Returning to Normal -June 12, 2003
Eileen at the wheel of our rental car, looking normal upon our return to the boatyard
Most households in North America live in houses. We don't (which might mean we aren't a household). Also, most households have at least one car. We don't have one of those either. Living on a boat without a car seems pretty normal to us; we don't feel deprived at all. But to a lot of ordinary folk we probably seem, to put things politely, a little odd. We've chosen to forgo the two items most coveted by virtually all North Americans.
There is some logic to our eccentricity, however. Our boat is our home so we don't need a house. Boats by definition spend most of the time surrounded by water, a very difficult medium for wheeled vehicles. Ergo, a car is a poor choice of transportation. (If the truth be known, we didn't own a car before we left to go cruising either. We lived and worked near the centre of a large city with an excellent public transit system. We both had commuting bicycles. A car was a poor choice of transportation then, too.) Despite this perfectly good rationale, people occasionally view our rejection of the two material things they hold most dear as somehow suspect, perhaps a violation of the American dream.
For most of the year, the fact that we're hovering beyond the fringe of acceptable behaviour in a house-less and car-less state goes unnoticed. Aside from a few mega yachts we've encountered that were as big as houses and had cars hoisted on deck, the other cruisers we meet are similarly under-housed and de-vehicle-ized. And in some of the less developed countries we've visited, houses and cars are not universally available. There, we fit right in. But when we return to North America for a prodigal-like visit home, we're out of our element; like fish out of water.
Fortunately, the friends and family members whom we visit have houses, so we don't have to sleep on the street (at least, not as long as we behave ourselves and don't overstay our welcome). They also have cars we can sometimes borrow; and we often rent cars for more extended use. At least superficially, we seem normal - a roof over our heads and a motor vehicle nearby. For all appearances, we're downright respectable. But there are limits to our deception, as we discovered yesterday when we drove from Toronto back to the boatyard where we had left "Little Gidding".
(Now you might be wondering why we would drive 660-odd miles from Toronto, Ontario, to Lottsburg, Virginia, given our avowed disdain for cars. Believe it or not, it's the cheapest and most convenient way to go. In most parts of the world, public transportation would be more economical. Not in North America, where the private automobile rules supreme. One year we took the bus from the Chesapeake to Toronto; two adult fares cost almost twice the price of a car rental and the trip took a numbing 24 hours.)
Since we were engaging in a one-way rental, the car rental agency in Toronto gave us an American vehicle with Virginia plates. They were probably pleased as punch that we were returning their wayward charge to its rightful home. There was a line-up when we reached the border at Buffalo. We had plenty of time to study the procedures taking place at the Customs and Immigration booths. The lucky entrants successfully answered a question or two and were waved through. The not-so-lucky would-be entrants were queried at greater length and then sent over to a long, low building a short distance away. A courier bearing an orange card and assorted documents followed in their wake.
"We don't want to get an orange card," David told Eileen.
After about fifteen minutes it was our turn. We pulled up to the booth and David smiled as pleasantly as he could. The woman in uniform did not smile back. "What's your citizenship?" she asked. Easy question; we knew the answer to that one!
"We're both Canadians," David answered triumphantly, handing over our photo ID.
"Why are you driving an American car?" the officer demanded.
The smile froze on David's face. "Well, it's not our car, you see. It's a rental car and we're dropping it in the States."
The woman got out an orange card. Eileen sighed. "Let's see your rental contract," the officer said and started writing on the card. "Where are you going and what's the purpose of your trip?"
"Lottsburg, Virginia, to go sailing on our boat," David offered. The officer raised her eyebrows and wrote furiously for a couple of minutes. "Park your car by that building over there and enter door number one," she instructed. For a moment it sounded like we were participating in a TV game show, except there weren't any prizes in the offing.
Door number one led to a waiting room filled with unhappy looking people and very few chairs. A courier arrived a minute after us and delivered our orange card, pieces of ID, and car rental contract to the officers lined up on the other side of an imposing glass door. We waited about an hour to be called.
The officer behind the counter studied the notes on the orange card. "Lets get this straight," he said. "You don't own a car, but you have a sailboat in Virginia." We nodded in unison.
"We live on the sailboat; it's our home," we volunteered.
The officer stared at us blankly. "You live on a sailboat?" he repeated.
We nodded more vigorously. He asked us several more questions about our travel plans and punched a bunch of things into the computer that was beside him. Finally he said, "Well, I guess you're okay." He handed back our ID and rental contract. "Enjoy your visit."
We had the next eleven hours on the road to contemplate our border experience. We had answered all the questions truthfully. We weren't contravening any rules or regulations. And in the end, we were permitted entry. But it would have been a lot easier if we had owned our own car and lived in a house. Sometimes it pays to be normal.