Top: Elena Popova and one of her paintings at home in Torbay. Middle: Battery Road on Signal Hill in St. John’s. Bottom: Irene Keating serves customers at Georgetown Bakery.
The most pressing questions, it seems to me, when thinking about Newfoundland identity, have always been: who arrives, who leaves, and who is altered just by passing through? And, most important, how do all those stories fold together to make a place?
Gander International Airport served as a convenient refuelling stopover for transatlantic flights. Over time, advances in fuel capacity for jets and airplanes made the international airport redundant, though its unique location became relevant again when thirty-nine planes seeking refuge during 9/11 were grounded there. But back in 1990, it was still used regularly for a fuel stop. That was the year Elena Popova and Luben Boykov, along with thousands of others, defected from Bulgaria. I visit the couple at their home in Torbay to talk about why they chose to settle in Newfoundland. “It was a decision we made for our daughter,” Boykov says.
Popova has just had an exhibit at The Rooms Provincial Art Gallery. The works are giant mixed media pieces, full of colour and kinetic energy. The lines are scrawled, scribbled, gouged, and slashed; the images spark and crack open with light. These are not landscapes, but they evoke the forces of nature: the ocean, wind, and sun. Heat, friction, regeneration, sexual electricity, and tumult are all present. Despite the uncompromised abstraction, there is something of the Newfoundland landscape in them.
The couple’s home is a renovated saltbox. But the word “renovated” doesn’t quite cover it — the original house has been wholly subsumed. I can’t help but see it as a metaphor for their journey, the way distinct cultures can create hybrids that are neither one nor the other, but something entirely new. Here traditional, vernacular Newfoundland architecture meets a bold Bulgarian sensibility. When I ask the couple where the saltbox ends and the rest of the house begins, Boykov tells me, “Elena likes to say we added a coat to the button that was already here.”
There is a large studio, with walls made almost entirely of glass. One of Boykov’s sculptures, a life-sized figure wrapped in lace, as though mummified, swoops down from the ceiling like an angel or a ghost. The figure has a toy heart that blinks on and off with a bright red light. The dollar store trinket is an ironic reference to something darker: fragility or mortality. The antique lace that wraps the figure is an unexpectedly delicate, feminine material for a man who has built an environmentally friendly foundry to create public sculptures, including commissioned memorials in bronze that capture epic moments of Newfoundland history. Boykov has become a kind of storyteller, working in a medium that is permanent and three-dimensional. The story that brought the family here is just as dramatic.
In early 1990, in communist Bulgaria, the couple, whose daughter Ana was then two years old, heard rumours that some of the planes flying to Cuba for vacations stopped in Canada along the way. “And some of them did not,” Boykov says. “When we got on the plane, we had no way of knowing where we were going. They certainly didn’t tell us.”
They informed their parents and a handful of close friends about their plans to defect, and in February Boykov purchased three tickets for Cuba. After a long, suspenseful flight, the family felt the plane begin its descent. “We looked out the window and saw snow on the ground — that’s how we knew we were in Canada,” Boykov says. Once the plane touched down, they tried to make their way to the front, but they were blocked by members of the crew and told they were betraying the ideals of the communist regime. Boykov punched his way through until he made it to the hatch. When he looked back, he saw that Popova was fighting off a crew member who was struggling to tear their child from her arms. Boykov turned to help her, but she finally managed to break free.
“Once we were out of the plane, we ran,” she says. “There was a Canadian flag at the end of the tarmac, blowing in the breeze, and it was the sweetest sight.” After a brief delay, another two-thirds of the passengers also defected and left the plane en masse.
“Everyone likes to hear the story in the plane,” Popova says. “They like to hear about my bruised arm, how they tried to take my child. I don’t like that story. It’s not an important moment for me.” The best moment for her was the taxi ride to the hotel in a Chevy Caprice: “A great big car, and a little Newfoundland man behind the wheel with a moustache and a big smile. I couldn’t speak English, but I loved the smile,” she says. “The car was sliding through the snow. I can still hear the noise the tires made. And there was Newfoundland fiddle music on the radio.”
Three thousand Bulgarians defected that winter; only thirty or so have stayed in Newfoundland. I ask the couple why they remained. “We were short twenty bucks,” Boykov says, laughing. “There was a subsidized rate at that time for immigrants to travel to Quebec. It was $200. But we were short by twenty bucks.”
A more substantial reason for their staying had to do with a commission for a sculpture Boykov received two years after they arrived, an offer to create a memorial in the town of St. Lawrence. The sculpture, with its $100,000 fee, would celebrate the bravery of the men of St. Lawrence who risked their lives to save the drowning soldiers from two sinking naval vessels that ran aground in a powerful storm during the Second World War. That sculpture was the beginning of the family’s commitment to the place and a way of life. “Newfoundlanders trusted me, an outsider, to tell their stories,” Boykov says. “It is a remarkable thing.”
f Boykov and Popova
are an example of those who come from away and enrich Newfoundland with fresh aesthetic insights, Stephen Lewis represents the Newfoundlander who has looked for training on the mainland and returned, bringing with him a fresh breeze of entrepreneurship. Lewis is co-owner, along with his wife, Emily Sopkowe, of the small business success story that is the Georgetown Bakery in St. John’s. He invited me to come at six o’clock in the morning to see how the bakery operates.
It was cold and dark when I set out through the streets of downtown. The closed
sign was hanging in the window, but when I tried the door it opened, and a tiny bell on the door frame tinkled. Lewis was already at work with two other bakers in the small kitchen. Clouds of flour floated in the air, along with the sweet smell of baking bread. I asked him how he decided to become a baker.