I Went to the Levee

Charlottetown has a grand tradition of New Years Day levees. I’m certain that this happens elsewhere as well, but I’ve a feeling, because of Charlottetown’s small size yet grand sense of self-importance, the tradition is carried on more grandly here than most other places.

Royal Canadian Legion Levee

Yesterday was our tenth New Years Day in Charlottetown. Until yesterday, I had never been to a levee, mostly from fear of the unknown, with additional fear of the implications of the line “calling card appreciated” at the bottom of many of the levee advertisements in The Guardian. I suppose I lingered under the false impression that a calling card would be used to screen out pretenders — those without one, or those without a suitable one, would be refused admission.

Yesterday, however, proved to be the year that these fears were put to rest. This came mostly because of the return of our friend G. to the city. G. hadn’t been to the levees in thirty years (or maybe never?), and decided that part of his reintegration into Island society demanded that he begin. As well, Catherine, who is always trying to push me towards new heights (or any heights) of alcohol-induced mayhem (the lack thereof being, as far as I can determine, the only major character flaw she sees in me), was very eager that I should attend, although strangely not eager to attend herself.

So, at the crack of 10:00 a.m., G. and I headed over to Government House to begin our levee day. It was a truly beautiful day yesterday: sunny, brisk, newyearial.

Government House Levee

My first learning experience of the day is that Islanders get dressed up for levees. Even G., whose fashion sensibilities tend more towards hitchhiker chic, was dressed to the nines. Unfortunately I, never a fashion plate to begin with, had my good shoes in the shop, and any good shirts or ties I may have once owned are buried in the bottom of an inaccessible heap. So I wore my traditional uniform of chinos, buttom-down shirt, and green cardigan. And 9 year old sneakers, frayed at the edges and seriously in need of repair. I wasn’t dressed poorly (okay, I was), but I certainly wasn’t dressed well.

Regardless, we headed up the hill to Government House for the first levee of the day, with Hon. J. Léonce Bernard. On the way up the hill, we were spontaneously joined by P. and J., P. being a boyhood friend of G., and J. being married to P. They became our companions, and drivers, for the balance of the day.

J. insisted that calling cards would certainly be required here, and P. helpfully provided G. and I with spare business cards, on the back of which we scrawled our names. There is some danger that we might be misconstrued heretoforth as having been appointed Queen’s Counsels.

Government House is beautiful inside; anyone who hasn’t availed themselves of a tour (and they are offered, for free, in the summer months), should certainly do so, for the outside doesn’t do justice to the inside.

Once at the door we were led through a winding series of rooms, over the course of 15 minutes, designed to allow the increasingly long line of wellwishers access to a warm waiting place. Fires were blazing. And we had a good opportunity to look at the fine collection of Island artwork. Once we reached the grand front room, our coats were doffed, and we awaited introduction to the Lieutenant Governor and his wife.

It is important to understand two things at this point. First, there were a wide variety of assistants, guards, and aides-de-camp controlling the teaming crowds. Second, I have never met the Lieutenant Governor.

And so it came to pass that I was busy chatting away with G. when I swung around to see a elegantly dressed man moving to shake my hand.

This must be one of the aides-de-camp,” I said to myself. And so I shook his hand, and wondered when I would get to see the Lieutenant Governor. After a brief shake of the hand of the woman standing next door, I shuffled off.

It was at that moment that I realized that I had actually just shaken the hands of the Lieutenant Governor and his wife. Without realizing it. I shall forever be worried that I didn’t show them the proper deference.

The shuffling continued, and we entered a room where we were offered hot apple cider, fruitcake and, J.’s favourite, gum-drop cake. After some additional milling about — amidst which the Smith Sisters (and Claude and Grace) caught up with us — we headed back out into the cold, this time with the favour of a ride in P. and J.’s palatial town car.

Next stop was the Charlottetown Hotel, home of the UPEI levee (despite UPEI having an expansive campus, walkability is everything on levee day, and holding their levee way out there apparently just wouldn’t do). This time calling cards were helpfully provided and, mindful of my recent experience with the LG, I paid careful attention and was able to recognize President Wade shaking my hand.

UPEI Levee at Charlottetown Hotel

On offer was some sort of mild ginger ale-like punch, the specific identity of which eluded us. I got a chance to catch up with a couple of people I hadn’t seen for some time, and then it was time to run off to City Hall before the levee there closed down. Our trip next door contained our first encounter with Andrew Sprague, the well-turned-out CBC radio personality, as well as a meet-up with Island labourcrat and bon vivant Leo Cheverie.

Andrew Sprague

Leo Cheverie

Having lost track of P. and J., G. and I headed out into the cold and made our way to the City Hall steps. At this point I spotted my old Balkan acquaintance Joseph the clarinet player entertaining, and a quick call to my father resulted in the Croatian translation for “Happy New Year,” which I was able to whisper in his ear mid-music. He seemed pleased.

Then it was a 10 minute slog-wait up the stairs, round the corner, and into the council chambers, cleared, for this event, of all of the crazy technology that has recently afflicted the room. On offer were our new Mayor, Clifford Lee, as well as councillors and friends Kim Devine and Bruce Garrity.

City of Charlottetown Levee

In the next room there were signs of the food that had once been present, but none of the food itself. This was the topic of some grumbling from (recently rendezvoused) P., J., G. and self, as none but G. had taken breakfast before setting out. We resolved to plan the next stop as one that would be sure to have food.

So back out into the cold, and down to the Haviland Club, where P. was sure there would be food. There was not. But there was egg nog, which I drank not knowing it was egg nog, and thus having my first taste thereof. We had a brief chat with Geoff Scales in the hallway, did a brief tour of the upstairs crokinole room, spotted Robert Ghiz and then were off again, this time to the Garrison around the corner.

Haviland Club Levee

Haviland Club Levee

The Garrison’s levee was a very grand affair, held in the expansive indoor parade ground. There was a uniformed band playing Chuck Mangione hits, and just enough of the dregs of seafood chowder left to make a meal for the four of us. G., being Island history obsessed, insisted we tour the Garrison’s museum, which turned out to be quite interesting, especially given the presence of a special framed display of “Yugoslavian Money.”

PEI Regiment Levee

PEI Regiment Museum

After a brief encounter with the aforementioned Andrew Sprague, we were back into the town car.

Next stop was the Masonic Temple on Hillsboro Street. This stop was quite eerie for me, as my last enounter with a group of aproned Masons was at my grandfather’s funeral in Cochrane. Nonetheless, we profited greatly from our brief view beneath the Masonic apron, had a couple of pieces of very good Eastern Star lemon cake, a glass of red wine, used the special Masonic washroom, and felt like fish out of water for 15 minutes. Of particular note to me was the use of specially-imprinted plastic Masonic tableclothes on the lemon cake table, the grand throne on the first floor, and the unexpected presence of several young Masons, all looking very fresh-faced. Then it was time to move on again.

Masonic Temple

Next stop, ironic given our point of departure, was the Bishop’s Palace on Great George Street.

I believe that my entry to the Bishop’s Palace may represent my first incursion onto Catholic soil on Prince Edward Island, save for a one-time bowling expedition to the Basilica Recreation Centre several years ago. Having been raised in a religiously non-committal environment, I have long been daunted by the ritual and ceremony of the Catholic faith, and thus have avoided, again because of fear, their Island outposts: issues of holy water, making the sign of the cross, etc. looming as large as the calling card issue mentioned earlier being the chief impediments.

I need not have worried.

We were well received by Most Rev. Bishop Fougere and his assistants in the grand front room. The Bishop, in fact, went so far as to compliment me on my green cardigan, which was quite an honour, and took the edge off my feeling ill-dressed (although he might have been making fun of me in some weird Catholic sarcastic way; I’m still not sure). On into the further reaches of the Palace, we were offered sherry and punch, and then, making our way to the wood-panelled back room, we found sandwiches, cheese and crackers and cookies in abundance, along with the best institutionally served cup of tea I’ve ever had.

After a brief tour of the Bishop’s Palace basement (which may or may not have received official sanction, and at the end of which J. locked me into the basement for brief minute, during which visions of becoming a basement dwelling recluse entered my head), we were off to the Royal Canadian Legion.

The Legion, like Government House, initially presented some logistical challenges. Our first stop was the bar and lounge in the basement, where much merry making and drinking, complete with special guest appearance by Andrew Sprague, was in progress. This, however, turned out to not actually be the levee proper, but some breakaway splinter levee.

We headed upstairs to the grand ballroom and it was there that we found the levee proper. After shaking hands for the two hundredth time, and wishing the two hundredth Happy New Year, the combined sherry, wine, and punch swirling through me were resulting in a pronunciation more like “Hbly Nblu Wlear.” By this point, nobody seemed to notice.

We were still famished, and were initially elated by the promise of food here. Alas we were, again, too late, and there were but a few meatballs left on the steam table, and we decided to pass. It was at the Legion that we had our most serious bump up against the kilted revellers who travel from levee to levee on a chartered bus. By this point in the day — near 3:00 p.m. — they were all in fine form, and much back-slapping happiness was in view.

After a brief sightings of Ritchie Simpson and Andrew Sprague, flagging a little, we decided to make a dash for the Premier’s levee at the Confederation Centre of the Arts, with hopes that more food would be present there.

Although the Premier’s shindig had just started, there was a line of perhaps 200 people in front of us upon arrival, second only to the lineup at Space Mountain at Disney World in my experience. We decided to stick with it, though.

While in the line, we happened to cross the path of the aforementioned Most Rev. Bishop Fougere. Having my usual inhibitions now completely absent, I plucked up my courage to ask same for his first name, this having been something of a topic of conversation over the course of the day between J. and I. He was very willing to reveal that his name was Vernon, and went on to further explain the origins of the name Fougere, which translates as “Fern,” and closed by pointing out that this meant that a full-on English translation of his name would be “Vern Fern.” This exchange made me think seriously that the earlier cardigan compliment had, in fact, been backhanded. By very pleasant nonetheless. Such that should I ever decide to leave the ranks of the non-committal, I will seriously consider applying to the Catholics for membership.

Also in line was the local gadabout and raconteur Nils Ling, who beat me to the bunch with digital camera out and snapping (I quickly returned the serve, although with enough fumbling to seriously damage my geek cred).

After 20 minutes, we came to the head of the line. Newly outfitted with special Premier’s Calling Cards, we shook hands with Hon. Jamie Ballem, Hon. Mildred Dover, freshman MLA (and old radio colleague) Wayne Collins, and then the Premier. Our photos were taken by Provincial Photographer Brian Simpson (I think I managed to flub mine by moving around too quickly), and then it was off to Memorial Hall for the best food of the day.

Premier Binns's Levee

The Premier had excellent cheese, crackers, vegetables, sweets, hot items served by uniformed waiters, and varieties of punch, spiked and not. Gordon Belsher was the geographically appropriate entertainment. And Andrew Sprague was nowhere to be seen (perhaps he stuck around longer at the Masons?).

By this point it was nearing 4:30 p.m., and Catherine was beginning, I think, to imagine that I’d disappeared into a ditch somewhere. G. and I bid P. and J. a hearty farewall, G. came by for some home wellwishing. And then I fell immediately to sleep.


Johnny's picture
Johnny on January 2, 2004 - 23:43 Permalink

I consider it my holy mission to assist in pushing you to new heights of alcohol-induced mayhem upon my arrival in Charlottetown in the springtime. You’ve been warned. Also, why the extremely disconcerting business of identifying folks as ‘G’ and ‘J’? If its a protection of anonymity issue, I think it would be helpful from a readability standpoint if you assigned the mystery people exciting nicknames like Morty and Hooper.

Nils Ling's picture
Nils Ling on January 3, 2004 - 02:08 Permalink

I’m not sure what a “gadabout” is, but I’m adding it to my business card.

Steven Garrity's picture
Steven Garrity on January 3, 2004 - 03:57 Permalink

The only thing more remarkable than you writing 2300 words about levees is the fact that I checked how many words you wrote.

Ken's picture
Ken on January 3, 2004 - 05:32 Permalink

A Ulysses like recount of a grand day in the smallest province’s biggest city!

A. Sprague was talking about tipping a few back in Tyne Valley last I saw him at RIFF, he’s very social or is that his job? Carry on I say.

And maybe I have to read the 2300 words again, but one question is begging — did you get drunk?

Rob Paterson's picture
Rob Paterson on January 3, 2004 - 13:48 Permalink

Braver man than I Peter. I remain a levee virgin. My idea of hell is a perpetual cocktail party

Anita Rowland's picture
Anita Rowland on January 3, 2004 - 22:33 Permalink

Are levees held in other parts of Canada? Is this a holdover of paying social calls on New Years? (See Alcott’s Rose in Bloom for a Victorian description.)

Ken's picture
Ken on January 4, 2004 - 01:41 Permalink

PEI is a holdover from Victorian times.

Andrew Sprague's picture
Andrew Sprague on January 7, 2004 - 01:26 Permalink

Actually I never made it to the Masonic Lodge. Aside from it being somewhat eerie there is a much better levee at the Benevolent Irish Society Hall on North River Road at the same time. The place was packed solid with loud celtic inspiration! Both busses were there. It might have been the best stop on the tour. There were a couple of other interesting spots you missed as well. I’m told Gordie Dunn was serving roast beef this year (I skipped it. I went to the premier’s levee while my ride was there, I must have just missed you). The Curling Club was good. By the time people arrived there the full-on-buzz was hitting most. Last stop was the Fire Hall for the dance. I didn’t stick around, but there was something in the air, that’s for sure!