By Ed Staskus
Prince Edward Island, the smallest Canadian province, is off the Atlantic Canada coast in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, east of New Brunswick and north of Nova Scotia. Its land mass is less than 2200 square miles. Victoria, a village on the southern edge of the island on the Northumberland Straight, isn’t measured in square miles. It is measured in square feet.
Six months of the year, from about the middle of spring to the about the middle of autumn, Olivier Sauve, who was born and bred and lives and works in Victoria, spends almost all of his time inside those square feet.
“I don’t go far,” he said. “I might go to the liquor store once a week, do a pick-up, and if Doug and Rachel need a day off, I’ll do the food run.” Rachel is his sister and Doug is her boyfriend. The pick-ups and runs for food and drink are for the family business.
“I’m working 14 hours a day, 7 days a week. I go from the house to the restaurant and from there back to the house. Sometimes I go to the post office.”
Olivier’s parents, Julia, a Manhattanite, and Eugene, a Quebecois, met and married on PEI, opening the Landmark Café catty-corner to the Victoria Theatre 28 years ago, when he was six.
“I grew up in Victoria, played ball hockey, jumped off the wharf, ate dirt all summer. We’ve got everything here, friends, neighbors, home.”
The other six months of the year Olivier goes globetrotting. The earth is 197 million square miles, which is too many square feet to try counting. Over the past 15 years the 34-year-old Olivier Sauve has bussed boated walked the length and breadth of 52 countries. “I know because I can name them all,“ he said.
“I’m a good counter, too.”
In 2015 he hiked from southern to northern Spain and then pivoted west to Portugal. He walked almost a thousand miles in 40 days, averaging close to the equivalent of a marathon every day.
“I’m into walking, hiking, being outside,” he said. “I’ve hiked the Andes, the Himalayas, Adam’s Peak in Sri Lanka.”
He stopped in San Lorenzo in central Spain for the hot springs and dinner.
“The thermal spring baths in the middle of the town have been flowing out of a mountain for 2000 years,” he said. ”There was a pizzeria around the corner from my hostel. After walking 20, 25 miles, there’s nothing like a big pizza.”
“It’s the way you ride the trail that counts,” said the singing cowgirl Dale Evans.
Although at home Olivier’s days and nights are framed by village life and work, travel is in his blood. “We moved to Montreal when I was two, but then my parents bought a house here when I was three. Every winter we would visit mom’s family in New York City and dad’s family in Vancouver.”
The family went Canadian winters to Florida or Jamaica, too. “I made sure we went somewhere,” said Eugene Sauve.
“We’re not like some PEI families that have a thousand cousins in a 10 mile radius, said Olivier. “It’s just us, no cousins, aunts, or uncles on the island.”
Traveling is getting past what’s in plain sight, becoming alert to the secret strange out-of-the-way parade of the rest of the world. It’s going somewhere else that you find out that nearsightedness isn’t the great again agenda it’s cracked up to be.
“There’s one thing about traveling,” said Olivier. ”You don’t want to give people too much advice. Everybody’s got to make their own trip, their own experiences. You don’t want to go on somebody else’s trip.”
One traditional way of traveling is to make sure you see what you have gone to see. The other way is to see whatever it is you are seeing. The sightseers who circle around journey’s end often see the most because they’re always on the way. It’s not necessarily about stockpiling souvenirs, but about keeping watch, sea to shining sea.
“My parents continually traveled. My father has been all over the world. I remember laying around in Costa Rica when I was ten-years-old, saying to myself, I can’t wait until I turn 18 and can get that little book that says Canada Passport.”
After his parents separated Olivier’s mother moved to New Hampshire with the children. He went to five different schools in five years. “You don’t get to know people well, but you get to know yourself well,” he said. When they moved back to Prince Edward Island they moved back to Victoria. He started working at the Landmark Café no sooner than reaching thirteen.
“He’d get a bench, get up to the sink, and wash dishes,” said Eugene Sauve. “He wanted to do it.”
Like father, like son.
Eugene Sauve left home when he was 16, moving from Montreal to Vancouver “My first job was at a Greek restaurant, washing dishes. The owner was a macho man, always wore a brown jumpsuit and a Santa Claus belt, wife in a fur coat, dripping with jewelry.”
“Washing dishes should be a perquisite for life,” said Olivier. “If you were in a sweaty dish pit, everybody screaming and throwing greasy pans, that would suck. But, here, we have music playing, JR’s hair is blue this week, and everybody helps out.”
It isn’t possible for anyone to help everyone. At the Landmark Café everyone helps someone. The homegrown menu, meat pies, pasta, salad, down to the salad dressing, has long been recommended by ‘Where to Eat in Canada’.
“The restaurant business is awesome. It’s high-paced, fun, frustrating. It isn’t for everyone, not if you can’t multi-task, aren’t sociable, and don’t appreciate food. Food can be anything. If you’re going to make a cheeseburger, get some awesome meat, throw in some salt and pepper, and make an awesome cheeseburger.”
When he turned 19 Olivier Sauve flew overseas by himself for the first time.
“I took off for six months. Eugene met me in Bangkok, We went down to Vietnam and Cambodia together for a few weeks.” After they separated Eugene Sauve planned on going to Africa. But, a week later, Olivier was crossing a street in Ho Chi Minh City when a man crossing in his direction called out.
“Ollie!” he said.
“Dad!” said Olivier.
“After that dad went to Africa and I spent the next five months running around Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia.”
The next winter, back on Prince Edward Island, Olivier enrolled at UPEI. “I was in for a couple of weeks, but I said, no, I don’t want to do this.” He and a friend began planning a trip to the far end of South America. Itinerant, rambling, backpacking, over the course of six months they traversed North and Central America.
While crossing the forest and swampland of the Darien Gap between Panama and Colombia on foot an army patrol stopped them and sent them both back to Panama. They boarded an old boat. “It took us 18 days to make 150 kilometers.” Back on dry land on foot again they were picked up by an army patrol again, who this time escorted them over a mountain range into Colombia, warning them about rebel FARC forces.
“We had no problem,” said Olivier. “We don’t know if we saw any FARC. We don’t think we did, but if we did, they were the people giving us crackers and coconuts while we walked.” They made it as far as Ecuador.
Four years later Olivier flew back to Ecuador, to the same spot where he had stopped four years earlier, and bussed and backpacked to Tierra de Fuego. “When you take off like that,” he said, “every single day is brand new. I used to run away when I was a kid, for fun, knowing I’d be coming back, just to get lost.”
It’s an unfailing good idea to see more than you can remember.
Setting foot outside your house, even going to the grocery, is always at the crossroads of promise and peril. Anything can happen. You might find something yummy. You might stub your toe on the stairs. Going halfway around the world, suspecting what might and often does happen, some people go right back home.
Other people don’t worry about the potholes in the road. They cut the string on the tin can telephone, kicking the can down the street.
“For me, it’s a mosh pit. I’m going to jump,” said Olivier.
“I’ve been close to being robbed, been in accidents, been in an earthquake. I was taking pictures in Morocco when an old man made a fuss, got all his friends involved, and it turned into a big ordeal. The cops came, threw me into a no window unmarked van and took me to a no window concrete building.”
The police went through his camera. “They asked me my story ten times and finally just laughed it off. They let me go. I didn’t know where I was, so when I asked, they dropped me off at the beach. I’m good with orientation whenever I’m in a city on the water.”
When he started taking pictures he wasn’t a good photographer. “I’m still not the best photographer,” he said. What he is, camera-in-hand, is a good street photographer. Street photographers shoot unmediated encounters in public places. Olivier Sauve’s pictures are clean clear straightforward. He specializes in on-the-spot portraits.
“I get right up in there, so I can get the right shot, no holds barred, from prostitutes on a shitty side of town to someone’s face after they’ve just burnt the body of their husband and now want to jump in the fire with him.”
After photographing a festival in Kathmandu, Nepal, back on Prince Edward Island he had large-scale reproductions printed on canvas and installed a show at Victoria’s Lobster Barn. “It’s a big open room and they had all the wall space. It became a gallery. We sold some pictures.”
Many of his photographs have been assembled in a self-published book. “So many people I’ve known for years, they stop at the Landmark to eat, and ask me about my winter, where I went.” But, in the meantime, he has six or seven tables he is waiting, letting everyone know what the specials are, making sure the soup stays hot, mixing Mohito cocktails and tossing Caesar salads.
On top of that something might need to be suddenly washed, JR is doing something else, and the show at the Victoria Theatre across the street starts in an hour. “The book helps. Here’s where I did this, take a look through it.”
Flipping through his pictures of the Kumbh Mela, India’s festival of faith, where he mixed for a week with tens of millions of pilgrims, for whom a colossal temporary city of tents roads hospitals toilets police stations is constructed, diners soon find their drinks and seafood specials delivered and their questions answered.
One of Olivier’s favorite countries in the world is Spain. One of his favorite areas in Spain is northwestern Spain. His favorite aspect of northwestern Spain is the Camino de Santiago, or the Way of St. James, the pilgrimage routes that lead to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. He has hiked the Caminos a half-dozen times over the course of a half-dozen years.
“It’s religious, although some people do it for exercise, to just prove they can do it, or because they’re at a crossroads. It’s a beautiful walk. I make sure to pack light, but I’m still packing smarter than my last time.”
Two years ago a teacher from PEI’s Holland College, where Olivier graduated in 2008, contacted him about the Camino de Santiago. “We’re going on a study tour to Spain. I’d like to pick your brain,” he said. In the end Olivier became the group’s guide translator chaperone. He booked the busses, the hotels, and planned the route. Four teachers and he led a group of thirty students for two weeks from Madrid to Barcelona to Pamplona, and finally on to the Camino.
“No one got into trouble and no one got sick,” he said.
Olivier Sauve has made himself into an expert on the trails, hostels, and eateries of Spain. “I know where to find a chunk of bread, fish, dessert, a bottle of wine, and where to get to sleep by 9 o’clock.” He speaks the language and his two cents are worth their weight in Euros.
He has since started making plans to lead other groups on the Camino, but groups on a smaller scale, four five six people. One of his game plans is corporate team-building, bird-dogging businesspeople on an adventure travel trek. Another is path-finding youth-at-risk. “Kids who are screwed up, getting expelled from school, whose parents are done,” he said. “I would take them for a month and bring them back different, better.”
No matter where he has gone global-wide he has come back to Victoria. “I travel all over the world, where no one knows me, but I live in a tight-knit community where everybody knows me. This is home, our own little bubble.”
Olivier Sauve isn’t somebody who sits at home, but home is where everybody feels most at home.
He bought a lot in town last year and plans on building his own house in the next couple of years. “I’m a Victoria villager, finally, after thirty years.” After being by-passed by the Tran-Canada Highway in the 1980s, and slowly but surely downsizing, the community is again growing. “All my friends live here, they’re all having kids, young families.” Although his plans also include starting a family, he admits he has an inherent underlying literal problem.
“I don’t have a girlfriend, not yet, not right now,” he said. “I’m looking, sending out surveys, and it’s going to happen.
“You never know what’s going to walk into your life.”
Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus.