I’m working full-time hours for the first time since 2004. That requires many adjustments, including a regrettable but inevitable decline in blog posts. The Sydney-to-Louisbourg commute is about 40 minutes, so between that and my 8-hour shifts, I barely have enough time on either side of the day to catch up with my family and/or Twin Peaks. You have not been abandoned, dear readers; we’re just on an 18th century schedule now, so maybe allow 6-8 weeks for delivery?
My first day of work was now over a week ago, and given how busy the job keeps me, it feels like actual centuries ago. Nepal and France and Japan are impossibly distant memories – a fact which bugs me, but only for a split second whenever I don’t have a million immediate demands laid out in front of me. Here’s how it has all gone down so far:
Day One: I arrive at work too early, and sit around in the administration building feeling awkward until one of my supervisors scoops me out of the repro-Louis-XV chaise and walks me up to the King’s Bastion. I have three managers on-site, but from there on up, the chain of command gets murky, and I quickly learn that authority in Louisbourg depends as much upon seniority as it does on rank. Like the class stratification of 18th century France, there are Louisbougeois with aristocratic provenance – those who were around in the 1960s and 70s, when the Fortress reconstruction project began – and then there are the common folk, like me.
Never the less, I am almost universally welcomed by my company of re-enactors. At Louisbourg, there are several highly distinct units whose jobs overlap more geographically than functionally. The “civilian unit” dresses up as fishermen, merchants, alewives, administrators, and occasionally British prisoners. The “tours unit” wears Parks Canada green and beige, providing a blip of modernity amid the historical costuming. There used to be an “acting unit” but I think it has been merged with the civilians. There’s a handful of gardeners and livestock coordinators, and some Mi’kmaq interpreters – all costumed, all blending in with the period backdrop. And then there’s us: the soldiers.
In most of my previous jobs, I’ve tended to work most closely with people who share my background, age, or social class. Academia is insidious in this respect; one’s university colleagues may have come from all around the world, but they’re all academics. The Louisbourg military unit is a true quilt: there are guys over 60 who’ve lived their whole lives in Cape Breton, working either here or else in trades; and there are twentysomething women with college credentials. There are many Acadians, but also a few anglophones who’ve managed to persevere in a bilingual environment through the privilege of seniority. There are gentle armchair academics, and there are good ol’ boys who fill our locker room with loquacious, creative vulgarities.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. I didn’t get access to the locker rooms on Day One; instead, Gumper gave me the impression that I’d be able to spend the first week or two just shadowing other soldiers as they occupied various posts in the Fortress, answering visitors’ questions or else just inhabiting the scenery. But I blew my chance by showing too much initiative, stepping in at one point to translate some facts for a couple of French visitors who were curious about the King’s Chapel. I’m not yet sure if any of my managers speak French, but either way they were impressed that I could – or maybe impressed that I was willing to throw myself in, after only a few hours of training.
So, on Day Two, I was sent to the costume department to don fifteen pounds of wool and brass buttons. Then Gumper took me into the forbidden attic where they keep muskets, powder horns, and sabres, and I got another fifteen pounds’ worth of gear piled on. By lunchtime on my second day, I was posted solo in the barracks, welcoming tourists in character as an off-duty private of the Companies Franches de la Marines.
I’ll write later in more depth about the curious balance which “Role-Acting” requires – a fluid dance between in-character scene-building and plain-spoken documentary lecturing. On Day Two, I hadn’t sorted it out yet, but that worked to my advantage; if nothing else, I could convincingly play a wide-eyed recruit, fresh off the boat. “Can you believe they pack 24 men into each of these rooms? That’s three men to a bed!” I’d say, with a hint of umbrage. The tourists share my shock, and laugh at my resentment. On one level, they suspect what I already know to be the truth: my character might be living in rotten conditions, but the actor playing him has got a pretty good gig.
Days Three through Seven blur together. A couple of them were spent down at the Dauphin Gate, greeting visitors as they first arrive. One rainy day featured a few long hours near the Governor’s Door, hiding from the elements in a wooden guardhouse, just as my authentic forerunners would have done. If I’m lucky, I’ll get to spend an hour up on the barbette, the cannon platform atop the fortifications. It’s always windy but the view is astounding, and although I still can’t explain how the cannons operate, I can deliver a gripping summary of the two sieges of Louisbourg, using the 360 degree panorama as the world’s best visual reference.
The piece of advice I received most often from the senior soldiers, the aristocratic old boys, was: “Don’t try to learn everything at first.” I can’t help thinking there’s a second warning in there: “Don’t show me up, kid.” But the job doesn’t work that way; each of us apply different sets of skills to contribute to a rich and varied visitor experience. If you meet five soldiers during your visit, they’ll each have different traits and areas of specialized knowledge.
They also each have their own “nom de guerre,” taken from the historic military registers. I chose mine on Day Three, when I determined that this was going to be a good place for me. For five out of seven days each week this summer, I am Jean-François Chaperone, or “Prêt-à-Boire.” That means “Ready to Drink,” which is partly a nostalgic nod to all the sweet beers I left behind in France. But it also means I’m here, now, ready to drink deep of Louisbourg.