Saturday, January 24, 2015

How much is a Canadian flag worth?

The first time I saw Andy, he was being pelted by stones by the neighbourhood kids in Belgium. He looked quite dishevelled and forlorn at the time, to say the least. We swooped down to prevent any further attack. Seeing that we had formed a buffer zone, the children lost all interest and drifted away.

"Thanks," Andy said. "You saved me."
"I wouldn't go that far," I said. "They were small stones."
"Well, you saved me from the indignity of it all. I mean, what did I ever do to them?"
"You're American," Hannah said.
Andy took a minute to digest this fact, wondering how anyone could ever dislike an American.
"So how is it that they didn't stone you?" he asked.
"We're Canadians," Hannah explained. "Here," she said, reaching down into her backpack. "I have a Canadian flag I can sell you. Put it on your backpack. It will make all the difference. You won't see anyone being stoned with a Canadian flag on their backpack. Most Americans have one now."
"But you don't have a Canadian flag on your backpacks," Andy remarked.
"We don't need one. We're Canadians."
Andy struggled to make sense of the logic. But he took the flag from Hannah.
"How do I attach it to my backpack?" he asked.
Hannah pulled out a small sewing kit from her backpack.
"I'll sew it on," she said. It will cost you a little more, but it's worth it."

I had met Hannah when hitchhiking through Switzerland. A fellow Canadian, she had been on the road much longer than me and had picked up many tricks of the trade. When you are travelling through Europe on a very tight budget, you have to be ingenious.

So Hannah sold Andy a Canadian flag and her sewing skills. I couldn't help but feel that this was highway robbery. But Hannah defended her actions.
"I am doing him a favour. See how happy Andy looks now."
And he did look happy. The first time I really saw him smile. Grateful for the intervention of two passing Canadians who welcomed him into their protective entourage.

The irony was that when it was time to separate, it was I who left the entourage. Hannah and Andy wanted to cross the Channel and explore England. I had already had enough of Britain in Canadian History classes, which were really all about Britain. This was still before Canadians had developed any real lasting cultural identity. And before Margaret Atwood and my discovery of Guinness.

It was also shortly after I discovered that Hannah and Andy were sleeping together. Did I feel some sort of betrayal: Hannah crossing over to the other side of the border? Not really. Hannah was an attractive girl. But I don't think I ever thought of her in that way. At least, not until I realized that they were tight together (the amazing things you could do in one sleeping bag). And I doubt if she felt that way about me, either. Hannah and I had one thing in common: we had no desire to explore the obvious. My being clueless about women didn't help either. Still am. But we will leave that for another blog.

So Hannah and Andy boarded the ferry at Oostende for England, and I bade them farewell, after sharing a warm hug with Hannah and a strong  handshake with Andy.
"You take care of each other, eh?" I said, then watched as they walked over the ramp onto the ferry. 
I never did make it over to England to see how an innovative Canadian might have found ways to exploit the British and whether the Brits were any more tolerant of a Yank in their midst. It was only about twenty-three years later that I finally made my way over to England, taking my son on a whirlwind tour of England, Wales and Scotland for his Bar Mitzva. We didn't hitchhike, so I don't know if Americans kept touting the Canadian flag on their backpacks.

#  #  #  #  #  #  #  #  #  #

Perhaps I shouldn't call them Americans, as Americans occupy a much larger area than the United States. But, as a Canadian, this is how we knew them then, and as a rather indescript exile, this is how I still know them now.

** At the time, my Torontonian accent was also apparently a dead giveaway of my being Canadian, although I am told I lost it long ago. Canadians don't think they have an accent, but I have come to recognize the clear Canadian rural twang over Israeli television when a Canadian series comes on. 

*** There were a few times when I was mistaken for an American. "Where are you from in the States?" a shopkeeper asks me. "I am from Canada," I dryly reply. "Sorry," he says, fearing that I have been insulted.

**** Israelis don't think that there is any difference between Americans and Canadians, or at least no difference worth getting worked up about. We will ignore them, for now.


  1. An Irishman once asked me Canadian.....American.....what's the difference? ".
    Apparently my return question shed some light.....
    Irish...English....what's the difference"?
    Judging by his face I made my point but it was fortunate I did so when he was not holding
    any sharp objects.

  2. As a Canadian, I hated that 'sewn on flag' stuff and never used one when I was hitchhiking around Europe (I'm guessing about the same time the author did). Weren't we taught not to stereotype? I'm still not sure what it is that is supposed to make us Canadians 'better' than our southern neighbors....I've traveled the continent extensively, lived in different areas of both countries, and the only noticeable differences I'm aware of are: Americans tend to be nicer, much more likely to pull over and offer help, invite you to their homes more often, are more curious, and a LOT more open minded.
    As a traveler, I very quickly gave up on describing 'frozen Canada' and just called myself an 'American'. No one ever threw rocks at me--in fact I was much better received as an American than I ever have been traveling as a Canadian in my own country.

  3. I can completely relate to the blog. I am a Canadian who has been living in Israel for over 30 years. . No matter where I've traveled, the moment I say that I am (was) a Canadian, the response has always been one of smiles and winks. Even in Israel, they love to say Stephen Harper is great! As I see it, long live the difference!