Tuesday, 4 August 2009

so much for preconceptions

Sorry, sorry. I know you've been worried. I just got back from a trip, and computers were not part of the luggage. Where was I, you ask? On the road from Winnipeg to Cobourg. I'll fill you in on a couple of interesting moments over the next few days. It was a fun trip, but I am glad to be home.

We decided to go via America because it's a bit quicker than the narrow looping Trans Canada, and because I have never been to North Dakota or Wisconsin. The drive out of Winnipeg was, well, dull. I was prepared for excitement at the border, though. The Pembina Highway crossing is, I am told, peopled with the most vile collection of power-hungry petty-dictatorial customs inspectors in the country. Famous for it, apparently. They make the Niagara Falls guys I'm used to look like the Welcome Wagon.

Be careful Miriam told me. No jokes, no attitude. Answer the questions straight and quick.
Can I pay compliments? I asked.
Like what: Nice country you have here?
I was thinking more like, What a cool uniform. Or, Hey do you work out? That kind of compliment.
So as we approached the 49th parallel I was practicing my smile in the mirror. I wanted to seem friendly but not effusive. After a few false starts I thought I had it.
How's this? I asked.
Miriam looked over from the driver's seat, shook her head.
Your smile is too much like a simper, she said.
How about this?
She checked again. Now you're on the verge of leering.
Now you are leering.
Okay, now? Now?
She smiled without looking over. Try to act natural, she said.

What is it with customs inspectors? I wonder if it might be a combination of power and frustration. You want to be a cop or a soldier, keeping the world safe and blowing up bad guys, and you spend your whole life cooped up in a little booth, going through dirty laundry. That'd tick me off, I have to say. We all have our customs stories. I remember trying to cross at Detroit wearing a cowboy hat. (I was playing a game with the kids, and I forgot I had it on. ) After the fourth or fifth question -- asked in increasingly hostile tone -- I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror and said: Oh my God it's the hat, isn't it? You are after me because of the hat. The customs guy asked me to step out of the car, and it all went downhill from there. Miriam has a good story about her son and a handful of grass stems.

Anyway, the long and short of it is that our guy this time was incredible. Chubby, balding, and with a real sense of humour. Totally charming. He asked what we did, smiled into the car, pumped his fist when Miriam said she was moving because of me, told a story about his wife and her mother and the moving guy that I kind of lost track of. Then he sent us on our way with best wishes and a cheery wave. What a guy! If it'd been anywhere near the end of his shift I'd have bought him a drink. I can't help wondering how he gets along with his colleagues, but as a representative of the daily thousands of people driving past his booth, allow me to say: Way to go, Mr Customs Man!

We stopped at a small town outside of Fargo, and the first thing I noticed was that everyone at the next table wore short short haircuts and camouflage uniform.
Hey, look at the army men! I said in a loud whisper.
Shhh, said Miriam, as they all looked over.
More next time.

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