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What an Epic Canadian Train Trip Can Teach You About Kindness

By Colleen Kinder

Apr 3, 2020

From the May/June 2020 issue

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The Ocean’s scenic domes allow travelers to gaze at the passing landscape.

Photo by Michael George

The Ocean’s scenic domes allow travelers to gaze at the passing landscape.

On a rail adventure through the Canadian Maritimes, Colleen Kinder encounters tiny towns and glittering cities, dramatic coastal landscapes and that sweet, strange brew that is Canadian kindness.

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Note: Though COVID-19 has stalled a lot of travel plans, we hope our stories can offer inspiration for your future adventures—and a bit of hope.

Raindrops smear down the windows of our sleeping car, pulling the glow of Montreal’s streetlights with them. Inside, we are warm and dry, entranced by the guitar strumming of a folk duo from Vancouver. We are strangers, about to know each other’s names and destinations and feelings about the triple-tiered chocolate cake at dinner. We are retirees off to see newborn grandbabies and students just released from spring semesters; we are Ontarians and Nova Scotians and a guy who fled Calgary for the sea-scented air of Prince Edward Island. We are in this together—or at least on this together—this slowpoke of a train that will trundle east from Montreal, through birch forests and marshlands, until what fills every train window is, at last, the blue of the sea beyond Halifax.

The Ocean train, in operation since 1904, is the finest way to wind through most of the eastern provinces of Canada, known as the Maritimes. Or such was my theory when I booked tickets through Via Rail (the Canadian equivalent of Amtrak), snipping the 836-mile journey into three segments. It was spring. It was the year I married a Canadian: a man to whom the word “sorry” comes as readily as “hey,” a man whose past jobs have included planting trees and fighting forest fires. So friendly with strangers is my mate that we have a code for when I’m spent on small talk and need it to cease: a tug of the pinky finger, or in urgent cases, three.

Left: Lobster crates along the way. Right: The Ocean takes passengers along the St. Lawrence River.

I sometimes feel like I’m living alongside the classic embodiment of Canada, learning daily how place shapes a person. Love is a wondrous back door into a foreign culture, swift and intimate, but like any access point, it has its limits. One person is one story. Canada is home to more than 37 million people and spans 3,400 miles. Canada is francophone, Canada is anglophone, Canada speaks 70 indigenous tongues. I got a ticket on The Ocean to meet some of those other Canadas.

My train odyssey began in Montreal, the largest city in Québecois country. Wandering the comprehensively hip Mile End neighborhood, I was two time zones and 10 worlds away from my new home base in Alberta, a western prairie province.

Montreal is the perfume of fresh pain au chocolat pouring onto the sidewalk, a fromagerie where the circumference of a Brie wheel inspires awe. So Parisian is the alchemy of Montreal that I expected haughty looks when my bonjours! trailed off into English.

But Montreal, for all its elegance, is pretension-free. Montreal is Deter, my Algerian Canadian cab driver, who rattled off a half-dozen food recommendations in our 20-minute ride: Deter’s Go-To Italian, Deter’s Beloved Portuguese, Deter’s Must-Taste Bagels. Montreal is Habib, a Syrian refugee, who lit up when I sputtered a few words in Arabic. “You refreshed my morning,” Habib said as we parted. I swapped out my heeled boots for running shoes and walked the city with a creamy grin on my face. We tend to think of friendliness as mildness—a limp or neutral element—but here, in a city stocked with reasons to intimidate me, the Canadian character felt more like a force, mighty enough to put me right at home.

Montreal to Miramichi

The Ocean’s route, done as a straight shot, is a journey of nearly 22 hours, tracing the mighty St. Lawrence River northward in the night. You board at suppertime, stuff yourself on okra ravioli or beef bourguignon, waddle wide-leggedly to your cabin as the train rocks, (“Sometimes, there are bruisings,” Sandra, a veteran Via Rail rider, warns me), and let the soft thumping of train wheels on tracks soothe you to sleep.

It’s light that yanks me awake at 5 a.m., a great blast of it flooding through the cracks of my curtains. I pull myself up on my belly and gawk at where the train has taken us in the night.

Just out the window: a beauty of a river, wide and ash-gray, somewhere in the rural country where Québec ends and New Brunswick takes us into its forests. Birch trunks pulse in and out of view, quick as the pages of a flip-book. The last of winter’s snow patches hold their ground, soiled light brown like lightly torched crème brûlée.

In my pretrip fantasies of this train journey, I imagined myself perched in the panoramic lounge, reading until some smart stranger asked what my book was about. No one, I quickly discover, needs a prop to meet fellow passengers on The Ocean. Within seconds of plopping down in the viewing car, I’m deep in conversation with Alice and Megan and Sam.

Inside The Ocean’s elegant dining car

From Sam, a senior in college, I learn that, according to many Canadians, Prince Edward Island is just “the Island” and Newfoundland is “the Rock.” Got it. Love it. No need to ask Sam what he’s majoring in; I simply confirm: “You’re a history major, right?” Indeed. Sam says things like, “The railroads made Canada,” then spoils me with the full story.

In the mid-1800s, Canada was a loose patchwork of regions. Unless more connective threads united the country’s east and west, the United States was on track to subsume all that lay west of the Canadian Rockies. But the leaders of British Columbia wouldn’t join the Canadian Confederation until a promise was made: that a railroad be built, linking them in.

B.C.’s strategy worked. The cross-country Canadian Pacific Railway was built masterfully and finished fast. The engineer who completed it in half the projected time was named Sir William Cornelius Van Horne, and he’s considered one of the reasons that Canada—as we know it today—coalesced.

If Sam’s our historian, Megan’s the keeper of contemporary train lore. A freckled Virginian who’s addicted to the Maritimes (“I need my four-times-a-year dose of Canadian”), Megan rides the rails in Canada so habitually that she knows the rhythms of the staff, how one female porter’s mother meets her daughter, without fail, at the Miramichi stop to hand off her favorite hot drink from the Canadian coffee chain Tim Hortons.

I’m thrilled to spot this legendary mom when I get off in Miramichi—and the sacred coffee handoff is underway. Not only that, Megan’s there, smiling right beside the mother and daughter. It’s one thing to share insider tidbits with fellow wayfarers on the train. But this is something else; this is family. Passing them, I can’t help but marvel that even the seams of such a private moment are permeable to an outsider like Megan, a foreigner literally just rolling through.

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Megan darts back onboard. Like Sam, she’s bypassing New Brunswick altogether. Some Canadians call New Brunswick the “drive-thru” province—a dismissal that rings through me like a dare. The opposite of driving through is dallying, so for two days, until The Ocean chugs back through Miramichi, I’ll wander, via rental car, the sea-soaked perimeter of New Brunswick.

Miramachi to Miscou Island

New Brunswick’s northeastern nub is a wayward scribbling of coastline, as though the margins of this place were drawn by some lazy fisherman who wanted the sea to come to him. The outermost island on the peninsula is called Miscou, and I’m determined to get there, even if it takes all day. It will.

English radio drops off fast, as soon as I sally north on Route 11. The only province in Canada that’s officially bilingual (Québec is fully French), New Brunswick is a pastiche of towns that are either very francophone or very anglophone. These divides aren’t marked on my map but become immediately clear. The Canadian flag disappears on me, replaced by another: a yellow star stamped upon the French tricolor of blue, white, and red. Pride not in Canada, but in Acadia.

Acadia is one of the regions of Atlantic Canada where 17th-century immigrants from France settled, alongside the local Mi’kmaq peoples. Acadians got along with the Mi’kmaq; they intermarried. Some historians frame that time in Acadia, wistfully, as a version of how harmoniously things might have gone.

How did things go? Violently. Beginning in 1755, the British rounded up entire communities, killing thousands, and forcing out as many as 18,000 Acadians. Many Maritimers today identify as the ancestors of these exiles, many of whom made new lives in Louisiana. (The word “Cajun” derives from “Acadian.”) Some Acadians eventually made it back here, determined to keep their culture and dialect intact.

Left: New Brunswick’s Hopewell Rocks. Right: The Harbor in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia

“It’s not the kind of French you hear in Montreal,” a Nova Scotian on The Ocean had warned me. “It’s like French with a country accent.” Whenever she walks into a room where her Acadian relatives are speaking, they halt, skeptical that she can understand their distinctive local dialect.

At last, I reach the bridge to Miscou. It feels less like a bridge than like an archway, one you glide up and over. I watch a landing seagull bump a resting seagull from atop a lamppost. Finally, I think, an asshole in eastern Canada.

Down by the island’s lighthouse, two shaggy colossi lope out into the road. Had I never heard of moose, I’d tell you someone was cross-breeding camels, Clydesdale horses, and Muppets up in Canada. They clomp off loudly into the marsh, leaving me alone at the base of the lighthouse. I get out of my car and smile when it reaches me: brine on the breeze. It’s been a while. Ocean.

If the layers of history in the soil could speak, they’d talk to us in so many languages. We’d have to parse the Basque of 16th-century fishermen from the French of explorer Jacques Cartier. We’d hear Scottish émigrés, Jesuit missionaries, Acadian hunters. But the oldest language spoken in the region, by a margin of many thousands of years, is Mi’kmaq.

The night before, unable to sleep, I had flicked on public radio, and the voice of a Mi’kmaq teenager flooded the darkness. Emma Stevens, a 16-year-old Nova Scotian, was singing the Beatles hit “Blackbird” in her ancestral tongue.

One morning, I will hear a language I’ve never spoken come out of my mouth as I sing in the shower: Tel pit-aw-sin . . .

Pu’tliskiej wapinintoq, her sweet voice rode the opening notes of a melody so deeply ingrained in the Western psyche. Kina’masi telayja’timk. . . . You’d think the Beatles had translated from Mi’kmaq, not the reverse; that’s how gorgeously this indigenous language carries the “Blackbird” tune.

Last year, when I set out on a road trip across Canada’s prairies with my husband, he was giddy about something we’d do to pass the time. As we drove the width of Saskatchewan, he wanted to read aloud a report from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. I mistook this for a private fixation, a personal reckoning: As a white male, my partner was making it a point to open his eyes and ears to personal accounts of the damage done when indigenous Canadians were wrested from their communities and forced into “residential schools.” But this agenda was not unique to my husband. I’ve come to understand it as modern Canada’s.

Weeks after my trip, I won’t be able to get this rendition of “Blackbird” out of my mind. Emma’s music video will have gone viral. One morning, I will hear a language I’ve never spoken come out of my mouth as I sing in the shower: Tel pit-aw-sin. . . . I will have to work backwards, through the Beatles refrain I know by heart, to translate: “All-your-life . . .” The three words that set up these final ones: “You were only waiting for this moment to arise.” In English, the lyrics seem to conjure up some imminent future. In Mi’kmaq though, I hear something that’s more about the past, how it’s right there waiting for us. Waiting for us to turn around.

Miramichi to Moncton

The Ocean scoops me up after two days in Miramichi and on Miscou Island. Back on board, I fall into a sulk. I didn’t bother purchasing a sleeper-class ticket, since the ride to Moncton is a mere two-hour jaunt. Economy, I figured, would be fine. But I miss the sleeper’s lounge. I miss raiding the basket of complimentary pears and cranberry biscuits. Like a duchess who has lost her fortune overnight, I feel demoted. My only consolation is a bag of pretzels, which would still be stuck in a train station vending machine had a dear porter named Denis not taken it upon himself to shake the machine until my snack bag fell to freedom. Now every salty knot tastes like a gift from a stranger.

My stop comes fast, delivering me to the belly of the province: Moncton. From there, I pick up a car and hit the highway to St. Andrews, a seaside town so far south in New Brunswick you can see Maine from its shores.

I speed there, worried I’ll be late to meet Susan. For weeks I’ve been making plans with this Canadian woman, and every one of those plans have been qualified—by the tides. Susan holds the keys to the palatial estate of Sir William Cornelius Van Horne, Canada’s railroad baron, but for much of any given day, the “road” to the property is underwater.

Welcome to life in the Bay of Fundy, where the shoreline is a shifty hem, the water level rising nearly as high as a four-story building at peak tide, then falling to nothing in a matter of hours. Many Maritimers reside by the sea, but those along the Bay of Fundy live with an especially frisky version of it.

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I beat Susan to the bottom of a road, on the shore of St. Andrews. Signs assure me that this is our meeting spot: Ministers Island. Signs also warn me in capital letters that I must check the tide schedule and not attempt to cross if there is “water on the bar.” I stare at the sandbar, which is still half washed in seawater. When you’re literate in tides, it must be easier to trust that the 4 p.m. waters will recede, but all I see are waves rolling in.

Sure enough, though, by the time Susan arrives, two lanes’ worth of quasi-dry surface has emerged. “Hop in my car.” She motions me over, assuring me it’s fine to leave my sedan there. Under Susan’s wheels, the wet sandbar is a trusty drawbridge, getting us all the way to the castle.

Van Horne’s summer home is nothing short of that: a castle. Susan tours me through the 50-room house, disappearing every few minutes to flick on a set of lights for the next wing and again to turn them off as we leave. “If I forget and leave the lights on,” she says, “people in town will see.” Susan lives a short drive away in St. Andrews, but once she’s out here, at high tide, she might as well be alone in the wilderness.

As quickly as I know I’ve royally screwed up, I know I’m about to be helped.

“There’s no better feeling,” Susan tells me, sounding like a person about to describe her favorite kind of massage, “than when you are on the island at high tide and know that you are alone in this paradise of a place.” Perhaps this was the charm for Van Horne, mastermind of Canada’s connectivity.

As soon as Susan drops me off at my car, I’m swept with the temptation to drive the sandbar myself. It’s as wide as a six-lane highway now. I got this, I think. Hardly 10 seconds into my crossing, I feel my tires sink into a rut. Shit. I do not got this.

I look up through the windshield and straight into the gaze of a man walking two golden retrievers. He sees me, my mess, my panic. Rental car. Tides. Nightfall. As quickly as I know I’ve royally screwed up, I know I’m about to be helped.

The man, who I’ll soon learn goes by Craig, calls out: “Reverse and hit the gas—hard!” I do as told until the whir of embattled wheels gives way to the lurch of a car suddenly free. I keep reversing until what’s under my tires feels like a road without air quotes, then I pause for Craig and the retrievers to catch up. Right there, midsandbar, we talk life—his kids, wife, taxes, the Rockies, and how many times he’s seen cars get stuck right here. I’m not the first stranger he’s coached out of the muck.

A lobster fisherman in New Brunswick

Journalist Peter C. Newman famously quipped that Canada is “the only country on earth whose citizens dream of being Clark Kent instead of Superman.” Like most sweeping statements about Canada, Newman’s platitude is both a jibe and a compliment, depending on your values. I doubt Craig saw himself as a hero in a story, but as I gun it back toward paved roads, I certainly do. What a treat to go eat dinner—fresh lobster rolls and gravy-drenched poutine—rather than watch the Fundy tides creep up the tires of my rental car.

Moncton to Halifax

As I watch The Ocean train chug into Moncton’s station the next day, I feel like a dog who’s just heard its owner’s car wheels on gravel road. She’s back! Back, and taking me to Halifax.

Eve is seated across the aisle, but we quickly close the gap. A British woman who left England decades ago, Eve opted to raise her children here in eastern Canada. What does she love about it? Without question, the classlessness. In her son’s schools and on their sports teams, she was ever aware of what didn’t divide the kids: what their parents did and owned.

A denizen of Halifax now, Eve lavishes me with things to see and do, hills to summit, and a waterfront to jog. But by the time we get to Halifax, the introvert in me flicks on. You might say I’m a bit friendlied out, that I’d tug the city’s pinky finger if it had one. My lodging—an old church rectory converted into modern flats—is perfectly appointed for a recluse. Thankfully, there’s one place on Eve’s list of must-sees that’s just as appealing to the hermit. It’s the Halifax Central Library.

I know, as soon as I arrive, why Eve loves this place: the light. The library’s interior is so sun-drenched that it feels like a greenhouse for growing book lovers. All the more remarkable, then, to discover on floor three a station marked light therapy. While you pore over a novel, you can bask in mood-enhancing light—a kind of civic courtesy for survivors of Nova Scotia’s long, dark winters. “We have smaller light therapy lamps you can check out,” says a bespectacled librarian.

I love Canada. I love finding these micro-kindnesses, these tiny differences; I’m finding them not tiny at all. In 10 days, they’ve recalibrated how I move through space. They must have. How else can I explain my choice to walk right into a Halifax axe-throwing bar later that day, alone and sober?

Reader, I throw axes. I throw lots of axes, at a wall with lots of dents, and when one of my axes finally sticks—thanks to a long-lashed college student named Alexandra who points out that I “need more flick” in my wrists—I feel triumphant. I’m 800-plus miles down the tracks from Montreal, and this dude-fest of a bar has nothing in common with the Paris-inflected metropolis where my journey began. Except that it was just as intimidating at first glance, and then just as softened by the warmth of Canadian strangers.

Miscou Island is home to spruce and aspen forests and colorful peat bogs, some of which have been designated ecological reserves.

It’s not until I’m back home that I realize how peppered my notebook pages are with first names (Roland, Ismaeil, Sam)—more than could fit in a single story. The bounty of names alone (François, Vincent, Eve) tells a story: one of accessibility, of warmth, of Syrian newcomers and Acadian old-timers (Habib, Denis). The very last name in my record is that of Lee, whom I met at the airport, where he sells gummy lobsters and Nova Scotian taffy.

Before I’d even reached the counter, Lee was talking to me like we had met decades ago. We established that I’m American, but married to a Canadian; that Lee once lived in Boston, but belongs here in the Maritimes. “Down there,” he said, “it’s a dog-eats-dog world.”

What’s this world, then, I wonder? A librarian-lends-light-therapy world? A your-pretzel-crisis- is-my-pretzel-crisis world? My notes are a compendium of candidates: flash encounters that not only animate Canada but also remind me why we need to get on trains and wander foreign shores and talk to strangers. Stereotypes are huge, boxy containers for nuanced living, breathing truths. The word “nice” tells us almost nothing. But Eve or Habib or Lee . . . any one of them can show you, in seconds, where its power resides.

>>Next: The Venice Simplon-Orient-Express Is a Real-Life Time Machine

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