When I was in my final year of my undergrad, many of my friends had already moved away from Newfoundland, which is a common phenomenon among twenty-somethings pursuing work or postsecondary education. Logging on to my Facebook page, I would often see these people sharing pictures, articles or videos about how charming Newfoundland is. It was almost comical how many people changed their cover photo to images of St. John’s harbour in particular. I was convinced that this nostalgic display of Newfoundland was merely fueled by homesickness and a desire to show off to non-Newfoundlanders how ‘unique’ and ‘quirky’ our province is. This Buzzfeed article is a prime example of how Newfoundland is often portrayed as a wonderfully weird place.
I vowed I would never let homesickness cloud my reality of the mediocrity of Newfoundland as I saw it at the time (after all, the grass is usually greener on the other side).
That was until I moved to Manchester in the UK. Suddenly I was experiencing the homesickness that I had always felt immune to during my previous travels. I loved Manchester dearly, and I still do, but there was something about the grey, industrial city that made me really appreciate the colourful and charming city I called home.
Although I resisted the temptation for a while, about nine months into my year in England, I too, like many expats before me, found myself changing my Facebook cover photo to an image of St. John’s harbour (see the photo below). Still aware of the romanticization that nostalgia was breeding, I captioned it with: “St. John’s harbour: the quintessential cover photo for expats.” I hoped that the irony would salvage my blatant homesickness.
One day, I decided to take a spontaneous day trip to Liverpool. It was raining in Manchester (as it usually does) and I felt like I needed a change of scenery. I did not, however, anticipate mending my homesickness with only a 45-minute train ride. Expecting to merely tour the home of the Beatles, I ended up actually feeling at home myself.
Walking down Liverpool’s Church Street, a popular pedestrian shopping area, I was struck with a familiar sound: seagulls.
Seagulls are not exactly novel when you grow up by the ocean. They are so ordinary that they are more likely to be perceived as a nuisance than grounds for nostalgia. However, when you have been living in a city in which the hiss and hum of a seemingly endless line of buses is the most characteristic sound, the screech of seagulls suddenly seems symphonic.
Hearing this familiar sound while walking around a foreign city, I suddenly realized that I had not heard seagulls since I left St. John’s. I kept walking until I reached the Liverpool waterfront, and was greeted with the pleasant sight of docks, ships, and the feeling of fresh sea air.
For everything that Manchester had to offer: museums, shopping centres, great food and music, I realized that it was missing the comforting feeling of the waterfront that I had grown accustomed to in Newfoundland. Growing up by a coastline, the presence of the ocean was one constant in a city that seemed to be ever changing: be it culturally, politically, or economically.
I began thinking about the darker history of the waterfront, the one that I was forgetting through my sentimental encounter with the sea. What other stories did these shores produce? What other emotions might the sea incite? And what about my relationship with the waterfront that I call home? What histories exist beyond the colourful buildings and muddy waters that line the St. John’s waterfront? What efforts are made by Newfoundlanders to acknowledge our own difficult past? Who is left out of our idealized view of Newfoundland identity? These are questions that I hope to explore further as I embark on my blogging journey.
© Lesley Butler (lvb717 @ mun.ca)