Going to and coming from eastern Canada my wife and I drove several thousand miles through the Midwest and New England. In Oklahoma, signs warned, “Don’t Hit Our Workers. Avoid $10,000 Fine.” In Missouri the signs got even more threatening, “Don’t Hit Our Workers. $10,000 Fine And Lose License.” The highway folks obviously feel they need to give drivers reasons not to run over workers.
Even in the rural Midwest, however, there are unexpected signs of social change. The door at a truck stop restroom in Greenville, Ill., sported a notice that there was a baby-changing table—inside the men’s room.
In Kansas, on a rural road northeast of Wichita a sign asked us to stop for “Stockyard scenic view.” Nearby we were welcomed to an oil museum. Greenberg, Kansas, advertised the “world’s largest hand-dug well.” Punctuating the lonely highway and decorating the rich brown fields were Kansas skyscrapers—grain elevators looming over mobile homes and rickety cottages. Wind generators revolved endlessly and trains without beginning or end crept across the an earth so flat you could see its curvature. Liberal, Kansas, might sound like the planet’s greatest misnomer but when I looked up the name later I found the name had a nice down-home origin: A man named Rogers became famous for giving water to tired travelers, who responded, “That’s very liberal of you.”
In many a small town it seems as if nothing ever happens. To email a story to The Independent, I stopped at the library in Pleasant Valley, N.Y., a town in the scenic and historic Hudson Valley with a terrific deli and all the quiet attractiveness its name suggests. But I noticed a couple of things. The library kept its restrooms locked and paper towels had been removed “due to vandalism.” The librarian warned me, “There’s lots going on here beneath the surface.”
In some ways, eastern Canada can seem like an extension of New England, but in other ways it is totally different. For example, contrast an American bar with a British pub.
In British life, a pub is not just a place to quaff a pint. It is where otherwise defensive members of an introverted culture let their hair down and relax with each other, permit their bodies and minds to reach out to each other.
In Halifax this fall, on our second night in Nova Scotia during a monthlong road trip, we walked into the old Triangle Pub, a crowded downtown pub that is one of the landmarks of the vibrant night scene. Every table was full except a nine-seater by the door. We prevailed on an unhappy waiter to seat the three of us at his favored party table, ordered beers and turned our attention to the great music flowing from the stage, an amateur trio with a girl playing an Irish flute and two guys on fiddles. Soon another couple entered, looked around sadly at the crowded room and started to leave.
“Join us,” I told them, “we have empty seats,” and they did.
We immediately began chatting. The woman turned to me and started to apologize for interfering with our privacy, then stopped herself. “Canadians always say sorry, even when we haven’t done anything, even when it’s somebody else’s fault,” she said. “We even say we’re sorry we’re Canadian, we’re not American.”
It’s true that Canadians apologize a lot, and the word “sorry” does play an outsized role in their vocabulary. Perhaps it’s just part and parcel of the famed Canadian niceness, a niceness from which strangers like us repeatedly benefited during our three weeks in eastern Canada.
When we hesitated on a sidewalk unsure of our direction, a passerby stopped to offer unsolicited help. When we arrived at night at a remote inn, our hostess stayed up late to welcome us. When we blocked traffic with a dead battery at a ferry ramp, no one honked and an uncomplaining seaman fired up our battery.
When a policeman stopped us for having an illegal radar detector, he apologized for inconveniencing us before confiscating the offending device (and waiving a fine he could have levied). When an out-of-uniform Royal Canadian Mounted Policeman stopped for a social chat with my wife, he was not taken aback that she did not know what RCMP stood for.
We saw a nice homeless guy in Montreal neatly collecting his dog’s poop. A beggar in downtown Montreal had a sign beside his collection cup informing stingy passersby that “even a smile will help.”
Nearly everywhere in Canada we saw signs proclaiming, “No matter where you are from we are glad you are out neighbor,” a welcome message for immigrants and a rebuke to the American government. (We saw the same signs in Portland, Me., a small city that often seemed to have more in common with Canada than elsewhere in America.) In several communities we saw community libraries on the street that invited pedestrians to borrow books.
We stayed at a hostel in a rough area of Halifax, so rough that we hesitated to leave our car packed with camping gear parked overnight on the street. But the folks in our hostel as well as the desk person at a YWCA nearby assured us it would be safe; and it was.
Even in the big cities of Quebec and Montreal, drivers are cautious and courteous. They invariably stop for pedestrians, even if you just look like you might want to cross the street, even if you are outside marked crosswalks or jaywalking. On country roads, drivers obey speed laws and almost never honk or act aggressively. On back roads, drivers pull over onto the shoulder to let faster cars pass them.
Put it all together: the idea that many Canadians make an effort to be helpful to strangers as well as to each other is no myth.
Yet there is another side to this story.