(james benedict brown) on the road

The A&W at the Greyhound depot

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 14 December, 2007

In my compendium of the Canadian things that I love, Edmonton is one I can’t explain. I’m 6,625km away from Sheffield, drinking a cup of incredibly hot coffee and eating an incredibly hot apple slice in the fast food restaurant of a Greyhound depot. The broad street outsidethe window is windswept and almost empty. The odd car or truck rolls past, more water vapour than exhaust fumes emerging from their tailpipes. A homeless man peers into a waste bin and stumbles on. A singularly unappealing bar and hotel (the kind you find directly across the street from bus stations in prairie cities) is directly across the street.

There’s one restaurant employee in the kitchen, and one serving the counter and cleaning the restaurant. The mottled floor tiles are being mopped slowly, but there are still smears of spilt ketchup on those near my table. For the first time since arriving in Edmonton a few days previously, I’m seeing First Nation people. Perhaps it’s not surprising that an English traveller in this rich boom town doesn’t cross paths that often with native Canadians. It’s only here in the echoey shell of this industrial transport building that I come close to sharing public space with people outside my narrow ethnographic sphere.

I’m possibly the only person in the Greyhound depot who isn’t travelling somewhere or working in the depot. With an hour or two to kill, I’ve exhausted downtown Edmonton’s distractions for one afternoon, and I’ve retreated to my personal comfort zone – the anonymity of a low level diner. In the last year I’ve begun to ask more and more questions about the kind of person I am, and I’ve found a startling pattern in my character. I have frequent bouts of crowd aversion. Nothing cures the sudden urge for peaceful solitude than the opportunity to slip beneath the radar and to drink a hot coffee in a space of lonely transience.

North American cities confuse little Europeans like me. We can’t make head nor tail of their vast sprawling landscapes, their broad automobile-centric streets, or the strange vacuums of space created by empty lots or open parking lots. Edmonton is boom town right now. Having effectively reached the global peak of oil production, it has suddenly become viable and even profitable for oil companies to extract the oil that lies within Northern Alberta’s tar sands. The Athabasca Oil Sands are predicted to have non-convential oil reserves (i.e. oil mixed with sand and tar, requiring an expensive and laughable energy-consuming extraction process) equal to all the remaining traditional oil fields in the world. And that means Edmonton – the nearest city to Alberta’s (black) gold fields is raking in the cash. The suburbs are growing at break neck speed, the business community is bringing in more cash and generating more tax dollars, and the retail sector is struggling to catch up. Every second shop, cafe or gas station I passed had a job vacancy posted. One day in West Edmonton Mall I met a woman whose husband makes a living polishing trucks. Not cleaning trucks, but polishing them. Not only can Albertans afford big rigs to power their economy, they can afford to spend money keeping them looking sharp, which is now mean feat during a cold Alberta winter.

Less than two months after my last trip across the Atlantic, I’m back. This was not on the agenda. My carbon footprint for this year is reaching yeti-like proportions. And I’m here, in Canada’s fastest growing city, just as the first real hint of winter is beginning to emerge. It’s not so much a mercy mission, but a visit with a sentimental reason. If I’ve told you why, you’ll understand. I have a few days away from university to renew some important ties.

I timed my trip particularly well. Later that day I caught the tail end of a local newscast on Edmonton’s Global Television affiliate. Seeing this four day outlook, I was not bothered to be leaving on Sunday night, so soon after coming back to this distant but refreshing city.

Notice that Canadian weather forecasters have a different definition of ‘chilly’ to British ones.

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