I had intended to start a blog series on the provinces of Atlantic Canada this spring – the special region I call home – to share our rich history and scenic beauty, and maybe even entice more people to visit, explore, and enjoy our “down east” hospitality. It’s on my blog-posts-to-write list. But spring is playing coy with us so far this year, so this idea has remained on the backburner. That is until we had the opportunity to see the award-winning musical, Come From Away, in Toronto this past weekend. The show, with a powerful story based in Newfoundland, has returned to Toronto with a new cast while the Broadway run continues, and my brother was excited for us to see it – and for him to see it for a second time. [This trip to Toronto included two days of an unprecedented April ice-pellet storm that stranded thousands of people, including us, at the Toronto airport, but that’s another story.]
My brother was right (thanks, Phil). This musical is thoroughly entertaining. It’s remarkably uplifting despite the circumstances of its story, at times joyful and at other times heartbreaking. It’s lively, engaging and action-packed, but, above all, it’s a testimony to kindness and caring between human beings. Kindness to others is something the news would have us believe is in exceedingly short supply. We need to be reminded that it is possible for people to embrace strangers and treat them with the same kindness that they would treat long-time friends. We need to be reminded that living without fear can change the whole dynamic of how we treat one another. And, although people seeing this terrific, life-affirming musical would not be faulted for thinking that some of the vignettes portrayed in the play are over-the-top sentimental to the point of being unrealistic and corny, this in fact is the kind of reception you find in Newfoundland. Really.
Come From Away is a musical based on the true story of those truly nightmarish, chaotic days after 9/11, when planes flying to the U.S. from all over the world were diverted to sites outside the U.S. while authorities tried to determine what had happened in NYC and elsewhere, and what might happen next. Thirty-eight planes filled with people headed for the U.S. and who initially had no idea what was happening were diverted to Gander, Newfoundland, a remote town of 9600 people. As odd as this may seem, tiny remote Gander has a very large international airport – no longer used much – that was the major refueling stop for trans-Atlantic flights until planes could carry enough fuel to no longer require refueling. And so, in this tragic, traumatic time, this small town ramped up to welcome, shelter, feed, comfort, and entertain something in the order of 6700 passengers from all walks of life. If there was ever a group who’d be up for the challenge, it would be Newfoundlanders.
I don’t want to give away the individual story lines within the musical except to say that they are all based on what really happened. The welcome without prejudice, the open arms for newcomers, is just the way it is on the Rock. An acquaintance of mine who once experienced life as a door-to-door salesman, and whose route included Newfoundland, recalled times when he’d apprehensively knock on the door of a country home to be greeted by a housewife who’d give him a big welcome and usher him in for a cup of tea before he could even tell her who he was or why he was there. That is Newfoundland hospitality! There is a great scene in Come From Away (OK, I’m giving a little bit away) where one of the airplane passengers joined in helping some townies organizing a BBQ for all 6700 stranded passengers. The organizer told him to take his truck and go around taking everyone’s grills to use for the BBQ. The passenger, an African-American, said, “Take their grills? Won’t they shoot me?” He stopped at one home and got sidetracked helping the homeowner with something else. As he was leaving, the homeowner called out, “Don’t forget to take the grill.”
The important point I want to make is that although Come From Away portrays people responding to circumstances far beyond the ordinary, the outpouring of compassion and support for all these strangers was not at all out of the ordinary for the people of Gander, Newfoundland. And the question I ask myself is: Why is it that some communities feel safe enough and trusting enough to extend that same feeling to strangers and, let’s be clear, to people who aren’t necessarily like themselves, while so many other communities don’t? Is it because they are relatively isolated and therefore more likely to welcome strangers with open arms? Is it because they live on an island? Is it more likely that islanders have a trusting nature? I guess Cyprus would be an obvious counterexample to that premise. Is it because their history has not exposed them to the need to distrust strangers? Or do some cultures breed distrust and intolerance more than others? Are places with smaller populations more likely to trust strangers? Are places with more challenging weather more welcoming to strangers? I wish I knew. I know that Come From Away made me wish we could bottle up their warmth and scatter it around the world.
What is this place called Newfoundland?
Newfoundland is a large island perched on the far northeast coast of North America. [The Island of Newfoundland is part of the province called Newfoundland and Labrador, which includes a huge chunk of the mainland.] In fact, it is so far east that it has its own time zone; it’s always a half-hour later in Newfoundland (90 minutes later than ET)! It comes by its nickname, the Rock, naturally, since it is largely composed of rocky outcroppings, with mostly sparse, low-lying vegetation. [The tall trees that serve as the backdrop for the staging of the play may be among the tallest trees you’d ever see in Newfoundland.] It is sparsely populated, at slightly over half a million people, with hardy, friendly people with an unmistakable accent somewhat reminiscent of Ireland. It has a rich history of early North American Viking settlements, awe-inspiring World Heritage sites, great whale-watching, and spectacular iceberg sightings. Its distinctive culture, including toe-tapping fiddling and a scary (strong) local drink called Newfoundland Screech, is best summed up as people knowing how to have a good time with each other. The weather would not be to everyone’s taste – never very warm, rarely dry for very long – but you’ll never be more warmly received than in Newfoundland.
The remaining questions
How do we capture this Newfoundland spirit and spread it far and wide? What characteristics of a place best lend themselves to fostering goodwill? Thoughts?
Photo credits: Newfoundland and Labrador Tourism