We join Claude in the summer of 2014. Claude was searching transatlantic cargo shipping companies and phoning up their offices. In a bubbly, but unsure voice he was saying “hello em I was just wondering if you take passengers on your ships like I don’t fly see and I want to go to Canada.” “Do you know any…”- “No” – Thank you for your t…”
It was no good. Claude wouldn’t get to Canada unless he flew. At that time, the luxury of joining a cruise ship was too opulent it never entered his head. He was going to have to fly. Have to? He knew well he didn’t have to, but he wanted to go. He had to fly, to go, if he was going to attend a summer school he had been accepted on and present his research.
Claude had been given a travel bursary by the summer school organisers to attend. Like many young scientists, such academic opportunities are hard to pass up, given the competitive credentialism of the science job market. Claude couldn’t say no. However, after taking a lot of flights while living in Poland two years previously, he had vowed not to fly again. Claude had decided that in order to live sustainably, flying had to be ruled out. He had put off making a decision about flying to Canada that summer, but prices of flights were increasing and so the time had come. The decision to fly was finally made, aided by the power of cognitive dissonance of the fact that it wasn’t him who would be paying for the flight, but the conference organisers. He didn’t really buy this justification, but it would suffice.
Having read previously that a disproportionate amount of the energy used in flights was consumed in take-off and landing, Claude reasoned with himself the he would limit himself to one flight each way. But Claude was going from Dublin to Halifax, Nova Scotia and there was no direct flight. Clause began researching online and found a train from Montréal to Halifax that took 24 hours. This appealed to the dormant Catholic in Claude as a kind of penance to cancel out the sin of flying. At the time, he was aware if the irony involved that the extra travel should cancel the initial travel, but this was only vaguely considered. It would be a year later when looking at different map projections that he would realise that Montréal is almost 1,500km further away than St. John’s, Newfoundland, the alternative route Claude could have taken. This would privately embarrass Claude who would recall Paul Virilio’s jab at Thomas Friedman calling him a ‘true flat world Columbus.’
Claude flew into Montréal on the first Thursday in July to begin the train journey to Halifax the next day. He walked around a bit, but the stress of the impending presentation the following week distracted him. He had only the skeleton of a draft and no idea what his central thesis was. He would form an opinion of the city when he would return to Montréal for six days before leaving.
Claude would spend more money on the flights than his bursary would cover, so when it came to the train, he opted for economy. Although there was an observation roof in one of the carriages, as an economy passenger, all Claude got was an aisle seat facing the side of a toilet cubicle. Economy did not come cheap. The train was a tourist attraction in itself and the economy journey cost $150 CAD each way. The touristic element meant nothing to Claude, who would have gladly foregone the supposedly spacious seating and the overcast view when he craned his neck, if this had meant a cheaper journey. He got very little privilege from this, though some of the landscapes would stay with him.
The view and the mood on board weren’t helped by the arrival of a severe storm halfway into the journey. This coincided with bed time, which for Claude meant listening to hours of podcasts, as he had difficulty sleeping in those days and the new environment was of no help. After listening to several chapters of the Half-Blood Prince, Claude finally fell asleep.
When he awoke next morning, everyone else was already awake for a few hours, Claude suspected. This symbolised in him a certain sense of being out of sync. Out of sync and jet-lagged in Canada, but also out of sync with the world.
Twenty hours into the journey the storm had intensified when it was announced in English and Quebecois French that the train was delayed by an hour. This was greeted with a unison of private sighs. It struck Claude that was merely a 4% increase in the journey time, but he also reasoned that it was 20% extra added to the remaining time. He was eager to get settled in Halifax to finish the paper he had not yet written.
The hours passed slowly as Claude failed to read the words in the articles he had laid out in front of him. As the original arrival time approached it became clear that the delay time was more than an hour. The storm was now a hurricane and for some time the train would not move. When it would again, it would be a seemingly crawling pace.
When the train finally reached its penultimate station five hours after Claude had expected to arrive, the toilet sinks were without water and the cafe had closed. Complimentary water and donuts, were brought on board. This was enough to set one mother off, who travelling with her young kids and extended family, began to lose patients. “It’s my son’s birthday today and he’s supposed to be at home and we’ve been stuck on this train and the children haven’t had their supper and you bring us donuts!?” This was said to a member of staff who patiently listen, before it was repeated to her party, the train at large and to the universe or whatever God she may have believed in.
Claude assumed that supper must be what he called dinner. The word struck him. It amused him in the lingua franca of universal English that a subtle difference in definitions could sound so wrong to him. This thought acted to distract him from the fact that the mother’s indignation at the travel delay seamlessly eroded his own and in his travel-fatigue he mildly pitied her.
When the train finally reached Halifax, it was eight hours late and 2am. Claude took the first cab he found, whose driver drove him 700 meters to his accommodation, where Claude instantly fell asleep.
Two weeks later and Claude was already back in Montréal. He had delivered his paper to polite interest and respectful questions. A weight had been lifted. The pressure from the presentation was gone. Claude had achieved his goal and couldn’t complain. But where his presentation had occupied a part of him – a part of his being – he was left somewhat underwhelmed.
This feeling of deflation would follow him around for his six-day stay in Montréal. On his third day in Montréal, it was Claude’s birthday. In the early afternoon. he went to a bar and fell asleep for half an hour in the middle of the day reading ‘The Birthday Party’ by Harold Pinter. A few years later this would be one of Claude’s favourite plays.
Later that day Claude would drag himself to the only recommendation he had been given before leaving Ireland, ‘Cinema du Parc.’ A non-descript quasi-art-house cinema, which resembled an unloved Cineplex from the nineties. It lacked the vintage soul Claude had hoped for. Claude watched ‘Snowpiercer’ (2003) by Joon Ho Bong.
The film is set on board a train in a dystopian future where a failed technological intervention to prevent the effects of climate change have destroyed life on earth save for those on board the train. The film revolves around the insurrection of an oppressed proletariat against the oligarch played by Tilda Swinton in a Margaret Thatcher inspired role. In the end the train is derailed, but traces of life survive on the planet after all.
Claude was not uplifted. He left the cinema feeling the most nihilistic he would at almost any other time in his life. Like the train in the film, he felt derailed and a feeling of helplessness for the planet ensued. Although this would gradually fade away upon his return to Ireland, Claude struggled with the weight.
In his small hotel room an hour later, Claude lay on the bed and wonder why he bothered visiting Montréal. He recalled the fact that he felt he should make the most out of the opportunity to be on the other side of the world that the longer the stay, the more justifiable the flying would be. But Claude had now realised this wasn’t the case. He was merely alone on the other side of the world, with nothing to do, consuming a hotel room, restaurant meals and countless bottles of water in the continental heat. This has not been a happy stay.
Three days later, Claude arrived at the airport hours before his flight. Anxiously he re-arranged books in his back to minimise the appearance that he had far more weight than his allowance. The books were a souvenir to himself to put a positive spin on the trip. When asked how his trip was he would simply reply, “I bought so many books.”