This is Halifax. This is home. I was born and raised a Halifax boy.
I left when I was 24, and I’ve been in Toronto for 32 years, but to me Toronto is just a place. Not home. It never had a chance, since from where I stand there’s nothing worth calling home that isn’t sitting by the sea. A big lake just won’t do, not if you were born with the great wide ocean all around you, in a place that exists for no other reason. I swear, you can smell it stepping off the plane. You can feel it out there. Once you get down to the water and see it again, actually clap eyes on it, you feel sane, and soothed, and back where you belong, even if, like me, you’re no salty dog.
Oh boy, I surely am not. Not by a damn sight. Just how landlubberly am I? Well, I can get seasick walking across wet grass, as an old tar might quip. My wife and I once took a whale-watching cruise out of Cheticamp, or some port on Cape Breton Island, and the water as we headed out was as smooth and calm as the Atlantic can ever be at these latitudes. They say it was calm like that the night Titanic went down. So this was the second time. Like a mirror, it was. Didn’t matter. In a few minutes I was so sick I didn’t really care, or even want to be told, if there were any whales to see, and the nausea just kept getting worse, until I cursed the bloody whales, and wished them all misery.
Pity. it was a lovely day to be out on the water, and it’s a shame that all I saw were the planks between my sneakers as I sat there, doubled over, trying so hard not to hurl. Anything might have happened out there, I don’t have a clue. For all I know, I missed a matinée performance by Captain Cetacean and His Dancing Blue Whale Revue. Or a few Pilot Whales, surely. I really couldn’t say.
I don’t even like seafood. No sir. Never acquired a taste for it. Well, I guess there are a few fish I’ll go for – especially if their best bits are fried in batter, but that doesn’t count, I’d eat old sweat socks fried in batter – but scallops? Erg. Lobster? You know that lobsters are arthropods, right? Like insects, you understand? A cockroach is just a lobster that learned how to live out of water, you get that, right? Calamari? AAGH. Jesus Christ, man, those are the arms of a frigging squid. Now we’re talking cephalopods, for the love of – I mean, good God, what won’t you people put in your mouths?
Then, so help me, there’s mussels…ack.
So then, what’s to love so much about the ocean, if you won’t eat anything in it, and you can’t hold your breakfast down if you go out on it? It’s the space, the sheer grandeur of the endless sea and sky that serves as the wallpaper of day-to-day life. Just look at one of the shots above, which shows a little drumlin at the harbour entrance, George’s Island. A little mound of green and brown sitting there like a rock in a pond. That blue stuff to the right of frame? That’s forever. Sail that way, and keep her on a steady heading, and you’ll hit Portugal in due course, or maybe North Africa, should you stray a bit.
But why hold her steady? Why limit your voyage to a single line of latitude? There’s only one ocean, you know. We talk about seven seas, and look at our Mercator projections and see the Atlantic off to the right, and the Pacific off to the left, like they’re separate, but that’s just nonsense, really. Look at a globe. Our spherical world is blanketed by only one true ocean, the World Ocean, and out there, beyond the harbour, is a road that goes everywhere.
As a kid, I used to ride my bike down to a public pier near Point Pleasant and stand there, looking out towards apparent infinity. On a good day, huge ships would appear on the horizon, hull down at first, until they rose up into view and made their stately way towards you. They could be coming from anywhere, because they traveled a road that went everywhere.
How to explain? It just gets to you. Yes, you may be a landlubber, wittingly or unwittingly working your way towards a career that’ll land you one day in Upper Canada, but you’ll always be a Maritimer. Living beside an on-ramp to the World Ocean imbues you with a comforting, if usually sub-conscious, sense of endless possibility, and an intuitive grasp of the sweep of history that never leaves you. You really feel the past here.
I think that in a place like Halifax, you simply can’t be oblivious to history. It’s an old city, by North American standards, and was founded to serve as a New World bastion in the struggle between the great European powers of the 18th century. In times of peace, trade would flow from the port towards the Old World. In war, fleets of warships would assemble to escort vulnerable convoys, headed the same way. Thus Halifax was a key strategic asset in the longest continuous battle of the Second World War, the Battle of the Atlantic, which lasted from start to finish, 1939 to 1945. It was a death struggle, our destroyers and corvettes against their submarines, and to lose meant losing the war. It was a time of heroism and sacrifice.
When you grow up here, that’s just something that you know. You find yourself looking out to sea, and wondering whether you could ever have done what those youngsters did. One tended to doubt it.
There are other attractions to Halifax, a great many, these days. It’s an old city, but it’s young; it’s a university town, and today it was full of shiny new college students being toured around in groups. Like a lot of port cities it’s a relatively tolerant place, simply because a busy port exposed to all sorts of foreign visitors and their new ideas would have to struggle to remain insular. It’s also a place that likes to party. There are bars and pubs everywhere downtown, in the shadows of the new glass condos going up all over, full of youthful customers today on the last day of Summer. There’s a sort of vibration in the air, the city hums with artists, and academics, and tourists from all over – these days, my home town is a cruise ship destination, and there were a couple of big ones tied up near Pier 21 today. Cruise ships! Who’d have thought, when I was a kid?
Amid all the new construction, though, the history remains. You can cross the street from a new eatery on Spring Garden Road and enter an urban green space that hasn’t changed in a century:
The Halifax Public Gardens. The picture just above – doesn’t that look just like the sort of place where Sgt. Pepper would have taught the band to play? It’s like taking a stroll through a time capsule. There are ducks and swans in the ponds, and exotic plants and flowers from all over the world, even from the tropics, all of it somehow kept alive and flourishing through the dismal Maritime winter. It really is lovely. I realized today that over hundreds of visits in my youth, I never really saw how beautiful it was.
It’s positively serene, a great place to take a break before you venture back beyond the fences, where things are happening.
The whole town seems in the midst of an almost urgent process of renewal, becoming the sort of place that readily assimilates the very latest in art, style, and architecture. I was taken aback by the confident modernity of the new public library:
Everywhere I looked, I thought when did that get there? It felt like nothing was the same. This isn’t the town I left in 1985, and that’s a good thing. Everything changes, but it’s rare, I think, that everything changes for the better.
Actually, not quite everything changes, and always, it’s the immutable sea the draws you back. Even if you’re no salty dog. You can stand there, looking east, and get a sense of your small place in the world, in your small city, a town hugging an inlet off of something that seems to have no end. It’s the same feeling you might get when looking up at the stars on a clear night. There’s comfort in taking it all in, maybe because it helps you understand that nothing that seems like a big deal to you is actually big at all. Or maybe it’s knowing that when you’re gone, the object of your wonder will remain. Others to follow will look upon it just as you did, and feel the same. I didn’t make it quite as far as the harbour look-off today, so I don’t know who was there, but I’d be well surprised if there isn’t some kid who goes there on days like today and just looks out to sea.
It’s good to be home.