South of the Border

At eight in the morning, U.S. eastern time, I handed my passport to the CBP officer. He was a large black man, and he’d been on duty all night. This time, my port of entry into North America wasn’t the United States, but Canada—so I needed to fill in the paperwork.

I expected the border to be a challenge in these Trumpian times, but the only real downer were the pictures of the first family hanging on the wall of the immigration office. My experience with Canadian immigration has always been good, but I can’t say the same for the States—airport queues are endless, and the officials can charitably be described as impolite—I have never been told I was welcome to America.

At Montreal’s Trudeau Airport I was presented with a robot interface which took two minutes to process me, and was then asked a couple of trivial questions by a human before going on my way.

I optimistically booked a seafood restaurant downtown, but by the time I got to the hotel my head was spinning with exhaustion—I’d been awake for the best part of twenty-two hours. The next morning, I took a stroll through beautiful downtown Montreal—a walk through Leonard Cohen land.

Last month, yet another person dear to my heart decided to take his leave—making it a hat-trick within a year—I headed to Our Lady of the Harbour, where there was a candle waiting to be lit. The statue is mentioned in ‘Suzanne’, one of the many songs Cohen wrote about his women—I’ve always thought he displayed exemplary timing by dying the day before Trump was elected.

I approached the church from the Rue du Bonsecours—Montreal is a bit froggy—but the statue is at the back of the church, appropriately facing the St. Lawrence river. The front of the church had the obligatory archway and two red doors.

Only in Montreal would you see a bottle of wine sitting patiently outside a church door on a Sunday morning before mass, waiting for Louis to show up.

The devout filed into the church. The not-so-devout slipped in behind them, made his way into a side pew, put his head in his hands, and thought for a while about the slipstream of life. He was admonished by an usher, but only after he had secured the photograph he wanted.

It was a sunny Sunday morning but my soul was dark. I walked down to the river, where the sun aptly poured down like honey on Our Lady of the Harbour, marveled at the stillness, the lovers walking hand in hand, children screaming and playing, watched by indulgent grandparents.

I looked east to the cantilever bridge and imagined the ships of Wolfe making their way up the river, and the tales of my childhood about the battle against Montcalm (both generals died) and the conquest of the city.

For me, eastern Canada is Fenimore Cooper, and the stories of wars fought by French, English, and Indians. I paid more attention this time to the number of Indian names that exist in Canada—and in the northeast US—it struck me as ironic that the western conquerors decimated the first nations and perversely celebrated by naming towns, rivers, and lakes after the peoples they destroyed.

Downtown Montreal is full of little shops—some are tourist traps, but some are just off the wall, reflecting the eclectic nature of the city itself. I found a couple of things to stuff in my suitcase—in particular, there’s a store near Notre Dame which sells only Christmas goods, and walking through it, I grew wistful thinking of the coming December—one less seat at the table. This is the best Christmas store I’ve ever seen, and I indulged my pain, buying happy trinkets to cheer up the tree.

I didn’t linger in Montreal, but flew east to Nova Scotia. Eastern Canada is just starting to cool down, but the hardcore weather is still perhaps a month away. As I drove south towards Maine the red fall colors slowly vanished from the leaves, the trees a bellwether for latitudinal shifts.

As I write, night has fallen in Western Europe—in a couple of hours I’ll be in LA. In my first day in the United States, I looked for signs of change—the anger and bitterness reflected in the Kavanaugh confirmation, the hate and loathing Trump projects to his base, the tectonic chasm between Democrats and Republicans—I see none of it.

At the Maine border, I joked around with the CBP guy, and it was the first time I was admitted into the US without having to declare that I’m not a member of the communist party (whichever one is at hand), and that I do not intend to perform acts of terrorism. I crossed the border in a hippy van, but no one was in the least interested in inspecting it—if there were dogs, they must have been napping. The whole thing cost me six bucks, and even so the CBP guy was sheepish about charging me.

I landed in Chicago and expected a change of scene—like New York, the windy city has a reputation for abrasive, short-tempered citizens, and airports usually draw the cream of the crop. But no, all I got was polite, open-armed courtesy—if the conflict and hatred lives here, it’s well concealed.

I see the Kavanaugh thing is getting worse, and that Trump was forced into ordering an FBI investigation—having just finished Bob Woodward’s book ‘Fear’, I can imagine how much the boat rocked at the White House.

Maybe LA will reveal itself as a den of fracture, and I will witness Americans hurlin’ abuse at each other—but judging by how calm my flight is, and how congenial the passengers are, striking up conversations at the drop of a baseball cap, I don’t think so.

Instead, the safety check on the plane made me think of the classic SNL sketch roasting Aer Lingus—and, as I head west to the land of silicone valley, I can’t help smiling at the antics of Stormy Daniels, and particularly at a column in this week’s Private Eye magazine.

In it, a troubled Donald Trump is tweeting at 3 am about Hurricane Florence. The orange man labors under the mistaken belief that she is a colleague of Stormy, and reassures his base that he never slept with Hurricane Florence. Two minutes later he admits he did sleep with her, but no money changed hands. Subsequent tweets admit to payment but deny Russian involvement, until the president finally comes clean, if you excuse the pun.

I’m enjoying my first day here—it’s still the America I know, a country with a big heart and a hearty embrace. Trump? This too shall pass.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

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