Writer Talia Ralph was forced to leave her US life and return to Canada. Here’s what she’ll miss most.
I began the month-long process of deporting myself from the United States on Canada Day. It was July 1, 2012; a hazy Sunday morning in Los Angeles. My 6’7″ Californian boyfriend—a former college football player, built like a house—was at the wheel of my scuffed-up white Jetta, my life’s belongings stuffed in the back. The cat was in the window, watching me go with her usual indifference.
I should have been crying. After all, I was moving against my will, leaving a place I loved, headed back to an old, outgrown life one border and three time zones away from the handsome giant in the Jetta. Instead, I snapped a Polaroid of the cat through the haze and wished that Hollingshead was open.
Hollingshead is a deli in Orange, California. More precisely, it’s part deli, part craft beer store, part bar, part Green Bay Packers fan club. It’s the kind of place that always gets a barrel of the rarest brews, like Russian River’s Pliny the Younger or anything aged in bourbon barrels for many months or years. It’s the kind of place that has mugs behind the bar labeled with its regulars’ nicknames: my tall boyfriend was always known as “Tiny” there.
But the reason why my last wish in LA was Hollingshead had nothing to do with the 500 hard-to-track down bottled beers or the nearly two dozen on tap. It was the sandwiches.
My sandwich of choice was always the Great Scott on squaw, which I ordered the first time Jake took me there. It’s fairly straightforward as sandwiches go: Smoked turkey, bacon, avocado, Swiss cheese, mayo, honey mustard, lettuce and onions. The bread is steamed—yes, STEAMED—never toasted, and is perfectly airy, pillowy.
But—and here’s the kicker—it’s not even about the bread. I know some sandwich aficionados will tell you that a sandwich lives and dies by the bread that envelops it, but I believe that a truly excellent sandwich is about teamwork: good ingredients in the right proportions. You can’t have overcooked chicken breast on an otherwise flawless chicken club; you can’t put grade-A Montreal smoked meat on day-old rye.
For three generations, the family behind Hollingshead has been perfecting the proportions. The Great Scott has an exactly perfect amount of everything in between those two bread clouds. Nothing is fighting to overpower anything else. Not even the lettuce gets lost in the background. It’s the great sandwich democracy, almost more American than America itself.
My boyfriend likes to say that everything in the universe is based on mathematics, and though I’m a fan of his slightly loony pronouncements, I’m a little down on math at the moment. I’ve been back in Canada for two months now, and the math I’ve been doing lately is the addition of time zones and thousands of miles between us. Before I left, math was the countdown of my expiring visa, a problem set without a solution that in the end led me to where I’m at now: late-night Skype conversations from Canada and breakfasts of disappointingly unripe avocados mashed on toast in my parents’ kitchen with my parent’s utensils.
Of course, there are worse things than a somewhat leisurely self-deportation between first-world countries. You could be shackled on a one-way flight to Salvador. You could be storm-chased in the wake of Sandy. But for me and my simple plans, it’s still a bit of a gut-punch to know that officialdom has ruled that I don’t belong where I think I do, in California.
When people ask me in Canada now where I am from or if I live “here,” I don’t really know what to say. If I like them, I’ll tell them an abridged version of the story; if I’m tired, I’ll just say “sort of.” It’s tiring work dragging your body back and forth across the continent. Drive through Vermont to Boston; leave your now-Quebec-licensed car at your best friend’s house in Quincy; take the cheapest flight possible from Logan to LAX; live out of a suitcase or a subletted studio for a little while; take whatever you can; remind yourself what he’s like in person; fall in love again, then say goodbye.
Hollingshead, sadly, makes no exceptions for deportations, and I didn’t get my 7 a.m. sandwich that Sunday—it isn’t open on weekends or mornings. I ended up eating a crumbly, still-warm apricot muffin and a breakfast burrito at a diner called the Apricot Tree somewhere in between L.A. and Napa, our first stop on the month-long road trip from California to Montreal that would be made up of a lot of great American meals: Beer-battered salmon sandwiches at Full Sail brewery in Hood River, Oregon; steak at four o’clock in the afternoon in the heart of South Dakota; grilled cheese and tomato soup with old college friends at my old college haunt in Boston.
My first meal upon crossing the border into Quebec—which I pretended was for my boyfriend’s sake but was clearly a case of emotional eating—was poutine; the French-Canadian brick-like mess of fries, cheese curds, and gravy.
It was fine. It was good, even. But it was so Canadian, and I was already mourning my little idea of America: drinking a cold beer at Hollingshead on a weekday afternoon, swapping sandwich halves, and listening to my Californian guy talk football, the bright sun streaming through the windows.