Welcome back me!

Thanks, really, thanks, it’s nice to be missed. I am indeed returned from foreign lands, having spent spring term delightfully ensconced in an Orientalist fantasy world known as the Western ex-pat experience in Fez, Morocco. More recently, however, I embarked on a foreign mission to the not-so-distant land of Ontario, and from there I bring dark tales of savagery, sexual deviance and exotic local flora. No, not really. But I do have a few amusing anecdotes.

Here begins the standard “what Americans just don’t understand” spiel, extolling the liberal virtues of The Great White North (referring to snow, not Caucasians, incidentally). Canada isn’t another state in the union, one decidedly more backward and white bread. They don’t ALL wear mullets and the correct pronunciation of the Canadian “ou” in “about” is not “a-boooot.” It’s more like “a-bowt.” Yeh hoser.

For one thing, Canada loves her queens. Proudly Anglophilic, the Canadians decorate their currency with staples of Canuck cultural values such as hockey on a frozen pond, Queen Elizabeth circa 1965, and the loon (it’s a bird) on the $1 coin. (This of course inspires the marketing-savvy shop owners to advertise “Loonie Sales!” and leads to the affectionate naming of the $2 coin a “toonie.”) In addition to a willful submission to an anachronistic imperial power, gay Canadians can now marry their queens with full equality in the eyes of the courts. What a charming paradox we find in Canada — admirably progressive human rights advocacy in a modern society where the vice-regent could still order them all to eat cake if QE so desired (in theory, Marge, in theory).

What else can we learn from our beguilingly voweled cousins to the North? Cultural integrity is cool! Now I must narrow my focus to the most burgeoning of Canada’s pubescent metropolises — Toronto (“The City Within a Park”), located at the southern tip of Ontario (“Yours to Discover”) and to the West of Quebec (“Je Me Souviens” — whatever THAT means), just across the Niagara Falls (“Atlantic City Midwest”). The most multicultural city in the world boasts a population of immigrants sure to make any California Republican choke on his recall ballot. Canada is actually proud of its rapidly increasing tide of Arab, East Asian, African, Indian, Caribbean and Eastern European landed immigrants. A good number of the current citizenry were born in Europe, in England, Italy and Portugal. Why abandon the balmy weather of Phnom Penh for Canada’s frozen wilds? Perhaps it’s the public transit or the fact that they’ll never have to write a check at the doctor’s. Maybe it is that special understated independence, tolerance and civic commitment woven through the cultural fabric that gave rise to artists like Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and Margaret Atwood (all Canadian).

I bet you thought I was going to make a Celine Dion or Avril Lavigne crack at the end of that sentence. I’ll admit I felt a certain thrill driving through tiny Napanee, Ontario, the village of 5,000 that nursed infant Lavigne, knowing of the myriad opportunities for ridicule before me. When a Montrealais, swollen with pride, pointed at the huge cathedral where Dion wed manager/father-figure Rene Angelil I feigned reverence to mask my mild revulsion (the Francophones are a sensitive race, more on that in a later column). Really, I am a sucker for the Canucks. Canada welcomed me like a humorous Jewish lumberjack (think Eugene Levy) and I ate it up like a Tim Horton’s doughnut (the largest fast-food chain in the country). It’s hard not to love a land where 11-year-olds hawk Shopping Network products at Mennonite flea markets, Molson tattoos bedeck the backs and chests of rural youth, and there’s a facility named The Hospital for Sick Children so people don’t confuse it with the hospital where healthy children who don’t need to see doctors go.

A Canadian once told me the biggest drawback of his native land (though he was not a native in the Inuit sense, whose written language is represented on government buildings and for whom Nunavut is a semi-autonomous reservation-cum-province, a bit more respectful to cultural heritage than Foxwoods, don’t you think?) was its endemic blandness. Canada is too pleasant a place to really piss anyone off. Less social strife equals less dynamism, less breaking of ground in the arts, and less creativity-inducing tension in all sectors.

Another summed up her country with “Canada: such beautiful scenery; and Canadians: so apologetic.” Self-effacing (inferiority complex?) to the last, eh?

Catherine Halaby’s brother just turned 18 and now he can vote for the Gubernator (but I hope he won’t).