When our plane touches down in Toronto, S stretches her arm across the little blonde head between our seats and offers me a fist bump. Nor was it my final bump of the night: the bartender at Pearson’s Pub threw knuckles up to me and my friend J, by way of apology for taking his time bringing out our Creemores. I didn’t even notice the delay, as I was soaking in the Can Con. Maybe the fist bump was part of it. Maybe Canada is fist bump country.
Before disembarking from the airplane, during that awkward sardine minute where everyone is standing but nobody is moving, I took a good look at my fellow passengers for the first time. Lanky guys with slightly unkempt goatees; petite and zaftig chicks with arm tattoos; buff dark bros in ball caps. Everyone wore jeans, t-shirts, sandals. And, for the end of an eight-hour flight, everyone was surprisingly chill, polite – even the businessmen with tight connections to catch. Canadians.
Prior to the eight hours from Gatwick, we’d travelled by train from Lille, staying overnight in an airport hotel. We had another hotel booked here in Toronto, then up early for the last leg of our long trip back to Cape Breton. We were tired beyond tired, but something about being on home soil served to lift the fatigue, albeit briefly.
It returned with a vengeance at customs. Pearson Airport has taken steps to automate and streamline its customs process, but the results seem counter-productive. I was reminded of the automated check-outs at Home Depot – you always end up needing help anyway, and since there’s now only one cashier on hand, it means waiting in a haze of shame because you’ve been stymied by a computer. Yet the customs officials were patient and courteous – at one point, a female officer interrupted her own spiel – “Please advance to the next available—” to greet us: “G’morning—” then back, without missing a beat: “—terminal, with your passports and customs forms ready…”
Customs had been a source of stress for S, and she’d prepared an itemized list of all our purchases over the course of eight months in France. She also checked a box indicating she’d shipped some items in advance, even though those items were books she’d owned before the sabbatical, and therefore not taxable. Her academic over-inclusiveness confused the computer, and subsequently flummoxed the customs agents, but ultimately everyone was friendly and laid-back, sorting out the confusion by calling to each other across their bulletproof partitions. In other countries, I’ve always felt like I was on the defensive; here, it’s just a problem that everyone’s working together to solve.
There may a dark side to the ubiquitous friendliness. At a pizza joint, after the airport but befofre the pub, I walked P up to the freezer to select a popsicle. A stranger standing near us at the till said, “Let Uncle buy it for you, sweetheart,” and snatched up her treat, to add it to his own purchase. I protested, and put cash on the counter. Then a few minutes later, he approached our table with a second ice cream for her. “She reminds me of my own daughter,” He said by way of explanation, “And I miss her.”
I wanted to accept this at face value, but after he left the grownups quietly agreed that “Uncle” was being skeezy as hell, and poor P got subjected to a lecture about stranger danger. (She also didn’t get to eat the second treat – too much sugar, way too late – which proved to be the catalyst for a meltdown.) I don’t think any of this is unique to Canada, but our tolerance for unsolicited friendliness is higher here than elsewhere, and it puts kids in a paradoxical position. French kids are unflaggingly polite, but they also stay aloof. They do not accept candy, even from the parents of their friends. They do not accept hugs.
Canadians hug. The airport was a cavalcade of flesh-pressing, as departures and arrivals yielded farewells and reunions. I’m sure it was just my mindset, but Pearson seemed like the happiest airport in the world. Even the following morning, checking in at 5:30am, I saw only contented faces and easy walks. A security guard and a check-in agent walk to work, hand in hand. He is black and she looks Arabic. They have long shifts ahead of them, but they smile. In parting, they don’t hug – it wouldn’t be professional, perhaps – but I see them squeeze hands. A hug in miniature.
J rode the subway to meet us, from downtown Toronto out to the airport Comfort Inn, and I reimbursed him with many hugs. He is among my oldest friends, and it sucked that we only had a few jet lagged hours to catch up. We were supposed to have a European adventure together in June, but my family threw in the towel early. But he’s planning to go, so I offered him some tips. “Try not to treat it like a soul-searching retreat,” I said, “It’s your first time in Europe, so its going to change you. But if you spend the whole time looking for the change, you’ll miss the experience itself.”
J sipped his Creemore and shrugged. “That’s not really a problem I have,” He said, “I don’t worry much about the future, or who I’ll turn into. Maybe I should?”
I shook my head, jolted and disoriented. “No,” I said vehemently, “It’s a bad habit.” And it’s a French habit, I realized, or at least a European one. Part of what makes Canadians so laid-back is their willingness to lean into the moment, whether it’s waiting for customs or buying ice cream for a stranger’s daughter. I’d spent the past year simultaneously planning ahead and over-analyzing the here and now. But, back in the land of “no worries,” I took J’s nonchalance as a personal challenge.
Canada welcomed me back without hesitation, but it hasn’t spent the past year anxiously waiting to hug me, or even to trade fist bumps. If Canada has a national gesture, it’s probably the amenable shrug – the asymmetrical, open-bodied roll of the shoulders, cheerfully welcoming whatever gets thrown at us next.