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Three weeks in…

September 18, 2017

Surprisingly, the hardest thing to come to terms with in Chicago (so far), is just how damn friendly and talkative Chicagoans are.

It’s really irritating sometimes!

Especially if we are in a hurry, we just want to find something, make a purchase, get on with the errands of our day.

We’re Canadians after all – there are so many things we have to do. No time to say hello, goodbye, we’re late, we’re late, we’re late!

Needed a new night light for the bike – so my partner can cycle to her night class in peace. At our local bike shop, I must first maneuver through a 25 minute discussion on the state of cycling in Chicago, the history of bike lanes in Illinois, the best route to get to Northwestern, and how much the neighborhood has changed (gentrified) since the guy opened his bike store in 1981.

We are walking to a local cafe. Across the street an African man (wearing a dashiki) is gardening in his front yard, clearing weeds with a machete. He smiles at us. I give him a thumbs up, he smiles broadly and says “It’s a beautiful day, is it not?” A neighbor lady, watching him work, greets us with a “Good morning, how ya’all doin this mornin?”

At the cafe the barista says she doesn’t recognize us, we tell her we have just moved here from Toronto, she takes the next 15 minutes to tell us about the neighborhood, who has the best beer, pizza, breakfast menu, where to watch the Cubs, where the best new theatre is happening, what she thinks of the mayor (at least he’s not Trump), and with the mention of Trump the cook comes out from the back and others pipe in with their hisses and boos and a whole new conversation begins (we still don’t have our coffee).

But we’re Canadian! You’re making us terribly self-conscious with all this stranger talk, just give us our coffee, leave us to our polite solitude and political meekness. Can’t we just apologize for being new to the area and get on with our day?

“I think she was hitting on you,” my partner says to me after we finally sit down.

“Me? I thought she was hitting on you,” I say back to her.

“She must have been hitting on one of us”, she says. “Why else would she talk so much?”

Because we love to buy most of our major household needs from Craigslist (there is no Kijiji down here), we’ve learned to schedule in an extra 1/2 hr when we go to someone’s house to look at lamps, or bookshelves, or a vintage reading chair someone no longer wants.

This wonderful old plant lady out in the old 50’s style burbs just west of us, first has to take us on a grand tour of her gardens, tell us about her daughter (who also went to Northwestern), how her husband and her came to the U.S. from China in the late ’60’s – finally we point out to her that we have a car rental – by the hour – “okay, okay, okay” she says, and then invites us in to try a certain fruit she has just harvested from one of her trees. My wife pulls out her cell phone and uses the car rental app to extend our rental another hour. What else can we do?

And yet…

And yet, despite this friendliness, this eagerness to engage and chat, there is a deep American paranoia of the “other” and a great lurking rage just beneath the surface of American culture.

The triple-locked doors, the wrought-iron fences, the “beware of dog” signs we see in so many porch windows. The gun violence. We watched as two women got into a full-on fist fight in our local supermarket.

The binary extreme so many people here seem to live with.

But there is also the cultural space allowed for such extremes not usually found in Canadian culture.

My gut reaction is that universal healthcare, paid maternity leave, a more widely applied social welfare support system, more physical space, less people, all help smooth out the harshest of edges off the psyche. By no means is Canada a perfect system (don’t get me started), but it does impact how Canadians see ourselves and others vis-a-vis how Americans see themselves.

Americans have either a complex relationship with joy and fear, or a very immature one. Point of view is everything. They are both there in abundance. The switch can be flipped instantly.

But it would be nice if Canadians – especially Torontonians – learned how to socially relax a little bit more, discover the joy of chatting with a total stranger at a downtown cafe, have an actual opinion about something on occasion.

We are often understood by what we are not. By our negative space.

Americans are chatty. Canadians are not.

Canadians demure. Americans do not.

Somewhere in between these two poles…

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