From major booze artery during Prohibition to key World War II stronghold, this small archipelago off Newfoundland holds its French identity dear.”>
This summer I drove to Europebut I didnt put my car on a transatlantic ferry. I walked through Canadian immigration and emerged on the other side in France.
One of the worlds oddest geopolitical quirks, St. Pierre & Miquelon, is a small archipelago floating just a short boat ride off the coast of Canadas Newfoundland. Its a destination thats so unexpected, you practically rub your eyes with disbelief at the signs for the France-Canada border crossing overhead.
And theres no mistaking that youre in France once you arrive: North American decals are swapped for EU license plates, baguettes are strapped to the backs of bicycles, and not a lick of English is spoken.
The story of how St. Pierre came to be, like most islands in the New World, started in a Dickensian fashion, moving back and forth between French and British rule through a repeated series of colonizations, scorched-earth seizures, and recolonizations by the opposing forces.
A corollary to an early 1800s peace accord in mainland Europe finally promised the tiny islets to the French for access to the cod supply along the British-dominated Grand Banks. A permanent colony was erected on St. Pierre in 1816.
The original fuss over St. Pierre was largely due to its natural harbor on the east side of the islandone of the finest deepwater docking areas in the entire region, which could handle large trawlers and fishing vessels without much manmade manipulation.
The irony, however, was that the harbors positioning was on the windiest, foggiest and rockiest part of the island, making living conditions for the early fishermen unbearable. Miquelon next doorto add insult to injurybenefited from a milder microclimate and plenty of arable land, but didnt have a port big enough to sustain the maritime industry.
Sightings of skulking Nazi U-boats were not uncommon in many of the coastal communities along the Eastern Seaboard during war timeespecially in Canadas Newfoundlandand theyre still very much a part of local lore even today, coupled with the haunting hypothetical: what if the Axis powers had set foot in North America?
Well, in St-Pierre, they did.
When Nazi Germany seized the northern part of France, the southern region, Vichy France, became a separate and internationally recognized government in its own right. And although it was not technically an Axis member, it readily collaborated with Nazi Germany, carrying out many of the Reichs wishes.
St. Pierre, the seemingly forgotten French colony, was now under Vichy rule, and was suddenly catapulted into the spotlight when both the Axis and the Allies realized that the islet was now the most geographically significant stronghold for the entire European front of World War II.
The Axis saw great potential in using the island as a base to communicate with their marauding submarines by radio. Its eventual purpose would be to serve as a launching pad for a full-on continental invasion.
The American Allies were bound by an accord of diplomacy with Vichy France, so it was De Gaulles exiled Free France governmentsupporters of the French resistancethat executed a covert mission to St. Pierre to remove any possibility of the island becoming the Axis linchpin.
The islands were quietly invaded on Christmas Eve 1941. The bloodless coup was considered a serious international incident, and was the first major play for Free France, occurring very early in the war, as the power for the Third Reich was still very much on the rise.
Today, the fiercely French-allegiant St. Pierre & Miquelon has faded back into the obscurity befitting a tiny archipelago floating off the hinterland of Canadas easternmost provinceits geographical positioning now much more a reward for intrepid travelers than the center of gravity ofworld trade or warfare.
And what a reward it is: St. Pierre sells its colorful history with thick brushstrokes that match the vividly painted box-houses lining each street. And for better or for worse, the faraway collectivity of 6,000 inhabitants vigorously clings to every stereotype associated with its mother country: a stingy work ethic shuts public works down around 4pm, but on the plus side you cant swing an eclair without hitting a delicious bakery.
In a way, soporific St. Pierre is actually the European holiday of your dreams: nary a boring church tour in site, world-class hiking at your doorstep, great food, and plenty of friendly small-town locals coming up to say hellomostly to ask you what the hell youre doing there