Postcards from the TransCanadian Railway

In September and October I went home to Canada for a bit and took the TransCanadian railway across the country, starting in Vancouver and ending in Halifax. I had a great time. The long-haul trains in Canada are convivial places, the cast of characters I met along the way hilarious, irritated, full of love, sad, memorable, and occasionally very proud of being from Moncton. Here are a few of them.

***

I stayed a night at an AirBnB in Winnipeg for two nights between trains. The host, a woman in her late thirties, had described herself as “a real Jesus freak” in her profile. Before I arrived, she let me know that she would be holding a Bible study in her home that evening and was wondering if it would bother me. I said that of course it wouldn’t.

The Bible study, which I eavesdropped on from my room, was clearly an awkward convergence – four women of varying ages who either clearly did not know each other or had no sense of humour. Not a single chuckle was to be heard, not even in response to an on-colour joke. I felt fortunate that I had chosen not to involve myself, not because I’m totally disinterested in matters religious, but because I felt like the palpable awkwardness would just be increased by the presence of someone as heathenistic as me.

After the Bible study, I asked my host if she’d enjoyed herself.

“It was okay,” she said. “I’ve been looking for a good Bible study for a while, and I keep striking out. This one seems alright – there’s a special study technique where you underline a lot of stuff, but I don’t know. We’ll see.”

“What would your ideal Bible study look like?” I asked.

“I work all day,” she said. “I don’t really want to discuss things. There’s already too much going on in my brain. I don’t have energy for discussion or parsing apart the text. What I want is just a Bible study with ready answers. Answers, you know. Like something clear. Not discussion.”

“Oh,” I said, feeling suddenly very sad.

***

“Where are you going?”

This is generally the first question people on the Canadian long-haul trains ask each other by way of introduction, hoping to get a sense of a person by understanding their direction.

“Saskatoon,” was the answer of one gentleman in his early 70s. “I bought myself a rail pass and I’m going all across Canada. I have two grandsons in Saskatoon, and I’ll visit them. After that, I’ll head to Toronto. Maybe I’ll go home for a bit to Kingston, I don’t know. Maybe after this I’ll buy an Amtrak pass too and just keep going.”

“That might be nice to go home for a bit,” I said, “after these long train journeys.”

“No,” he said. “My wife died. We’d been together since 1956, when we were eleven. We got married when we were 20, which was as early as anybody’d let us marry. For now it’s really hard to be home, so I bought a rail pass. Maybe after this I’ll buy an Amtrak pass. I don’t know yet. Eventually though, I’ll have to go home.”

***

“Watch out,” said one of the train attendants as the train was rolling leisurely into Toronto. “Sometimes kids camp out on that bridge and shoot at the train with pellet guns. Actually, it doesn’t happen so much here, but it does happen a lot on the train up to Churchill. It’s a problem.”

The train cook was passing through the car.

“One time I was taking the train up to Churchill,” he said, “and somebody shot a 22. at us. Smashed the window to pieces.”

“Jesus,” said the passengers in the car.

***

The first train I took, from Vancouver to Winnipeg, was nine hours late and, though the website indicated that the train had WiFi, this was not true. 

Many passengers were upset. The most upset was a tall German man of about 65 hoping to rent an RV and visit the old homestead of some German relatives who had bid so long farewell to Germany and had made their fortunes in Canada. Being late for his RV pickup, the tall German man complained to anybody who would listen.

“Zis ees a joke,” he said to me. “Zis schedule ees a joke. Zer ees no vifi. Zis ees a joke.”

Every time I walked by his seat, he would repeat this like a tired refrain. I, too, was none too pleased by the lateness, but was coping better. I soon took to avoiding eye contact with him on my journeys throughout the train.

Two days later, he was on the same train as me again, this time from Winnipeg to Vancouver. Unfortunately for his sanity, this train was also nine hours late. He decided to complain to the train staff who responded with the demeanor of a secretary at an MP’s office, charged with getting rid of the pesky constituents who’ve called to make their opinion known about how reneging on your electoral reform promises is a bad thing to do. There was much “Mhm, mhm, okay, let me tell you how this works. Yes, it’s too bad, but really you have to understand…”

Afterwards, the German said to me, “She has been at her job too many years. She does not care. She does not even understand what we are saying. Zis ees a joke.”

The next morning, I spied him in the dining car.

“Good morning,” I said. “How angry are you feeling today?”

“Me? Angry?” he said. “I am not feeling angry at all.”

Momentarily confused, I stared at him. “You’re not feeling angry.”

“Of course I am feeling angry,” he said. “Zis ees a joke.”

***

The German wasn’t the only passenger on the second train who had also been on the first. I also met a couple in their sixties who told me that they were out of step with their friends because they had had children later in life.

“We wanted to have children when we were in our early twenties,” said the wife. “But then we weren’t getting pregnant so I went to the doctor and it turned out that I had gone through early menopause! My uterus was the size of a prune! And my hormones were completely menopausal! So we thought, well I guess that’s not going to happen.”

She spoke with a bubbly enthusiasm, all the time.

“So when I was 34, I started to notice that I was getting this belly and so I started working out more and more to try to get rid of it! But nothing worked and it turned into this little hard round thing. At one point I got my husband to jump on it. I said, ‘Jump on it, jump on it! Feel how hard it is! What is going on?’ Then a little while later I saw motion on my stomach – and of course it was the baby kicking, but I didn’t know that then. So I called my husband and I said, ‘come in here, look at this!’ And then the next day I went to the doctor and said, ‘I’m dying.’ Turns out I was six months pregnant! And you know what, at the time that I was pregnant there were two other women at work who were due around the same time as me, and they couldn’t do anything. So I said, ‘Oh, well, you sit down and rest and I’ll do all the the lifting, setting things up and whatnot. And turns out I was as pregnant as they were! I was in the American medical journal in 1988 because of it!”

“You should have been on Oprah,” said her husband.

“I should have been on Oprah!” she crowed. “Although of course there wasn’t Oprah in those days. Anyway, when my son was born, the doctor said to me, well ‘this is basically a miracle. This is never going to happen again to you, so don’t have hope.’ And so away I went and we had our little boy, and then a little while later I started feeling kind of weird and I thought, ‘if I didn’t know any better, I would say that these were the signs of early pregnancy.’ But this time I didn’t want to go to the doctor because the last time I’d felt kind of stupid – and I’m not stupid – because I did not know I was pregnant. So I bought one of those kits and it turned a little bit blue if you were a little bit pregnant and brighter blue if you were further along, and lo and behold it was bright bright blue. So I took it into the doctor and I told him, “I’m pregnant and I’d like to have an abortion” because I thought, ‘I’ve gone through menopause and my eggs have degenerated. I’ve had one healthy baby and there’s no chance I’ll have another one.’ But my doctor was Catholic and he said to me, ‘No, unfortunately I can’t do that for you,’ and so I had the baby and he was even more perfect than the first! And then after that we thought, of course this can’t happen again so we took some precautions.”

“How are your sons doing now?” I asked.

“Oh well, they’re good,” said Maureen. “Our oldest is working, and our youngest is too and he’s also transitioning to be a woman! It was such a surprise to us because he was always so masculine and he liked sports and he was very athletic.  Anyway, we were totally okay with it, except it’s a little hard to remember to say she and her all the time. And also – and this is interesting – she’s also a MomDad! Before she transitioned she met a woman while on vacation and she got pregnant and now they have a beautiful little boy!”

***

“That’s some engagement shit right there!” crowed a member of the group that I had started playing cards with on the train. Besides playing cards, we traded stories and facts about our relationships. He stuck his hand out to show us his engagement ring.

“So,” one of us asked, “What are you planning for your wedding?”

“Well,” says he. “We have to elope in Vegas.”

“Why?” I asked. “Do you just not like big weddings, or do your parents not approve?”

“Parents don’t approve,” he said, and left it at that, leaving us collectively in suspense.

Not for long as it turned out.

“Well, the reason we have to elope,” he said conspiratorially a bit later on, as though he’d been waiting for the exact right moment to drop the juiciest details “is that our parents are married. But we, y’know, didn’t grow up together or anything.”

“So you’re marrying your step-sister” someone said.

“I hear that’s one of the most popular porn genres” said someone else.

Later on, he told me I looked familiar. He looked familiar too. We tried to figure out how and if we knew each other.

“Were you part of the Marxist community in Montreal?” he asked.

“No,” I said. “Did you hang out on the same floor I did at university?”

“No,” he said.

“Maybe we just saw each other in our university lobby,” I said.

“I can only think of one other possible way that we couldn’t know each other, but it’s a bit weird,” he said.

“What, like a swinger party?” I asked.

“Did you ever have an, erm, tryst with my ex-girlfriend Catherine?”

So I was not too far off with the swinger party.

“No I never had sex with your girlfriend,” I said confidently.

“Are you very sure?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said, having been an unfashionable -1 on the Kinsey scale for as long as I can remember. “I’m sure.”

A week later my husband was heard me cry out disappointedly.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

“I just realized that I missed the only chance that I might have in my entire life to seriously respond to somebody with ‘I did not have sexual relations with that woman.’” I said.

***

The train to Halifax was also several hours late leaving, so the people in the lineup got cozy with one another.

The woman next to me started complaining about her job.

“My boss is 71,” she said, “and I’ve been waiting to get her position since she was 65. She leaves early every day. She’s lazy. She has no oversight in her position. And every year she hires different summer and winter staff even though the summer staff would be happy to continue working the whole year.”

“That sounds terrible,” I said.

“Well,” said the woman with finality. “I’ve decided I’ve waited long enough. They’re opening a new medical marijuana plant in my town, and I’ve applied there to be a manager. I have managerial experience and I need to work at this point because my own retirement’s coming up!”

“Good luck,” I said.

“I think I’ll get a position,” she continued, “because it’s for medical marijuana and so they actually need people who don’t use marijuana to work there because it needs to be sterile and all that and you can’t just be pickin’ leaves of the plants for your own personal use. Anyways, they asked me if I had experience, and of course I couldn’t say that I had experience growing marijuana ‘cause it’s still illegal. But I told them, you see, ‘I’ve grown tomatoes, I’ve grown squash, I’ve grown catnip, and I’m damn well sure I can grow marijuana too.’”

“Well I’m sure you can,” I said.

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