An American in Halifax

I don’t travel much. This is mostly due to my crippling fear of flying. I flew all the time as a kid, mostly in a Cessna 182, but somewhere around 1995 or so I began to have severe anxiety attacks before a flight. I haven’t been in the air since 1998.

But there’s so much to see in the world. And Canada is right there. So this year we took a trip to Nova Scotia.

I think a lot of folks in the US think of Canada as “the same, but nicer.” I was indeed told by many people that the locals would be proactively friendly and helpful. I came to picture the place as Land of the Extroverts, like some software startup with foosball and free artisan bottled water and underpaid 22-year-olds staying at the office until 1:00 AM because they were having so much fun.

And people were friendly and helpful. But the rest of my assumptions were pretty much wrong.


Two people and the main ferry cabin
Taking the CAT ferry. Pretty comfortable and roomy. Flying might be faster, but it’s not this nice.


Lesson 1: Nova Scotia’s in another time zone, Liz.

We took the ferry, which arrived in Yarmouth at about 9:00 PM local time. I wasn’t really worried about going through Customs there, but I’m an anxious person by nature, and with the way the US border agents have been in the news lately, it was impossible not to be a little apprehensive. The agent was a composed and professional woman of about 40 (no, she didn’t sound like Frances McDormand in Fargo, but she looked a bit like her) who asked us the usual why-are-you-here where-are-you-going questions. When she noticed the duration of our trip, she said “Only four days?” with real dismay, as if we were certain to miss something existentially, life-changingly wonderful on such a short trip.

That was something I noticed with everyone during our stay: the sincerity. I’ve no idea if it’s real, or just the way Canadian politeness seems when you’re not brought up with it, but from the receiving end it’s rather nice.

Lesson 2: Nova Scotia may be small, Liz, but Yarmouth and Halifax are three hours apart, and no, there are no side-road shortcuts across the peninsula because there are no side roads in Nova Scotia, and oh hell, you do indeed have to drive three hours in a strange country in the middle of the night.

It was dark. It was foggy. We learned quickly to deal with the speed limits posted in km. Here’s something that’s not a cultural difference: there are still obnoxious drivers in Nova Scotia. Since it was late and we were absurdly punchy, I found it fascinating and kind of hilarious that we were getting tailgated on a highway that was one lane in each direction–no divider–and that when there was a passing lane we had to actually slow down before the tailgater would pass us.

It was like they could manage >this< much rudeness, and no more.

Lesson 3: Nova Scotia is small. For real.


Two people standing in front of a rainbow flag in a window
There were rainbow flags in all the windows of this place. There were Pride flags all over downtown.


Nova Scotia is a genuinely welcoming place; in a lot of ways, the “same but nicer” stereotype is accurate, at least when you’re a tourist. There’s an edge missing there that I didn’t even recognize as part of US culture until I spent four days without it. It makes me wonder what folks from Nova Scotia think when they come this direction. I expect we seem kind of snappy and insular.

I loved Halifax proper. It’s a very walkable city (with some good hills for folks who like some exercise with their tourism), and there’s everything from the snacky, tourist-y waterfront to museums and formal attractions like the Changing of the Guard at the Citadel (which we missed). We found a little comic shop and dropped some change there; we also learned Pride Week had been the week before. Mid-morning on a Thursday there were plenty of people on the street, but not what I’d describe as a crowd.

We never saw a crowd. The most crowded thing we encountered was the ferry.

Nova Scotia’s got twice the square footage of my home state of Massachusetts, but only about 13% of the population. Half the people live in Halifax itself. And there’s nothing (at least that we found) that’s really analogous to the suburbs we’ve got here: there are nests of cul-de-sacs and clusters of houses perched on dead-end roads that connect to the highway, and small towns anchored by farms or inlets or both.

Lesson 4: Check the latitude, Liz. Climate-wise, this place is basically New England.

We drove east to the Bay of Fundy one day, and the landscape went from salt marsh to Vermont evergreens to Midwestern farmland back to salt marsh again, all in the space of about 90 miles. It was beautiful and disconcerting in turns–my brain kept trying to convince me I was in a place I knew.


Girl with her back to the camera looking out at the bay
The Kid waiting for the tide to come in.


My landscape analogies are imperfect, of course. The seashore is closest (although there’s a lot more red clay there). The most striking difference, to me, was the trees: the variety and mix aren’t unfamiliar, but the trees are all so short. I didn’t even realize that until we were driving home through Maine with trees towering over us on either side of the clogged three-lane highway. The highways in Nova Scotia are far narrower, and carry much less traffic, but they feel wide and exposed compared to the highways here.

Speaking of much less traffic…I mean there’s much less traffic. When we were making the three-hour drive from Yarmouth at 2:00 AM, I figured it was the hour. While we never hit the infamous Halifax rush hour, we drove through the city on Saturday; while there was a little clutter in Halifax proper, for the most part things just didn’t clog up that much.

There were so many different types of restaurants: Mexican and Thai and vegan and organic and Tim Horton’s (which is ubiquitous there). We did not actually find any better-than-adequate restaurants (mostly we just stopped for food when we got hungry), but the service was always cheerful, and you couldn’t go wrong with fresh vegetables. Our last night we spent in a 70s era hotel in Yarmouth that was also hosting a wedding, which may have explained why the hotel restaurant food seemed a bit lackluster, but later they sent up champagne and cheese on the house, apparently just to thank us for staying there.

But my most enduring memory is from checking out of our Halifax hotel, which was a typical business park chain hotel right off the highway. The fellow behind the desk gave us the thank-you-for-staying-with-us patter, and said he hoped when we came back we’d consider staying there again.

I returned a reflexive “Of course we will,” and he beamed at me. I mean his whole entire face looked so happy. Either he’s a stellar actor, or he was tickled pink that we’d had a nice enough time at his hotel to potentially come back. (I think we may have to now. I think that exchange may have been some sort of legally-binding Canadian courtesy pact.)

But that’s the thing about Nova Scotia: that lack of edge. Every conversation is relaxed. Every person you talk to focuses while they’re talking to you. It’s not the Land of the Extroverts, not at all. They’ll leave you to your own devices if you don’t approach them. But if you have a question, or if you look lost, they’ll be helpful and kind in a way I just don’t see much of here. There are plenty of kind and helpful people here, but we tend to speak quickly, to rush you through so we can make sure to have time to help the next person. I think a lot of the time we conflate courtesy with efficiency, but in Nova Scotia they seem to have figured out how to provide both.

I’m aware that most people treat guests differently. I’ve no idea if residents are less edgy than we are when they’re dealing with each other. But it was a remarkable thing to experience, a subtle change in the tenor of day-to-day living that was unexpected and genuinely restful.

We’ll go back, I suspect, and I’ll spend more time in Halifax proper and attend the Changing of the Guard. I’ll go back to that little comic shop, and I’ll take the time to find a truly good restaurant or two. And I’ll go back to the seashore and get my feet muddy and have the salted wind whip my hair into knots, and let myself be tranquil for a while.

And then I’ll come home, and ten minutes down Route 95 I’ll be myself again.


Two distant figures on a rocky beach
The Joggins Fossil Cliffs. No cliffs in the picture, and we didn’t find any fossils, but this stop was my favorite.


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