Hello, Canada! I’m new to you! The timing might seem suspect, an American arriving in Canada just now, after a crazy 2016 and a maddening election season. It’s so suspect, in fact, that I’ve gotten used to shrugging and smiling when people joke about my fleeing the country. But I’m here because my fiancé and I got teaching jobs at a university. This was in the works for nearly a year. So while I watched the election results with the same obsessiveness as all my friends, and bit my nails and watched too much MSNBC, there was always this knowledge in the back of my mind…that I’d be leaving soon. Either I’d be looking proudly on from afar as our first female president set up shop, or, well…I’d be high-tailing it out of there.
I knew I wanted to observe everything that was new to me in Canada as soon as I got here. My job as a newcomer, I think, is to look with big eyes and listen with big ears. To notice the differences and the similarities. And as a writer, my job is to observe and form theories about the national character. To see the contradictions and learn the jokes. To put my foot in it a few times and learn how to step gracefully out again. So this post will be the first of many scattered thoughts and observations about what might become my new home.
Today, I’ll just write about our first day. Arrival Day. Canada-0.
We drove from Chicago and had to make a morning appointment in the Toronto area to collect keys and set up our apartment. So we thought the best way to do it would be to drive the eight hours through the night and show up in the morning. Piece of cake!
In retrospect, it was still the most efficient way to make the drive, but it wasn’t the most pleasant. You drive for an hour, fighting sleep, flirting with disaster as long as you can stand it, then you pull over and switch. The white lines hypnotize. The trees are dark ghosts drifting past your window. We saw rural Michigan as the darkest black night that I have ever seen in my life. Once we took an exit off the highway to switch drivers and beyond the car’s headlights I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face. Suddenly a monolith reared in our vision: a baptist church, surrounded by nothing but wheat fields. It seemed haunted. We got quickly back into the car and drove on, not sure if what we had seen was real at all. Late night thoughts on the highway can begin to seem like strange dreams. Did we really stop at an America’s Choice truck stop and diner and get cheddar Pringles, for example? The receipt is in my coat pocket, but the Pringles are nowhere to be found.
We crossed through Detroit and got our papers somewhere long before dawn. The only other two people waiting in the customs office were two young men who, we discovered, were pastors. Maybe Mormons, I couldn’t say. In an insomniac haze I remember watching CNN looping through the news: the Queen had a head cold, Mariah had flubbed her New Year’s eve performance. The news looped again and again. We had all our documents in order but they were in a confusing stack I’d stuffed into a folder: our cats’ vaccination records beside our car insurance cards. I fumbled through them two or three times, looking for the right ones, that would prove I had a right to be here. Finally we were through.
By early morning we were near the boarding kennel I’d looked up to put the cats before we moved in. It was becoming urgent — they’d spent eight hours in their carriers, poor things, and were starting to howl and tear at the mesh linings. This was the absolute limit of what I wanted to put them through. We spotted the kennel, a rickety-looking barn off in a snowy field at the bottom of a short incline. We inched down it and I ran out into the snow only to be told that they were all full, try the pet shop down the road.
We tried to turn the car around. It was on an unpaved patch of road barely wider than itself, with steep ditches on either side, and it was covered with snow and ice. My fiance made a zillion-point turn getting us facing the way we had come. When we tried to return up the incline, we felt that horrifying feeling — the wheels spinning, engine screaming, going nowhere. My fiance struggled to control the car but the steering wheel was useless; the car slewed loosely from one side of the narrow road to the other. We both felt our hearts in our throats. For a moment, the cats in the back seat were silent. We were this close to our new home. And this close to ending up in a ditch.
Sometimes, desperation gives you courage to risk what you normally wouldn’t. I noticed a tiny ice-free strip on one side of the road, perilously close to that ditch. If we went down into that, there’d be no getting out. But if we could just get a little bit more purchase with just one tire— I thought we could make it. My fiance angled the car and held his breath. And we both felt like crying when the car inched its way up that icy incline, finding just enough grip to get us out of there.
We laughed and half-cried and drove away and promised ourselves that the first thing we would do as new residents of Canada would be to get snow tires.
It’s been a week now, and we still don’t have them. It’s on our to-do list, I swear. But in the meantime, we also have vowed never to go down an icy unpaved road again.