To the Whale Bones and Back
There are some things that unite us all.
In Naujaat, a hamlet on the Arctic Circle, one of those things was a roving polar bear. He was close to town and had been spotted by several people. So when a few of us wanted to go on a hike, we had to have someone with a high-powered rifle to go with us.
You can't tell from the picture below but the man with the rifle who was protecting everyone is also wearing a Montreal Canadiens toque.
We got to the whale bones. There was no polar bear seen. The story is what happened on the way back.
First, some background.
I went to Naujaat to watch the first harvest from an innovative greenhouse. It's a pilot project, an attempt to bring fresh, low cost, healthy food to northern communities.
I filed online, radio and tv (some links are at the end of this post).
But while doing interviews, taking pictures and recording video, I was struck by all the Habs shirts, caps and logos in Naujaat. It was well after the playoffs were over, the height of summer, a period of almost continuous daylight.
It was fun and familiar (I grew up in Montreal). And surprising.
Yes, I spotted a kid with a Calgary Flames shirt and someone else sporting a Canucks logo. I even saw Oilers star Connor McDavid's name scratched into the side of building.
But Naujaat looked like Montreal Canadiens town.
On the walk back from the whale bones, however, that changed.
I had said goodbye to my companions. I was alone, me and my backpack full of gear. I was heading to the hotel for a good night's sleep.
Coming towards me, there was a boy and girl. I guessed they were both about 12 or 14 years old.
Like everyone else in Naujaat, they were friendly and curious about the man with the microphone sticking out of his backpack.
"What's your name?" the boy asked. Everybody knew that phrase. I had been asked that question dozens of times during my stay and I was pleased to chat. We exchanged names and stopped.
Problem was, aside from some very basic phrases, we had little in common and a pretty serious language barrier.
The silence between us was full of goodwill. But nobody had the right words.
The boy, I noticed, was wearing a Toronto Maple Leafs hat. So, after a bit, I gently flicked the bill.
"Toronto," I said. And then I shook my head, trying to sum up the team's dismal finish in the previous season and long championship drought.
"Montreal," I said emphatically, playing on what seemed to be the local favorite.
It worked. Just not the way I expected.
The girl, unlike so many others in the hamlet, was apparently not a Montreal fan. Or perhaps she was keen to defend the honour of her younger brother, if that's what he was.
She thought. She found words. A way to taunt.
"Montreal," she said slowly and carefully, "is stupid."
She paused, waiting for a reaction.
I didn't give her much. I rolled my eyes in mockingly. I shook my head dismissively.
This inspired her. But not in English.
Out came a torrent of words. She had a series of Montreal-centred insults, I was sure. She seemed to be telling her companion to translate but he was refusing. He might also have been incapable but I got the distinct impression he thought her invective was too rude and too rich to be relayed.
He laughed and laughed again, resisting her pleas for help.
That motivated her even more. She stopped, pursed her lips, frowning and thinking.
Then her face broke into a wide smile. She had me in her sights.
"Montreal," she said slowly and proudly, "is toilet."
I laughed. The boy laughed. She smiled, triumph in her eyes.
Standing on the Arctic Circle, in the fading light of an almost endless summer day, we connected, brought together by logos and loyalties. And hockey.
8/1/2016 11:08:10 am
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"We do not remember days, we remember moments."
- novelist and poet Cesare Pavese