“We are all guilty of a crime, the great crime of not living life to the full. But we are all potentially free. We can stop thinking of what we have failed to do and do whatever lies within our power. Imagination is the voice of daring.”
— Henry Miller, from his 1949 novel, “Sexus.”
When I think back to my youthful days, all my heroes seemed to have one thing is common: they were able to escape the rat race of common existence and create a life intrinsically worth living, preferably in an exotic land. Marlon Brando owned a whole South Sea island, where he went between films to relax. Gauguin vanished to the shores of Tahiti, where he painted the native girls and fathered their children. James Jones collected his royalties from writing “From Here to Eternity” and moved his entire family to Paris. Hell, even Bob Dylan escaped to Malibu.
My tastes have always been a bit more prosaic. In 2008, throwing caution to the proverbial wind, my wife and I sold our house in Ewing and moved to Nova Scotia, Canada; a place we had never visited and where we did not know a single living soul. We packed up our young son in a car stuffed full of toys and bed sheets and long underwear, filled it up with fresh American gas, and headed northeast to the Canadian Maritimes, Nova Scotia, “the Land Shaped by the Sea,” as the travel books called it, or more specifically, Halifax.
I am pretty much a normal American, born in Buffalo, New York, during the heyday of the Kennedy administration. I grew up eating hot dogs and apple pie, drank gallons of Kool-Aid and Hawaiian Punch, watched Disney on TV, and played Little League baseball every spring and summer. I did OK in school, more or less, played some high school football, went to college, and eventually — as so often happens to typical Americans — wound up living in the suburbs of New Jersey. I got a job, married a wonderful woman, got a better job, bought a house, put in a second bathroom, cut the lawn every Saturday, and eventually, had a son.
It was post-9/11 America, so there was already some anxiety in the air. People lived their lives chronically set on “high alert.” Halfway through the first decade of the new millennium I had acquaintances who continued to check the news By Jack Florek By Jack Florek paper in search of orange terrorism warnings each morning, opened their mail wearing rubber gloves, and even admitted to keeping a crate or two of duct tape along with rolls of plastic wrapping stashed in the basement, just in case.
This was the world my son was born into, healthy and happy, thanks to the good folks at Princeton Medical Center. I became a first-time dad at the age of 43. I continued to go to work each day [including a stint as a reporter for the West Windsor-Plainsboro News, U.S. 1’s sister newspaper] while my wife, who worked as a medical secretary, went on her six-week maternity leave. We loaded up on disposable diapers, stacked kegs of formula in our linen closet, and washed our hands with super-duper anti-bacterial soap before touching anybody or anything. We also kept a half-dozen five-gallon jugs of fresh water in the basement, just in case.
It wasn’t bad. We spent weekends shopping for baby toys and baby books and baby furniture in Langhorne. In good weather we went to the beach at Point Pleasant or Long Branch, and sometimes we even packed the baby up in a baby carrier and rode the subway up to the Bronx to see a Yankees game. I worked all day, played with the baby in the evening, and tried to write a bit of my novel before going to bed. Then I slept a little before getting up and doing it all again the next day.
Though I was happy, there were a few disturbing developments in our pragmatically idyllic little world. My son refused to sleep at night unless I sang a medley of Buddy Holly hits, a capella, in my less-than-sonorous voice. This sometimes lasted well into the night. Soon my wife’s maternity leave ran out and she had to go back to work, so we needed to find a suitable daycare, no easy task. Then because my wife was just as tired at the end of her work day as I was after mine, she asked if I wouldn’t mind taking over half of the diapering chores. Being a modern enlightened man, I readily agreed.
After awhile, because of the high cost of daycare (something akin to taking out a second mortgage) it was apparent that one job just wasn’t cutting it, so I added a second job, evenings and weekends. I started ingesting combinations of energy drinks and NoDoz.
And, of course, in the world at large the Bush years continued, unabated. I, like most Americans, tried to take it all in stride: the almost daily radio and newspaper reports of new controversies, misrepresentations, exaggerations, and a tendency toward dissembling (or as the president called it, “disassembling”) by our government leaders. This brought on new concerns about the shaky economy, climate change, runaway healthcare costs, the quality of food, and what political pundits called, “the American penchant for endless war.”
But as long as I didn’t think too much about anything, I was relatively happy. I may have been a bit testy sometimes, maybe a bit more on edge than usual, but I was adapting. Everyone I knew, all my friends, my co-workers, my neighbors, they were all trying to adapt too. So if you would have asked me around this time, I probably would have said “yes, I am, you know, happy.”
Then one evening everything changed, or more accurately, everything came to the surface. I was in my little Hyundai, locked in gridlock somewhere along the upper reaches of the New Jersey Turnpike. It was a hot summer evening, the temperature still in the mid-’90s, and neither the air nor the traffic was moving. I had the radio on, listening to an oldies station. Evidently a chemical truck had overturned, spewing its noxious contents across three lanes of traffic somewhere near Elizabeth. I could see nothing but lines of stalled traffic and the grimy rear-end of a fish truck directly ahead.
My wife, along with our baby son, was at home. She had prepared, once again, hot dogs and apple pie for a little neighborhood gathering on the back patio, and I was already two hours late. I’d been to the city for an appointment. I’d recently begun seeing a highly recommended psychotherapist with an office in Hackensack. There was nothing seriously wrong with me, just a little stress. I was on my way home after spending 50 minutes listening to her repeat “uh huh” and “how did that make you feel” to the tune of another $200. I wanted to scream.
But then, with my head still churning from car exhaust and unresolved conflict from my childhood, out of the stale air came a message, it seemed, meant only for me. It was Jon Bon Jovi, New Jersey’s second-best homeborn rock ‘n’ roller, singing a fist-punching anthem especially for me:
“It’s my life, it’s now or never,
I ain’t gonna live forever.
I just want to live while I’m alive.
It’s my life.”
Good God. I thought of Somerset Maugham’s “The Razors Edge” and Herman Hesse’s “Siddhartha,” two great novels featuring heroes who traveled to strange lands seeking enlightenment. I thought of Marcel Duchamp, the famous French conceptual artist, fleeing the artistic and political environments of Paris and New York for Buenos Aires seeking the “aesthetics of dislocation.” I even thought of my classmate at Rutgers, Victor, who took off to California and got a lucrative job playing a villain on a soap opera.
Yes, I thought, by golly, it is MY life and it IS now or never, for crying out loud.
When I finally got home around 10, all the tiki torches by the patio were extinguished. The neighbors had already gone home. The apple pie and hot dogs were either consumed or already in the fridge for leftovers. The house was dark. My wife and baby son were upstairs, already asleep for the night. I shuffled downstairs and googled “immigration attorneys” on my computer.
I found some respectable Canadian immigration attorneys located in Toronto. They said it was possible for me and my family to apply to become permanent residents of Canada and that there was a pretty good chance we’d be accepted. After some haggling back and forth, I sent them their fee and they sent me a packet of papers and forms to fill out. We did, and mailed them in along with more fees, various copies of official documents, and an assortment of information attesting to our suitability to a life in Canada.
The immigration process works on a points system. We applied for permanent residency as “Federal Skilled Workers” and received points based on language (i.e., whether you speak English or French), education, work experience (in a job considered necessary employment by Immigration Canada), age, adaptability (whether you have previously worked or studied in Canada, your spouse’s language skills, or whether you have relatives who currently live in Canada), and whether or not you have arranged employment already in Canada.
You also have to have enough money to initially support yourself and your family. You must have a clean criminal record and prove this with an FBI clearance document. The physical with the doctor was the last hurdle — to make sure we were relatively healthy.
After three years of waiting (the typical time period) and praying that the housing bubble didn’t burst, we finally got the good word from the Canadian government. We started to pack our bags.
* * *
I’ve always been fond of all things Canadian, so I guess it was natural that I would select Canada as my place to escape. I still love watching hockey both on TV and at the arena and I even played goalie in a men’s league for a time. As a kid I went to Expo ‘67 in Montreal, enjoyed trekking up the QEW Highway to Toronto to see Reggie Jackson hit home runs against the expansion Blue Jays, and was very fond of an exotic form of football that showed up on my TV screen once a week called the CFL.
The Canadian flag always impressed me; a simple but elegant red and white with an unassuming maple leaf in the middle. And when I was growing up the Canadian prime minister was Pierre Trudeau, a gentleman who seemed to govern the country with a certain high-gloss Kennedy-esque panache. I even remembered reading once that John and Yoko were thinking of moving to Canada.
How I wound up in Halifax, Nova Scotia is another story. Most residents of Halifax (called “Haligonians,” sounding like something out of Star Trek) would argue that Nova Scotia is not really a part of Canada, except in the most literal terms (i.e., according to the map). They tend to think of themselves as Maritimers first and Canadians second and harbor a certain restrained animosity toward the rest of the country.
It seems that any Maritimer, young or old, will then likely talk your ear off with a string of complaints about how the Canadian government, local and federal, is always giving them the short end of the governmental stick. This includes over-taxation, lack of quality healthcare, substandard schools, poor job stimulus programs, lack of road repair, dragging feet on environmental action, red-tape getting in the way of revitalizing businesses, and the fact that there is not enough road salt on the icy highways during the long winter. The most oft heard phrase, repeated again and again with some variations by Maritimers everywhere, is “The Canadian government thinks the Canadian border stops at Quebec.”
But there is also a fierce pride underlying this general curmudgeonly attitude many Maritimers share. Halifax is the eastern home of much of the Canadian Navy. Everyone here seems to have a personal connection somewhere, either in the engine room of some battleship or repairing ships in dry dock.
There are also many families that make a living from the fishing industry and share this history with generation upon generation of their ancestors. Cases of fishing boats going missing on the high seas are widely reported across all forms of media when they occur, and they do occur more often than one would think. The ocean remains largely untamed, and the list of men and women lost at sea, often prominently displayed in seaport towns across the provinces, stretch back over centuries.
The Maritimes also has a rich history of ghost stories that at any given time half of the area population seem to believe are true. Atop the list are stories about the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, understandable because many of the recovered bodies are buried in Halifax. Tales of the great Halifax Explosion in 1917 — the worst man-induced explosion prior to the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima — abound. Thousands of residents in Halifax were killed and half the city flattened when the SS Mont Blanc, a French cargo ship carrying World War I explosives, collided with a Norwegian vessel, SS Imo, in the narrows, a strait connecting the upper Halifax Harbor with the Bedford Basin. Even today it is rare to meet any long time Haligonian who doesn’t have a story about some spectral relative hovering above the rest of the family at a seance or family event describing the horror.
When I first arrived in Nova Scotia I knew none of this. I was under the impression that the Maritimes would be a kind of a movie version of Toronto, only with an ocean view. I pictured high-powered businessmen in their Armani suits sipping champagne while strolling along the harborfront with their beautiful dalliances. (There is a bit of that here, but not nearly as much as I expected.) I imagined slim and healthy Canadians everywhere, kept young and strong by their national healthcare program, splashing in the bright blue sea in their bikinis and along the golden-sanded beach or racing down ski slopes in high-tech designer spandex.
Many people move to Nova Scotia seeking a slower-paced lifestyle, and it does have that (though pretty much anyplace has a slower pace to living compared to New Jersey). But the slowness here, especially during the tourist season, often borders on the turtle-like. Driving 10 kilometers below the speed limit is OK, except when the speed limit is already only 30 kilometers per hour (18.6 miles per hour). People linger at the head of lines at the bank or supermarket, chatting with the cashier or clerk, paying no mind to the throng waiting for service behind them. And those people waiting on line, Canadians known for their politeness, would never think of making the slightest peep of complaint.
There is hardly any road rage here, which I remember in New Jersey sometimes rising to the level of a statewide pastime. Fingers are occasionally flipped and fists angrily shaken across rows of traffic, but it is rare for it to escalate to the level of actual fisticuffs or gun waving. On the other hand, your typical Maritimer can curse up a blue streak when provoked. (Be forewarned that the many Scots living here often “give the finger” in the form of an upside-down “V” sign.)
Incidentally, modern technology is something of a hit and miss proposition across Nova Scotia and the rest of the Maritimes. My cable TV works fine and I can E-mail my resume to a prospective employer, but I have discovered that my cell phone no longer functions in many of the less-urban sections of the province.
But, make no mistake, it is an extraordinarily beautiful place to live. There is vast space here filled with miles (or rather, kilometers) of real nature like rocky cliffs, untamed rivers, and valleys of a thousand shades of green. The shores everywhere are dotted with hundreds of tiny islands that tend to pop up in the most unlikely places. There is real wildlife — bald eagles, whales, porcupines, bears, puffins, and seals on the rocks.
If going for a walk, it is a good idea to keep an eye out for coyotes (they occasionally attack hapless strollers), and one never feels quite Canadian unless one has actually seen a moose. The sky is impossibly wide and multi-hued, and the ocean is so close, no matter where you go, that it tends to appear around every turn.
By the way, the ocean is affordable here. My wife and I have a home in Halifax near the Bedford Basin for a modest price. Today the average price of a home in Nova Scotia is $225,000. When we lived in New Jersey at the height of the American housing bubble, any shack or shanty within screaming distance of the shore was priced well over a million dollars. (In fact, we sold the house in Ewing that we paid $190,000 in 2003 for $225,000, an amount that could buy some fine oceanfront property, a house with a two-car garage and maybe even a pool in Halifax.)
While the recent recession did hit Canada — spiking unemployment rates, severely contracting exports, and resulting in a general collapse of business investment — the country as a whole has largely recovered back to pre-recession levels. Canada survived fairly well due to its banking system, which kept restrictions in place, preventing banks from taking outrageous risks and becoming over-extended when a downturn in the economy came. Thus the devastating effects to the economy that were felt in the U.S. and Europe were lessened.
Though, as locals are quick to remind anyone who happens to ask, Nova Scotia lags behind. The current unemployment rate in Canada is 7.1 percent, while the province sports a hefty 9 percent. The sales tax rate in Nova Scotia, at 15 percent, is the second highest in the country.
Before moving here we were warned that many Nova Scotians were less than enamored of the prospect of foreigners moving in and taking over jobs that should rightfully go to good hardworking locals. This line of thinking, we were told, was not just limited to Americans but extended to Torontonians and Montrealers and pretty much anyone from outside of the province. It took my wife more than a year to get a job as a medical secretary despite having more than 10 years of experience at a Princeton radiology company. Since moving here I have held a variety of low-end jobs, including bookstore clerk, serving as a daycare overseer to a dozen screaming two-year-olds, and working all night stocking shelves at a big-box department store.
There have been other challenges, including the ubiquitous fish guts left over by seagulls that one seems to encounter on any stroll along the pier. Raw sewage sometimes collects along the shores, especially after a heavy rain. And there is a preponderance of rats, evidently brought in on the multitude of ships coming in and out of the harbor (one local claims to have seen a 35-pounder scurry off a Norwegian vessel). There is also a lot of unpredictable weather one encounters living along the North Atlantic (as portrayed in the movie, “The Perfect Storm”).
I have also learned that you can literally drive for hours and hours across sections of Newfoundland and not come across a single restaurant, convenience store, or gas station. My son, now in second grade, speaks and reads nothing but French at his public school and sometimes has secret conversations with the kid next door right in front of his befuddled parents. I have never gotten used to the unsettling sight of a submarine moving surreptitiously through the murky waters of the Bedford Basin on my way to work.
Cultural life in the Maritimes in general and Nova Scotia in particular is limited. There is a philharmonic orchestra, of sorts, and a modern art gallery and a professional theater in the middle of town. But it seems to be an unspoken rule that any painting or theatrical performance in the Maritimes must include at least one lighthouse, a sunken dinghy, or a heartfelt story about a moose falling through the ice.
But all in all, I guess I don’t really mind living here, though I have yet to apply for my Canadian citizenship. I was among the great migration of Americans who confronted by the chaos of American life in the first five years of the 21st century — fled to Canada with hopes of a better life. I was not alone: in 2002, approximately 5,200 Americans immigrated to Canada. That yearly total more than doubled to well over 11,000 by the end of George Bush’s presidency in 2008. This represented the highest spike in immigration to Canada since the heyday of the Vietnam War.
There are perks here that much of the rest of Canada does not share. Despite the too-long winters, the weather in Halifax is mild, with the proximity of the sea keeping the temperatures warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer. Of course that is a subjective kind of perk that an American in Princeton, Philadelphia, or Atlanta would probably only giggle at.
We do have a form of universal health coverage (something, I think, every American secretly envies). In a nutshell, in Canada each province and territory operates a kind of health insurance program designed to insure that all Canadian citizens and landed immigrants have access to medically necessary hospital and physician services. The cost is paid for by general provincial revenues with no premium costs to the consumer.
We have experienced the frustration of long waits for appointments to see specialists such as dermatologists, ophthalmologists, or orthopedic surgeons. Any health services covered by the provincial health coverage that require such specialists are based on a triage system. Depending on the perceived severity of condition, procedures such as a having a simple MRI may take months, and something like hip replacement surgery may take a year or more. Those lucky enough to have supplemental insurance to cover these procedures jump to the head of the line.
Unfortunately, Nova Scotia’s Medical Service Insurance program (MSI) does not cover such essentials as prescriptions and over-the-counter drugs, routine dental and eye care services for adults (it does cover them for children), and extras like crutches or wheel chairs.
Whether I stay here or go, I have no idea. The longer I’m here, the less like an American I feel. On the other hand, I don’t really feel any more Canadian than I was when I got here five years ago. My son likes it, and I think that is a good reason to stay in and of itself. If he gets married here and his wife happens to have a baby, she will get a whole year of parental leave. That’s the Nova Scotia way.
But I think sometimes that looking for a kind of exotic paradise on earth might be a mistake. Marlon Brando didn’t do too well on his private island and Gauguin died of syphilis. Even James Jones eventually brought his family back to the states to live in Long Island. On the other hand, Bob Dylan seems to be doing just fine in Malibu.