It’s an annual event that began in 1935 in San Diego — when active servicemen/women aboard Coast Guard, Navy and Marine vessels dock in a city and let us see what their life, and ship, is like. It’s also a reminder that Manhattan is an island, and a working harbor, its western edge lined with piers, (usually hosting gigantic cruise ships.)
It’s so cool each spring to see all the sailors fanning out across Manhattan in their pristine uniforms, some enjoying it for the first time, others on a repeated visit.
But I’d never gone aboard one of the vessels, some of them 600-foot-long warships that have patrolled the world’s most dangerous regions.
This year — a huge thrill for me — I was invited by the Canadian consulate aboard a Canadian ship, the 181-foot HMCS Glace Bay, built in Halifax, for an event to celebrate Canada’s 150th. anniversary.
It was a brutal day of torrential rain, wind and cold, and we stood under a leaky (!) canopy on the gray metal deck. There was lovely finger food and Canadian cider, which helped.
What an impressive crowd!
As you walked up the steep gangplank to board, a crew of white-uniformed officers stood to greet us and, when senior officers arrived, each was piped aboard with a three-tone whistle to alert us all to their presence.
There were generals, their chests ablaze with military honors. There was an FBI cyber-crime expert and the head of intelligence for the NYPD. I chatted with three Navy veterans, one a gunner, and with the aide to a Marine general and to a Canadian MP.
I’d never had the chance to speak to active servicemen; we traded notes on what it’s like to train at Quantico, (as I did some shooting there while researching my first book) and what it’s like to fend off pirates in the Gulf of Aden.
It was deeply humbling to meet all these people whose job it is, whose vocation it is, to serve and protect us. Most of them had been in the service long enough to retire with full pension (after 20 years) but loved it so much they continue in their work.
That was a refreshing thing to hear, in an economy that’s so perilous for so many.
While Americans are more accustomed to seeing their military, and veterans in everyday life, it’s much less visible in Canada, so this really was a rare treat for me.
Not to mention, to my surprise, a celebrity guest who came out, even on his birthday — actor and comedian Mike Myers. He lives here in New York, and moved to the States a year before I did, in 1988, from the same city of origin, Toronto. He showed me photos of his three daughters on his phone and it felt like chatting with an old friend.
That’s actually pretty Canadian.
Maybe because we come from a huge country with a small population (35.8 million) or our national innate reflex to remain modest, low-key and approachable. If he’d been cold or starchy, that would have been more of a shock than his genuine kindness to everyone he met that day.
We spoke for a while; his mom had served in the RCAF, in a role that was a family secret for decades.
I’m usually not a big celebrity geek, but he was so warm and down to earth, just another fellow Canadian proud to come out and celebrate with the rest of us.
First question — why would anyone do such a thing?
Today’s temperature? 18 F, -8 Celsius.
Bloody cold, kids!
It was a week that fit my work schedule and I needed to renew my passport. I could have mailed away my old one (no thanks!) and paid $260. Instead I spent a lot more to stay in a rented flat for a week off, to see old friends and family.
I was out of the downtown Toronto airport — located on an island in the harbor — by 10:30 a.m., got my photos taken and had my application in, ($210, all in, including $50 for the rush job) by 12:30. Sweet!
Isn’t this a hoot? The Museum subway stop, which has been renovated and designed to a fantastic level (the Royal Ontario Museum sits just above)
Here are some of the things I’m enjoying this week, despite the bitter winds and blowing snow:
Seeing dear old friends
Catching up with people I knew at summer camp 40 years ago and from my college years at University of Toronto. My friend K was pregnant with her first child when she danced at my first wedding — her daughter is now a successful actress here. Whew!
Thinking in metric and Celsius
I bought 100 grams of salami, and have to keep looking up the temperature in F.
No pennies. Loonies and toonies. (Those are $1 and $2 coins.) The Canadian dollar is 74 cents U.S., giving me an automatic discount on everything I spend here.
A modern, downtown rented flat
It came up on a search on Trivago, $109 U.S. per night for a 700 square foot condo on the 30th floor of a residential building downtown. It’s super-bright, quiet, and has a brand-new kitchen, bathroom and comfortable queen bed. I come and go with all the other residents, meeting their kids and dogs in the elevator. I like it.
OK, no big deal, but I love these biscuits, not easy to find in New York — here, for sale in a subway newsstand
Went to the legendary, enormous St. Lawrence Market, (took the streetcar for $3.25), to buy food for breakfasts at home and, of course (always!) fresh flowers to make the flat feel more like home. Brought home an olive baguette, a muffin, some cheese and pate and salami, butter, jam, fruit and a fistful of glorious, fragrant purple hyacinth.
Restaurants, bars, cafes
Had a very good lunch at Milagro, a 10-year-old Mexican restaurant, the one on Mercer. Anything that survives that long in a foodie city must be good, and my meal was.
Loved Balzac’s, a cafe chain across Ontario. I stopped in at the one next to the Market for a cappuccino and a scone.
A must-do on most of my visits is the roof bar on the 14th floor of the Hyatt Hotel, at the corner of Bloor and Avenue Road. Small, intimate, quiet, elegant, it has terrific views of the city. I’ve been drinking there since college — Victoria College at University of Toronto is only two blocks south — so it’s full of memories. On one visit, the Prime Minister and his entourage sat in a corner.
My friend J introduced me to the Museum Tavern, a terrific five-year-old bistro directly across the street from the Royal Ontario Museum. Great atmosphere and food — and lots of memories, with some of the original decor from a long-closed TO restaurant I once enjoyed, Bemelman’s.
I left Toronto decades ago and the downtown core has totally transformed, thanks to a forest of condo skyscrapers, which means there is every possible amenity within a few blocks.
I took a spin class at 7:45 at night, then walked a few blocks, slowly, back to the flat, staring up into the night sky at the CN Tower, with its lights beaming in rainbow colors. (I once interviewed the man who designed it — then later got a marriage proposal from him — and recently ran into him in a town near our NY home. Small world!)
Yes, Toronto has racial tensions and even crime, just like other major cities. But it’s overwhelmingly a city of immigrants, with every nation you can imagine represented. I miss that; New York City is, arguably, diverse, but it’s very segregated economically.
A cardboard Mountie stands guard at St. Lawrence Market. A must-see!
Last night’s astounding concert by the Tragically Hip, whose lead singer, Gord Downie, 52, has an incurable brain tumor, the kind that killed an American legend, Senator Ted Kennedy.
It was broadcast by CBC, and we watched it here at home in NY on television, live-tweeting with fellow Canadians.
One guy tweeted — “I’m in Seattle. Where can I find a bar showing it?” I tweeted the link and he tweeted back, “Watching it. Thanks!”
Another Twitter pal needed to find a place to stay near Kingston, an area we know fairly well, and I tweeted out my suggestion.
One friend watched it on her phone in her car on a road trip from Toronto, sitting in New Mexico.
Canadians at the Olympics in Rio shared a hello.
Canadians in VietNam and Africa tweeted hello.
The Hip, as they’re known, have been together for 30 years, an unchanged line-up, since they met in Kingston, Ontario — fittingly, the site of last night’s concert, the last of a national tour.
The arena had 6,000 people in it, while Market Square, usually a venue for farmers selling carrots and maple syrup, burst with astonishing 20,000 fans.
In the arena audience, wearing a Hip T-shirt and a jean jacket, standing alone, (although clearly not without security nearby), was Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, eight years younger than Downie.
No fuss was made about him. He didn’t grandstand or make a speech.
Thank God. That was so typically Canadian — low-key, modest, no need to make a fuss or draw attention away from the main event.
It was Downie who called out to Trudeau, putting him on notice (and praising him for a good start) to address the many needs of Canada’s aboriginals, facing appalling rates of murder and suicide.
The show went almost three hours, with three encores, an astonishing length for any band, and for a man whose craniotomy scar was visible, etched into his face, mostly hidden beneath an array of hats with feathers, hard to imagine. (The show’s TV credits included his “wellness” team, and his oncologist has been traveling with him.)
His costumes were goofy and playful — a silver suit, a pink metallic suit, a sparkly silver suit. A Jaws T-shirt.
Two striped socks pinned together at his throat to keep it warm, he explained.
He cried, although it was hard to tell his sweat from his tears.
It made me deeply homesick.
Living in the U.S., which I have for decades, means living in a place where Canada is seen as a bit of a joke, all hockey and beer. It gets old and it gets lonely when no one knows — or cares about — your shared cultural references.
There are also very few times Canadians get weepy and emotional and wave enormous flags at one another in public.
Canada is good when it’s viewed and heard through the Tragically Hip, and the Tragically Hip is good when they’re viewed and heard through us. No other band stretched our potential as a nation of popular art. They put weird songs on the radio. They put thousands in stadiums listening to strange, wild jams. They wrestled our inherent Presbyterianism and won over a public that, more often than not, demurred when it came to stronger flavours. They offered an anti-hero as hero who was as interested in promoting his brand and chiselling his image as he was selling cars or soap or gasoline. For all of their commercial proportions, the Tragically Hip weren’t a commercial band. They have a sense of composure, and dignity. And grace, too.
In terms of history, and the history of art in Canada, we scramble to celebrate what’s good or who’s done what and why this thing or that person matters, but it’s often in the greasy sizzle of a sudden trend or in the twinkling glimmer of the rear-view mirror. But with the Hip, we were given the chance to cheer them not through museum glass, but in the hot thrall of the moment. We were able to point to them – point to Gord, whose courage as a performer will be forever burnt into our imagination – as they deadheaded across the country.
As we, living in the U.S., face day after day after day after day of the insanity and toxicity of liars like Ryan Lochte and Donald Trump, what a refreshing break from bullshit and spin and feeling like I need a shower every time I listen to one more piece of trash being sold to me as gold.
It’s become something of a new anthem in itself…”I’m moving to Canada!” if Trump (or whichever Presidential candidate most terrifies/disgusts/depresses you) wins the nomination, or Presidency.
Not so fast!
I left Canada, where I was born (in Vancouver) and raised (in Toronto and Montreal) in 1988 to take a temporary editing job in Lebanon, New Hampshire.
Why there? I was madly in love with an American, a physician doing his medical residency at Dartmouth College after studying at McGill; we met when he was in Montreal. We later married — and divorced.
I came to the U.S. on an H1-B, a visa that’s difficult to get — the employer must advertise the position and be demonstrably unable to fill it with a qualified American. I initially came for three months, but had long wanted to come permanently, able to do so thanks to my mother’s American citizenship, which allowed me to obtain a “green card”, and become (o’ infelicitous phrase!) a “resident alien.”
I’ve lived in New York, in a suburban town near Manhattan, since 1989. It stuns me sometimes to realize it’s been so long, but I’m still here.
Like many Canadians, blessed with a terrific university education, (and zero debt upon graduation, thanks to low tuition costs), I felt, and was, able to compete with sharp-elbowed Americans all grasping for the various brass rings of publishing and journalism.
I craved a larger place to test out my skills. (It’s not easy!)
My maternal grandmother and her antecedents were all American, as are many cousins, some of them highly accomplished, one an ambassador, another an archaeologist. I was curious to know more about the culture that had shaped them.
Canadians are deluged by American media so it’s not as though we don’t hear about the place, all the time.
I was also tired of constantly being mistaken for an American, a very odd experience from fellow Canadians, where being openly ambitious is a no-no.
Not in New York!
Canada is usually routinely invisible to American news outlets. We’re used to it.
But now that the 2016 Presidential election campaign has become a bizarre and frightening circus, many Americans are wondering if that nation to the North — the one they typically ignore in quieter times — is a better option.
While Canada recently welcomed 25,000 Syrian refugees, don’t be too quick to assume there’s an equal welcome for thousands of panicked Americans eager to flee a political scene they find abhorrent.
Read the Canadian government website for potential immigrants and you’ll find a list of exclusions, from health and financial problems to a DUI conviction. Yes, some of you will be able to obtain work visas, but many Canadian jobs pay less than you’re used to – and taxes are higher. You’ll also wait longer for access to some medical care.
Before assuming Canada is a default lifetsyle option, read its newspapers and listen to the CBC. Read our history and some of our authors, not just the ones you know, like Margaret Atwood or Alice Munro. Talk to people who live there. In other words, before you reassure yourself that if it comes to a Trump inauguration, you can pack your bags and head to Vancouver (maybe not Vancouver – CRAZY expensive to live there), you might want to take a minute to acquaint yourself with some specific attributes of that country to the north
I wrote the piece from a place of mixed emotions.
In some ways I miss Canada terribly — my oldest and dearest friends, my personal history, a political climate that doesn’t demonize women for wanting reproductive freedom or gays for wanting to marry.
I miss a shared culture and its references.
Not to mention Justin Trudeau, our new 44-year-old Prime Minister.
But I also left for reasons.
This is the challenge of every ex-patriate and immigrant; we leave a place we know well and possibly love, throwing our fresh hopes onto a new land and its values, political and economic.
For the first time since moving here, I’ve wondered about moving back, even for a year. My American husband loves Canada and has portable skills. We’ll see.
How about you?
Is moving to Canada an option you would ever consider?
Have you seen the new film “Brooklyn”? From the excellent novel by U.S.-based Irish writer Colm Toibin.
I saw it this week and was once more struck by the question of what’s home for those of us who have chosen to leave behind the country of our birth.
We didn’t flee in terror, so we’re not refugees who simply can’t stay in our country of origin, and leave knowing that we might never be able to return.
If we’re really lucky, we arrive in our new country with health, some savings, a good post-secondary education and skills, speaking the new language and with friends, relatives and/or a decent job awaiting.
In the film “Brooklyn”, young Eilis, the heroine, leaves the small Irish town of Enniscorthy for Brooklyn, with a job as a sales clerk in a department store arranged for her. A local priest also pays for her night classes in accounting.
It’s a lovely film, and one I enjoyed — but it is a golden story, and a much smoother arrival than many face.
I left my native Canada in 1988 to move from Montreal to small town New Hampshire, legally allowed to do so because of my mother’s American citizenship, which gave me access to a “green card”, the coveted right to live and work legally in the U.S.
I arrived in New York in 1989 with the man I would later marry — and soon be divorced from — with no job or contacts or advanced degree, which I would discover most my competitors in journalism possessed.
Then I weathered three recessions and an industry that has lost 40 percent of its workforce since 2008. Reinvention once is challenging enough. Post-secondary education in the U.S. is often extremely costly, and student loans are the only debt you can never discharge through declaring bankruptcy; I recently interviewed a young woman who owes more than $200,000 — for an undergraduate degree at a non-Ivy League school, a choice she now bitterly regrets.
I’ve been back to Canada many times since then, sometimes as often as four to six times a year. I’m not super-homesick, but it’s an easy drive for us, and I still have very close friends back in Ontario.
Every visit leaves me with a mixture of regret and relief. Regret for leaving friendships of a depth I’ve never found here and a kind of social capital impossible to achieve in a nation with 10 times the population of Canada.
But also relief for the option of another place to be, to try new things — like becoming a nationally ranked saber fencer and studying interior design — the freedom to create a new identity. I know I’ve done things while living in the States I’d never have ventured at home.
(I’ve also lived in England, France and Mexico, albeit for shorter periods of time.)
The oddest moment for me is when I head north by train, because as it’s crossing the bridge high above the Niagara River we’re briefly suspended between the United States and Canada, their respective flags visible as well as the clouds of mist rising from Niagara Falls.
What better metaphor?
In the film, Eilis is initially wracked with homesickness; small-town Ireland, though, is so much more different from Brooklyn than big-city Toronto, where I grew up. It was no huge shock for me to arrive in New York, having visited many times before.
It was a shock for me to adjust to some American ways of behaving, from the relentless pressure to be real friendlyall the time (exhausting!) to the omnipresence of privately-owned guns, (the subject of my first book.)
I still have difficult processing, (which I now pronounce as prawh-cess, not the Canadian pro-cess), the values of a country where everyone, everywhere, exhorts one another to “Have a good day!” — while millions of people own guns and many people now fear teaching in any classroom (thanks to so many college campus shooting massacres and that in Newtown, CT) or going to the movies (ditto) or just being in the wrong place at the wrong time.p
And the poverty rate of 18 percent — 12 percent in Canada (OECD figures) — is depressing as hell to me.
Watching a movie about immigration to the U.S., (my favorite of the few on that subject is the 2009 indie film, Amreeka), suddenly brought up a host of feelings I usually keep under wraps; when you move to another country, you’re expected to fit in, to adopt its ways, to salute its flag and (in the U.S.) recite the Pledge of Allegiance, which I still don’t know or do.
In “Brooklyn” Eilis flees a tiny, gossipy town with few job prospects — the same reason I left Toronto, a city of 2.6 million now.
I recently had lunch there with a young friend, 32, who is super-smart and has a fantastic work history in his field. Yet he echoed what I keep hearing from people decades younger than I there, a deep aversion to taking risks. As one friend, also in her 30s, reminded me, if you misjudge the size or enthusiasm of the Canadian marketplace for your idea, there’s nowhere to hide your failure. With only a few major cities, where to go next?
And failing, getting fired, losing market share — these remain shameful in Canada for many people. That, in itself, discourages innovation, let alone the social and financial capital it takes to move ahead.
In the States?
Hah! People like Martha Stewart go to prison and come out unscathed, returning to their wealth and social circles. It can create a culture of lying and deception, (see: New York Legislature and its parade of felony convictions for corruption), but also encourages risk taking.
If dozens, if not hundreds, of people hadn’t been willing to take chances on me here, I’d have nothing to show for my own risk in coming here. I’m always grateful for that, and to them.
When you leave your home country behind, you also lose — especially in pre-Internet, social media days — the intimacy of your friends and family’s lives, all those births and christenings and showers and weddings you probably can’t afford the time or money to celebrate in person.
When I married for the second time, I chose to do so on a small island in the harbor of Toronto, a place filled with happy memories and the people I still feel closest to, even decades later.
I’ve made some friends in New York, but few, and several friendships here I thought would — as my Canadian relationships have — last for decades ended abruptly, three of them within a few years. That’s a cultural divide I’ve never accepted or been able to successfully breach.
In Toronto on our last visit, I sat with a friend from university and her 23-year-old daughter, who I’d first met as a bump in her mother’s belly at my first wedding and only once more when she was 13. Now she’s an accomplished actress.
There are some immigrants whose lives explode into massive wealth and success when they choose the U.S. Others find the grinding lack of social safety nets and ever-shaky job market, (zero job security, few unions, low wages, extraordinary competition), simply too much and return ‘home” once more.
If you have changed countries for a new one — especially the U.S. — how does/did that feel?
If you’re lucky, there are places you find in your travels that you enjoy so much you keep returning, sometimes for decades.
For us, since the year 2001, right after the attacks of 9/11 — which I wrote about and of which my husband edited horrific images for The New York Times — it’s been a town of 750 people about 90 minutes south of Montreal, North Hatley, Quebec.
I first came there in the mid 1980s with my first husband, back when we lived in Montreal and wanted a weekend’s break together. I went horseback riding in deep snow, galloping along in a black coat feeling like an out-take from Dr. Zhivago.
Jose, (my second husband,) and I came here after 9/11, desperate for a respite, a calm, beautiful place in which to recharge and flee the widespread fear we all felt then. A place we did not have to get to by airplane.
I like that we can drive to it easily, within about 6.5 hours from our home in New York.
I like that it’s in Canada, my home country.
I love hearing and being able to speak French, to read La Presse at the breakfast table, as well as my two former employers, the Montreal Gazette and The Globe & Mail.
I can buy items impossible to find in the U.S., like Mackintosh toffee or Shreddies cereal.
We stay in a resort that’s enough of a splurge we usually come every two years and stay for 3 or 4 nights. The place, Manoir Hovey, now owned by the second generation of Staffords, began as the summer home of an American businessman and later was turned into a hotel.
We just went for our seventh visit.
I love its sense of history and timelessness.
The walls of one public room are lined with a stunning array of artifacts — tomahawks and scythes and early ice tongs. A birchbark canoe made in 1923 hangs from the ceiling.
The wood paneled hallways, lit by stained glass lanterns, have photos of the Canadian ski team here — in 1959. There are early maps of the area and photos of women in white linen in canoes on the lake, probably from 1905 or so.
There’s an enormous bellows hanging on an exterior wall, a terrific artifact of earlier eras and a cosy pub area that feels like an out-take from a 1930s movie.
Like many of their guests, we keep returning, happy to see familiar faces and enjoy a place we know well.
I grew up in a family where, as an adult, my parents’ home wasn’t always open or welcoming to me and to my husband. We needed to find a place we loved and would want to return to whenever we could afford it; when the Canadian dollar drops to 74 cents U.S. (as it has now), that helps!
And so, over the past 14 years, we’ve been back in all four seasons, whether stumbling down the Manoir’s icy driveway in midwinter or kicking through autumn leaves. I’ve canoed here, even close to a few beavers.
We spent New Year’s Eve here once, and met a very dramatic red-headed ballerina, with hair to her waist, and with a house in the south of France some admirer — of course! — had given her.
Guests range in age from 20s to 70s, and conversations are in both French and English; I speak French, and love to hear it all around me. We chatted with a young couple celebrating their 10th anniversary, and he, an engineer working at Bombardier, regaled us with stories of their latest aircraft design.
Breakfast and dinner are included in the price, so you just settle in, whether beside the fireplace in the library in winter or a pale gray lawn chair on the dock in summer.
It’s my perfect combination: elegant but not stuffy, welcoming but not overbearing, timeless but refreshed as needed. (And no, no one paid me to say so!)
We do hope to hold a mid-winter workshop there in February 2016 — one for photographers and one for writers.
Details to come!
The town of North Hatley is tiny, but has two great grocery stores, a few good restaurants and an affordable antique store and barn so packed with treasures you can barely move; our apartment is filled with lovely things we’ve found there over the years, from a wooden-framed Mideastern mirror to a tiny carved wooden squirrel signed by its maker to a classically Quebec souvenir — a catalogne. Ours is pure white, and covers my desk.
This is the week I celebrate both my countries — July 1 is Canada Day. I was born and raised there, (Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal) and the U.S., where I’ve lived since 1988, celebrates July 4.
We have a big Canadian flag we’ll hang off the balcony. After my hip replacement, in February 2012, I walked the hospital hallway, thinking it might be fun — with ceramic and metal in me for good, now — to look like a super-hero.
It’s odd to have become a long-term expatriate, (a word often mis-spelled, with an interesting twist of meaning, as ex-patriot.) When do you become an immigrant? When you take the citizenship of your new land? I will probably do so here because of estate planning issues; I’ll be able to retain both passports.
Ironically, my ability to come to, and stay in, the U.S. was thanks to my mother’s American citizenship. She now lives near my birthplace, Vancouver, and I now live near hers, New York City.
I do miss my Canadian friends and a shared set of cultural references so Jose and I head north usually 2-4 times a year.
Will I ever move back? Hard to say. Living in the States is rougher professionally, but new opportunities come much more easily here, I’ve found.
— The singer Neil Young had a very nice guy for a dad, Scott Young, who worked in the same Toronto newsroom as I did, The Globe & Mail, as a sportswriter.
— If you love the work of smart, tough-minded women writers like Margaret Atwood (who attended my Toronto high school), Alice Munro, Margaret Laurence and Miriam Toews, you’re reading Canadians.
— If you’re in Canada and need a painkiller, ask a pharmacist for a bottle of 222s, which have codeine in them (forbidden in the U.S. without a prescription). They work great.
— Canadian candy bars rock! My favorites include Big Turk, Crispy Crunch, Aero and Crunchie , all of them in milk chocolate. American mass-market chocolate, like Hershey’s, is a contradiction in terms.
— To truly understand how Canadians ran the 18th. and 19th-century fur trade, kneel in a wooden canoe and paddle for a week or so. Then do some really long, twisty, slippery, muddy, rocky portages, swatting away black flies and mosquitoes as you hump the canoe and all your packs on your shoulders between lakes or rivers. Visit the Canadian Canoe Museum in Peterborough, Ontario to see a replica of a voyageur canoe, used by the earliest explorers. They are simply amazing. It’s one of my favorite museums in the world.
— There are some astounding fossils to be seen in the Badlands of Alberta. The Royal Tyrell Museum is well worth a stop!
— A great way to enjoy Vancouver’s Stanley Park is to rent a bike and ride the whole thing. As you circle the seawall, you’ll see huge freighters off-shore and dozens of float-planes zooming overhead.
— If you’ve never tried poutine, tourtiere, a butter tart or a Nanaimo bar, go for it! They’re all caloric suicide, but well-loved: cheese curds with gravy; a meat pie; a sweet small tart and a chocolate, icing-covered brownie. Hey, those long cold Canadian winters require some metabolic stoking!
And here is my favorite short video of all time, Canadian Please.
You may never have heard of her — while those of us who grew up singing along to her work keep playing and re-playing her work — after all, there are 28 albums listed on her official website.
She officially retired in 2002, although you’ve likely heard one of the 587 (!) versions of her song “Both Sides Now”, written when she was only 21. Singers including Taylor Swift and Madonna have cited her as a major influence on their work.
A winner of eight Grammy awards, her classic album “Blue” was named one of the 100 best albums ever made by Time magazine.
She started out as a visual artist but got pregnant, gave her daughter up for adoption, and only by accident fell into her long career as a singer/songwriter.
She started out living in a small Western Canadian town, where her mother “raised me on words.”
She’s even inspired 47 songs by others, as recently as 2011 — including the classic “Our House” By Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” by Neil Young, yet another Canadian.
Many other artists have recorded her work, some of them making her songs into hits. A favorite, “Michael from Mountains”, off the 1967 classic by Judy Collins, “Wildflowers” is a song written by Mitchell.
I have so many favorites among her work, but Hejira is an album I could play all day every day and never tire of. The word has several meanings, one of which is “a journey to escape something dangerous or undesireable.” It came out when I was a second-year university student, living alone in a crummy small apartment in Toronto, struggling to combine freelance photography with full-time studies at a large and demanding bureaucratic institution.
(If you’re lucky enough to be in Pacific Beach, CA on November 9, 2013, a band called Robin Adler and the Mutts will perform the entire album. Wish I could be there!)
Hejira expressed the aching, overwhelming multitude of feelings I felt so powerfully then — joy and excitement at leaving my family home for good; fear I would not do so successfully; dating a succession of men, many of them unlikely; trying to define who I was as a young woman in the larger world.
I love this lyric — talk about the wrong man!
No regrets, coyote
We just come from such different sets of circumstance
I’m up all night in the studio
And you’re up early on your ranch
This is a verse from “Amelia”, nominally about Amelia Earhart, but which resonates for me, still, as someone happiest in motion, in flight, traveling somewhere new:
The drone of flying engines
Is a song so wild and blue
It scrambles time and seasons if it gets thru to you
Then your life becomes a travelogue
Of picture post card charms
Amelia it was just a false alarm
The average Manhattan apartment, at $3,973 a month, costs almost $2,800 more than the average rental nationwide. The average sale price of a home in Manhattan last year was $1.46 million, according to a recent Douglas Elliman report, while the average sale price for a new home in the United States was just under $230,000. The middle class makes up a smaller proportion of the population in New York than elsewhere in the nation. New Yorkers also live in a notably unequal place. Household incomes in Manhattan are about as evenly distributed as they are in Bolivia or Sierra Leone — the wealthiest fifth of Manhattanites make 40 times more than the lowest fifth, according to 2010 census data.
Ask people around the country, “Are you middle-class?” and the answer is likely to be yes. But ask the same question in Manhattan, and people often pause in confusion, unsure exactly what you mean.
What many people outside New York don’t know, necessarily, is that many “New Yorkers”, and I include myself in that bunch, have never lived in The City, as we call Manhattan. It’s too damn expensive!
They live on Staten Island or Queens or the Bronx or Brooklyn or (as we do) in Westchester or New Jersey or Long Island or Connecticut. We waste hours of our lives trading time for money, commuting an hour or more each way.
Since leaving my hometown, Toronto, in 1986 — where real estate is insanely expensive, (only Vancouver is worse), — I’ve lived in Montreal, a small town in New Hampshire and in suburban New York. I’ve seen huge differences of the cost of living firsthand.
In Toronto, rent/mortgage costs are high, almost no matter where you live. In Montreal I rented a stunning apartment — top floor of a 1930s building, with a working fireplace, elegant windows, two bedrooms, dining room, good-sized kitchen — for $600 a month. It was the 1980s, but my then boyfriend was paying $125 a month to share the entire top floor of an apartment building. I didn’t need a car, food and utilities were reasonable, but the taxes! Holy shit. I moved to Montreal with a $10,000 a year raise, and looked forward to extra income. I only kept $200 a month of that, the taxes were so bad. More to the point, I hated the lack of services I got in return — a high crime rate, pot-holed roads, lousy hospitals and libraries. I moved away within 18 months. (Not to mention a winter that lasted from October to May. Non, merci!)
Rural New Hampshire, with the U.S.’s lowest taxes, was cheap enough, but we needed two working vehicles, plus gas, insurance and maintenance, an expense I never needed in Toronto or Montreal.
Moving to suburban New York, where we bought a one-bedroom 1,000 square foot top-floor apartment, with a balcony, pool and tennis court, allowed us a decent monthly payment, thanks to a 30-year mortgage, all we could then afford on one salary, his, a medical resident.
I still live here, now with my second husband, paying $1,800 a month for mortgage and maintenance combined. That may sound like a fortune, but it’s pennies in this part of the world. We could easily spend that for a tiny studio in Manhattan. He pays $250 a month for his train pass to travel a 40-minute trip one-way into Manhattan.
The larger problem? Our salaries are stagnant, if not falling. I earned more in 2000 freelance than any year since then.
Gas here in New York is just under $4/gallon — it was 89 cents a gallon in 1988 when I came to the U.S. Food is much more expensive than even two years ago, so we spend about $150+ every week for two people. We do eat meat and I work at home, so I often eat three meals a day out of that.
Our cellphone bill is absurdly high and something we need to lower. Electricity is about $75 a month as is the basic land-line bill. We also pay about $100 for a storage locker and $75 a month for our (unheated, unlit, no automatic door opener) garage.
The local YMCA wants $89 a month, (which I think really expensive) for a monthly single membership. One of the worst issues here? Tolls! It costs $4 each way to cross the cheapest bridge to get into the island of Manhattan, and another is $9 each way. Parking, if you choose a garage in the city, is routinely $25-50 for a few hours, while a parking ticket is more than $100.
These smack-in-the-face costs are only bearable, for me, because I’m self-employed as a writer, and can write most of them off as business expenses.
So why stay?
— My husband has a steady, union-protected job with a pension and a decent salary
— He likes his job
— I have ready access to the editors, agents and others in my industry I need to support my writing career. Online is not enough to build profitable relationships, at least for me
— I enjoy New York City a great deal. I love ready access to Broadway, Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, fun shops and restaurants and quiet cobble-stoned streets to wander on a fall afternoon
— Where would we go? I have learned (after two deeply disappointing moves to Montreal and New Hampshire) that being happy somewhere is often a complex mix of things: housing (and its cost and quality), access to culture, a liberal (or conservative) environment politically, neighbors who share some of your interests and passions, weather, climate, taxes, government, your job/career/industry.
As several fellow Canadians I know said, “I moved to New York, not the U.S.” I’ve seen a lot of the States, and can appreciate the appeal of many other places here. But almost nowhere has made me feel confident enough to up stakes and start all over again. I was up for a cool job in San Francisco once, but the dotcom collapse ended that. I like L.A. a lot, but Jose refuses. (Next stop? South of France, s’il vous plait!)
— I love the Hudson Valley’s beauty and history
— We have some good friends, finally.
Here’s a fascinating blog post by a Canadian then living in Sardinia, now in the Cayman Islands, about the cost of living there. Many of her followers weighed in, from Hawaii to China.
Is how my national anthem begins. One of them. The Star-Spangled Banner is the other.
I left Canada, where I was born (Vancouver) and raised (Toronto, Montreal) in 1988 to move to the U.S.
I’m back again for a few weeks, with no greater agenda than seeing old friends, attending a service at the island church where I was married last September, poking around antique stores.
Just being home.
I started my nine-hour drive by crossing the Hudson River, the Manhattan skyline ghostly in the distance, but the spires of the Empire State Building and new Freedom Tower clearly visible. The trip is easy, but wearying as I covered pretty much the entire length of New York State, a 5.5 hour journey just to reach the Canadian border.
I spent the drive listening to some of my favorite tunes from college — Hejira by Joni Mitchell and Talking Heads — but soon switched to Radio-Canada to listen to the news and weather en francais. I love speaking French and hearing it and miss that piece of my native culture terribly. Americans are furious when others refuse to speak English; we grow up in a country founded by two nations, French and English, and much of what we read and touch (cereal boxes, government signs, toothpaste) is labeled in both tongues.
Hejira is a great choice for a woman traveling alone by car — as Mitchell wrote it while on road trip from Maine to L.A., and she says it’s suffused with “the sweet loneliness of solitary travel.” Is it ever!
I loved “Refuge of the Road”, which I think might be my theme song.
Here’s the final verse:
In a highway service station
Over the month of June
Was a photograph of the earth
Taken coming back from the moon
And you couldn’t see a city
On that marbled bowling ball
Or a forest or a highway
Or me here least of all
You couldn’t see these cold water restrooms
Or this baggage overload
Westbound and rolling taking refuge in the roads
It’s a measure of the independence we both value in our marriage that two days after our anniversary, I left for a two-week trip by myself. I feel such a hunger to travel. Sometimes I really need to travel alone. And I always need to come back to Canada.
It’s such a different place from the U.S., even though both speak English and, to many eyes, look so alike.
Even basics like:
Metric measurements, a $2 coin and colored paper money. A wicked HST adding serious tax to everything — my $2 newspaper cost $2.26.
And the sort of rock-ribbed political liberalism that’s exceptionally rare in the U.S., certainly in the mass media, like this story in the Toronto Star, about an AWOL American female soldier living with her five kids (two born in Canada) in a one-bedroom apartment. Kimberly Rivera, the first female war resister here, was to be deported today.
I’m a little desperate right now to flee the ugliness and in(s)anity of the American Presidential election campaign, and the class warfare that is only getting worse and worse — the latest issue of Fortune magazine asking us not to hate the 1% but emulate them instead.
I miss my personal history, and re-visiting the places and light and landscape that shaped me; Jose deeply misses his New Mexico skies and mountains. He gets it.
And I always miss my oldest friends, people I’ve known since I was 16 or 22. I’ve found it very hard to make good friends in New York.
I like going to the drugstore and the grocery store and seeing brands and magazines only sold here, like Shreddies cereal and butter tarts.
In the small town where I’m staying lives a man, Farley Mowat, whose adventure stories I read growing up. For me, that’s like knowing Shakespeare is around the corner.
I miss knowing people who know who he is. So I’m glad, for a while, to be back in my (second/first?) home.
People tend to be more relaxed when they know (as they do here) they will never be bankrupted by a medical emergency, a pretty standard nightmare in the States.
I also like being reminded of the stiff-upper-lip thing and the we-hate-Americans thing and the no-we-can’t-do that thing, which remind me why I do not weep with longing for Canada but see it with more distant critical eyes as a longtime ex-pat.
If you haven’t seen this amazing video, check out it. It makes me laugh and it makes me hum.