Sunday, January 20

Slow Train Coming

I flew from Montreal to Halifax on January 1st. It was in the middle of a snow storm, which made getting to the airport a bit of a problem, as the roads were a mess. Still, Norm, a very dear friend of mine, was happy to drive me. In the end what should have been 30 minutes took almost 2 hours.

I was expecting that the flight would be canceled, but in the end we boarded the plane only half an hour behind schedule. Once on board, it took another half an hour to de-ice the wings, which was understandable. We were just about to leave, when the captain announced that there would be another delay. Apparently they had just discovered (at that moment) that one of the stewardesses had worked the maximum number of hours that she was allowed by Quebec law (welcome to La Belle Province). So they had to usher her off the plane and search for another stewardess to take her place. This took another half an hour. By the time that they got the new stewardess on board, ice had again formed on the wings, so they had to re-de-ice them. Another half an hour.

By the time that we took off, we had been sitting on the plane for almost two hours, for a flight that would be in the air for less than 60 minutes. Because of the weather, some delay was understandable. But the incompetence of not knowing the stewardess was overworked until we were a few seconds from take-off was ridiculous.

Halifax is the city where I was born. Yet I have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, it's a city that I know very well, and the people there are very friendly. Walking down the sidewalk, if I passed someone (a total stranger, of course) shovelling his sidewalk, he would always say hello. It would often catch me a bit off guard. On the other, I feel a bit trapped there, which is probably because I've changed so much since I left 10 years ago, yet it hasn't changed that much at all. It's strange, but I feel as though I'm being forced back into a time that I barely recognize anymore. In many ways, I feel a bit of relief when I leave, yet I still don't entirely understand why. After all, it is a nice place, and everyone that goes there loves it.

After Nova Scotia, I stopped in Fredericton to see some family there. They live on a farm just outside of the city, which was a nice way to rest before heading for busier places later on. Next up was Saint John and my uncle Pat, who was kind enough to offer to drive me into Maine, as buses have a fairly bad schedule going across the border.

Maine surprised me in how rural and poor it is. As soon as we crossed over from Canada, the houses became decrepit, and towns were few and far between. It had been several years since I went to the U.S., and unfortunately it's usually the bad things that you notice first. The people in towns there were quite overweight (as in obese, unhealthy), and it wasn't hard to see why. We stopped into a restaurant for lunch, and the portions were enough for two meals. I ordered pancakes, and asked the waitress for some butter as she was giving me my food. She looked at me like I was a bit strange, which was when I noticed that what I assumed was whipped cream (completely) covering them was, in fact, pure whipped butter.

I was also a bit surprised by the number of patriotic bumper stickers and flags that I saw, even on the most beaten up and run-down cars and houses. One bumped sticker read 'My horse just bucked your honor student!' I still don't know what that means. Plus the sheer size of the vehicles always leaves an impression on me. It's sad, but these are things that America is most known for. It's so in-your-face that it's hard not to get hung-up on it.

Yet at the same time, people were very friendly. Again, it's sad that the negatives always leave the deepest impression.

My next stop was Boston. It's a nice city, and it's much richer than blue-collar Maine. Most of the tourist attractions are based around the American Revolution, which doesn't interest me so much. In the end I spent most of my time walking around, enjoying the architecture. The city is much smaller than I expected, and I was able to cover most of it in one day.

From Boston I went to New York, staying in Queens with Lamar, someone that I met through Couchsurfing, a hospitality network. He's a teacher, working at a school in Harlem, under fairly difficult conditions. It was interesting to hear about how he's been completely restructuring the curriculum, trying to improve the abysmal results that the students had before he came. He's already up to teaching them calculus, something that was unheard of just a few years ago.

New York is a fascinating city. It's reputation is well-deserved, as there really is always something to do there. It's also amazingly multi-cultural, with most of the communities getting along rather well. What impressed me the most was how friendly people are there. There are of course exceptions, but in general people were very nice, often going out of their way to help me. When I was walking on Wall Street, I saw someone dressed in a nice suit, on a quick break from his office. He was talking to the vendor who was selling him a hot dog. The vendor was telling him about a problem that he was having, and the businessman was listening intently, giving advice. You don't see that sort of thing very often elsewhere in the world.

In many ways, New York is like a country of it's own. It has been used so much in movies, music, television and books that you know quite a bit about the city before you even arrive. And it can be difficult to see outside of it. It felt like the sort of place where I could spend years without being concerned with anywhere else, a bit cut off. There is hardly any mention of the rest of the world in any of the media there, which is one of the main reasons why people don't know much of what happens elsewhere in the world. The information just isn't easily available. The country needs to find a way to improve it's education, and change the role-models that the media promotes (hip-hop culture doesn't exactly promote critical thinking). Otherwise it's unlikely that the average American will take an interest in what happens elsewhere.

Aside from this one negative observation, I had a very good time in N.Y.C. I met up with Jane, another teacher from the same hospitality network as Lamar, who explained a lot about teaching abroad. It was a very fun evening.

I walked around many different neighborhoods. In Brooklyn I spent some time in a Hasidic Jewish area, which was interesting because everything was written in Hebrew. It felt like I was in another country. Many of the people walking around didn't even speak English. One thing that I found interesting was that the men were very nice to me when I asked for directions or the time, but many of the women gave me the stink eye if I tried to make any contact with them at all. Is this a cultural thing? Are ultra-orthodox women discouraged from talking to men, or at least men who are not from their community? Or were they just rude?

I was also surprised at how Spanish the Bronx was. Many stores wrote things only in Spanish, and many of them couldn't speak any English at all.

The next day, I dropped by to see Derrick, a friend from Montreal who is doing his doctorate in New York. We explored Central Park together, as well as what was Hell's Kitchen, before it was gentrified ten years ago.

Later on that night, I joined Amylin, a friend of mine from New York that I met in Montreal. We met up at Rachel's place, a mutual friend of ours. Amylin is on a bit of a drawing kick at the moment, and was planning on drawing Rachel. Since Rachel was in a bit of a rush, we spent a few minutes taking photos of her for Amylin to draw later on before heading off to a bar. There we met up with several other people from the area, including Aurora, a girl I hosted in Montreal a few months back. Although I didn't feel like staying out too late, Aurora and I decided to have breakfast together before my flight the next day.

As a matter of coincidence, Nicky, the guy Aurora was staying with, was going to J.F.K. airport at the same time that I was. He served in the Marines for a few years, but was never sent to Iraq or Afghanistan. Still, he had some interesting stories to tell on the train ride to the airport.

I was worried about my flight, since a few days before, there had been a riot at the airport in Buenos Aires. Apparently, the national airline (and the one which I was taking) had overbooked several flights, and the people who got bumped completely lost it. But in the end, the only hitch was that the check-in in New York wouldn't give me my boarding pass unless I had another ticket out of Argentina. Saying that I would buy a bus ticket to Chile upon arrival wasn't enough. So they forced me to buy a ticket to Uruguay, setting me back $130. The reason that they gave was that customs wouldn't let me into the country otherwise. Yet when I arrived in Buenos Aires, they didn't ask me any questions at all, and just stamped my passport and sent me on my way. Extortion, perhaps?

I've been staying with Maria Teresa, the mother-in-law of Sofia, a friend of mine in Montreal. She's been very kind, offering to do everything for me so that I'm as comfortable as possible. She picked me up at the airport at 6 a.m., and has been offering to drive me everywhere since. Today she took me shopping, and then drove me all over Buenos Aires, giving me a tour of the most interesting places.

In the few days that I've been here, I've already landed two part-time jobs, and will probably get a third soon. The only problem is that I don't know how many hours I will get at each.


Blogger Rene said...

You're perceptive. My sister lived in NYC for several years and she said the same thing about how they have no access to the outside world. In fact, she said that the only international news she could get off broadcast TV, was in the middle of the night on some obscure program.

Good news that you managed to find work so quickly. And also good news that you are in the world capital of beautiful people (so I've heard.) That's just one of many reasons why I'm jealous.

9:23 a.m.  
Anonymous (cr)Dave said...

Great, I'm glad you made to Buenos Aires!

1:13 p.m.  
Anonymous montreal pool champion said...

its not just new york that has an insular media culture - the whole of north america is an echo chamber.

your post got me excited about new york - made me realise how much im going to miss in the short time i'll have the image of the suit at the hot dog stand - it feels like cultural deja vu

exciting times mr barret

9:17 p.m.  
Blogger Eugenie said...

Good to see that you made it safely and that your blog rolling again! :)

9:33 p.m.  
Blogger ian said...

Thanks to everyone for reading. And to Montreal Pool Champion, have you defended your title yet :)

I find that most countries tend to be pretty self focused, with the exception of European countries, which tend to focus on the continent as a whole. It just seems like America has even more of an excuse to be so, as their culture is in many ways self sufficient... they produce everything that they need culturally speaking...

8:09 p.m.  

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