A generational odyssey through the North American Eastern Coast

Universitat Pompeu Fabra’s BA in Global Studies requires its students to take a minimum of 20 credits at a foreign university to encourage the acquisition of international competencies. For me, it was clear that I wanted to study on the other side of the Atlantic, and one of the most interesting options was offered by Canadian universities. Additionally, I had my father’s experience, who lived a couple of years of his youth in the city of Montreal (Quebec). I ended up choosing Dalhousie University, located in the city of Halifax. On August 28, 2022, I found myself flying towards Canada to spend the next five months delving into the raison d’être of euro-atlantic relations, discovering the harshness of the North American winter, and recalling my father’s trip.

Halifax is quite a small city, one in which the concept of community has a very valuable connotation for its citizens. Cosmopolitan, open, and highly influenced by the great number of students that arrive every September from all around the country to experience college life on the much-loved East Coast, Halifax is one of the main cities in the continent concerning human capital as well as lifestyle. It is the capital of the province of Nova Scotia and, like most of the American territory, it suffered European colonization by the British and French during the first half of the 18th Century. In spite of everything, colonial awareness is currently a widespread reality in Canada. Initiatives such as Trudeau’s 2021 Action Plan on Reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples guides the government’s will to advance the rights and prosperity of Canadian Indigenous communities. Interestingly enough, the repopulation in Nova Scotia and, more specifically, in the city of Halifax, was not carried out with a Scottish population but with an Irish one, as evidenced by the inscription of an imposing Celtic cross right in the city center.

I won’t talk much about my college life at Dalhousie, but it would be worth telling a couple of anecdotes. In 2022, I was a member of a volunteer forest firefighting group in my hometown. Before leaving for Canada, I took a handful of badges with me to exchange for others from the American fire brigades that I would find along the way. It was a common practice in the guild. While I was waiting to be received by some officer at the Halifax Fire Station to exchange one of the patches, I bumped into a seemingly simple man with a US accent. Like me, he was also carrying some badges to trade. The coincidence seemed very timely and we started chatting as we stood on the line. The man was actually a New York City Police Department (NYPD) lieutenant, and he had come on one of those cruise ships that go all the way up the East Coast with a final stop in Halifax. After getting our Nova Scotia patches, we said our goodbyes and he made it clear that if I ever was to be in NYC, I would get in touch.

Accustomed to the Mediterranean calmness, the Canadian weather caught me off guard. There were several times when storms threatened my stay in North America. Two weeks after arriving, Hurricane Fiona was moving unperturbed across the Atlantic Ocean in a straight line towards Nova Scotia. Previously, we were already warned with an e-mail to calm the spirits that started with: “Dear students, Hurricane Fiona has been predicted to be the worst storm in Canada’s history. Ever.” A few days later, the Hurricane hit the city in the dark. In the morning, the damage was visible: trees on the ground, potholes in the sidewalks, and a mix of mud, leaves, and other debris blocking the streets. The electricity network was inoperative for a few days, but on campus, we subsisted on the capacity of the faculty’s self-generators. People talked then about resilience, teamwork, and, once again, community.

All in all, September flew by. At the beginning of October, autumn was already taking over the parks of the city. It wasn’t cold enough yet, but you could start to feel the crisp. At that time I used to go out a lot. One of those days, we organized a hike with the Dalhousie Outdoors Society. A camping route by bike deep into the Acadian forest, surrounded by lakes and awesome landscapes. In November, everything was more serious and it was time to put your nose to the grindstone. Finally, December arrived with great expectation, since, after finishing the exams, I would start a circular route that would take me through the main cities in the East of the continent.

The plan was to fly to New York City on December 22nd and spend there two weeks. Then I would take the famous Amtrak train to Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Quebec, and finally back to Halifax, from where I would take a flight to Barcelona in mid-January. It was exciting. In those days, an arctic storm was said to be disrupting regional flights in the West as weather conditions didn’t allow for takeoff. However, I thought that America was big enough so that the problems of one side did not affect those of the other. I was wrong. I left the Gerard Hall residence on the evening of December 19th and took the bus to Stanfield International Airport, thirty minutes away. The flight didn’t leave until 6AM, but I couldn’t stay another night at the residence as they were closing the facility for Christmas break, so I had to spend the night at the airport. In the early morning, however, the flight information display announced that my layover in Toronto would be delayed by two hours, to eight o’clock. It was three o’clock. At four, they officially canceled the flight.

Affected passengers, in disbelief, went to queue at the Westjet airline counter to demand more information. It was a critical situation. All the other flights were also being canceled progressively, and airport workers were overwhelmed. Christmas was coming and people wanted to get home on time. After hours of queuing, some of us got a ticket for the next day at twelve, and although there were no guarantees, we had hope, even if it meant spending another night at the airport. In addition, due to the large volume of people affected, the companies could not provide enough hotel rooms or meal vouchers.

Finally, I was able to catch that connecting flight to Toronto and everything seemed to be going, this time, according to plan. Arriving at Toronto’s old Pearson International Airport, the collapse was tremendous. I ended up spending three more days and three nights there, which made a total of five, subsisting on pre-cooked hamburgers and standing in unimaginable queues to charge my mobile phone or inquire at the Westjet desks, while meeting all kinds of people. I still remember the peculiar Amish couple accompanied by their twelve children, the Mexican man who explained in detail the stories behind the scary stab scars on his belly, or the melancholic cowboy in snake leather boots who told us about his past love affairs. Finally, on the night of December 24, 2022, I landed at LaGuardia Airport in New York City to begin the adventure that had already started five days ago.

In fabulous NYC I stayed in a small apartment in Harlem, the neuralgic center of the rise of jazz in the 1920s. It was a really exciting two weeks. The NYPD colleague I made in Halifax made it very easy for me to visit everything I wanted. With just a call, he managed to sneak me in as a VIP passenger on the ferry to the Liberty Statue, among others. On the 25th, after recovering the lost hours of sleep and, more importantly, my hunger, I headed to a Gospel Christmas Mass in one of the neighborhood churches. Characterized by the musical quality and the closeness of the Catholic narrative of the black community, it was a fantastic show. Because in the “city that never sleeps” there is always something to see; it is truly endless. On January 6, 2023, I left the city that never sleeps from the Moynihan Train Hall towards Buffalo, the border city where the American train I mounted would then become Canadian. It was dark already and I couldn’t see Niagara Falls; that was pending. At dusk, I arrived in Toronto, where I would spend the next four days.

Toronto in January was quite dystopian. From the residential districts to the Lake Ontario waterfront, it was a good three-hour walk and you had to necessarily cross the empty streets of the very-tall-buildings business center. Nothing beats NYC, really. I stayed in a Youth Hostel in Chinatown, and apart from visiting a couple of required spots (CN Tower, Kensington Market, and the Distillery District), I decided to take a bus to Niagara Falls which I didn’t manage to see on the way. The Cascades in winter are amazing. The frozen water of the Niagara River took on a turquoise color that, together with the pieces of whitish ice floating in the water, turned that landscape into a stunning sight. From Toronto, I also fondly recall a small bar called “The Communist’s Daughter”. Its manager, a charismatic man in his fifties, was not only preparing and serving the drinks all by himself, but he also entertained the customers at the same time.

Before finishing my pint, I got to see him play Baker’s “There will never be another you” with his trumpet, sing some traditional Ukrainian songs accompanied by his Balkan band, and end by reciting poetry. A real showman. I left Toronto behind and headed to Ottawa, the capital of Canada. Ottawa is quite possibly the most institutional city I have ever visited. The concentration of government buildings and the formal atmosphere that permeated it is probably only comparable to Brussels. Still, it’s a downright beautiful city, and it was even more beautiful under the snow.

It was time to go deep into the French-speaking region of Quebec, visiting Montreal first, and then the capital. In Montreal, I had some help and some company too. I stayed at one of my father’s acquaintances’ place from the time he was in the city. I’ll start by saying that if I had to live in any of the Canadian cities I visited, it would definitely be Montreal. The city combines the North American aesthetic, the commercial cosmopolitanism of a large metropolis, enviable nature, and both an Anglophone and Francophone cultural landscape.

As I previously said, between 1992 and 1994, my father lived in Montreal on an expired tourist visa. At that time, the bureaucratic controls were not as restrictive as they are now, and Joan Subirachs (father) even managed to get a Master’s in Management at Concordia University. He also spent his time working in the reforestation campaign in Thunder Bay (Ontario) with a friend’s social security number. In fact, as he couldn’t work officially, he had to come up with original ideas. In Barcelona, we already knew about this. Historically, on the Rambla de Catalunya, many people had gone by on their own acting as human statues in the street. My father was a pioneer in bringing this culture to the streets of Montreal and, to be honest, he did quite well. He spent the few savings he had on buying a tennis player’s outfit and spent the summer of 1993 posing as a human statue in the Place Jacques-Cartier in the Old Port (see photo). For me, it was very special to visit that spot thirty years later and retrace part of my dad’s footsteps in that faraway country.

Place Jacques Cartier in 1993. My father poses as a statue towards the right side of the picture.
Place Jacques Cartier in 2023, thirty years after, through my lens.

The last stop before reaching Halifax was Quebec City. To get there, the train had to make a go around the city, as the railway station was built between the citadel and the Saint-Laurent River. It was the last few days of the trip and, frankly, I was beginning to think about my return. I stayed in a hostel right on top of the historic center, which seemed very European to me. The relief of the city, despite being highly impractical, provided the historic district with a majestuous proportion that was worthy of seeing. It is not surprising that the place was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site back in 1985. From the top of Vieux Québec, in front of Château Frontenac, the views showed the end of my trip. I would soon be home.

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