So this post has been a long time coming, but what with the traveling and the planes and the excitement there has been NO TIME!!
So the whole story starts a few days ago on the 24th of August. I headed out to Heathrow to catch my first flight, out to Newark, NJ. I had only flown Trans Atlantic once before, but I loved it back then, and I have to say that this time was no different. I know that for some, the idea of being on an airplane for a couple of hours is horrible enough, so seven to eight might seem like hell, but I just love to fly.
In Heathrow, before we left, I met some cool people… The first was a guy called Dan. He was a geography teacher with a cool side-project, making stop-motion films of cities by walking through them on a calculated route designed to show the spectrum of wealth, taking a photograph every 5 metres. He was on his way to Mexico City to do his first foreign trip for the project, and chatting to him about photography, cities and adventures was a load of fun. You can see the stuff about the project here at his site Urban Earth, but the films will not be up until later this year… Just before we got onto the plane I also met Marshall Berman, author of the book “All That Is Solid Melts Into Air”, and his wife. They had been flown over from New York by the South Bank Centre so that he could address the Literary Festival that they were hosting. We chatted for a short while about cities and the way people and their urban environments affect each other – was cool and oddly apposite to meet this relatively celebrated author of books about cities while sitting there with Dan.
Arriving in Newark we came in with an amazing view of NYC on the port side of the aircraft, and much as it was cool to see, it was also a little cruel, because I did not feel confident that I would have time to go in and out of the city before my next flight up to Halifax, Nova Scotia. As it turned out there was a pretty funky delay and I could have done, but you can’t plan for such things…
Anyway on arrival at Newark I got myself through US Border Sec and Customs, picked up my checked suitcase and passed it back to the baggage handlers for my flight north. Once all of that official business was out of the way I needed a beer… The only bar in Terminal A was a TGI Friday’s, so I headed in and scored a spot at the bar, next to a very nice lady, called Erica, who was a CPA (American equivalent of a Chartered Accountant) from Colorado Springs. We passed the time chatting about America, and how much she traveled for work and other smalltalk, and then she had to go and catch her flight and I wanted to find some WiFi to try and get some final arrival instructions from Sarah. Of course the WiFi was not working in Terminal A, so I had to catch the monorail (The Air Train) to Terminal B, where I ended up sitting on the floor in the concourse to get a strong enough signal. All of that, and a video blog, out of the way I headed back to Terminal A and passed through security in search of another beer… I met a really cool guy, called Don, who was a fellow techie and former USAF engineer who was on his way home. It turned out that he had visited the UK for work and we chatted about the differences between the US and England specifically, and he gave me a couple of tips for San Francisco.
Eventually, only two and a half hours late, I was on a little fifty-seater jet on my way to Halifax, already forewarned that I was not going to get a ride down to Saint John that night, as the people who were going to give me a lift were not going to be able to wait around until after two a.m. – a fact that I can totally understand. I ended up on the flight with a fellow Brit, albeit now a naturalised US citizen. Mike was an anaesthetist who had grown up in North London, but had been living with his American wife in Fort Lauderdale, Florida for twenty years. We chatted almost the whole way to Halifax, about his experiences of becoming an American and living in Florida, and about his kids who he was on the way to visit at their summer camp outside Halifax. It was remarkably reassuring to speak to someone basically British, and I had only been away from home for about eighteen hours. Don’t get me wrong, the people that I had met and chatted to in Newark were lovely, but there was still something very odd about hearing American accents everywhere at that point.
I arrived in Halifax at just after half two in the morning and set about the task of waiting nearly six hours for the only bus that would get me to Saint John in time to attend the wedding. This is not as easy as it may sound when you have already gone the better part of twenty-four hours without sleep and gained six hours as well at this point. Luckily Tim Hortons (Canada’s home-grown answer to Starbucks) came to my rescue and provided me with coffee and empty calories, in the form of a Dutchie (a square donut filled with sultanas), and I powered through the night using the much more reliable and FREE WiFi access in the airport. I also met another fellow traveller at this unseemly time in the morning. Sulaiman was born in the US, but had lived in Gaza through most of the Intifada and then moved to Canada two years before. An engineering student and young man he was filled with contradictions for me. Clearly a proud muslim and a proud Palestinian at that, he nonetheless displayed very Western, non-muslim behaviour quite comfortably. I realise that this observation is coloured by my own ignorance of muslim societies around the world and by prejudice, so I hestitate slightly to talk about it in this blog, but hell it was what I was thinking at the time. I have muslim family (by marriage), and none of them or their wider family has ever (for example) made sexual comments about a passing girl, more specifically a non-muslim woman showing more than a little flesh (Halifax Airport is not really a hotbed of hot, sexy women – at least not in the early hours – but she was incredibly hot). Now of course, men are men and we like what we like, so I’m sure that I should not be surprised, but I have always (in my limited experience) found muslim men to be more reserved in this area. Also he was talking to me about his girlfriend back in Edmonton (where he was heading) and it became clear that she was non-muslim and that their relationship was intimate. Again, I have tended to find that although I am sure that muslim men all over the world have pre and extra marital sexual encounters and relationships, they are rarely comfortable discussing them (again in my limited experience), even in the most general of terms. This was all thrown into sharp relief by his passionate railing against Israel and the Israeli approach to his people, their land and so forth. I could not help agreeing with him on a lot of points, particularly his assertion that while he understood the frustration of the martyrs that he could not agree with their approach, but I was still struck by a palpable level of hatred for Israelis. He took great pains to make it clear that it was not Jews that he had a problem with, but Israelis that were not Arabs / Palestinians, who wanted to take control all of his homeland and stop his people from working or even surviving in the land where they have always lived. It was an interesting conversation, peppered with watching each others’ bags for coffee runs, cigarette breaks and toilet trips, and I’m glad that I met him. In fact this chance encounter made for the most contentious, random encounter of my trip, most of the rest had been smalltalk and pleasantries, which while nice and interesting on a trivial level had not really shown me anything new about the people that I met.
Morning finally broke over Halifax about half an hour after Sulaiman had headed through security and I threw a BK breakfast down my neck before heading out to the bus-stop to make sure that I did not miss the Arcadien Line to Saint John. Out at the bus-stop I met a lovely older couple from Ontario who were on their way home from their hideaway in the countryside near to Halifax. They were lovely and welcoming, and tried their hardest to have my next Tim’s as a ‘double, double’ (double cream, double sugar), despite my protestations that coffee should not have additives.
Finally the bus showed up and yet it was full, so the driver put me and the four other new passengers into two cabs out to Truro (the first stop), where he exhorted us to buy tickets for the rest of our journeys as well. It turns out that the bus is not technically supposed to stop at the airport because they have not secured a contract with the airport’s operating company, but all this means in practice is that they don’t sell tickets there. It took four hours to get to Monckton (where I had to change buses) and I slept for the vast majority of that leg of the journey, but once I was on the last leg from Monckton to Saint John I could not sleep any more – excitement was really kicking in at that point.
I cannot really begin to describe the sheer size of the New Brunswick countryside. I have been up to the wide open spaces of Scotland and the Lake District, and all I can say is that there is nothing the in the UK that can properly prepare one for the sheer scale of Canada. For much of the first hour out from Monckton I was able to look out of the bus window and see no sign of humans at all, apart from the road that we were on. No power lines, no roads, no houses – just trees as far as the eye could see. I spoke to a few people later on after I arrived in Saint John about this, and here is the best way I came up with to explain the overwhelming difference; New Brunswick is a small province in Canadian terms, and yet you can fit England into New Brunswick, in terms of land mass. Add to that the fact that there are only about 33Mn people in Canada as a whole, while there are an estimated 60-61Mn people in the UK and you start to get some idea of the different scales we are talking about. It just totally HUGE, there is no way to bend your melon around it.
Anyway, I arrived in Saint John just after two p.m. and was picked up at the bus station by Eric (the bridegroom) and Scott (the best man). They drove me up to Sarah’s parents’ place on the West Side, into the fog, and there I was met with a welcome of such warmth and generosity that my poor British self could barely take it. Sarah, and her parents Liz and Jim, and her sister Jen with nephew Gabe, and her Aunt Anne and her husband Brian were all filled with interest about my trip and offers of beer, coffee and all the sandwiches in the world. As I settled down to enjoy the feeling of coming to rest I started to realise that I was in the middle of some of the final preparations for the wedding. There were flowers and programmes and place setting markers and all kinds of wedding-based goodness flying around. I wandered out to the corner store about an hour later, having also been introduced to Sarah’s brother Noel and his girlfriend Laura, only to get utterly drenched in a flash shower that was so bad Noel came to get me in his car! With a view to waiting out the rain he drove me around the neighbourhood and showed me as much of the place as he could through the driving rain and fog.
The rest of the afternoon, once the rain stopped, was taken up with meeting Dean, Sarah and Eric’s Aussie mate from London who had also made it over for the wedding, and then going up to the home of one of Jim’s friends to borrow a car for the wedding. Doug and Sue’s place looks right down over the Grand Bay where the Kennebecasis River joins the Saint John River for the last few miles of its journey to the Bay of Fundy – I have never seen such a spectacular view from someone’s front room – ever. Doug is a Hot Air Balloon Pilot, as is Jim, and we saw some cool photos of balloons and also of Doug’s semi-tame deer that come up onto his lawn from the surrounding woods. On the way back to the house Noel, Dean and I stopped at Noel’s friend Dana’s house to borrow a jacket for the wedding from Dana, as Noel was lacking an appropriate jacket after a particularly exciting wedding a month earlier. Dana and his partner Robin showed us around their new place – they were just moving in – and I was struck by just how much you can get for your money in Canada at the moment. A lovely three bedroom house, standing in its own ground, with a basement that was frankly huge, and roughly a quarter of the asking price that such a property would have in the UK at the moment. It may well become a recurring theme of these posts that I would like to live in Canada, particularly in the Maritimes, if I get the chance.
That evening was a chance to go out into Saint John’s night-life and meet the rest of ‘the guys’, specifically the other Groomsmen and the other guy who was going to be taking photographs. We had a great time at a bar called the Alehouse, and I now know why the local beer is called Moosehead, because the next morning I felt as though someone had hit me in the head with a Moose.
Ok, I need to head out into San Francisco and not spend the entire day at the computer, so there will be more about Canada later / tomorrow, and hopefully another Video Blog at some point too… For now, tata!