The View From Away: Canada, where 'from Away' really means something
I spent a week in Toronto breaking stories for the series I am working on. “Breaking stories” is one of those confusing terms in TV. When you have a solid path, the story is fully broken, a good thing. If it falls on its face when the actors get a hold of it, the network says the story is broken, a bad thing. You fix the story by rebreaking it.
TV writers have a strangely limited vocabulary about writing.
The Toronto trip was an interesting time, mostly in a good way, occasionally in the sense of the Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times.” Regarding the latter, whoever said that getting there is half the fun was not talking about driving from Portland to Toronto.
If you are eager to add points to your license and subsidize the general fund of another state, you cannot do better than the New York State Thruway, which boasts some of America’s most zealous and selective law enforcement officials. My hat is off to them for being able to find and ticket the out-of-state driver being passed by an endless stream of much faster cars with New York plates. The hard part is remaining silent while the officer patronizes you. I would prefer at least an honest exchange.
“Sir, do you know why I pulled you over at random from the hundreds of cars driving faster and less safely than you?”
“That, and I noticed from your out-of-state plates that it would cost you more to fight this ticket than pop a check in the mail when you get back home to Vermont.”
“Yes. Not New York.”
“I don’t suppose it matters that I didn’t actually commit this alleged infraction.”
“Not at all, sir. You have a nice day.”
Fortunately, most of the trip was spent in Toronto, not on the road. The best part of the trip was working on a television show again. It’s a mixture of social interaction, intellectual challenge and entertainment. There is nothing quite like it in my experience, and for all its frustrations and insecurities, it is still the thing I enjoy doing the most. My co-workers were bright and funny. They knew how to ask the right questions and were good at exploring answers, despite being Canadians. But I kid the patronizing attitudes of Americans, including my own.
Like many Americans, and all the Americans I knew as a child, I grew up believing Canada was not a foreign country, so much as it was a junior varsity United States. The climate was inferior, and the money was worth less (remember, this was years ago). Canadians were basically Americans, only more polite and less sophisticated.
During my stand-up years, a stock joke when a comic was working the crowd was, “Oh, you’re from Canada? I’ll talk slower.” Meanwhile the hippest sketch comedy shows on American television, SCTV and Saturday Night Live, were performed largely by graduates of the Toronto branch of Second City. The irony of this escaped most of us.
There must be some truth in the image of the parka-wearing, “you hoser”-saying Canuck, but frankly, the guy plowing driveways in Portland is more likely to look like the McKenzie brothers than anybody I saw in Toronto. Not that Toronto is all of Canada, but it’s probably closer to the norm than a shack in the Great White North.
In Maine, I am from that strange part of the country called Away, but it is the same country. In Canada, you are not from a strange part of the country; you are from a strange country.
The first illusion to fall was the notion that deep down, Canadians want to be Americans. Sometimes they do not even seem to like us very much, at least as a country. As individuals, we’re fine, but as a nation, arrogant and full of ourselves. A fair cop.
They seem to be happy with their differences. Despite some of the rhetoric in Washington, their universal health coverage has yet to drive their economy to the brink of collapse. This is just the tip of the iceberg of things to learn while I’m working as foreign labor. Another revelation is how the famed politeness may actually be reserve born of an unwillingness to engage with people who are not particularly inclined to try and understand them.
It is fun to write about Mainers and how they react to people who come from Away. The next few months I will get a chance to see what it really feels like to be from away. I expect to learn a lot more about the United States than about Canada.