St. John?s, Newfoundland ? Felled by the frigid maritime air ? that?s what I am.
Here for a poetry tour and plagued by a nasty migraine, I spend the first day holed up in my bed and breakfast, my eyes covered by a pillow, my neck resting on a jagged bag of ice.
I'm in no mood for an epiphany over my new surroundings. They call this a city? It's really a little ramshackle town hunched about a bay. Looks like it might have had the same city planners as Deadwood. Someone said, "I'll build my house here," and then someone else said, "Okay, I'll build one there."
I need somebody to guide me out of this mindset, and Lisa Moore, author of Alligator, would be my choice, but she's unfortunately out of town.
So I must pace the streets alone looking for Advil.
I wish I could say that the bay in the centre of St. John's is pretty, but it's not. Especially at night when the titanic klieg lights with their ghastly yellow glow give a slightly lysergic tinge to the sewage-y waters.
Happily, the second batch of Advil manages to kick in just before my reading at Memorial U. "After great pain / a formal feeling comes / the nerves sit ceremonious as tombs," Emily Dickinson wrote, but I'm not feeling formal at all. Whew! That not-suffering sensation really works.
It takes a good old-fashioned St. John's party for the place to finally offer its magic. The potion hits the exact moment my host, somewhat under the influence, begins to recite Tennyson's Ulysses. After a few lines, he starts to falter, but - oh miracle - one of the other guests carries on until he picks up it up again, and the great poem is complete.
All are listening in rapt attention. This just wouldn't happen in Toronto, I marvel to myself. The literati wouldn't dream of reciting aloud at a party, let alone the words of an old Victorian fart who actually uses rhyme in his work.
By now I've made my way out onto my host's porch, where a cold, damp breeze is coming in through a slightly open window. I'm bundled in my layers, but the young women here insist on remaining barefoot.
"I make it a rule not to wear socks till it snows," one of them tells me. She is clearly not jesting. She comes from Twillingate. Yes, there really is a Twillingate. She gives me a quick update on Newfoundland economics.
Now that the cod are gone, the old fishing towns are turning into tourist spots. Not just Twillingate, but Fogo and Morton's Harbour - all the renowned song towns are shifting to tourism. As ever, Newfoundland is re-finding itself.
And so am I. We retire to a local bar, and I begin to meet writers and reciters left and right. Young literary lion George Murray has just moved here. He's a poet and therefore pretty portable, and besides, his website, Bookninja, has taken off so much he might make a living. But that's not why he and his family moved here. It was the fresh air. He didn't want his young son growing up in asthmatic Toronto. Even recent Griffin Poetry Prize winner Don McKay has taken up residence.
I have my own chance to revel in that pristine oxygen on the last day of my visit, when English prof, Andrew Loman takes me to the high point of St. John's, Signal Hill. It doesn't matter that the cold wind is roaring at near hurricane strength off the grey corrugated sea, or that I've got so many layers on I'm like a Tootsie Roll.
Previously I've managed to get small glimpses of the wider ocean by peeking through that little opening at the end of the bay, but only here am I truly looking out to sea.
John points me east, and for the first time in years I'm looking back across the waters I travelled in an ocean liner, aged four. I just stand there a while. It really feels like the wind is filing me down, sandpapering off my invisible city layer. Raw.