Notes from Newfoundland

The economic boom and the departure of Premier Danny Williams have locals wondering what’s next for the province. A native daughter rediscovers the Rock

Elena Popova and one of her paintings at home in TorbayBattery Road on Signal Hill in St. John'sIrene Keating serves customers at Georgetown BakeryTop: 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?

For decades, 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.”

If 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.

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7 comment(s)

MikeMadiganApril 11, 2011 07:44 EST

Good article. There is something special about Newfoundland, no doubt about it. I like that line about the brother who talks a lot about Nfld but seldom goes back. I think that will change. My wife (from the USA) fell in love with Nfld in 2001 and has been coming back every summer since. She also bought a house in beautiful Woody Point...a place to least in the summer and fall, she says. I agree! Yes, there is something special about Newfoundland.

Adrienne PollakApril 12, 2011 05:38 EST

What a beautiful, practical article! I especially enjoyed it in the wake of David Blackwood's exhibit at the Art Gallery of Ontario, and reading Michael Crummey's GALORE and Wayne Johnston's BALTIMORE'S MANSION. It will be hard to resist the lure of another trip to Newfoundland and Labrador. I only ever spent a week on The Rock, but it has remained in my heart.

AnonymousApril 12, 2011 13:19 EST

I enjoyed your article (read it twice) I\'m moving to St. John\'s to go to grad school at Memorial this fall and have been reading a lot about Newfoundland and it\'s history and culture. However, I know no amount of reading will be the same as living there. I spent time in the west of Ireland and it seems to be in simular circumstances (if not worse) as Newfoundland. The rural areas are losing many to the pull of jobs to the lager cities and abroad, and much of what is seen as traditional culture is being lost, or some say run over, to modernity. Culture has become a commodity because it attracts tourism and money. I admit, there is part of me that was hoping that something of the traditional culture is still be around somewhere in Newfoundland, even if it\'s only a single story teller with a few yarns, or some great old tunes.
I\'m heading to Padstow, Cornwall for Mayday this year where the O\'bby horse is king and the magic (and lots of Tinners beer) is still there. The locals are very protective of this tradition so it has survived for hundreds of years. I\'ll think of your Mummers parade, which I hope I\'ll be seeing at Christmas and lift a pint to your hobby horse too! Cheers

John Carrick GreeneApril 15, 2011 10:05 EST


Congratulations on writing such an excellent article. It's not easy to write an article on Newfoundland's culture, especially with respect to situating it in the modern context. I have read numerous such articles over the years, most of them written by mainlanders, and they all annoyed me. How? Because, to a person like me, they were full of generalizations most of which were only half-true, while the remainder were plainly false. This is the first one of which I can say that I agree with all you said and that I saw nothing annoying or only half-true.

AnnaApril 27, 2011 12:38 EST

What a wonderful article, my brother mailed it to me from Ottawa. I like the fact that Ms. Moore picked up on the absurdity of the ads depiciting Newfoundland and Labrador while in fact rural Newfoundland is dying slowly.
She touches on so many topics that one has to read the article twice. Congratulations again on such a wonderful article.

Edwina SuleyMay 19, 2011 08:52 EST

The wonderfully written article on this province of Newfoundland and Labrador is marred by the sub-heading. The Rock at one time referred to Alcatraz, an island prison in San Francisco Bay. Even the people of the area no longer use that term. It is certainly derogratory when used to refer to this fabulous province, or any other place, and it shows absolute disrespect for one's self to say one is from the Rock. You offend no one when you use the proper name of the place, which is Newfoundland and Labrador, but you do offend many people when you use the "Rock" as a place name. It is a pejorative word for such a rich and marvellous place.

WJMMay 27, 2011 08:19 EST

What is the "kind of economic growth" that has followed the deal to keep talking with Emera until conveniently after the next provincial election about maybe building a dam in Labrador?

What a vapid, shallow, piece of work this article is. The Walrus could have done so much better, starting by giving someone else the assignment.

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