Monday, August 31, 2009

City of Angels. Fire-breathing Angels.

The Oregon Coast

We’re now settled into our home for the next seven days – a hotel, somewhere in and/or near Santa Monica. Blogging will continue to be short, sporadic, and probably cranky, because it’s 99 degrees Celsius here (4,544 degrees Fahrenheit) and half the city appears to be on fire.

We’re looking for an apartment, along with a million other stressful things that need to be done, like setting up a bank account, registering the car, getting a doctor and, eventually, finding me a job in a state where the government is paying its bills with IOUs. But no, I’m not stressed.

Somewhere on the highway where James Dean died.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Newport, Oregon

Beach, moon, fog

We spent three hours locked in Portland's traffic, navigating construction-clogged rural roads, in order to make it to the Scenic Pacific Coast Highway, which everyone assured us was beautiful.

So far, nothing but fog. Beautiful, ocean-obscuring fog.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Welcome to America

Mount Robson, British Columbia

This trip – and really, I think the word odyssey is more appropriate – is technically to Los Angeles, but really has been to Blaine, Washington. Why Blaine? That’s where the border crossing is between Vancouver and Seattle.

The U.S. border service, for Canadians, is like the weather. We are constantly complaining about it, usually personally affronted by it, but for all we carry one, we're usually only ever slightly inconvenienced by it.

Everyone has their horror stories to share: my Dad had heard from one of his golfing buddies that if we didn’t have “the right form” our car could be confiscated at the border. There was, of course, no hint of what “the right form” was, nor was the legality of such a car seizure explained, but such is the mythic power of the U.S. Border service: to listen to Canadians, you would think that the 49th parallel was patrolled by a particularly unreasonable species of ogre.

So, as we left Vancouver, the tension level in the car was high. We had several forms for the car that we hoped were “the right form” (one of which had arrived by fax at our friend’s work yesterday). We had our visa applications, and several other documents we found on the Internet, one of which seemed to want to know if I was or ever had been a member of the Communist party. We had copies of our birth certificates, wedding certificates, college diplomas, and a Merit Badge from when I was in Scouts.

We didn’t need any of it.

Forest-fire devastation near Kamloops, as seen from the car

As we pulled up to the border, my hands were literally trembling. Amynah had her folder of documents sitting discreetly over her swelling abdomen. The guard looked in the window.

“Nova Scotia plates? Wow, that’s the first time I’ve seen one of those.”

“Yeah,” I said, controlling the trembling in my voice, “It was a heck of a drive.”

“I can imagine,” he said. “How long did that take you?”

Ah ha! A question! This had to be a trap. I thought quickly… how long had it taken?

“Uh, yeah. About sixty hours, all told,” I said, then, confidence building, I ventured a joke to prove my Canadian credentials: “There’s a whole lot more Ontario than the world really needs.”

“Oh yeah. Well of course – Ottawa’s there.”

What? Did a U.S. Border guard just make a Canada joke? Who was trying to ingratiate himself with who here?

In any case, he waved us aside, and told us to go to the desk to fill out our visas. This was done by a guy who was about to go off shift, and so was trying to dispense with us as quickly as possible. Anxious that our car should cross the border properly, and having gone to some difficulty to acquire “the right forms” we asked if we could import it legally. He gave us a doubtful look.

“Well, you could… I guess. But it’s up to you,” he said, in a tone that made it clear that he would prefer that we not bother. When we indicated that we wanted to, he sighed, and called over a colleague to help him out. I suspect if we hadn’t mentioned it, no one would have brought it up at all.

In any case, we’re now in Seattle, about to have dinner with a friend here, and then make our way south to Los Angeles. Three countries, eight provinces, and 6500 km on, the final leg of the journey begins!

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Strasbourg, Saskatchewan

The Strasbourg grain elevator, a classic of disappearing Prairie architecture

Before leaving Strasbourg, France, I had told all of my friends there that I was going to pass through Strasbourg, Saskatchewan. The Canadian Strasbourg is a Prairie farming town founded a mere 102 years ago. They were Germans, who founded their community when its namesake was in German hands, and so called it Strassbourg. In the intervening years the settlement discreetly lost that Germanic third “s.” Since then it has grown to be home to nearly 800 people.

Saskatchewan was the only Canadian province I’d never visited. The village seemed worth the detour on our way to Edmonton, if only for the novelty value of sending postcards from Strasbourg to Strasbourg.

Dad and I pulled into town in the late morning, stopping to snap a photo of the town sign and the grain elevator by the railway. Then we parked on Mountain Street (the main drag) to hit the post office. I handed over a stack of postcards I’d written somewhere between Cobalt and Longlac earlier in my journey, and asked if they had any cards for the Town of Strasbourg.

“No, but I think the drugstore next door might have some,” said the postal lady, as she rooted behind her counter for some stamps for France.

We then went next door, asking the girl stacking the shelves with deodorant if they carried Strasbourg postcards.

“No,” she trilled in her melodious Saskatchewan accent, “But you can try the Every Little Thing across the street, they might have something.”

Dad and I thanked her, and crossed the road to the craft store. We’d have no luck here, said the proprietor, “But you can try the municipal office on the corner.”

Losing heart, Dad and I entered the Town of Strasbourg Municipal Office (and Royal Canadian Mounted Police detachment). The woman behind the counter there was on the phone, but put her caller on hold when she saw us.

I explained that I was looking for postcards of the town, in order to send them to Strasbourg France, where I’d lived before. She thought that was absolutely delightful.

“Just a second! I know we used to have some back here,” she said with alacrity.

After a few minutes of rummaging around failed to turn up any postcards she went back to her phone: “I’ll have to call you back,” she said to the person on the other end.

“I’m just going to call the mayor,” she said to us.

“Uh… ok,” I said, a little startled.

Notables from Strasbourg's history, on the Centennial mural

After a brief conversation with Her Honour, the municipal authority directed us to the Cornwell Centre (a sort of Jack-of-all-trades store that sold hardware, clothing, computer supplies, and served as the editorial headquarters of the local paper) a few buildings up the street. We were to ask for Lance, to whom the Mayor was going to speak on our behalf. Lance, in turn, would print us out some postcards of an aerial view of Strasbourg.

This was far beyond the call of duty, we felt, but we were hardly going to say no. We ambled up to the Cornwell Centre where we met Lance. He wasn’t able to print out any photos for us, but he did present me with a selection of photos of the town, which he emailed to me on the spot.

Dad and I were feeling hungry at this point, and after checking to make sure the museum would be open after lunch, we headed to the Royal Hotel, which boasts a small restaurant and pub.

The Strasbourg Museum, in the former rail station

We ordered roast beef sandwiches and coffees, fairly pleased with how the visit had gone so far. As we were finishing up, two women walked into the restaurant. One of them stopped at our table.

“Are you the guy from Strasbourg? I’m the mayor.”

Her Honour – Carol, to her friends – and I chatted for a bit. I told her we were on the way to visiting the town museum, and she insisted that I stop by her office afterwards to talk some more.

Better yet, as we walked up to the counter, Carol waved the waitress away: “Just put it on my bill – it’s on me.”

Note: it took three years before I earned a free meal from La Mairie in my previous Strasbourg. It took thirty minutes here.

Incidentally, when I popped by her office afterward visiting the museum, Her Honour also asked me to write something for the local paper. I'm happy to do it, but it goes to show there really is no such thing as a free lunch.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Big sky country

Prairie storm brewing near the Sakatchewan/Alberta border

I am writing this post, believe it or not, standing in Amynah's parents' basement workroom in Edmonton, with the computer sitting atop the clothes-dryer, as it is the only room where I can be assured a decent wireless signal while not keeping her awake with my typing. Such is life on the road.

Ottawa to here was a heck of trip - three days on the road, fifteen hours a day behind the wheel. My Dad graciously volunteered to help with the driving. Northern Ontario is a lot bigger, and a lot more French than I'd expected. Manitoba was exactly as flat as I remembered. I saw Cobalt Ontario for the first time - that being the small northern mining town where my parents started their married life and produced my older sister. I also saw a lot of other towns, villages, hamlets and lakes I'd never seen before.

The school where my Dad taught in Cobalt, Ontario

Canada is a country to challenge the imagination of any cartographer: how many names for geographical features can you come up with, after all? I imagined some poor soul at the end of a long night, staring at yet another blue blob on his map - "Long Lake taken? Broad Lake? Mary's Lake? Oh to heck with it, just call it Fish Lake and be done with it." My imaginary cartographer had really hit the end of his tether by Saskatchewan, when he named the Qu'Apelle Valley which I believe roughly translates as the "What do you call it" valley.

I have an awesome story about my visit to Strasbourg, Saskatchewan, but it will have to wait: but all of you in Europe receiving postcards from me in the next few days should pay particular attention to the cancellation stamp.

Friday, August 14, 2009

The say it's the journey, not the destination. They are wrong.

I'm in Ottawa right now - I had meant to keep up on the blogging while I did so, but it's been almost impossible, what with the socializing, repacking, driving, socializing and migraine-having, the last of which ruined one-third of my limited time in Montreal.

In any case, I will be back on the road on Sunday while Amynah takes to the air, and unlikely to appear on the Internet in the interim. Maybe once I arrive in Edmonton (3000km away) I will snap a photo of my new-to-me, road-beaten, over-stuffed, bicycle-bedecked car.

Incidentally, my friend's daughter is completely ignoring me, and fawning over Amynah. The only time she addressed me today was to ask me what Amynah would like for breeakfast, and to tell me to water the plants in front of the house while she was out at daycare. She appears to believe I am some sort of footman.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Farewell to Nova Scotia

Bandstand in the Halifax Public Gardens

I hit the road for Montreal tomorrow: Nova Scotia was too short, and too busy. I did get some photos of Halifax, wandering around today with my friends Tim and Jocelyn. The city's changed a lot in the last ten years since I've lived here, mostly without anyone telling me.

George's Island in the Halifax Harbour

Sadly, I didn't think to take any picture's of my parent's fortieth anniversary celebration last night, but it was a lot of fun - a house full of family and friends that have gathered around a solid, loving marriage.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Kafka's car

No pictures in this post, just a tale of woe.

My Dad has extremely generously agreed to transfer ownership of his old car to Amynah and I, so that we won’t have to walk from Halifax to Los Angeles. Amynah and I had assumed that we would be able to get by on our European driver’s permits until such time as we were officially resident in California.

On Tuesday, I called up an insurance company to arrange for insurance on the new car. I was answering all of the questions no problem (Honda… black… 120,000 km…) with no problems, until the guy at the other end of the phone wanted to know my Canadian license number. I explained that I didn’t have one: I had swapped my Quebec one for a French one in 2007.

He told me they couldn’t insure me until I had a Canadian permit. So, I got on the phone with the Nova Scotia government and explained my situation: I used to have a N.S. license, switched to a Quebec one nine years ago, then to a French one a little less than three years ago. She told me that – with luck – I would be able to re-instate my Nova Scotia one for a fee, assuming they could find my Quebec one in the national database.

Yesterday Amynah and I went down to the “Access Nova Scotia” offices and took a number. Then we waited. And waited. And waited some more. It appeared that last week, their computers had gone down, and this week they were clearing the back-up.

After an hour and a half, our number was called. I explained our situation to the teller, and she pulled up my license information. “I’m sorry sir, we can’t give you your permit. It says here you’ve been suspended,” she said, uncomfortably: license’s are usually suspended for criminal behaviour, like drunk driving.

This was not the case for me: I’d had a perfect driving record in Quebec, but the women explained that sometimes the Quebec folk mis-typed their forms due to their inexplicable Frenchness. I said I’d give them a call to fix the situation but then, on a whim, asked them to check out Amynah’s status.

Hers was fine – her license was merely expired. To prevent the morning’s expedition from being a total waste, we decided to get Amynah a Nova Scotia permit, making her legally a Bluenoser, much to her Alberta-girl chagrin.

We returned home and informed my Dad that he would be transferring title not to me, but to his daughter in law. While they were doing that, I would call the insurance people and tell them the new situation.

“Oh, my colleague should have consulted with his superior before he told you that. Hold please, and I’ll get back to you,” said my new insurance buddy. I desperately hollered at Amynah and Dad – halfway out the door – to stop.

After ten minutes, my insurance guy returned: “Well I talked to my superior, and he talked to his, and then it went all the way up the foodchain, and unfortunately, we cannot give you insurance unless you both have Canadian permits.”

Damnit. I hung up the phone, and called Quebec, to ask them why my permit was suspended. The man there told me that apparently, the Montreal Municipal Court had requested the suspension. He gave me a number for them. They, in turn, informed me that I had two parking tickets that I had left unpaid before leaving the city. As I had not received the summons to pay them, I now owed over $400 in fines.

The only way my suspension would be lifted was if I paid them – the only way I could do that was to go over in person, or pay by money order. Neither would fix the situation in anything less than two business days, taking us to Tuesday – our schedule requires us to be on the road by Sunday.

Desperate, I called my friend Dave, who works in downtown Montreal, not far from the municipal court: “You can always tell a good friend by how much money they ask you to spend on their behalf” I said, by way of introduction to our problem.

Fortunately, Dave was on lunch break, and willing to march over to the court with $400 bucks to plunk down in our name. He then – God Bless His Soul – walked over to the Quebec driving permit authority with the documents proving our fines had been paid, in order to lift my suspension immediately (when my Mom came home and asked if we had dealth with that, I told her “I called a friend of mine who works for the United Nations, and he spoke to some people for us – it’s taken care of.” Which is, strictly speaking, true).

Now it was back to me: I now went back to the Access Nova Scotia Office, and took another number: this time, I had a book. I waited, and waited, and waited – over an hour. The suspension had been lifted, and soon I had a brand new Nova Scotia license in hand. I called Dad – the transfer could go through. I took yet another number and settled in to wait.

While killing time waiting for my Dad to show up with the papers, I realized the woman who’d processed my license had screwed up, and put the last Nova Scotia address they had for me on my permit – a place I hadn’t lived in for 13 years. Resignedly, I took yet another number to fix that problem.

Dad arrived, and we settled in to wait: fortunately, I was called to fix my license and the woman told me we could transfer the car to me at the same time.

The transfer – the sole object of the entire exercise – took five minutes. For which we spent nearly $600, and waited in line for five hours.

On the other hand, it is a nice car.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

They call it a geyser here too - what a coincidence!

Waiting for the Geyser:

What a geyser looks like when you're standing right next to it:

What it looks like after you've dried off your camera and retreated to a safer distance:

Saturday, August 01, 2009

The pictures say "Iceland" but the words say "Disaster."

The view across the "Smoky Harbour"

Reykjavik: the showers reek of sulphur, the town is tiny, the people friendly and the temperatures low. I’ve nothing much to say about beyond that as we were too tired today to manage anything other than wander from café to café, but tomorrow we’re heading out into the countryside. However, I’m breaking up this post with photos from here anyway.

Our final day in Strasbourg was as memorable as these things can be. We had been up until the wee hours of the night before packing, repacking, unpacking, and reorganizing everything we owned. Some of our belongings (186 kg worth) are being shipped to California. Everything else was coming with us, unless it could be sold, given away, or thrown out.

We woke up on our final morning exhausted – a solid week of goodbye dinners and parties mixed in with packing and paperwork had completely knocked us out. We walked over to Christian for our final breakfast, lugging an enormous box of books with us. There, our friends Yann and Félicie joined us, relieving us of the books in the process. Breakfast was fine, though our goodbyes with them were more than a little soggy.

Wiping our eyes, we rushed back to the apartment and threw out an enormous pile of boxes, used-up tape rolls and bubble-paper scraps (not to mention rodent poison). Amynah’s friend Any then dropped us off at the airport.

Thus is where things became dramatic. Just as we were about to get into line to check-in, we were surprised to see our Argentinian friends Carolina and Danilo show up – they had driven in from town just to say goodbye. We were in a rush, so we asked for them to wait while we dealt with our ticket.

Once we got to the head of the line, the ticket agent told us we were only allowed 20 kg.

“Per bag?” asked Amynah.

“Total – and you're only allowed one bag per passenger,” she replied.

This, needless to say, was a disaster. We each had two bags, and our larger suitcases were almost 30 kg each. To get them from Strasbourg to Paris, Paris to Reykjavik, Reykjavik to Halifax would cost us 100 Euros per bag, per leg, for a total of 600 Euros.

Then I had a flash of inspiration. The Air France Cargo service – the means by which we were shipping the rest of our belongings – was only a kilometer away. With Carolina and Danilo’s car, and one hour before we had to board our flight, we could ship our suitcases directly to Halifax, and still make the flight to Paris.

We hurriedly checked in our smaller bags, and then rushed back to our friends. We ran out into the parking lot, threw our bags in their car and drove like madmen to the freight terminal. Weaving Danilo’s hatchback through the 18-wheelers lining the cargo warehouse, we burst into the office: “We need to ship these to Halifax, and have to catch a flight in 45 minutes. Can we do it?”

The woman behind the counter shrugged: We could try. We quickly trimmed some of the heavier items from our carry-on, and scrawled “household items, clothes, personal” on the customs form. We then made a mad-dash back to the airport, praised Carolina and Danilo to the skies and we bid them farewell, sweated our way through the security check and managed to make it to the gate as the last few people boarded.

Honesty is the best policy (it's a holiday weekend in Iceland).

Things didn’t get much easier in Paris: Charles de Gaulle is not a terribly welcoming airport, and Icelandair’s service is only slightly better than a discount airline. The lineup for check in was utter chaos – everyone was trying to elbow their way in front of everyone else, thus making enemies out of people with whom they were about to locked into a tin can with for the next three hours. An older couple used their maple-leaf festooned luggage cart to muscle us out of our place in line but Amynah used her superior “scootching” ability to cut back in front of them. Annoyed at having been beaten at their own game, they then started a pointedly loud conversation with the woman next to them about how rude the French were and how much more civil people were in Canada.

It was a weird feeling to be simultaneously amused by the irony, outraged at their unmerited sanctimoniousness, and slightly guilty that we had (justifiably!) counter-butted them in the first place.