Crossing the Line

Posted on October 4, 2010


My wife and I are American citizens, and so are our kids, but we moved to Canada twelve years ago. It wasn’t a political statement of some kind. We weren’t trying to escape anything or looking to pursue a different lifestyle. We were just visiting and happened to find a house we loved.

In our ignorance, we bought the house first, then began looking into the details of emigration. We did this because it never occurred to us that there would be anything complicated about the process. At that time, you could cross the border quickly and with minimal preparation. A few cursory questions and they waved you in; when you wanted to leave, they waved you back out. As long as you weren’t carrying machine guns or fresh vegetables, the transition was effortless. In many ways, it didn’t even feel as though you were traveling between countries. And unless you stay a while, it’s still hard to notice the differences.

But differences there are. The main one is that if you’re Canadian, you’re pretty interested in what I’m going to say. If you’re American and facing the prospect of having to learn something about Canada, you’ve already stopped reading. But just in case, and at the extreme risk of generalizing, here’s how to distinguish between the two countries and their people.

1. Over-doing it and under-doing it.
We saw this almost immediately. We arrived on June 29th, two days before Canada Day, a national holiday that celebrates the birth of the country. Like the Fourth of July, Canada Day’s festivities include fireworks, but the similarity ends there. Canadian fireworks are like the cartoon before the movie. If there happen to be Americans at a Canadian fireworks display, you can pick them out easily. They’re the ones saying, “Is it over already? It can’t be over. Really? That’s it? No. You’re kidding me.” You spend an hour getting to the place, parking the car, and staking out a spot. You spend another hour getting back to your car, sitting in traffic, and driving home. In between there are about five minutes of fireworks, which still somehow causes the Canadians in the crowd to marvel at how the show seems to get better every year.

At the other extreme, American fireworks are like Gandhi, uncut and shown without commercial interruption. They go on and on. Even a small, local display can last twenty or thirty minutes and cast enough light to let you read a short book. If you’re watching the celebration in New York or Washington, you can earn your GED, get married, and start a family before the show is over.

2. Anger.
In the US, if you’re standing on a long line at the bank, sooner or later someone is going to say in a loud voice, “It might help if they had more tellers!” In Canada, people stand in a queue, and they will stand there quietly for as long as it takes. They don’t raise their voices, and if they need to express uncontrollable rage, will write a letter to the editor of the local newspaper.

Here’s one odd exception. In America, politicians are cordial to each other, even those on opposite sides of an issue — even those who hate each other’s guts. When they’re together they are respectful and even deferential, referring to one another as “My esteemed colleague.” In Canada, politicians in Parliament scream at the top of their lungs, often at the same time and for minutes on end, making it really hard to hear what anyone is saying. I think that’s the basis of Canadian politics: The people don’t like yelling themselves, so they elect representatives to yell for them.

3. Language barriers.
In the United States, most people speak English, but a large minority speak Spanish. The English-speaking Americans and the Spanish-speaking Americans can’t stand each other. This problem doesn’t exist in Canada. Here, most people speak English, but a large minority speak French. The English-speaking Canadians and the French-speaking Canadians can’t stand each other. The difference, again, is no yelling.

4. Elections.
As with fireworks, American campaigns go on forever. With each cycle they seem to begin earlier and earlier, but at least you know that Election Day will be the end of them for a predetermined amount of time. Once a president is elected, that’s it for four years. Not so in Canada. I can’t say I’ve come to understand the system completely, but if the prime minister and the ruling party believe they will suffer by waiting, they can call an election much sooner. The amazing part is, the whole thing happens in a matter of weeks, less time than it takes for American candidates to announce a running mate or explain that ridiculous comment they made last month in North Carolina.

5. Sports.
Americans are crazy for baseball and football. Canadians love hockey, and a sport called curling, which involves sliding a big rock down the ice while two people with brooms try to guide the rock into a circle by sweeping. This reminds me of bowling, a simplistic game that requires you to roll a heavy ball and knock down as many pins as you can. To compensate for the lack of complexity, both sports use complicated scoring systems that, thus far, have eluded my comprehension. This also gives the play-by-play announcers something to say besides “good one!”

6. Holidays.
Canada has most holidays in common with those of the US, but there are a few differences. While Americans celebrate Memorial Day near the end of May, Canadians have Victoria Day, which honors the nineteenth-century Queen of England. I’ve already mentioned Canada Day on July 1st, followed by Labor Day at the beginning of September. Now you really have to pay attention. Canada has Thanksgiving on the second Monday of October, when Americans are marching in their Columbus Day parades. Both countries celebrate Halloween in exactly the same way on the 31st, then Veterans Day in the United States and Remembrance Day in Canada, both on the eleventh of November. A couple of weeks later, the American Thanksgiving serves as a buffer between Halloween and Christmas, but Canada has nothing until December 25th. With no imminent holiday pushing Canadians to switch over, evidence of Halloween tends to linger for several weeks; meanwhile, eagerness for Christmas causes twinkling lights and angels to appear earlier than you might expect. One result of this overlap is that you can drive down a street in late November and see witches sharing the skies with reindeer. That’s a little unsettling. And because retail stores no longer acknowledge any gap between holidays, in Canada you could reach for a smiling Frosty the Snowman on the shelf and find yourself holding a skull with blood dripping from its eye sockets.

The day after Christmas in Canada is called Boxing Day. We haven’t met anyone yet who can adequately explain what this is. In the United States, the day after Christmas is called December 26th.

7. Money.
Currency is pretty much the same, and lately, pretty much equal in value. The main difference is that in Canada, they have one-dollar and two-dollar coins, and actually use them. Paper dollar bills are gone. If you see an American and a Canadian walking down the street, you can spot the Canadian without fail: he’s the one leaning to either the right or the left, depending on which pocket he uses to carry his change. In the US, if someone hands you a two-dollar bill, he’s just visiting.

8. Culture.
It’s the same, and getting more so every day. Same pathetic television shows, same fast food restaurants, same music, movies, cars, clothing. The major difference is that Canadians don’t know how to say the word bagel. They pronounce it baggle. This alone was almost enough to make us want to move back.

North America as a three-story-house.

9. Personality.
If I had to pin it down to one thing, I would say that Canada is quiet, insecure, and cautious, and the United States is loud, bold, and reckless. That wouldn’t be a problem, but we happen to be sharing this weird three-story house called North America. Mexico is in the basement, just below the main floor, which is occupied by the United States. People in the US pay a great deal of attention to the basement because a lot of Mexicans are trying to come upstairs to get a well-paying job. Canada is in the attic. Every once in a while Americans look up and think to themselves, hey, I almost forgot that was there. Meanwhile, Canadians press their ears to the floor, trying to listen and at the same time trying to pretend they don’t care. But Canadians don’t have to wonder what’s going on downstairs; they can’t avoid it. Americans tend to make a lot of noise, and it’s hard to ignore. That’s why Canada imitates the US in every way possible: “They’ve got a television show called America’s Biggest Moron! We should make our own television show. Let’s call it Canada’s Biggest Moron!

10. Geography.
Mention any Canadian town or city to the average American, and the reply will be, “Is that near Toronto? My cousin went to Toronto once.” You’d be hard-pressed to find an American who could name all ten of Canada’s provinces. Canadians, on the other hand, can name all fifty states and most of the capitals, too. They can tell you how long it takes to drive from Boston to Philadelphia, and where Wyoming is in relation to Kansas.

In short, it isn’t that Americans think bad things about Canada; it’s that they don’t think anything at all. And deep down, that’s what drives Canadians crazy. It’s their own invisibility they struggle with. If Canada had been smaller and located in Asia, they would be much more famous. They would have been America’s most consistent ally during the Cold War, similar to the role Israel has played in the Middle East. But here, Canada seems drab and colorless, with few discernible bragging rights. True, they have the better Niagara Falls, but do most people even realize that? Their dollar coin is called the Loonie, and features a picture of someone else’s queen. Their professional football team in Montreal is nicknamed the Alouettes, for crying out loud. Their population is the same as that of California, spread out over the second-largest nation in the world; on a map, the upper half of Canada looks like ice cubes floating in a bathtub.

The thing is, even if Canada had bragging rights, they’d remain modest. That’s who they are. Canadians don’t beat their chests and claim their country is the greatest in the world, and they don’t feel comfortable calling attention to themselves. But like Americans, they are intensely proud of what they are and what they stand for. And they love their country. Criticize it, and you’re likely to see some real fireworks. Finally.