Thursday, June 18, 2009

Nice Canada.

I'm writing this from Canada. I'm due to give a paper on Sunday morning at the University of Ottawa. I love Ottawa. The city must have the highest proportion of blondes outside of Norway and the highest number of cyclists outside of China. Everyone seems to have a tan, although - given the weather - I'm not sure where they get it from. There are also about five churches within spitting distance of my hotel on the Rue Elgin, so there's plenty of space to pray if I feel the need. It's not a hostile environment, though, and so it's unlikely that I'll need to enlist any divine support while I'm here. Everybody in Ottawa seems fit, happy, and polite. 

On Wednesday I met a blind guy while we were both waiting to cross the road. I offered assistance and he gently hit back. He first thanked me and then, very politely, said that he was capable of crossing roads. I defended myself - and added that I probably wasn't a good guide anyway, as I'd been hit by a number of cars over the years. He was on his lunch break and we ended up having coffee at Starbucks. He studied philosophy at Laurentian Uni and then international development at Oxford and now works for the Canadian government as a lawyer. He was, as expected, overwhelmingly positive, cheerful, well-humoured, intelligent, and courteous. Indeed, in that forty-five minutes he did everything he could to make me feel welcome, short of giving me cash and making love to me. He was Canada without the adventure sports. 

I don't really want to labour the point - and I know I'm playing into a cultural cliche - but Canadians often seem so happy that they sing to you, rather than just speak, sometimes with incredible pitch variations. Depending on a person's Relative Joy Quotient, their sentences often finish with a kind of soprano waver. Even the men here do this. An enormous guy in a bookstore must have covered three octaves just saying good morning to me today. I felt like applauding. Initially at least I thought that perhaps all this goodwill was class-related, but now I'm not so sure. The niceness is fairly democratically spread: rather than wolf-whistle at her, yesterday I witnessed a construction worker tip his hardhat at an attractive woman and say "Afternoon ma'am." 

Another piece of evidence: I met my first Canadian heroin addict this morning - also probably schizophrenic. She was wearing no socks but a pressed, collared shirt. (I'm sure she would have thought that Australian junkies, with their tracksuited attire, look slovenly. Or perhaps she'd be very generous about it, and attribute to a generic "Australian athleticism." Actually, that's more likely.) At first she looked like she was going to walk right past, but suddenly angled in like someone had pushed her towards me. Suddenly standing much too close, and talking straight into my chest as if it were an intercom system, she asked me if she could buy a cigarette. Unfortunately, I'd only brought down one from my room. I said I could go up and get one for her if she wanted.

"No, no problem. That's OK. You from round here, hey?"
"No, actually - I'm just visiting here."
"Where from?"
"Australia, hey. Visiting family?"
"No, I'm going to a conference."
"A conference, hey?"
"I see. A conference. Wow. How long you staying?"
"Five days. I leave on Sunday."
"Well, enjoy your stay here, hey. Have a look around. Welcome to Canada."

With her eyes darting around and her body jerking, she swiveled 45 degrees, waved goodbye to the tree next to me and fell away down the street in pursuit of the cigarette. I saw her again a couple of hours later, in town, with her boyfriend. (I knew I didn't stand a chance with her anyway.) I stood behind the two of them on an escalator; the guy sang a few bars of Aerosmith's "Love in an Elevator" (- yes, I know, he should have changed the lyrics) and they open-mouth kissed, lips improbably pared back, tongues sliding around each other like warring slugs. Very touching. Heroin brings people together. Even in Canada. Lovely Canada.