broadsideblog

Over the Niagara River, Suspended Between Two Countries

In culture on August 23, 2009 at 6:22 am
Description: Photograph of an Amtrak train. Ph...

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Today I’m heading north by train, arriving in Toronto 12 hours later. And the day began, at 6:20, with an enormous rainbow over the Hudson River.

There are few journeys, certainly planned that way in North America, that still take 12 hours — usually what you expect in developing nations in small, crowded rattling buses filled with chickens. I’ll settle in with a huge stack of unread magazines, some music, a book. I love traveling by train, even unloved Amtrak. I like watching the landscape change, feeling all those miles.

We always lose at least one hour, and sometimes more, waiting at the border, where uniformed guards with sniffer dogs and latex gloves board the train, deadly serious in their pursuit — on whatever side of the border it is — of those they deem sufficiently suspicious, or insufficiently documented, to interrogate and possibly toss off. I once saw a young-ish woman with her small child removed from the seat right in front of me.

There’s a point in this journey, one I’ve made many times, that always leaves me a little torn, suspended between my two countries, as the train crosses the bridge spanning the Niagara River, its spray visible off to one side. I can see Canada beckoning, the red and white maple leaf flag and the bilingual signs, and the Stars and Stripes receding. Or vice versa. Which one is home? To which do I owe my deepest allegiance? Canadians who leave the country lose the right to vote there and, unlike Americans, don’t pay taxes when non-resident citizens. Once you’re gone, you’re gone.

Having lived in the U.S. since January 1988, where I’ve had many jobs, published a book, married and divorced and own property, it’s now home. But so, still, is Canada, in fundamental and blessedly unchanging ways, from boring-to-Americans shared cultural references to the comfort of my ancient history — my former homes and favorite shops, college boyfriends and camp room-mates and my high school best friend Sally who I see almost every time. I go to visit my Dad, now 80, meet some editors, wander the gorgeous downtown campus of my alma mater, the University of Toronto, catch up with friends of 20, even 30 years’ standing. I’ll re-stock the necessities like 222s (not a gun but a powerful headache remedy with codeine in it) and Canadian candy, truly the best. I’ll savor a butter tart (nope, they’re not made of butter!) and maybe indulge in a peameal bacon sandwich at the St. Lawrence Market, one of the world’s best indoor markets.

Deep sigh of pleasure.

Don’t forget: J-Day is Thursday, a powerful, emotional interview with two best-selling journalists/authors, former Los Angeles Times religion writer William Lobdell and T/S contributor, GQ writer and former Newsweek reporter Michael Hastings.

  1. When I was a boy in upstate New York my grandfather was a station agent for the New York Central Railroad. He was in charge of three depots in different small towns. We lived in Adams, a short haul from Watertown and the St. Lawrence River. My uncle, who lived near us, was an engineer who made short hauls from Watertown to Utica, or Binghampton, sometimes to Syracuse and beyond. He also worked the roundhouse in Watertown which was sort of a garage for train engines and pointed them to their correct loads and tracks. I was nine when my mother remarried and we moved with my stepfather to a little town on the St. Lawrence almost in view of the St. Lawrence Seaway – the great joint effort between Canada and the United States. We visited Canada a lot, although I can’t remember that much. In 1970 I was living in Bellingham, Washington and drove to Vancouver many times for music, Chinese food, and to visit a couple of buddies who were dodging the draft. What’s up with the work visa thing? I saw the Sandra Bullock movie. I think we’re all a little Canadian. Tom Medlicott

  2. I too think we’re all a little Canadian. My favorite mother-in-law was from Collingwood and is my best connection to the land, but my memories of visits to Toronto and Victoria and environs are all just pure joy. Thanks for the return.

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