Inspiration in Iqaluit
Novelist Mark Leyner traveled to Nunavut, the new Canadian territory in the Arctic, hoping to find the Eskimo equivalent of Paris. He discovered something even stranger
SOMERSET MAUGHAM HAD HIS VILLA MAURESQUE IN Cap Ferrat. Wagner had the Grand Hotel et Des Palmes in Palermo, where he wrote most of Parsifal. Robert Louis Stevenson had Vailima, the estate in Samoa where he worked on his unfinished masterpiece, Weir of Hermiston.
Ever since junior high, I've wanted an exotic place of my own where I too could unfinish masterpieces. But where?It's tacky to squat on someone else's venue. You have to discover your own little acre of terra incognito—a place to install yourself, to drink, womanize, and otherwise debauch yourself until you have become its genius loci.
Iqaluit (pronounced ih-kah-lu-it), formerly known as Frobisher Bay, is the capital of Nunavut, Canada's fledgling Arctic territory. A 770,000-square-mile region of desolate tundra, Nunavut was carved out of the Northwest Territories to provide its demographic majority—the Eskimos, or Inuit, as they prefer to be called—a degree of autonomy. Nunavut's rates of suicide, substance abuse, and unemployment are among the highest in Canada; many of its inhabitants live in 24-hour darkness during an unimaginably frigid winter; and, in the fleeting summer, the entire territory dissolves into a vast morass of mosquito-infested muck.
I guess that's what appealed to me about Nunavut when I first read about it. It didn't seem like a place where any other writer would want to install or debauch himself, so I figured I'd have a pretty good shot at becoming the genius loci. And Iqaluit is, after all, its capital—its London, its Paris, its Vienna—implying a certain sophistication and panache. So, opting for the relative mildness of July, when temperatures range from 32 to 50 degrees and the sun shines for some 21 hours a day, I soon found myself on a First Air flight from Ottawa to Iqaluit, staring out the plane window at the successively green, brown, and ultimately pristinely white topography below—1,300 miles of visual Valium.
And there, finally, was the extraordinary Iqaluit Airport, an effulgently yellow structure standing alone on the empty tundra. It's difficult to describe how supremely yellow this airport is. It resembles an oversize, exotic piece of Caterpillar construction equipment—a vibrant modular configuration of squares, lozenges, cylinders, and corrugated surfaces. There's an exhilarating provisionality to it, as if, at any moment, the terminal might just drive off on its own.
Arriving at this strange little airport was, in some profound sense, the climactic experience of the entire trip, and the ensuing six-day sojourn merely a protracted epilogue. So completely satisfied was I by this canary-yellow anomaly idling in the Arctic tundra, I feared that lingering even an instant longer in Nunavut would actually sully what seemed an epiphanic moment, and my immediate impulse was to get on the very next plane and return home.
But I took a deep breath, dialed my hotel on an airport courtesy phone, and with a kind of burlesque alacrity—literally within 30 seconds—its shuttle van arrived to pick me up. The ride to the hotel took 15 seconds. Iqaluit may be, as my guidebook described it, "the largest metropolis" in Nunavut, but it is very, very small.
Standing at the threshold of the Discovery Lodge Hotel, with Sealift Beach on Koojesse Inlet to my right, the Baffin Gas Bar and Qikiqtani Dry Cleaning straight ahead, squinting in the blinding sunlight, already covered with dust and driven half-mad by the shrill warning signals of forklifts and bulldozers that would constitute the inescapable sound track of the next six days, there I was: the genius loci, the mondain, the flaneur. (If you think this mode of experiencing Iqaluit—by impersonating a 19th-century Parisian dandy—is ridiculous, well, duh. But look, some people need to play out elaborate fantasies to have sex. I need them to travel.)
It was immediately obvious that Iqaluit was not a "capital" or a "city" in any recognizable sense. This was an entrepôt, a frontier town, an Arctic homage to The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance—unpaved, grimy, dog-ridden, cluttered with construction debris. Nevertheless, it provided each of the essential elements required by my fantasy: (1) a fine hotel in which to install oneself and unfinish great masterpieces; (2) picturesque neighborhoods through which to promenade; (3) restaurants with simple, hearty fare; and (4) atmospheric bars in which to dissipate.
A Fine Hotel in Which to Install Oneself and Unfinish Great Masterpieces
The Discovery Lodge Hotel offers the toniest accommodations in Iqaluit: it's spotlessly clean, with an invariably cheerful and efficient staff. Rooms are small and relatively austere, but they include a desk for major literary work. There's no room service or mini-bar, however; you'll need to stock up at one of the local stores or supermarkets (I recommend Quickstop Convenience) so that when those creative energies are flagging, you'll have a ready cache of Skittles or Starbursts or whatever best replenishes your muse.
After unpacking, I felt too groggy and disoriented to do any major literary work or promenading. I stared for a while at the cluster of sheds outside my window, listening to the clamor of loading vehicles down at Sealift Beach, then flipped through my Nunavut Handbook while watching a Yankees—Mets game on television. (Iqaluit's cable-TV provider offers a surprisingly eclectic selection of programming in English, French, and Inuktitut, the language of the Inuit.) The guidebook informed me that the term Eskimo, which is considered derogatory and no longer used in Nunavut, is a Cree Indian word meaning "eaters of raw meat." I wondered if there was a Cree word for "eaters of prosciutto-and-mozzarella heros, take-out Chinese, and pizza," which would be the appropriate derogatory term for my descendants.
I would spend many hours like this over the next few days, watching television, rereading the same articles in the weekly Nunatsiaq News, leafing through my guidebook, and pondering philosophically. This was the season of the midnight sun in Nunavut. The sun wouldn't set until four in the morning and then it would stay dark for only three hours. Although the Discovery Lodge has furnished its rooms with sufficiently opaque blinds to ensure darkness at night, I found it oddly exhilarating to awaken at one or two in the morning in dazzling sunshine, so I slept with the blinds open.
Typically I'd wake up quite early in the morning and watch TV. Talk shows dubbed into French are completely transformed. The Jerry Springer Show in particular seems to take on the elegance and nobility of Racinean tragedy. If Phaedra had appeared on the Springer show, one can easily imagine the on-screen caption: MY INABILITY TO ADMIT AN ILLICIT PASSION FOR MY STEPSON KILLED HIM!
After a leisurely breakfast in the Granite Room, the hotel's excellent restaurant, I'd don my wool Pittsburgh Penguins cap and Ray-Bans, my boots and shiny Gore-Tex coat, venture out into the capital of Nunavut, and promenade.
Picturesque Neighborhoods Through Which to Promenade
Charles Baudelaire, the world's leading expert on the flaneur, wrote: "So out he goes and watches the river of life flow past him in all its splendor and majesty. He marvels at the eternal beauty and the amazing harmony of life in the capital cities, a harmony so providentially maintained amid the turmoil of human freedom. He gazes upon the landscapes of the great city—landscapes of stone, caressed by the mist or buffeted by the sun."
In this spirit, each and every day I'd depart the hotel, proceed past the Baffin Gas Bar and Qikiqtani Dry Cleaning, make a right at the Komatiq Inn, and continue past the Pentecostal church, where I'd make a sharp left at the Nakasuk Elementary School. (For those of you planning to promenade, the Nakasuk Elementary School is impossible to miss. It resembles a huge pod made out of white Bubble Wrap and is perched on the hillock next to the mammoth white NorthwesTel parabolic antenna.) Weaving through clusters of prefab shacks with snowmobiles on blocks in the front yards, along dirt roads filled with raven-haired children and foraging dogs (qimmiit, or huskies—the only remaining aboriginal dog breed in North America), I'd clamber up the steep, rocky embankment, atop which sits the headquarters of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (Iqaluit Detachment) and the Astro Hill mall.
Astro Hill—a haphazard scattering of businesses including Kanguk Convenience, DJ Sensations, Hair Cuts by Debbie, Astro Cinema, and Valupharm Drugs—is located on the ground floor of Iqaluit's only high-rise. As malls go, it is underwhelming. Yet it became the focal point of a daily pilgrimage. Hung near the entrance to Valupharm Drug is a large painting by Isaccie Kootoo and Michael Currie, entitled The World of Ice, which includes the following explanation: "In the minds of high school youth today, the myth of Sedna, the sea goddess living below the sea ice, has almost been replaced by the passion for ice hockey." Perhaps mesmerized by the strobe effect of the flickering fluorescent light, I found this painting—a crude depiction of a goalie stopping a flying puck, with Sedna positioned vigilantly under the ice—inexplicably captivating. My thoughts, as I'd gaze at the work, are too private to fully share, but they involved my mother, minced carp, and Pittsburgh Penguins right wing Jaromir Jagr.
From the mall, I'd walk up to the Baffin Regional Hospital, whose parking lot affords a spectacular view of Frobisher Bay and the surrounding mountains. Upon first arriving here I realized that what, from a distance, appeared to be snow covering the ambulance driveway, was actually thousands of cigarette butts.
Heading back into town, I'd stop at the Nunatta Sunakkutaangit Museum—the best repository of unalloyed Inuit culture in Iqaluit. The museum features beautiful children's balls sewn out of seal fur; sculptures made of walrus ivory, caribou horn, and baleen; and an extensive collection of art devoted to the sport of "mouth pulling," including photos of a narwhal ivory tusk relief called Two Inuit Engaged in Mouth Pulling Contest, and a gray soapstone sculpture called Two Inuit—Mouth Pulling Contest.
Before dinner I'd stroll down to the beach on Koojesse Inlet. With its muddy slope of packing crates, metal sheds, chemical drums, scavenging urchins, perpetually screeching forklifts, and howling dogs, Sealift Beach has a Mad Max quality to it that I came to love. The mosquitoes here are enormous and ravenous. They actually gaze up at you while sucking, like in a porn movie.
I made one special excursion—a hike to Sylvia Grinnell Territorial Park. Now, I'm not what you'd call an outdoorsman. I would consider sleeping in the woods only if my village had been torched by paramilitary thugs and I didn't have relatives to stay with in Jersey. But I was told by my waiter at the hotel restaurant that it was a lovely place, and he'd drawn careful directions for me on a napkin. So one morning, under a brilliant azure sky, I set off.
Somewhere near the Sewage Lagoon and a series of gargantuan white oil tanks, I must have missed the turnoff for the park, because I ended up at a large incineration dump. I fought my way through the acrid smoke to a small shack where two Inuit and a French-Canadian were smoking cigarettes and playing cards. The smoke was actually worse in the shack than in the dump."Is this the Sylvia Grinnell Park?" I asked.
They stopped playing cards, eyed me for a moment, and then collapsed in hysterical laughter that turned into a wild fit of emphysemic coughing. Once they were able to breathe again, they redirected me and I resumed my hike.
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.