The Halifax pier smells of fish, of course, but also of other things: french fries from a chip wagon parked at a picnic area; briny air blown in from the North Atlantic; hot melted butter wafting out the wide-open windows of seafood restaurants; exhaust from cars chugging along the waterfront roads.
It’s a place you can get fried foods and ice cream in the summer. You can sit on restaurant patios overlooking the water even when the air gets chilly, wrapped snug in a blanket. Or if the blanket’s not enough, you can warm yourself with a boozy Caesar that’s stuffed with a spear of fresh shrimp and a liberal dashing of spicy Tabasco in a glass rimmed with chunky grains of salt. Plates piled high with fresh bright red lobster will tempt you as you walk by. You can stroll the wooden pier clutching a paper cup of piping hot coffee while the damp breeze sweeps in off the water.
The pier is timeless, but not in the sense that it never changes. It’s a collage of time, different moments pasted hodgepodge together like the tissue paper in a child’s artwork. Teenagers post selfies on smart phones next to nineteenth century stone buildings. Shiny expensive cars park along the boardwalk facing a replica sailboat, canvas sail flapping in the wind. The Citadel has loomed over the waterfront from its perch atop the city’s highest hill since the late 1700s.
At one end of the boardwalk, Pier 21 welcomed the country’s influx of migrants during and after the twentieth century wars. Now, the Pier 21 immigration museum is papered with black and white photos of ships full of the war brides of 1946. My grandmother is a soft blurry smudge on the deck of one of those ships, my infant mother cradled in her arms. They arrived from England, bound for a small wooden house in rural New Brunswick where a Canadian farm boy awaited, newly arrived home from the war.
At the other end of the pier, sailing schooners dock outside the maritime history museum that holds artifacts from the Titanic and the Halifax explosion. You have to travel up the hill away from the pier to visit the cemeteries that hold the dead from both of those disasters. A tabby cat called Eric the Red lived on the pier outside the museum, a responsible mouse catcher, but he died two years ago. I’m not sure where he’s buried.
The Alexander Keith’s brewery serves modern-day beer in the cellar of a nineteenth century stone building. We’re here on a long weekend for our birthday celebration, a joint celebration because my husband and I were born three days apart, fifteen years apart. Two different eras of the same story overlapping, like two chapters of the same book.
My husband and I walk up and down the pier every day that we’re here. I like to look out at the choppy waves rolling into the Narrows, the channel that connects the city to the Atlantic Ocean. We take a tourist boat trip to get a look at the city as seen from the water. The same view the sailors saw from the deck of the Mont Blanc before it exploded. The same view my grandmother saw as she first glimpsed her new homeland. It’s a view I see with contentment, holding my husband’s hand.