The Suspicious Border Agent
On June 4th, when I pulled up to the border of British Columbia by myself in my Honda Civic with a California license plate and handed the border agent my US passport, she already looked suspicious. I’m sure it was the normal tight-lipped, tough exterior she projected to everyone, but she made me feel guilty, like I’d done something wrong.
“Where do you live?” she asked.
I contemplated my response:
Well, I’m kind of between residences. I’m currently staying with my uncle in Maple Valley, Washington, but my mail is being forwarded to my parents’ house in San Juan Capistrano, California, but I was in Victoria last week, and I lived in Long Beach a month ago, where all my stuff still is, and in a few weeks I’ll live in Costa Mesa for four months, and then who knows, but right now? This car.
“Los Angeles,” I said. “I’ve been staying with my uncle near Seattle.”
“Where are you headed?”
“Vancouver until Wednesday the 8th,” I said. “For vacation.”
I was proud of myself for answering questions she hadn’t asked yet. I figured we were almost done here.
“Where are you staying?”
“The Sandman Suites on Davie.”
I praised myself for remembering the name of my hotel under pressure—and what street it’s on. I usually blank when I’m put on the spot. Then I come off as an airhead, when what I really am is anxious.
“Is this your car?”
No, I stole it. Of course it’s my car.
“Do you have a gun?”
I laughed through my answer. “No.”
“Do you have any cash?”
“In Canadian dollars, I have about 60.”
It’s leftover from last weekend, when I got off a ferry in the same country I want to enter now, and no one asked me all these questions.
“Any US dollars?”
“What do you do for a living?”
“I’m an editor and a writer.”
“And you’re on holiday?”
“This week I am. I’ve been working from my uncle’s house.”
“Do you have any friends here?”
Don’t worry. I don’t intend to stay in Canada indefinitely if that’s what you’re thinking. At least not yet. Trump hasn’t been elected, and hopefully it won’t come to that. Don’t get your panties in a wad.
“When did you leave Los Angeles?”
“When did you get to Washington?”
You realize a line of cars is behind me, right? Why is all this important?
“Why did it take you so long?” she asked with a raised eyebrow, continuing to stare at my passport.
“To get to Washington?” I asked, perplexed.
“Because I went to Napa, Ashland, and Portland.”
“Okay,” she said, handing my passport back, looking dejected that she hadn’t caught me in a lie or doing something illegal. I think she even sighed. I’m not sure what she expected to figure out by grilling me, but I felt sheepish as I was reluctantly allowed to proceed into Canada.
On my way back to the states, I readied for more interrogation, but I thought, The agent will look at my passport and see it’s my birthday. I’m golden. Nearing the front of the line, red-light-type cameras pointed at me and my car, and a computerized sign next to my window requested passersby hold up their IDs like this.
Who? What kind of IDs? Help!
I determined it couldn’t possibly be a passport scanner, and wrote it off as a border patrol internal ID scanner for employees, but I couldn’t be sure. I was already afraid I was doing it wrong—whatever it was—because I always think I’m doing everything wrong. And I hadn’t even reached the window yet.
As I wondered whether or not to risk looking like an idiot if I held up my passport for one of the cameras or a scanner in case I might get reprimanded for crossing the border incorrectly, an agent with a drug sniffing dog circled the cars around me, all with BC plates. He cruised with purpose as the dog stuck its head in every crevice, wheel well, and trunk crack. The man’s face did not change expression; it was the same stoic look I saw on the woman who had allowed me into Canada in the first place.
I don’t have drugs in my car! Yay! I thought. Also, why would people bring drugs into Washington, where Marijuana is legal now? I thought the heroin problem was in Mexico, not Canada.
The naïve and illogical internal dialogue scrolled through my brain as the man with the busy dog passed my open window. I smiled at him. I considered saying, “Hello, fellow innocent American!” but didn’t.
He didn’t smile back, nor make eye contact. I was still a potential suspect.
I pulled forward, observing the signs above and to the sides of my car.
“Have your identification ready. Be ready to tell the agent what you purchased while outside of the United States,” signs read.
A six pack of microbrews and a book, I thought. Oh, and that half-empty bottle of wine I drank by myself in my hotel room in celebration of my birthday last night that’s in the trunk. Okay, so it’s a little more than half empty. What do you want from me? It was my birthday, and no one was there to help me drink it or take my clothes off to distract me from drinking it myself.
I watched the green light above the border agent’s booth as I crept forward. It never turned red. I stayed far back anyway because there was a minivan-load of Canadians in front of me being questioned.
I got this.
When it was my turn, I drove to the window at eight kilometers per hour and handed over my passport. I smiled at the agent who would let me back into my country of origin. This round of questioning couldn’t possibly be that bad. We were both Americans after all. He was probably tired of questioning outsiders, right?
“Why didn’t you stop at the stop sign?” he asked.
“What stop sign?” I looked behind me, but could no longer read the plethora of signs in my rearview.
“You drove past the stop sign, and I thought, ‘No! What is she doing?’”
He said the sign was in a certain spot for a reason, maybe so they could read my license plate on a camera? I felt like a dingbat who couldn’t drive or get through a border checkpoint properly. I had seen no such stop sign.
“I’m sorry. I totally didn’t see it. There was so much stuff around,” I said, waving my hands around.
Like, oh my god. This is soooo confusing.
He shook his head.
“Where are you coming from?”
“Vancouver. I’ve been there since Saturday.”
“Where are you headed?”
“To my uncle’s house in Maple Valley, Washington, but soon I’ll be driving back to California.”
I’d done this before; I knew the drill.
Once he determined I’d driven from South Orange County to Canada all by myself, he said, “You’re brave!”
“That’s what everyone says,” I said, incredulous. I still don’t get the word “brave” when it’s thrown in my direction; I’ve always felt the opposite of courageous. I merely push through my constant fear of everything.
He nodded. I felt better. He was warming up to me. He peered into the backseat of my car. It was empty. Everything was in the trunk, and I had apparently passed the drug sniffing dog test.
“Did you buy anything while you were here?”
“A six pack of beer and a book,” I said. I skipped mentioning the open wine bottle.
After a couple more questions, he asked, “Any alcohol?”
“Just the beer,” I said.
Who’s the idiot now? Ha!
Then he let me go. As I pulled away, I said again, “Sorry about the stop sign!”
“It’s okay,” he waved.
He didn’t wish me happy birthday.
Welcome to America.
The Americans from House Stark
I drove 1,200 miles to Maple Valley, Washington to stay at my uncle’s house so I could drive another 130 miles to Port Angeles to hop a 90-minute ferry ride to set foot into Canada for the first time. I checked into Chateau Victoria and walked another 650 meters to Little Jumbo, a cocktail bar with good reviews on Yelp. It was 4:50 PM, and the restaurant didn’t open until 5:00. I sat in the hallway in front of the door and waited with a few other parties of eager foodies. I was excited to meet Canadians and spend my first emerald green plastic Canadian money on fresh Canadian squid and Cynar.
I’m in Canada! I thought, as they opened the door to my first Canadian dining experience. I ordered fresh bread and whipped butter and a cocktail. It was heavenly.
A nice looking older couple sat next to me at the bar. After they ordered their drinks, I asked them what they were drinking. Then I asked, “Where are you from?”
“Huntington Beach,” the woman said. “Well, we live in Sunset Beach.”
“No way,” I said. “My last apartment was in Long Beach.”
“Really?!” they replied.
I trekked almost 1,400 miles to Canada, and the first people I met lived nine miles from my last residence. I could have saved a lot of money in gas to meet them.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I said.
“It’s a world of laughter, a world of tears. It’s a world of hopes and a world of fears. There’s so much that we share that it’s time we’re aware…”
We determined all three of us appreciated a fine cocktail and a good meal, so we shared Orange County restaurant suggestions.
“Have you been to Vaca yet?” I asked. “It’s across the street from South Coast Plaza.”
“Not yet,” the wife said.
I told them about The OC Mix, specifically The Mixing Glass.
“My sister works there. They have a cocktail class the third Thursday of every month. You should come. I’ll serve you drinks!”
The wife started taking notes; they were very interested in cocktail class.
This was not the first conversation I expected to have in Canada. It was weird. It was like I never left home.
But they were friendly and had been to Victoria 20 years prior, so they had suggestions for me too.
“I know it’s cheesy,” the woman said, “but you should go to The Butchart Gardens.”
“I totally want to go there,” I said. “And that butterfly place?”
“Skip the butterflies,” they said.
Good to know.
They also told me I had to go to Il Terrazzo up the street and eat mussels. I went there for dinner the next night and had a delectable seafood pasta dish after my day trip to the gardens. I mentally thanked my new Southern California friends. That dinner was unbelievable.
Before we parted, I asked their names. Their last name was Stark.
“Like Game of Thrones!” I said. “I won’t forget that.”
“Oh yeah!” the lady said, as if she hadn’t thought of it before.
I look forward to seeing the Starks at the next cocktail class, nowhere near Canada.
The Man My Sister Should Marry
As I left Little Jumbo, the weather in Victoria was temperate. The harbor was glimmering, and everyone walking the street was eating ice cream. It was magical.
I continued my search to meet some real Canadians. I wouldn’t be disappointed.
I bellied up to the bar at The Churchill, where I ordered a craft beer on tap. They were playing my music: Modest Mouse, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and The Kills. They even played Minor Threat. The cute female bartender pulled off long black hair and tattoos and wore jeans and a cutoff shirt that showed off her slim belly. Her bartending counterpart was a scruffy hipster dude sporting an ugly green trucker hat; he looked like everyone at a My Morning Jacket concert at Red Rocks. They were ridiculously friendly and accommodating. I would come to learn all servers in Canada are just as considerate.
The patrons were dressed casually and chatting with friends. No pretention. No obsession with appearances. No pickup artists. People weren’t scoping the room to see if there were better, more well connected, more attractive people they should be talking to. It was comfortable and natural. It wasn’t Los Angeles.
I fucking love Canada, I thought, as I sipped my beer and smiled at everyone around me.
Then a beautiful blond woman in her early 30s sat down next to me with her boyfriend and another female friend. I introduced myself to Amy, and Amy introduced me to Kyle and their other friend Amy.
“My best friend’s name is Amy,” I said. “I love Amys!”
But it wasn’t the Amys who struck me; it was Kyle. He was what would result if Ryan Reynolds and Jake Gyllenhaal had a baby. I told them my vagabond story of adventure and temporary homelessness. Kyle was impressed. The “I don’t have kids or a husband and I’m on the road with no house” thing seems to appeal more to men than women. The valet at the San Francisco hotel I stayed in on my way home called it “tight.”
Kyle’s girlfriend offered to switch seats with him so he could talk to me.
Did I mention I love Canada?
Kyle and I went on to have a lengthy, poignant conversation. He and Amy had been together for 15 years, since they were 19. They were at that sweet spot age when youth collides with maturity. I told him my parents had been together since they were 19 too. We talked about the longevity of Kyle’s relationship and why they “just work.” He said after so many years, everyone was hounding them to get married, but he said neither of them cared.
“You don’t need to get married,” I said. “If it works, why change it?”
“It hasn’t been easy,” he said.
“Nothing ever is,” I said.
But he knew they were in it; they were a team. Clearly she wasn’t worried about their bond, letting him talk to me all night without a hint of jealousy. The Amys disappeared into their own conversation, while Kyle stared at my beer.
“I miss beer,” he said longingly.
He didn’t look like a beer drinker; he was lean and toned and sipping his one cocktail for the evening: something clear with a lime it. Maybe gin or vodka.
“Amy and I are gluten-free,” he said. “We’re those people.”
I know the kind. I’ve read the articles. Those people are the grains, nuts, and raw veggies types; they consume all manner of Christmas tree garland, like Gwyneth, Giselle, and Tom Brady. No carb. No fat. No fun.
But damn, they look good.
In the meantime, I ordered my second dinner of the evening: a giant cheese and meat board with a loaf of bread on the side. The “healthy” portion of my extra meal included a garnish of baby pickles and a mason jar of gourmet olives.
“It’s amazing how much better you feel once you start eating healthier,” he said, as I scarfed down salami and brie.
“I bet,” I said with my mouth full. “I have no willpower.”
And no sex life. If there’s no sex, I have to at least have food.
As we talked, I thought about how I wanted to take him home to my sister Tessa. He was the perfect age for her, and he was witty and kind. I thought of ways to ask him for a photo without seeming like a total creeper. I also texted Tessa that I’d met her husband. She laughed.
When the beer hit my bladder, I looked around at the purchase I’d made at the local bookstore, my purse stuffed to the brim with my wallet, camera, and passport, and my jacket that hung on the chair. One problem with traveling alone: You have to take everything with you to the bathroom every time. I also worry about leaving a half-empty drink on the counter and disappearing. I don’t want someone to drop a date rape drug in it while I’m peeing.
But then I remembered I was in Canada.
“Would you mind watching my stuff while I go to the bathroom?” I asked him; he’d been nothing but candid and trustworthy all night.
He cocked his head to the side and gave me a look.
“Of course! Please. We’re Canadians.”
Then he joked he would steal my stuff while I was gone.
“Welcome to Canada, bitch!”
I cracked up.
Before it was time for Kyle and the Amys to depart, and after he and I had shared our life stories and become what felt like real friends, I remarked offhand that it was almost my 43rd birthday.
He was shocked. I’m always shocked when people are shocked by my age. I feel my age and know I look much older than I did at 34, but for some reason, people who don’t know me think I’m younger than I am.
“Wow. Keep doing whatever you’re doing,” he said.
Gorging on beer and cheese plates? Okay!
But I couldn’t finish the cheese board by myself, so I turned to the man on the other side of me. I hadn’t talked to him at all, but I offered him my leftover bread, olives, and slices of prosciutto.
“We were totally eyeing that. It looks so good. Thank you!”
He slid my food over to his friend, and then a pair of total strangers gladly ate my half-eaten second dinner. I was surprised. Usually people turn that shit down.
I still hadn’t asked Kyle for a photo I could text to Tessa, but I decided when they got up to leave that I couldn’t. It was too weird. What would his girlfriend say? But I was sad I had no way to keep in contact with him. Maybe he and Amy wouldn’t work out after all, and he could be my brother-in-law someday. It was a pleasant fantasy anyway.
Instead, I shook his hand and said, “Good luck to you.”
He told me to enjoy my trip, and when Amy and Amy walked toward the door, he grabbed his girlfriend’s arm and said, “Say goodbye to Chelsey!”
Then they were gone. I guess Tessa has to find a future mate on her own. I tried.
The Writer from Botswana
I was exhausted after a long day of navigating the local buses and walking around The Butchart Gardens with a hoard of slow-moving tourists and their giant selfie sticks. I wanted one glass of red wine, a couple photos of the gorgeous view, and chocolate cheesecake. I wasn’t up for making any more new one-night-only bar friends. It had been a long weekend, and I was looking forward to crashing early.
I shared a few cursory words with the young bartender from Wales about traveling, but the skinny man on the other side of the bar was running on adrenaline during his first night in Canada after a grueling plane flight by himself and was ready to mingle. We were the only two guests there.
Monty and I introduced ourselves and talked about where we were from and what we were doing there.
“Good morning,” he joked, looking at his watch, which he hadn’t changed from Botswanan time.
“Good evening,” I said. “What time is it in Botswana?”
It was 5:00 AM on Sunday morning. This guy was a trooper.
“You’re supposed to change your clock and pretend it’s the right time,” I suggested.
He shook his head and smiled. He asked me what I do. When I said, “I’m a writer,” his eyes lit up.
“Do you have a card? I want someone to write my biography!”
Holy crap. That’s a job for Dave Eggers. Not me! I thought, feeling instantly inadequate.
For all he knew, I write commercials. This guy was trusting! I didn’t tell him I write nonfiction and have a manuscript. I didn’t want to encourage him any more than he already was.
“I’ve only met one writer. He was Indian,” he said.
I guess the Indian writer didn’t pan out.
“I’ve had a crazy life,” he added, shaking his head.
He looked away and presumably pondered his outrageous life. I couldn’t imagine what he was thinking, but I was curious, despite my fatigue.
“What’s the story you want someone to tell for you?” I asked, thinking about my limited knowledge of men his age who grew up anywhere in Africa. I know nothing about Botswana, but I’m smart enough to realize it’s ultra-naïve to in any way equate his life with the lost boys of Sudan, but that was my only myopic sheltered Orange County girl frame of reference.
Monty was probably in his early 30s, but there was an innocence about him, in spite of his “crazy life.”
He shook his head again and smiled.
“No…” he trailed off.
Got it. Your life isn’t good bar talk.
“It’s okay. You don’t have to tell me,” I said. “Have you been writing your story down?”
“Yes!” he said, “and recording everything by voice as well!”
Monty doesn’t need a ghostwriter; Monty is a writer. He’s just too shy to admit it, like I used to be. He needed someone to tell him what he didn’t believe about himself. He’s like me in at least one way: He has the pressing urge to record his life and make meaning of it.
“It sounds to me like you’re a writer,” I pointed at him and smiled.
He smiled back and nodded, hanging his head. He asked for my card again.
“Do you have a card?” I asked, instead of pulling mine out. The truth is I didn’t want to give him my card. I wasn’t up for the lofty challenge of writing this sweet man’s book for him. I can barely write my own stories.
“They’re in my room,” he said.
I got up to leave, sticking to my one glass of wine before bed. But I grabbed his hand before I split.
“One day I will read your story,” I told him, looking into his eyes. “You are going to tell your story.”
“Okay,” he said, nodding. He really seemed to mean it.
And I really hope he does. Until then, I will wonder.
The Friendliest Bartenders
In Vancouver, I aimed to find a popular restaurant in Gastown, a section of the city I’d read about before leaving California. It was a “rough neighborhood” on the upswing with a burgeoning restaurant scene. From my hotel, it was a 2.3 kilometer walk. I debated taking a cab because I wasn’t sure just how “rough” the neighborhood actually was, but I really wanted to walk, like I’d done the whole trip, so I did.
Vancouver’s idea of a sketchy neighborhood is laughable, or at least that’s what I initially gathered. Near the restaurant I saw two soap-deficient 20-somethings hunched against a wall on the sidewalk when I turned the corner near my destination. But that’s about it. They looked like the hippie kids in the park in Ashland, only they were missing juggling pins and a slackline.
I reached Pourhouse Restaurant at 4:57, and they opened at 5:00. I’m a happy hour girl in a late-night world. I was the first person there. I had the whole bar to myself, and the tall, dark, handsome bartender in black pants, a black vest, and a tight white t-shirt was at my beck and call.
He apologized for not being able to make the exact drink I ordered because they were out of an ingredient that was “hard to find.” Instead he made me something similar called an Avenue in Davenport, a drink one of the other mixologists there had created. It wasn’t on the menu. It was perfect.
I gave him the short version of my life on the road. He said he likes traveling alone to cities he doesn’t know.
“Yeah, but it gets a little lonely,” I said. I’m always on these would-be romantic solo dates with an invisible person sitting across the table from me.
“But then it’s like you’re dating the whole city!” he said.
Or no one at all! Ever!
He mentioned Amsterdam. I said I lost a boyfriend to Amsterdam once. He smirked.
I ordered fresh sourdough bread and house cultured butter. It was better than sex, from what I remember.
“I could make an entire meal out of just this,” I said.
“Yeah, butter tastes like magic,” he said.
Then I ordered a rigatoni dish with braised beef cheeks and asked if it was any good.
“I think about the rigatoni when I’m not here,” he said.
My own personal bartender and his adorable minions of barbacks were attentive and amusing, much like many bars in many cities, but there was something a tad more genuine about them than I’d experienced in California. They weren’t on stage wearing theatrical masks. They were themselves.
Which is why, when a brown-haired woman in her 20s sauntered into the bar in her bathing suit and a loose-fitting sundress and flip flops straight from the beach, the bartender zipped over to greet her and bailed on me faster than you can say Carpano Antica. He didn’t try to hide his affinity for her with a cool exterior. That much was obvious.
I was not upset. I didn’t care. One of the best aspects of being in my 40s is it’s freeing to be invisible.
Turns out he already knew the girl. She’d come to visit him. She leaned in against the bar as he brought out a wet stone to sharpen a dull knife.
“Entertain me,” he said to her.
Then I watched their romantic dance, content to be an outsider who doesn’t care to deal with that nonsense anymore.
Seven years ago, I probably would have tried to sleep with that guy, I thought, and I may have succeeded, but that shit is not important to me anymore.
Instead, I took notes.
He said things like, “…going up and down Main for some brunch action,” and “Sunday brunch is going to be so sick.”
She used the word “like” a lot and twirled her hair. Her eyeliner went past her eyes in a wisp. She held one foot in the air with her knee bent as she pressed against the bar.
He told her last night after work he’d watched Kung Fu Panda in French. He bragged about a 4:00 AM party.
Maybe Vancouver was like Los Angeles after all.
Ah, the life of a 30-year-old bartender.
The “Stupid Girl” song played in my head.
He continued to methodically swipe the knife back and forth on the wet block, as he laid the witty banter on thick.
“Gimlets, baby,” I heard him say.
I burped up Fernet and looked out the front window as a guy with a man bun walked by. I hate man buns.
I ordered another drink, and when the bartender set it down, he said, “Here ya go, m’ love.”
He immediately returned to sharpening his knife and wooing the girl.
Then, as if in a cloud of smoke, she bolted. I didn’t even hear her say goodbye. When she was a few feet too far away to hear him speak, he said in a soft voice, “Bye. I love you.”
That was a smooth move, girlfriend. Make him miss you!
Soon after, I went in search of a wine bar I’d also found online. I ended up in a seedy alley looking for a hidden entrance. This had happened before when I searched for Bathtub Gin in Seattle. I was always ending up in dirty alleys walking on broken glass to get somewhere cool.
Only this time on the opposite side of the alley from where I suspected the wine bar was located, a gray two-story shoddy apartment building towered over me. It looked like a pay-by-the-hour motel. Prostitutes and drug addicts hung over iron railings and slunk on the asphalt. It was sad.
Ohhhh, this is what they were talking about when they said the neighborhood was “rough,” I thought.
I picked up the pace, suddenly feeling out of place, but I had to walk down that same alley twice to find the wine bar entrance. It was tiny and no one was inside. I was starting to think maybe I should go out later at night if I intended to meet people, but then I’d be scared to walk around by myself.
Two friendly young ladies stood behind the bar. Over the course of one glass of wine, we became fast friends. They were so stinkin’ nice.
What’s with this country?
We discussed celebrity sightings in Los Angeles, where I’ve witnessed a Ben Affleck meltdown and seen Ryan Gosling being interviewed by the LA Times over breakfast firsthand.
They had an even better story. Once, Owen Wilson stumbled over the threshold of their minuscule establishment on Heroin Walkway in his shorts and sandals and asked, “Are you guys still open for some snacks or something?”
“I can totally picture that!” I laughed.
They were jealous I’d seen Arcade Fire at the Hollywood Palladium, The Joint, and The Forum.
Oh yeah, that’s right. Arcade Fire is from Canada too!
By the time I left the wine bar and got out of the alley, I ran into yet more people lapping up ice cream cones.
Canada is one large enchanted ice cream parlor!
I wanted to rush back to the hotel and sign into ancestry.com to find out if I had any Canadian origins; I wanted to move there, just as the border agent feared.
In Canada, you can wear sunglasses until after 8:00 PM; cute little red maple leafs appear everywhere; everyone has a credit card with a chip in it; hot guys in shorts and tank tops carry sunflowers down the street for no apparent reason; cop cars look like Uber vehicles; even buses apologize: “Not in service. Sorry.”
I was ready to marry the oyster bar guy in Yaletown when I knew nothing about him other than he was wearing a t-shirt that read, “Try me naked.” His sweet, wholesome coworkers’ shirts said, “Suck me off” and “Eat me raw.” They were glib references to oysters, but for some reason, it worked. There’s no way a restaurant in LA could pull that off without dripping with douchebaggery. But these guys were anything but sleazy. They were boys next door, protective big brothers, men you trust.
I saw a kid in a “believe” t-shirt on the sidewalk.
I believe! I believe! Hooray for Canada!
Plus, Canadians use umbrellas.
Take that, Seattle.
I still have a crisp Canadian 20 dollar bill in my wallet; I’m saving it for next time to make sure there is a next time.