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Inspiration in Iqaluit

The mosquitoes out here dwarfed the ones at Sealift Beach and were much better organized. I was savagely attacked. If you happen to encounter an enormous Arctic mosquito yourself, here's my advice: Play dead. Let the mosquito jostle you, nuzzle you roughly, even roll you over. Remain inert and don't be frightened by the deafening noise.

I ultimately found my way to the Sylvia Grinnell River. It's an exquisite place from which to experience the unique beauty of the Arctic landscape, with its endless vistas of glimmering tributaries wending their way from the distant mountains. And there I sat at the edge of the river, with the roar of the falls echoing in the distance, surrounded by shimmering blue-white plinths of ice that groaned and cracked in the midday warmth, "caressed by the mist or buffeted by the sun."

Restaurants with Simple, Hearty Fare
The only cuisine in Iqaluit that could be considered "haute" is served at the Granite Room in the Discovery Lodge. Here you'll find delicious poached Arctic char and succulent caribou au poivre served with scalloped potatoes, asparagus salad, haricots verts—i.e., sophisticated and satisfying Continental fare with local inflections. But for simple, hearty, and more characteristically "native" fare, I recommend the Kamotiq Inn.

The Kamotiq, which from the outside looks like a rest room on the New Jersey Turnpike, actually has an obversely cozy and appealing interior—a polygonal room with a fireplace, wooden tables, leather and wood chairs on big brass casters, and beautiful stained-glass lamps. In addition to the ubiquitous caribou and Arctic char, the menu also includes "country food" such as maktaaq—an outer layer of whale skin, served raw. Unfortunately, though, I did not find giviak on the carte du jour. (Giviak, which I'd read about in Peter Freuchen's 1961 Book of the Eskimos, consists of little auks that have been immersed in seal blubber and "ripened" through the summer.)

I'd also read in the same book, which I've had since I was a 10-year-old, that in Eskimo culture, social protocol requires a host to be absurdly self-deprecating and abjectly apologetic about the food he's about to serve. "If you will lower yourselves to taste the poor carcass I can offer you—the half-dead carrion that is an insult to the palate, it tastes so awfully bad, if you would show me a kindness, you would leave me now so that I could be alone with my shame…" I have to admit to being a little disappointed that the waiter wasn't absurdly self-deprecating, and instead simply asked me if I'd like anything from the bar before I ordered.

I passed on the poutine, a French-Canadian specialty—french fries smothered with melted cheese and gravy, and sometimes ground meat or chicken. But I did try the maktaaq, which I chewed for a while and ultimately spat out, and then ordered a rare caribou steak with mashed potatoes that was excellent, and that I chewed and swallowed. As I ate my caribou, the two Inuit men next to me were enjoying, of course, a cheeseburger and a fajita-taco platter.

Atmospheric Bars in Which to Dissipate
Charles Baudelaire, the world's leading expert on dissipation, wrote: "But now it is evening. It is that strange, equivocal hour when the curtains of heaven are drawn and cities light up… Honest men and rogues, sane men and mad, are all saying to themselves, ´The end of another day!' The thoughts of all, whether good men or knaves, turn to pleasure, and each one hastens to the place of his choice to drink the cup of oblivion."

Unfortunately, in Iqaluit, there really are no atmospheric cafés or bistros to hasten to. There are no liquor stores, either. Only licensed restaurants and bars in hotels are allowed to serve alcohol, and they maintain severely limited hours of operation. As an effort to restrain consumption, this may be counterproductive: I frequently observed bleary-eyed customers ordering six shots at a time to beat the early last call.

The Tulugaq Bar touts itself as the eastern arctic's #1 nightspot. It's also the most depressing bar I've ever been to in my life, and that includes a bar in Maryland that featured human ashtrays. At the Tulugaq, drink "tickets" are issued at the door, where two huge signs warn against waitress groping, gunplay, drunken snowmobile operating, etc.—all of which makes it sound like a livelier place than it actually is. Try to imagine a cross between Lost Weekend and The Island of Dr. Moreau. Drooling, semi-comatose patrons were either collapsed in their chairs, facedown on tables, or slumped upright against one another in gruesome parodies of bonhomie.

It's exceedingly strange and not entirely pleasant to leave a bar after you've had your several cups of oblivion and walk out into blazing sunlight at 1 A.M.

I Guess This Means Tavvauvutit
The day inevitably came when, even in the guise of indolent genius and flaneur, I simply couldn't bring myself to perambulate the dust-clogged streets of Iqaluit one more time. At the University of Ennui, six days in Iqaluit is like a semester abroad.

You know you should think about leaving when you spend an entire morning concocting song titles from Inuktitut phrases in your guidebook: "Tavvauvutit Yellow Brick Road," "Tunngasugit Back, Kotter," "Ivvit Light Up My Life," "You Make Uvanga Feel Brand New," "Qujannamiik (For Lettin' Me Be Myself Again)," "Play That Funky Music, äallunaat."

But it's unquestionably time to pack your bags when you spend the afternoon not only reading the Safety & Security Procedures placard on the hotel room door ("You are here. Stay in room when door feels hot. Fill bathtub with water"), but poring over each line as if savoring stanzas from Rimbaud's "Le Bateau Ivre."

Somewhere in my subconscious, perhaps inspired by the picture books I'd delighted in as a kid, I'd had this image of a fantastic City of Eskimos—with glinting skyscrapers designed by Zaha Hadid and built of blue crystalline shards and oblong slabs of ice culled from the banks of the Sylvia Grinnell River. . . . But all great cities exist most splendidly in one's dreams. And the grinning red-cheeked "Eskimo" politely deprecating his giviak gives way, in reality, to the sallow, deracinated Inuit stubbing out his Du Maurier in a pile of congealed poutine.

Aboard the flight to Ottawa, I washed down a Restoril with a swig of Coke and, as Iqaluit Airport receded into a tiny yellow particle on the horizon, soon replaced one evanescent dream with another.


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