting ready to move on to interviewing community members about a variety of traditions in the area.  Since our arrival, our imaginations have been captured by all the ghost stories told about the convent where we’re staying, and about the town more generally.  I’m also very interested in local fairy stories, and that’s what I’m going to be focusing on in my interviews.

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The haunted convent?

The openness with which fairy and ghost stories are offered up is something which continues to delight me about Witless Bay.  I’ve been thinking about why these stories are so easy to tell and to believe in this part of Canada, while back home in Toronto, you’d be hard pressed to find someone who would admit to believing in fairies or ghosts with a straight face.  Is it because there’s enough history here to give the ghosts time to accumulate?  Are they beliefs that came over with the Irish ancestors of the people living here now?  Is it because there’s so much hard work done here on the land and the sea that an encounter with the fairies is simply more likely, and that people have to be more intimately acquainted with the spectre of death?

I went for a hike on the East Coast Trail today, and although I didn’t encounter any fairies (which might be explained by the fact that I did have a few coins in my pocket and didn’t stop to pick berries), walking through the tangled woods, and hearing the gusting winds and crashing waves were enough to make me believe that ghost ships really could be sailing by, and fairies watching me.  I’m sure this will be even easier to believe after hearing the local stories this week.

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Hiking the East Coast Trail

Measuring a House, Feeling at Home

As has already been thoroughly detailed on this blog, this week is all about learning how to document old buildings.  Today, though, was the first day we were all unleashed upon three particular houses in Witless Bay in order to make our own floor plans.  Luckily for us, Ed Chapell has prepared us well, and he and Jerry spent the day circulating between the three houses to make sure we were all more or less on track

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Watching the master at work!


Because of our numbers, we needed to rely on one community member to help us make up three teams of three people doing the recordings.  Dena Wiseman was kind enough to spend the day with me and Saeede as we measured and recorded every little detail of Sheila and Mike Ryan’s house.

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Saeede, working hard on our near-complete floor plan

We were in Sheila’s house from 10 am to 7 pm, and far from letting us feel that our presence there was an imposition (and really, we pushed our way into every tight corner, and our measuring tools were strewn all about the house), she made us feel completely welcomed.  Rather than trekking back to the convent for lunch, we got to sit around her kitchen table, along with Ed and Jerry (who had timed their visit to the house perfectly), and enjoy some great conversation and delicious toutons, a type of fried bread that neither Saeede nor I had ever eaten before.  In addition to this, we were made to eat a caplin each, and while reluctant at first, we both enjoyed our fish, and were informed that we were now on our way to becoming true Newfoundlanders!

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The real reason we had the energy to get so much done today! (The highlight, Sheila’s wonderful toutons, are hidden behind the tea, teacakes, and fruitcake we also got to enjoy)

A Taste of Newfoundland

We’re almost one week into our time in Witless Bay, and still just getting to know the area.  I only moved to Newfoundland from Toronto less than two weeks ago, so I’m in the middle of the dual process of acquainting myself with Witless Bay, and the province as a whole.  Food is generally acknowledged to be a great introduction to the culture and the feel of a place, and it has certainly been a very enjoyable way for me to start to learn what Newfoundland is all about.

At the convent where we’re all living, we take turns cooking communal meals for each other.  Given our diverse backgrounds, these meals have ranged from pizza to the Iranian dish mirza ghasemi.  For me, though, getting to know the food of Newfoundland has been the most fun part.  Last Tuesday night’s baccalieu was made with salt cod, and I picked up a bottle of Pineapple Crush at the Needs convenience store the other day.  (Why Pineapple Crush is quite so popular in Newfoundland, I still haven’t found out!)  In our fridge, Jockey Club and Quidi Vidi beers share shelf space with blueberries and chanterelles that Andrea, Sharna and Terra found in the woods.

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Cooking duties in the convent

What has been even better is the way that food has allowed us to connect with the Witless Bay community.  As has been described in previous blog posts, we were welcomed with a lovely dinner at the recreation hall last Sunday, and we’ve received gifts of fresh produce and home-canned jam and pickles from some of the people we’ve gotten to know.


Top: a recipe book Daisy brought, promising all manner of Newfoundland delights; bottom left: Pineapple Crush; bottom right: delicious jelly and pickles, courtesy of Dena Wiseman

All the food has been great so far, and apparently cod cheeks are on the menu later this week, so I’m looking forward to yet another taste of Newfoundland!

Changing Times in Witless Bay

It’s day three, and we’re still very much entrenched in lessons about the various technical components of doing folklore fieldwork.  It’s been a steep learning curve for most of us, and I, for one, am looking forward to getting out of the classroom, and applying some of these new, barely-learned skills as we actually get to know the people of Witless Bay.

It was this desire to get out of the classroom that led me to wander over to the beach after class yesterday, and get a bit of fresh air while I phoned home.  Home, for me, is Toronto, where we have access to a lake, but certainly not the Atlantic Ocean.  To me, the ocean signifies holidays, and the sight of fishing and lobster boats puts me in mind of special foods I only get to eat fresh once a year.  With this in mind, the first thought I had when I saw a fishing boat heading out into the bay was, Oh, how lovely! Of course, what I was actually watching were people doing their daily work, and when I brought this up in class today, the consensus was that the ocean has to be considered first and foremost a workspace, and only secondarily a great vista.  Now, of course, that is changing.  Fewer and fewer people are fishing, and more and more houses are being built with views of the sea (something which our professor, Dr. Jerry Pocius, pointed out would, until very recently, have been a little like building a house with a view of a factory).

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An excellent place to make a call

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Having not yet learned the basic fieldworkers’ rule of always having a camera on hand, I didn’t get a photo of the fishing boat as it set out from the pier on the right

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No question that work still happens here


Even our lodgings here in Witless Bay have had something of this principle applied to them.  We’re living in a convent, built in the mid-nineteenth century, and the nuns who lived here were not allowed to leave the grounds.  By all accounts, it was a difficult life.  For us, (academic difficulties aside) life in the convent is very pleasant, and we’re all delighting in the chance to have classes in the old chapel.

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The chapel, repurposed as a classroom. Never has a chapel been so comfortable!

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Our worktable, lit by a stained-glass window made in Beauvais, France.

This area seems to be full of change right now.  Whether it’s the ocean turning from a sometimes-dangerous, sometimes-bountiful workspace for generations of Newfoundlanders into a stunning vista to be enjoyed from the big windows of new houses, or if it’s a former house of cloistered prayer being used as a residence for students who admire it for its aesthetic, rather than religious, value, there is an unmistakeable transition taking place in the Witless Bay way of life.  I’m looking forward to getting to know the very people who are experiencing it.

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Gone are the days when spots overlooking the sea were reserved for the dead