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Grim Relics

“There’s noding easy about living from de Sea, noding, I mean, you can’t even drink de water!” one grizzled old timer said to me on my recent trip to Halifax, Nova Scotia. How true this is when you count the number of shipwrecks, drowning and fishing disputes. It feels especially valid when those grey November mercurial clouds roll in and the city is coated in a wet kittens fur of fog and the mournful sob of horns deeply warning those out in the waters.

Halifax, Nova Scotia’s capital city didn’t seem cloaked in a haze of gothic horror when I visited. A city of cosmopolitan amenities it sparkled in the clear sunshine with juice stops, coffee bars, and chic cafes lining the streets. Due to its rich culture as an international port, a plethora of shops and museums exist for those obsessed with dry decks, wheelhouses and other sea faring memorabilia, and it also supports a lively arts centre with summer festivals of theatres, concerts and art demonstrations. In other words, it is no stagnant backwater. But as the sun gets momentarily shielded by a cloud, you realize that many of the city’s attractions have a harsh pinch of reality.

Perhaps Halifax’s most famous tragedy is the part the town played in the inaugural sinking of the Titanic in 1912. Due to the popularity of the film “Titanic” as well as interest to raise her, there has been a resurgence of those wishing to see the bleak souveniers of the Titanic that washed up or were salvaged here in Nova Scotia. Deck chairs and part of the staircase are part of a permanent exhibit at the Museum of Natural History. You can even take a tour of sites pertaining to this fateful wreck. Among those popular are the three cemeteries in town interring Titanic victims or even more strangely, the site of the original building of Snow and Sons Funeral home, who were the chief embalmers for those killed in the wreck. And despite the oddity of people driving out to East Hants to view the portable embalming table said to have been used with John Jacob Astor’s body, there seems to be a demand for this type of entertainment, albeit it morbid and twisted. And luckily, Nova Scotians can cater to it.

Another Disaster, the 1917 Halifax Explosion occurring when two boats (one carrying TNT) collided in the harbour, makes history buffs shiver at its gruesomeness. The resulting explosion was enough to devastate the entire north end of the city killing nearly 2000 people. I myself remember my elder cousin taking me to the town’s Anglican church and pointing to the stained glass window to where the body of a baby or someone’s head had blown through. Or something gory like that and pretty gripping stuff to any 7 year old.

And it doesn’t stop there, the memorials to sailors, who have lost their lives during stints on merchant marine vessels in several wars and many fishing seasons, are around every corner. Heavy copper or marble carved testimonies to the tough life lead here. Maritimers take it all as quite par for the course and the belief that if you live in communities close to an ocean as cruel and unforgiving as the Atlantic, you are bound to lose a few. This perhaps is why these Atlantic communities are so strongly knit and willing to aid those in trouble. Just pulling off the side of the road to get a sandwich out of the boot will soon stop a passing vehicle and a shout of “Need any help?” will follow.

Which is why I enjoy visiting this city. The people are friendly and have an inordinate sense of the gab. Yarns and anecdotes roll off their tongues and it perhaps through their fishing tradition that the knowledge that one is always cheating death by being out in a fishing boat makes them love a good ghost story or know how to fixate the listener with a tragic tale. They certainly have their pick, as grim tales of the sea abound, and I am not talking about the brothers Grimm either. One of their favourites is about haunted Oak Island just down the coast from Halifax, which still remains an enigma today. Systems of tunnels were discovered on the island in the 1700’s, but due to harrowing deaths by “mysterious mists” and choking fumes, the tunnels remain largely unvisited even today. This curse is said to be that of Pirate Captain, Billy the Kid and are to protect his treasure, which lies at the bottom of these caves.

With thoughts of Pirates in mind, I decided to drive out of the city and along the attractive coastline. Wheeling gulls and blue skies, fields in a soft green and the verdant of forest, attractive companions on the 45min drive. I arrived at the most attractive fishing village of Peggy’s Cove, one of Canada’s premier tour attractions. Nestled amongst the rocky headland, small shops curled, many filled with pretty watercolours, driftwood sculptures and CD’s of soothing music with nature sounds. They sit around the small inlet where lobster pots and Wellington boots dry. Halifax and surrounding area are famous for its succulent lobster feasts with the pinkly glowing crustacian amongst a soft bed of freshly picked vegetables and generous helpings of warm pie afterwards.

But even with their quaint farmers feasts this pretty little town, doesn’t escape calamity, for it was more recently the sight of the tragic Swiss airline disaster, which went down in 1999 with all on board just a few miles out to sea from the lighthouse. A touching memorial just out of town commemorates those victims as well as the community who supported search and rescue efforts and opened homes to distraught families in true Maritime tradition. This practice once again utilized when over American flights on Sept 11th were diverted to Halifax’s small aeroport which recieives half that amount each week, and makeshift lodgings, food and compassion were supplied without protest.

Perhaps it is only an unfortunate coincidence that it was the English World War Two vessel, Nova Scotia that was torpedoed in the South Atlantic left 850 dead from a total of 1042, most taken by sharks, but it sure makes you wonder at the unlucky association. It is also the place where, England tried to extradite that unethical doctor who has scurried away with children’s body parts. Another famous English doctor tried to escape to Canada without luck but authorities nabbed Dr. Crippen and sent him home

And if all that weren’t enough, the local theatre troupe, usually put on a Macbeth or two and I won’t even go into what they do for Halloween around here. So if a taste for tragedy strikes you, then try a trip to the Maritimes, you will have a great visit and probably come home feeling a lot better that you don’t live so close to the sea.

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