The Unbearable Niceness of Canada

So we are driving from Ottawa, Ontario (my ancestral home) to Calgary, Alberta where DPs parents have recently moved. It’s a long, long drive. In our most optimistic moments, we say that this journey will take us five days… but realistically, it will take six.

This is the first real day of the adventure and DP and I are sitting at a picnic table (does one sit at or on a picnic table?… no matter) waiting for the Chi-Cheemaun Ferry at Tobermory, Ontario in DPs gorgeous part of the world. We arrived at noon and learned that the ferry leaves at 3:40 p.m. So we climbed a small lush green hill and found a picnic table under a large maple tree. It’s cool enough here that DP is considering returning to the car for a pair of long pants; for me, the cool breeze is a welcome change after days of too-hot weather in the Ottawa-Owen Sound corridor. I brought my laptop up the hill thinking that I might write a bit and found an internet signal just begging to be used. It doesn’t get much better than this.

On the way to this picnic table, we’ve visited with our friend Aynne in Kingston (city of our long-ago university days) and with C. in the perpetually pretty town of Oakville. This photograph of the Ginger Bread Sun Bathers was taken at an Oakville bakery which C’s nephews call “The Cookie Store”. In our second year of what has now become an annual event, we met up with three of our Canadian teacher-friends from Mexico at an East Side Mario’s in Ajax chosen for its proximity to the Go Train, a commuter train that runs to and from Toronto. Yesterday, we hung out at DPs cottage on Georgian Bay and ran a few last minute errands for the trip. Cashews, previously-viewed movies and gas. (A brilliant time to decide to drive across the country!)

DP and I have been back in Canada for three weeks now and one of the things that has struck us both (hard) is how ridiculously courteous Canadians are. There is an abundance of good manners here. A surplus, even. DP and I were leaving an Ottawa shopping mall at closing time a couple of weeks ago when we found ourselves at the epicenter of the perfect storm of Canadian-style politeness.
“You go ahead.”
“No, please, after you.”
“Okay… well, if you’re sure.”
“Yup. Couldn’t be more certain.”
“Thanks a lot.”
“Have a good day, now.”
“You too.”

DP and I looked at each other, wide-eyed with amazement but this exchange was not a one-shot deal. People leaving the mall continued to hold the door open for the next person; cheerful “thank yous” punctuated the air all around us like dazzling little fireworks . The late-night shoppers spilled out into the parking garage and went our separate ways; little did the others know that they had wrapped DP and me up in a big polar fleece blanket of not-quite love but something close… their very proper, scrubbed-clean, excessively courteous brand of niceness.

Sometimes I wonder if Canada might be running out of nice. This coming school year will mark a decade that I have been away in Mexico and Spain and everywhere, I have lived or travelled, people say that the world is changing. It stands to reason that even Canadians might be a bit more jaded, and a bit less eager to spend their energy on being nice to strangers. My father who is a small-town kind of a guy wrinkles his forehead and says, “Oh, you see these folks in the city with their foreheads all wrinkled up with worry and a frown on their face and you think to yourself, ‘Who in their right mind would want to live in the city?’ Tell me!” He’s dead serious but he’s been saying it since 1985 so he’s not a good barometer of social change in Canada over the last decade.

From the informal research I’ve conducted (this consists of three weeks of hanging out, shopping and eating in Ottawa) I have found that the courteousness of my fellow Canadians has not waned. At times, the wild enthusiasm of a salesperson or waitress has been almost too much for me to take; I no longer have the skills to cope with this kind of unmitigated cheer. I smile weakly. I remember when I used to be nice, too. Really nice.

The good news is that I am still an optimist at the core. I believe that the “nice” can grow back; I plan to nourish the place where my nice used to reside by basking in the warmth of the good folks between Tobermory and Calgary. I am going to make small talk even if it kills me.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

Have you been graced by acts of random niceness this summer? Tell us about it!


  1. Hey Stevo!I see from your blog that you are even farther away from home than I… although the idea of "home" does begin to get a bit complicated, doesn't it. Thanks for your comment.

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