The first time I saw Canada, in 1954, I was six years old and running a fever. Our ship, the Italia, had just completed its five-day Atlantic crossing from Hamburg, Germany. We were among the immigrants disembarking in Halifax. The Italia would continue on to New York, where it would discharge the remainder of its passengers.
The German-speaking doctor on board the ship was not prepared to let me leave unless my temperature went down. He told my mother that if my fever didn't abate, I would have to be quarantined in Halifax. I wonder now what thoughts went through my mother's head that day. Was she terrified? Only twenty-seven years old, she spoke no English and was about to take me and my two-year-old brother on a train across Canada. My father would be waiting for us in Vancouver. He had arrived in Canada four months earlier, worked two jobs to pay for our fare, and rented a small house for us. I couldn’t wait to see him again, yet we could be stuck in Halifax until my fever went down.
But the gods were with us. In the morning, as passengers began to leave the ship, the doctor took my temperature. “Normal,” he declared with a smile. Mom heaved a sigh of relief. Suitcase in one hand, she grabbed my brother's hand with the other, and we took our places in the queue of "New Canadians" lined up before the desks set up at Pier 21. Immigration officers leafed through documents, peered at passports, collected signatures, and finally stamped those precious papers that allowed us entry. I remember the lollipops they handed out to the children. I sucked mine noisily as our throng was taken to the train station.
“Where is our big suitcase? And the trunk?" I asked Mom.
"Oh, they'll be in the baggage car all the way to Vancouver. We'll get them there. We have enough here for the train ride." She held up the small suitcase. "And you have your knapsack. Did you remember all your books?"
I nodded. I had even checked behind my bunk in our shipboard cabin, to make sure a book hadn't slipped down there. My grandparents, my aunts, and my best friend had all given me books for the trip. I read every one of them during the ocean crossing, but I planned to read them again on the train ride, which would take four days.
We joined other immigrants for the first leg of our journey, to Toronto. I was glad to see my friends from the ship were on the same train: the two African girls with their neatly braided hair, who had been my playmates in the children's room - a place filled with toys and games. We had played catch with big balls. On our last day in the playroom, the attendant gave each of the children a toy to keep. I received a bright red ball, and it was now wedged into my knapsack on top of the books. My friends each got a doll.
As the crowded train left Halifax, everyone was excited. Adults murmured quietly to each other, and we children pressed our noses to the windows. We were heading to our new homes.
Gradually, as the train made its stops, destinations were reached and families got up, waved good-bye to other passengers and left the train. As we slowed down at one station, my two friends packed their belongings excitedly and came over to hug me good-bye. Then they joined their mother at the coach door, where the girls jumped up and down with excitement. When the train stopped and the doors opened, I watched them run into the arms of a tall black man waiting under the sign that said “Kingston”. I was prepared to do the same thing when we reached Vancouver - run into my daddy's arms. But we had to change trains first.
In Toronto we boarded another train. This one was fancier, and it was not just for immigrants. Where before we’d sat on wooden seats, which made for uncomfortable sleeping, here there were padded benches and a dining car. That was exciting. Even though I'd been on trains in Germany (sometimes with my grandfather, who worked for the railroad), I had never travelled on one with a kitchen. Two black-robed nuns sat opposite us spoke German and accompanied us to the dining car. We sat down at a table beside a window. Outside, the trees raced by in a blur. The table had a little raised edge which the nuns explained was to keep the dishes from sliding off, as the train was moving fast. They helped Mom with the menu.
The first time I had Campbell's vegetable soup I fell in love with it. Mom ordered soup for me, because she knew how much I liked it. But this soup was not like any I had eaten before. Alphabet noodles? I had never seen such a thing. Gleefully I spelled my name, and then ate it. To this day, I have a fondness for Campbell's vegetable soup.
Another first was 7-Up. When we had it on the train, we thought it was called “Jup”. Europeans write 7 with a horizontal line through the middle, so we didn’t identify the symbol on the green bottle as a number. It looked just like a capital J. Weeks later, at a corner store with my father, I learned the real name of what I'd been drinking.
The entire train journey, across Canada in early November, was a first. Longer expanses of flat land than I'd ever seen before. Snow. Miles and miles of snow sparkling in piercing sunlight. Huge mountains, disappearing into clouds. There were no mountains in northern Germany. Not this much snow either. I felt as if I was on a magical journey through a fairy-tale landscape. When our train finally pulled into the Main Street station in Vancouver, I came back to reality. And there was my father, with his big smile and his hug.
What else do I remember of that first moment in Vancouver? It was raining.