October 3, 2010

10

Top of the world. Well, to me, at least.

And then, just like that, I was in Halifax.

Okay. Maybe not “just like that.” I mean, I had to travel for about 36 days to get there and by the time I did get there, I had logged 3,243 miles, so that Roxanne was due for an oil change already, and the day that I drove in, I spent a good seven hours just driving from the border where I crossed at St. Stephen to finally get to Brent & Kim’s place in Dartmouth (which is now officially part of the Halifax Regional Municipality but was previously its own little city in Nova Scotia). Oh, and crossing was not so easy, either. Aside from the usual questions and suspicious eye-squinting that I had already been getting from border patrol, this time I had to park and go into the office to have a background check run, and there were a lot of us in there, because I guess that’s their thing at that particular office and one guy, bless his heart, was going through all that performance just to cross over for five minutes to take a photo of a sign and then cross back to the States to continue on his merry motorcycle way.

Well, the gal checking me in was pretty hard core and after my background check apparently went fine, she then asked me to hand over my keys and get Rennie out of the cab, whereby she proceeded to inspect everything rather thoroughly from front to back, opening cabinets and rifling through plastic bags. When that checked out, too, we returned inside and then she needed the address where I would be staying, so I had to go back out to Roxanne to get my phone, where the address was stored, at which point I noticed that if I was in the parking lot, the clock on my phone had me on Eastern time and if I went to the office, it switched to Atlantic time, so I had no idea what the hour actually was.

Apparently, though, after all that, this was the picture those border patrol people had of me: I was a jobless writer who did not own any property in my country, nor was I even renting anything, plus there was the small matter that I did not have a date that I NEEDED to be back in my country. Of course that set off alarms, because like Quentin in Pirate Radio said, “Governments loathe people being free,” so she told me I was getting a visitor record that basically kept track of my visit and gave me an exit date. They were quite common, she told me; in fact, they issued them to people all the time. She didn’t tell me what KIND of people.

Upon filling out the form, she calculated that if I were to do what I said I was, and not stick around to, let’s say, “work for an online magazine,” then I would be leaving the following Tuesday or Wednesday. “I’ll give you a few extra days, just in case your car breaks down,” she said, marking Friday, Sept. 24 as my exit date. And I was finally allowed to leave at whatever time it was.

Anyhow. Details. It felt as if it was “just like that” when I got to Halifax, considering that thus far, it had been pretty much the pinnacle of the journey, that it was the northernmost point of the eastern portion of my trip and that people had been asking where I was headed and I would always say, “Ultimately, Halifax,” before I would then explain my route to get there. But there I was suddenly. And so, then what?

Here I am!

Well, first, I would be fed. I was not entirely sure that I had even made it to Brent & Kim’s house, as I finally got there in the dark and Google Maps showed me turning onto a street that was not their street but in the end, by the nuance of a little, tiny right-hand turn, I was miraculously on their street and then I was in their driveway— at least, I was pretty sure I was. I could not find the address written anywhere but they were supposedly the first house and this was the first house, so I got out and left Rennie in the truck and walked around back, following voices until there they all were: Brent & Kim and two more couples sitting in a cozy circle around a fire on the back deck. They all looked up in surprise and relief, because the hour was well after my estimated “late afternoon-early evening” arrival time that I had given them, and while I had been sending text messages to them both all day long, letting them know about the delays and the time warp I had entered, I had had a feeling that they were not getting any of them. And they weren’t, because I had Brent’s number wrong by one digit and then Kim didn’t even have her phone nearby, so that when I walked up sometime around 9pm, it must have been a tiny bit like seeing a ghost.

Once it was established that Rennie & I were indeed at the right place, I went back to the car to open the door for him to get out, except I was kind of holding my breath to see how he would treat Oscar, the little white Havanese that could not have weighed more than 20 pounds and that was sweetly trying to get into the driver’s seat to greet Rennie. When Brent & I finally coaxed Rennie out and the two were in the grass together, nose to nose, it was instant, true, true love, and so Brent poured me a glass of red wine and brought me a beautiful salad with some toasted bread on the side, and the two boys raced around in the yard chasing each other and burning up all of Rennie’s pent-up energy from the day, while we humans sat in the cozy fire circle and talked and drank and caught up.

Rules schmules

Next, we decided that my first night there did not count, because I got there so late and we barely had any time together before we all went to bed, and so my usual three-night limit got extended to four nights— except that it was really just three nights, because that first night did not count; remember?

My first day then was actually Sunday (try telling that to border patrol) and it began with fruit crepes made by Brent & Eli, 11. It was a cold, rainy day but there was a basketball tournament that Kai, 13, was playing in that afternoon, so we all put on our layers and carried our umbrellas and even the dogs came with us across the bridge to Halifax proper, where we alternately cheered on Kai’s team and walked around the soggy streets, trying get a view of the harbor for me but not really succeeding through the fog, so that we finally gave up and Kim & I just went to a coffee shop, where we had something hot to drink and something sweet to nibble on, and also the first of what would end up being several conversations about commitments and relationships.

I told Kim that I had just been talking about marriage with another single friend in Buffalo, who is about my age, and that she and I had agreed that marriage seemed like the ultimate job. Basically, I see it as: each partner wants to grow separately but the common root system still must remain firmly entwined and the branches still must brush each other. So it wasn’t meant in a bad way, calling it the ultimate job, I told Kim; it just seemed to us single people like it was the one thing that you would have to work harder at than you would ever have to work at anything else in your life, to which Kim laughed and said yes, “That and parenthood.”

The funny thing is that while I have known Brent & Kim for about two years, ever since we met in Mexico and hung out during their various visits to the island, I can’t say I really knew them until my visit to stay with them. I knew they were kind, generous people, who warmly welcomed others into their presence, and that they had a spa business back home, and that Kim was a well-respected Pilates instructor, and that Brent was a voracious reader, always ready to discuss the latest title in which he was immersed, and that Kai & Eli were good kids, who seemed to always show their parents respect. But I had never seen them in their real life. They were always in beach mode, decompressing from their real life, so that when I saw them in their real life, I found that I was pretty well fascinated by seeing them in action.

They’re good at it. They both admitted that this is partly because they have a full-time caregiver during the week, who helps with the housework and the cooking and the homework, but then you should know that this is what enables them, when they get home from their workdays, to go immediately into Family Time, because that’s what they do. Dinner is eaten at the table. Everyone eats the same thing; no one is indulged their picky habits. Time with friends is limited. Bedtime is enforced and Kim tucks them in by reading aloud to them from a book.

In turn, there was harmony. I told Brent & Kim what cool kids they had, how I was impressed at the way Eli engaged me in dialogue, asking me if I knew the history of the Citadel, when we were standing downtown watching Kai’s tournament. I said that I could not remember being that way— having this lack of intimidation by adults. I also saw it in Vermont at Stephen’s house, and the best way I can describe it is a sense that they are not getting hung up on the distinction between grown-ups and kids. When I was that age, would I have cared whether a visiting friend of my parents had enjoyed a look around my city? I’m pretty sure I would have been thinking about My Little Ponies instead.

My lasting and most favorite memory of my visit to Halifax then, despite all the cool things that I did and saw, was the immersion into their happy pack. Just before we all went to bed that night, Brent said, “It’s nice to disconnect (from the computer), have nights like this where you’re face to face with people.” And I swear I did not pay him to say that.

Spoiled. Rotten.

On my second day there, they took it upon themselves to book an afternoon for me at their Dartmouth spa, which is a rather complete enterprise that occupies various floors in an old house where a pastor used to live, back when it was all part of a church next door. For more than a decade now, they have been tinkering to get the place just how they want it: putting a pool in the basement; eventually taking it out again to add more treatment rooms down there; installing anti-gravity hammocks to be the first in Canada to offer yoga classes suspended in the air.

My time there started at half past noon with a massage by Trevor, who had this sweet way of calling me Dear and who was maybe the best masseuse I had ever visited. Then I was to get a pedicure on my sad little neglected toes and be finished around 3 o’ clock but in the middle of that, Brent came in to check on me and asked if I wanted to do anything else— perhaps have my hair cut? And I said, “Well, I was just noticing this morning that it’s getting kind of shaggy.”

And so I left there after about four hours of pampering by their personable team of professionals, thinking “Road trip? What road trip?”

Oh, yeah. It’s a big world out there.

What with arriving in the dark on Saturday, the rain on Sunday and Spa Day on Monday, I didn’t get to see much of where I was during my first two days there, so that it got to Tuesday and I realized that I had better get out and see something, since I had driven all the way up there and it was supposed to be a cool city and all. In the spirit of being a team player, the sun came out and it was just the sort of day that might make one want to do an amphibious tour of a place. The Harbour Hopper is the Halifax equivalent of the Duck Tours in Seattle, which they apparently do in Boston, too, and if you have never seen a city this way, it’s worth it. All you skeptics, forget how touristy it is and ask yourself this: How often do I get to be on a vehicle that is driving down the street one minute and plunging into the water to motor around the harbor the next? I am usually a fan of going off the well-worn path, too, but this is one case where I will usually break rules (and the budget) to partake. And so, with great excitement, I took the Dartmouth ferry across to Halifax, learning in the process about how the city is using its cold winters to its advantage in the hot summers, cooling five of its big buildings with geothermal technology, thus saving money and energy.

Then I was seated aboard the Vietnam-era amphibious vehicle, learning that it was one of 900 that were made for the war and that cost $1 million each. The highlight of the tour was learning about the Halifax Explosion. It happened in the harbor, which is the second largest ice-free harbor after that of Sydney Australia, and it was on the morning of Dec. 6, 1917. Our tour guide told a good tale, one of sloppy mistakes and oversights— the kind of story that gives you 20/20 hindsight, when looking back on how it could have been prevented. Basically, it was this: it was wartime and there was a ship coming in with lots of munitions but because it was wartime, it had arrived with its red flag hidden, because the red flag was a warning to other maritime traffic that there were hazardous materials on board but to travel the open seas with such a marker during this precarious time would have been too risky. The crew should have put it back up when they got to their destination, of course. Problem is, they got there late and we all know what road-weary minds are like. They also got there too late to make it into the harbor, because the harbor was locking itself in at night, due to the wartime circumstances, and so this ship had to wait till morning to get in and to be able to offload its freight.

Well, the next morning came and the harbor opened and the ship could begin moving in, except there was a ship inside the harbor that began moving out at the same time and it was running late, so it was in a hurry, which we all know can cloud one’s judgment. And there also happened to be a heavy fog— the kind that apparently makes it hard to see your hand in front of your face. Imagine then: these two ships on their own little paths with their own little sets of dramatic circumstances, headed straight for each other. They got to a place called The Narrows; they kept on going straight for one another and when they finally saw each other, it was too late. They each took evasive action but apparently, the two maneuvers together put them back on track for collision. And they crashed into one another.

Fire broke out. The crew on the combustible ship jumped overboard, knowing the danger that awaited, but no one else knew, because the red flag was down and no one on that ship spoke English to be able to warn the rest of the harbor that in 19 minutes, there would be a blast that is, to this day, classified as the worst man-made explosion in the world before Hiroshima. Fifteen-hundred people were killed immediately. Nine thousand more would be injured. Almost every single window in the city was shattered. A tsunami roared ashore. Dishes rattled in houses three hours away. It was because of the church shielding it, Brent later told me, that the house where their spa is now located was saved from damage.

To this day, the tour guide told us, Halifax still honors the victims with a moment of silence at 9:04 am every Dec. 6. It was also because of the accident that every year, Halifax sends the biggest, best Christmas tree it can find to Boston, Mass., in order to thank the people there for the enormous aid contribution they made after the disaster, when they sent trainloads of medical workers and supplies up to the harbor, whose other claim to fame, I found out, is toe tagging. After the Titanic sank five years earlier, Halifax was the closest port to the scene but it was still too far away to be able to rescue the victims, so it became the recovery site where bodies were brought and laid out on shore. Toe tagging was thus invented as a way to identify the corpses and our tour guide told us that it enabled many of the bodies to actually be returned to their families. The rest were buried in one of the three cemeteries in the city.

And that’s enough history for now. But next time you’re in a big hurry and you’re kind of going through the motions and just thinking about how you need to GET THERE ALREADY, try remembering the Halifax Explosion.

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10 Comments Post a comment
  1. Brad Wareing
    Oct 3 2010

    Wow.
    love
    it.

    Reply
  2. Momminerd
    Oct 3 2010

    What a story! I had been reading about “the Halifax explosion” in some of the Halifax info available online, and now thanks to you, I know what it was. Lots of similarities with Pearl Harbor exactly 24 years later and halfway around the World, huh?

    Reply
  3. Oct 3 2010

    Margaret – thanks for the sweet words and great overview of the city. We so enjoyed getting to know you better, too. We all miss you and Rennie and talk about you lots. Can’t wait for the next entry……xoxo Kim and Brent

    Reply
  4. SirenaSteve
    Oct 5 2010

    I am more than a bit jealous of your rendezvous in Halifax 🙂

    (But I won the first round of Scrabble with Robert and Sarah Jane. They are formidable competitors!)

    Reply
    • Oct 7 2010

      It would have been so much fun to have you there! Well done on Scrabble. You’ve still got it.

      Reply

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