An (east coast) Christmas story

Christmas in the Maritimes is something special.

There’s lots of dancing and singing and great food and drink. But chiefly, Christmas, or winters in the east coast of Canada – and by east coast I mean the true east coast, none of this Ontario east coast fakery that people in Toronto are always trying to pull off because they think that they’re living in New York.

(They’re not.)

Winters in the true east coast of Canada are defined by freezing wet snow and lots of it.

It makes it hard to get places, so people who move away rarely go back and people who stay, don’t ever leave.

In 2007, I was flying home to see my family.

For the first time in years and years of going home for Christmas, I was travelling through Ottawa – a true mainstay of central Canada  – and the weather was terrible. Every flight was grounded.

Every flight, weirdly, save mine.

It was strange to see an entire list of cancelled flights, while right at the very bottom, shining like a beacon of Christmas hope was: WestJet – Halifax – on time.

I thought: I’m either very lucky or my pilots are daredevils with death wishes.

Turns out – a little bit of both.

As we began our descent into Halifax International, the woman sitting next to me proceeded to throw up the two mini cans of Pringles potato chips while breaking every bone in my right hand, to which she was clinging for dear life.

I too definitely thought we were done for. I distinctly remember being so sad that I was never going to get marry Marc, as this was to be our last Christmas apart before we were married the next year.

Luckily, we pulled through. (The plane, Marc, and I.)

Leaving the airport, I marveled at our surroundings. Halifax, like my airliner, had been completely buffeted by winter. Snow, ice and fog were everywhere. Driving into the city, the snow banks lining the streets were the highest I had ever seen them, as if the fallen snow had been parted by a wintertime Moses, and not the city’s plows.

“They’ve got to be like 9 feet tall,” I said to my mum.

“You should have seen them last week,” she said. “Before it warmed up.”

I checked the temperature gauge in the car. It read -12 C.

It was in this moment that I realized that British Columbia had forever ruined me and I could never again move back to Halifax, lest I die immediately from frostbite due to -12 C somehow being defined as “warmer”.

But, nevertheless, we made it home to properly set off the Christmas celebrations.

My family and I – that is my sisters, mum and I – are really big on traditions. Baking and decorating gingerbread men, holiday concerts with lots of singing and dancing, setting up the tree – it’s all a part of how we make this time of year special.

In terms of Christmas Day, it’s fair to say that we like to keep things simple: Stockings. Gifts. Cooking. Eating.

Which is why as soon as I arrived home, we set out to prepare everything for the big day. We trimmed the tree and helped decorate the house. On the 24th my older sister Kate and I traipsed over to the Organic Earth Market (the very broke Halifax equivalent to Whole Foods) so I could load up on tubers and cranberries and chestnuts and so she could get our free range, organic turkey.

“We only have frozen ones!” yelled the guy behind the counter.

We looked at each other and shrugged. SOLD.

Home we went, to put everything in the fridge before going to bed.

The next morning we opened our stockings, opened our presents and then set about getting ready to cook our dinner.

I’ll never forget my mum opening the fridge door, pausing and then exclaiming:

“THIS BIRD IS FROZEN TO ITS VERY CORE!”

Kate looked up from the stuffing.

“Oh,” she said, quizzically. “I…I thought it would defrost in the fridge over night?”

My mum’s right eyebrow arched so high it hit the ceiling.

“Defrost? In the fridge?” She shut the fridge door and began pacing.

Jessi, my younger sister, sauntered into the kitchen, picking up a piece of one of the carrots I was chopping. “Yeah,” she said. “That’s never going to work.”

Kate glared at her.

I dropped my carrot and looked around at the metric tonne of vegetables I had left to peel and chop and yelled out: “Let’s just order pizza!”

I was already imagining us hanging out in our sweatpants and watching a movie instead of slaving away for the next six hours.

The looks I received from my family immediately withered my enthusiasm.

“We are NOT ordering pizza,” they all yelled back at me.

We were going to eat Christmas dinner on Christmas Day if it was going to kill us.

My sisters and my mum immediately set out trying to find a place where we could get a booking.

Unfortunately, trying to locate a space available on Christmas day for four people was hard. Very hard. Most places weren’t open and those that were had booked up months prior.

I was really starting to believe that my pizza wish was going to come true when Kate yelled out from the living room: “I did it! I found us a place! The holiday Inn Select will take us! It will take us tonight at 7pm!”

I nearly fell over.

The Holiday Inn Select? I had been making fun of that place since before I even know what sarcasm was.

“BOOK IT!” yelled my mum.

We were in.

At 6:30 pm we started the walk over to the hotel. In truth, it was probably only a 5 minute walk, but it had gotten so cold and windy that we budgeted a lot of extra time. We all huddled together as we exposed ourselves to the freezing night. Swirls of ice and snow flew across the abandoned expanse of the city.

Walking up the deserted street, I stared ahead at the glowing, fluorescent sign at Cruikshank’s funeral home, which advertised both the time and temperature of the day.

The numbers glowed eerily cold against the dark of the night: -26 degrees.

As I contemplated my life, walking to the Holiday Inn Select on one of the coldest Christmas Days I could remember, I ruminated aloud on how weirdly poetic it was to be walking towards a funeral home, as this was something of a funeral march.

“That’s not funny,” was my mother’s response.

We arrived at the hotel right on time for our reservation.

The Maître D immediately perked up when he saw us, mostly because my mother, despite her insistence on coming to the hotel, didn’t want to be confused with any of the other people who had really planned on being there for dinner. She was wearing a full-length ball gown that had been made for her a few years prior when she and her friends had gone to a gala to ring in the New Year.

It stood in stark contrast to not only the majority of the other clientele but to my sister Jessi’s low-rise jeans.

“Reservation for Gillis?” I asked, making one final wish for an Italian, wood-fired Christmas.

He escorted us to our table.

The dining room was huge – probably not the full length of a football field, but it certainly felt that way. And despite it being a ballroom, my mother was the only one who had dressed the part. Everyone else was sticking to Nova Scotia classic – jeans, running shoes and a hooded sweatshirt that’s just a little too big.

It wasn’t five minutes into our arrival that my mother had garnered her first fan.

A woman with a very thick Valley accent (Annapolis Valley, not California) came up to her and exclaimed, “YOU ARE THE MOST BEAUTIFUL WOMAN I HAVE EVER SEEN. Can I take a photo of you?”

Over the course of the evening, my mother posed for no less than nine photos for this woman. To this day, I always wonder where those pictures ended up.

The dinner was a buffet so we all set about getting to our food. I’ve never been a big fan of buffets, so I mostly picked at a very large piece of cheesecake that I had topped with about a quart of cranberry sauce to give it more flavour. My sister Jessi on the other hand has always loved buffets and exploded the button right off of her low rise pants, effectively making them no-rise pants.

I laughed so hard I almost peed mine.

Kate, the most steadfast of our group, spent a lot of the night asking my mother to “keep her voice down” as she proceeded to provide colour commentary on all of the other guests and “what part of the province they had to be from.”

I wanted to say something about the bird not being free range, or organic, but I kept my mouth closed.

We sat, ate, talked, laughed and made plans for how to properly tackle our Christmas feast the next day. And despite the commotion of the ballroom all around us, and the cold of the outside night, I felt a distinct warmth between us.

On our slow, bundled up walk back to the house, my mum began humming one our favourite east coast Christmas songs and I immediately began singing along. Together we all linked arms, and began two stepping down the street – without any cars in sight, there was enough space for us to dance together.

Our voices rang out into the night.

And that – that more than anything, is a maritime Christmas.

Eyes firmly on the prize

Here’s a weird thing that I did once.

Last November I got eyelash extensions.

The impetus behind this decision?

“The Holiday Season.”

And just to try something different.

The process of getting them done was more bizarre than anything else. Beyond being uncomfortable, it was also weirdly vulnerable. Lying on a bed in some woman’s 400 square foot bachelor apartment, as she slowly separated each of my eyelashes and glued monstrously fake lashes to their roots, I was acutely aware of how little room for error there could be in this procedure, what with her disproportionately sized tweezers so close to my eyeballs.

I was sure that one rogue sneeze would see them forever lodged into the base of my optic nerve.

Halfway through I remember thinking, “THIS ISN’T WORTH IT.” This reaction is, of course, my modus operandi when it comes to all aesthetic services. At some point I always find myself wishing I hadn’t committed to whatever hair I am having removed, or roots I am having having dyed, and had instead bought a big muffin and went for a walk in the sun.

But getting back to eyelashes – as I studied myself in a small hand mirror (passed to me after the glue had hardened on the last lash) I marveled at how many of my natural lashes it seemed I had lost in the process. Eyelash extentionists (and their proponents) claim that eyelash loss during the procedure is a myth, because all they are doing is attaching a longer lash to the ones you already have. However, I am suspiciously sure that I had way more eyelashes walking into that apartment, than I did walking out.

Of course, this didn’t matter in the slightest, because what I did have in their absence were synthetic masterpieces so utterly grand that they not only took over half of my face but gave me powers of flight every time I made the mistake of blinking too hard.

Once I got used to the heaviness of the lashes during my normal day to day, and the utter wretchedness of not being able to scrub my face in the shower, I really did start to enjoy them. Of particular note were the reactions they solicited from both friends and the general populace. People seemed to think they were pretty neat.

Because the lashes were so big, I wore my glasses almost exclusively, under the belief that my large black rims would tone down some of their impact. Whether this was the case, I have no conclusive evidence either way.

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In the end, the biggest problem with my lashes was how long it took my normal set to grow back once they all fell out. The extentionist had guaranteed that as I shed my prosthetics, my regular lashes would grow in at their normal rate, and the transition back from fake to real would be seamless and unnoticeable.

This was a big old lie. For weeks I was terrified that my vanity-driven decision to try out absurdly giant eyelashes had resulted in permanent, spiky, stumps, where once my lovely, natural lashes had flourished.

I even bought some stupid tube over the internet that advertised itself as an “all-natural, pharmacist approved growth serum“. A small part of me believed that I was fighting fire with fire, sure that I was going to end up both blind and eyelash-less; but I was desperate, and succumbed to the temptation.

I used that tube until the serum ran dry.

And in the end, my eyelashes did grow back – longer and thicker than before. Now, whether this is due to the serum, the fact that I had lost them all, or just luck of the draw – I don’t know.

What I do know was that I enjoyed my one exercise in tempting ocular fate. I won’t be getting extensions again, and have almost completely stopped wearing eye makeup. I figured best to lay low on the windows to my soul, and just let the sun shine through the way it was intended.

Plus now I can just fully commit to my lips.

Because there is no way that I would ever do anything to make them bigger.

And I like lipstick more anyway.

Just sit there and sweat it out

The east coast is humid as hell. The minute you walk outside, you are beset by a sticky, smoky, mug.

The coolness of our house is misleading. I am always sure that I am going to be cold during the first few minutes of my morning run. But that is nothing but a clever ruse on behalf of Nova Scotia Heating and the fact that we live in a very, very old home.

What I wouldn’t give for even a minute of respite from the oppressive exhalation that greets me as I turn to lock the front door. The world feels like an unwanted whisper from a strange man on a strange train.

Suddenly everything is too hot. Too close.

And my discomfort is palpable.

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But it never stops me from running. If anything, it just makes me faster.

I have the mistaken belief that the quicker I run, the more wind resistance I might generate on my flushed and sweat-steamed face.

And while I have yet to see any rewards for my efforts, I keep trying.

Other than three days flattened by a brutal flu, I have run almost every day since coming to Nova Scotia.

I race about the different neighbourhoods of my adopted home. My favourite routes take me to Point Pleasant Park and up to the Citadel. I careen along the South End’s tree-dappled streets, dodging new students moving into their bachelor apartments and soccer moms walking their huskies and duck toller retrievers. I ignore the workers re-paving the road outside of the old military barracks, and sprint past the tourists taking photos of the clock tower.

I have always had a tendency to make up stories about the different people that I encounter on my daily adventures, and since moving to Halifax my internal narrative has delved to new depths.

That man on the corner? Oh, he’s waiting for his man on the inside. But where’s the drop? Where’s the microfilm? Is it up that tree? Or has it been stashed around the corner, behind the fire hydrant? And is that even a real arm brace? Or is it a cleverly disguised weapon?

By the time that I’ve figured out his entire backstory (he’s on his way to meet an ex-CIA operative who he has been trying to get out of the game but who keeps getting dragged back in because of that one shady incident in Dubai twelve years ago), I am half way home.

But not before I espy the woman who just returned from reuniting with her estranged brother whom everyone thought had died in that tragic ocean kayaking accident. It just turned out that he owed money to a man from Havana and had to disappear for a couple of years. She was afraid to tell him that she had sold all of his belongings to put herself through a two-year pottery course, but he was just happy to see her. She told him that she would help him out with the money she makes from her artisan salt shaker business.

Or something to that effect.

The more I make up stories about the people I see, the more it astounds me that anyone can really purport to know anything about anyone.

I am currently reading Dan Simmons’ The Terror, a fictionalized account of Franklin’s doomed expedition in search of the legendary, and always elusive Northwest Passage. It is engrossing and horrifying and I find myself completely sucked in by Simmons’ reimagining of what it was like to be a crew member of the HMS Erebus or Terror.

Talking to Marc the other night, I exclaimed, “My God, Franklin was so dumb. I cannot believe what a loser he was.”

To which Marc very kindly reminded me that I was in fact reading a work of fiction, and we would be hard pressed to really know what anyone was like on that expedition, what with everyone having frozen to death in the barren wasteland of Canada’s Arctic Archipelago.

I quickly acquiesced that he was right.

But I remained rankled. It just seems too true to let it go.

So I’ll just keep making up my own stories.

As I sweat through the mug.

Every day.

Every, every day.

She sells, sea shells

Okay. So cruises are crazy.

Did you know that people come onto these things and just, like, make a new life on the boat? For years at a time?

How is this even a thing?

Tonight my mum and I decided to partake in a little pub trivia, and the two couples who joined our team had already been living on the boat for sixteen days! SIXTEEN DAYS!

I feel like they that might be able to lay claim to some sort of squatters rights.

Also, full disclosure: Team “The Queen Is On Our Money” claimed top spot. We were originally two Canucks and two Aussies, and we had little time to accommodate our last minute New Jersey draft picks, who, luckily, remained unperturbed by the royal reference.

This morning I was again up at 4 AM, awoken as I was from my sweet bed of rest by the evil triumvirate of: a rocky engine start, a mid-night spectre looking for her lost bathrobe, and the sweet sounds of said spectre’s symphonic sinuses.

I beginning to think I will never sleep longer than five hours ever again.

I tried my absolute hardest to stave off wakefulness, but in the end acquiesced and resigned myself to the day. I stole about our darkened stateroom for an hour, ordering (and devouring) a coffee and a cheese plate – the only thing on the 24 hour room service menu that wasn’t a burger, a dessert, or a Caesar salad – and just generally feeling like the depraved Gollum figure that I am.

What’s in my pockets? Oh yeah! It’s my sense of majesty, ready to be incinerated in the fires of Mount Doom.

After satiating myself, I threw on some workout garb, and again found myself exercising at the crack of dawn with all of the other crazies.

The saving grace? That I was able to watch the sun rise over the water as I sprinted my cheese-coated guts out for forty-five minutes.

By the time I arrived back to the room, my mum was ready to motor. We got ourselves ready, and at 8:30 AM we were heading to the beautiful and quaint seaside town of Helsingborg, Sweden.

We knew that we wanted to rent bikes to explore the city, and were nervous that it may not happen. Today was the holiday after the shenanigan and booze-heavy Midsummer celebrations and absolutely nothing was open.

Luckily, we were able to find a small bodega inside of the central bus terminal that had two low-rise bikes to rent. Call it serendipitous, or call it weird as heck, but somehow we made our way to the most random of renters and we were able to procure our rides.

Thus, we spent a glorious four hours peddling around Helsingborg and its different environs.

The town is itself a study in contrasts: long stretches of seaside, punctuated by art installations and pungent sea salt air; its roadways flanked by octogenarian bathers and million dollar (turn of the century) mansions.

The main cycling path is approximately 20 kilometers long and takes you from beach, to town, to university, to industrial wasteland, to quaint sea side village. It’s a veritable personality disorder of aesthetics, and yet at the root of it all, everything is grounded in a simple beauty. A red brick and ancient stone; areas that once stood for so much more than e-commerce parks and paper packaging plants, that despite it all, remaining standing.

Defiant.

Beautiful.

We visited parks, and castles, and ponds. We dipped our toes and hands into the sea, and we burned our arms in the bright, blazing sun.

We laughed until we cried over pistachio cannoli and blood orange spritzers. I bought Swedish candy which we ate as we marvelled at all of the flags waving in the late afternoon breeze.

After returning our bikes, we continued to explore the downtown core, traipsing about cobbled sidewalks and sun bleached piers.

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When we arrived back to the ship, we stole away to the library, where we ensconced ourselves in another world of make believe.

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Because isn’t that so much the root of travelling? Letting everything go that has come to define your day to day? Your character and your arc? What you need and want (and what you think and want?)

We are nothing but small bit parts, showing up at a Swedish beach town, ready to rent bicycles and steal away into the sunshine.

Everything else is but a dream. And what an exquisite dream to be.

I really wouldn’t eat that

Today I bought a rice crispy square from the vending machine at my work.

This is not an unusual occurrence. I purchase a lot of things from machines that require loose change because I have a palate that easily forgives bagged or wrapped goods.

I would wager a guess that I eat anywhere between two and four rice crispies a week, and am completely non-discriminatory between those procured from vending machines and those created in our cafeteria’s kitchen.

This lack of discernment is a huge black mark on my character, I know.

Anyways, today at noon I rushed downstairs to buy this snack, and as I hadn’t yet eaten anything, I was feeling particularly ravenous.

I inserted my dollar fifty and greedily eyed the package as it fell into the machine’s retrieval void. As I picked it up, I noticed that the wrapping was a little suspect. There were no rips or punctures, but its rather ramshackle appearance did give me pause: what the hell had happened to this bar during its transportation from the factory to its final destination?

Unfortunately, I didn’t wax long on these thoughts before tearing right into it.

As I sat at my desk and munched away at my “lunch” (like the depraved feral animal that I am), I noticed that there was a strange colour coming out of the second half of the packaging. Upon closer inspection I could see that it was, in fact, a hair.

A long, black hair.

A long, black hair that had wrapped itself around my snack, like some angry, follicly-born anaconda (a real medusa-like foe) that was all too ready to squeeze the life out of me and turn me to stone.

I turned to my colleague and said, “I don’t feel so good about this.”

And she said, “That’s because you definitely shouldn’t.”

My stars.

No doubt I am probably going to contract some kind of tropical fever and all I will have to show for myself is the contents of my work waste paper basket.

Talk about a legacy.

This is not the first time something like this has happened.

When Marc and I were living in England in 2009, we spent a week in Scotland scampering about Edinburgh and St. Andrews. When we weren’t hiking Arthur’s Seat in severe windstorms, or running along the beach Chariots of Fire-style, we were doing the things that most twenty-four year olds do when travelling: drinking too much and staying out too late.

One night, I asked Marc to take me to the Oxford Bar – the drinking establishment frequented by Inspector Rebus, the fictional detective and misanthropic protagonist of Ian Rankin’s best selling novels. You see, we had very limited internet access in our flat back in Birmingham, and in the absence of ever being online, I read about fifty odd Rebus books during the months that I was studying at the city’s university.

Now that we were in his city, it was imperative that I drink at the bar in which he like to drink.

We started out at the Oxford – me with white wine and Marc with a dark, bitter beer. It was there that we decided, being as it was that we were poor as hell students, that our nightly budget was to be spent on alcohol, and alcohol alone.

From there, were began our own Scottish bar crawl, venturing into both the shadiest of underground establishments and the absolute poshest of speakeasys – though we made a point not to linger in the latter.

At one of the bars, we were invited to join a Marks and Spencer’s Christmas party where I was gifted many glasses of wine, and Marc about one million shots of whiskey.

By the time we were sitting in the last bar of the night – a cozy little space right off of the royal mile – I could hardly feel my face. When the waiter came over to take our orders, it was all I could do to croak out: “One glass of water please.”

Marc, steadfast and brazen, ordered a scotch.

I’ll never forget picking up my water, taking a sip, and blurting out, “This water tastes like a shoe.”

It was a quarter to 3am, and it was time for bed.

But the problem being – there was no way in hell that we could return to our hostel in such rough shape. We needed food and we needed it right away.

There was a late-night diner just up the road from where we were staying, and having completely forgotten our plan of “no food, only booze” we both ordered burgers and milkshakes.

I had ordered a veggie patty with melted cheesed and when it came I didn’t even hesitate. I tore into that thing like David Attenborough was narrating my life. What I didn’t expect however, was to pull out a very orange, very plastic looking thing from inside the bun.

Puzzled, I turned to Marc and whispered, “What the hell is that?”

Marc, hammered, and intensely focused on consuming his food, looked me straight into the eyes and replied, “Oh man. Babe. That’s a piece of cheese with the wrapper still on.”

Horrified, but also cognizant of the fact that I was inebriated up the yin yang and insecure that the staff already thought me a belligerent American, I shuffled up to the counter and shyly inquired, “Ummm, excuse me? Is this cheese with the wrapper on?”

The woman stared and me for a long beat before answering in her strong Scottish brogue, “That’s a roasted bell pepper.”

“Oh,” I said. “I see. Thank you. So sorry for the trouble.”

The total embarrassment I felt in that moment precipitated an almost immediate sobering. Marc and I grabbed our milkshakes and beat a speedy exit out of there.

Back in our hostel we laughed ourselves silly before falling into bed. I remember drifting off to sleep thinking if this was the last night of my life, it would be one for the annals.

And now, compared to my imminent rice crispy doom, a much better way to go.