Here’s looking at us

Canada welcomed the world to Expo 67. Read a centennial-era look at our country.


 

WITHIN A PERIOD of six months, beginning in April, an estimated 15 million people from other lands, including about 300,000 from Europe and Britain, will come to Canada for Expo 67. They'll see that Canada can produce a world's fair that couldn’t be more modern if it took place on the moon, and while they’re here they'll get a look at us Canadians at home, at our ways and habits, modes of conveyance, quaint customs, superstitions, marriage rites and native dress.

To get a preview of how our country will impress them, I talked to people from other parts of the world in Toronto and Montreal, in offices, hotels, on the Expo site and in The International Institute in Toronto, asking them what they thought of us and urging them to be frank. I don't know who was the most fascinated, the foreigners with our Canadian ways, or me with the outsiders’ impressions of us and our native land.

Canada won't be the way many 1967 visitors imagined it. Garner A. Havers, the manager of the Sheraton-Mt. Royal Hotel in Montreal, where in recent months there has been double and triple the traffic of guests from such widely scattered places as Peru, Japan and New Zealand, says that for years he has heard new arrivals say, “It isn’t at all the way I expected,” but never has figured out what they did expect. It’s certainly something colored by childhood impressions. Lord Athol Layton, the wrestler, came here with an image of Canada formed by an Australian radio commercial for somebody’s cough syrup, a secret remedy Canadians dosed themselves with when they came in off the trapline. There were sound effects of a cabin door opening, letting in part of a howling blizzard and a coughing Canadian. Layton had visions of Canada stacked with cough medicine from Halifax to Vancouver.

But apart from these nonfactual impressions, visitors will find what they actually encounter strange enough. Even Europeans who knew beforehand of French-speaking Canadians will be surprised to find French the main language in a vast area of over half a million square miles, including Canada’s biggest city. Although visitors will have seen maps of Canada, its real extent and its effect on the Canadian way of life will begin to dawn on them only when they experience it firsthand.

“I tell my mother when I write home that sometimes I drive farther than the distance from Cologne to Brussels just for a swim,” a young German architect said. “She still doesn’t quite believe me.”

The first cultural shock will come from the personality of English-speaking Canadians, who will strike foreign visitors as cold and forbidding. Newcomers, particularly those from southern Europe and Latin America, are appalled by the hopeless way we stare straight ahead on subways, in supermarkets, on buses, and they report that if they say, “Good morning,” to a stranger the way they do at home, Canadians are apt to grunt, look embarrassed or just sulk. One beautiful, warm-looking woman from Jamaica, enjoying a walk with her children shortly after arriving in Toronto, smiling at passersby, felt her spirits sag as she got nothing in return but startled looks. Finally, she was stopped by one old Upper Canadian who offered her a dime, apparently thinking she was putting the bite on him, but evidently not feeling very generous.

"The night I arrived in Toronto,” a voluptuous Viennese brunette in a black turtleneck sweater told me in her West Toronto dress shop. “I was met by my brother. We went to a restaurant. I was smiling at the people around us, when he leaned across the table and said that I’d have to learn to ‘hold back.’ I didn’t know what he meant. I wondered what he thought I’d been doing since he left me in Vienna. But he said he just meant Canadians might get the wrong idea.”

Europeans find social encounters between the sexes in Canada too formal and businesslike, as though Canadians are afraid to display any feelings. A friendly and talkative Yugoslavian woman working in a Montreal shipping office said that when she first came here she began to feel less of a woman because Canadian men don't flirt. “Their approaches are so crude they make me feel like a tart.”

Our reluctance to flirt is made worse, apparently, by our national obsession with the weather. A big, good-natured, 50-year-old Hungarian woman with heavy eye makeup and a gold filigreed head band, said she could hardly believe it when the first time she got on an elevator in Toronto a strange man carrying a briefcase looked at her and said. “It looks like another nice day.” As she told me this, she raised her shoulders and spread her eye liner in a puzzled stare, as if someone had dropped an ice cube down her back. “When you talk about the weather in Hungary it means you have absolutely nothing else to say to a person. It's almost an insult.”

A European man will be a bit chilled by Canadian girls, and when he does everything but wiggle his ears to let a woman know that he thinks she’s gorgeous, and she looks right past or through him, he’d like to belt her.

A European in Canada is frequently dumbfounded by the effect created by his most fervent expression of approval. Johnny Lombardi, a businessman who has become an unofficial ambassador for Toronto Italians, spends a great deal of his time trying to explain to Anglo-Saxon women (and Anglo-Saxon police) that Italian men mean no disrespect when they ogle and make remarks about women on the street. A while ago a Toronto girl called him in a rage about being insulted by an Italian. After finally pinning her down to what was actually said, Lombardi found that the man had said, “Che bella ragazza,’’ which loosely translated means, “What a beautiful girl!” It would be impossible for an Italian to understand why a woman would object to such flattery.

Visitors to Canadian homes will view the Canadian woman’s place in the family with mixed feelings. A European may be impressed with her engineering skills with refrigerators the size of European cars, stoves resembling computers, washing machines with control panels like the cockpit of a Boeing 707, but he will feel that this female descendent of pioneer stock wields too much power in the old log cabin. Polite Europeans say they find Canada “woman-oriented,” but they mean that women have too much to say. One tall, tense Englishman first ran into the Canadian woman’s status when he called for a girl at her house in East Toronto, helped her into his car, got behind the wheel and said, “I booked a table at the Rathskeller.” She said, with an air of disappointment, “But I want to go to the Westbury. I told some friends I’d meet them there.” The Englishman opened the door and said politely, “I hope you have a pleasant evening.”

Canadian drinking habits will strike Europeans as just slightly less civilized than they were in the days of the fur traders, and our liquor laws will keep them permanently baffled. An ashblond Hungarian woman in the Yorkville district of Toronto who, like most Europeans, had been drinking wine with her family since she was about 14, came to Toronto five years ago when she was 21. Her father, who had come to Canada the previous year, told her with pride in his adopted land that she could travel across the second-largest country in the world without identification papers, or without even signing her right name if she didn’t feel like it. He held up a couple of $10 bills, and said, “These are the only papers you need in Canada.” Then he took her to a restaurant for dinner and ordered wine with their dinner. The waiter asked his daughter’s proof of age. She had taken her father at his word and left all her papers with her luggage. And so she found herself sitting there drinking CocaCola. Then the waiter caught her father slipping her some of his wine, came over and sniffed her Coke suspiciously. “Three times he came over and smelled my drink. I was so embarrassed I wanted to go back to Hungary right away.” Finally, her father, figuring she couldn’t be more embarrassed anyway, left her sitting at the table, went out and got into his car, drove eight blocks and came back with her passport.

One plump and lively German girl of 21 who kept brushing a hank of brown hair from her eyes and saying, "Ja, ja, ja,’’ told me that for a while after coming to Canada she wondered if she’d ever get a legal drink in peace and comfort. She first ran into the 21-year age limit at a beach party in western Ontario (“Up in the tobacco belt,” she said) when she saw all the youths smuggling cartons and turning out headlights and hopping in and out of bushes as if they were doing some kind of native dance.

“You mean you didn’t know what they were hiding?” I said.

“Ja, ja, ja, I knew what it was. But I didn’t know why they were hiding it.”

This girl got married soon afterward to a German from her home town who had been in Canada two years. She got pregnant right away, and with the new baby and one thing and another, she and her husband were so broke for a while that they didn't get much chance to go out until the baby was five months old. Then one Saturday afternoon her husband decided to take her out to dinner. She was 21, had had a baby, and figured that if she wasn’t of age for a drink now she never would be, but her husband, experienced with Canadian drinking laws, insisted that she take along her birth certificate so that they could have wine with their meal. When the waiter said he couldn’t serve alcoholic beverages in the presence of a minor, the husband told his wife to produce her birth certificate. “There aren't any minors here,” he said triumphantly. The waiter told him it wasn’t his wife; the baby wasn’t of age, and they wouldn’t be allowed to drink in his presence.

Europeans will be intrigued with our hotels with lobbies like cathedrals and rooms with TV and radio and telephones that work every time without your having to shout or wave your arms, something many Europeans do by old habit for months after they arrive. Bathrooms in general, complete with private tub and replete with soap, towels, colored toilet paper and Kleenex, will impress them. Many will crack up, though, at the first glance at a TV commercial, showing six people running down a sunny hill trailing toilet paper while a choir chants in the background.

Some Canadian folk humor about bathrooms and body functions puzzles Europeans. One plump, good-humored woman staying with some Canadian friends in a northern cabin where they still roughed it with an outhouse, had her first experience with this when, in accordance with a droll local custom, the men began throwing rocks at the outhouse the first time she went in it. The humor of this rests solely on the premise that the person inside will be embarrassed by all this attention. But it fell flat when the woman opened the door and asked in simple curiosity, “Why do you do that?” She was willing to enjoy the humor if only someone would explain it to her, which everyone found impossible.

One irritating Canadian trait, particularly to northern Europeans, is a misplaced pride that Canadians do everything with a slap-bang efficiency they feel will leave a European breathless. A precise young blond German assistant manager of a hotel told me that when he first came here he could hardly get his work done for listening to people tell him how fast Canadians got things done. “I heard it a thousand times,” he said. “Canadians drive faster, work faster, do everything faster.” He made one motion of the most authoritative long forefinger I've ever seen and had coffee on our table almost before we sat down. “Action alone is nothing.” he said. “The emphasis should be on results.” Another thing he said he was tired of hearing was that Canada was a rich country.

“Canada is a potentially rich country. One has to create wealth.”

Europeans will deplore the habit of washing and sand-blasting our buildings, which they prefer to see retain the patina of age. and some of the modern architecture of which we’re the proudest will leave visitors unmoved. A blond, blasé wife of a Brazilian importer complained to about everyone she met while looking over Toronto’s new City Hall, which she loathed. “We have the most beautiful architecture in the world where I come from,” she said. “It’s light and graceful. This building is heavy and ugly.”

Some of our expressions will bother visitors. A dark, intensely attractive Italian girl in a Toronto dress shop recalled that the first time a Canadian said, “I'll pick you up in half an hour,” she told him to make it an hour and a half, just to remind him that an Italian girl wasn’t something you ordered like a pizza. And a tall, gentle-mannered girl from northern Germany, who spoke English with a precise British accent, said, “People keep saying, ‘I’ll see you,’ when they mean they’ll never see me again.” Canadian confusion of the terms “dinner” and “supper” will result in many Europeans being either stuffed or hungry. Asked to “come for supper,” they will think they’re going to be given a light snack of a bottle of beer and some bologna, and find themselves faced with generous Canadian helpings of a full-course meal just a few hours after they’ve had one at home. When they play safe and just have a snack before visiting, they often just get another snack.

The Canadian eating habit most surprising to Europeans will be that of eating a bowl of greens without anything on it. Even when there’s a choice of salad dressing on the side, this will strike Europeans as a kind of pioneer do-it-yourself dining that they could do without for life, and the sight of a Canadian eating a piece of raw celery will strike a European as a strange kind of penance for any living thing except perhaps a rabbit.

One big Belgian in Montreal, with shoulders about three feet wide, told me that he wasn’t too happy about his prospective son-in-law: he thought he was a bit too meek and timid. Then one day he saw him eating a piece of celery, completing the image. He felt like taking his daughter back to Belgium. “But I understand better now,” he said. “I tell my friends, 'Wait till you’ve been in Canada for a summer. You’ll start eating celery, too. If you went on eating meat and potatoes in this heat the way you do in Europe, you’d blow up.”

A European visitor will be surprised to see banks on almost as many corners as bars in Europe, and he will be bemused by that strange and interesting Canadian custom, “going to the bank.” He’ll be baffled to see, in the midst of this luxury, that we’re still so intent on chasing money we’re too busy to live — too busy, for instance, to indulge in long, late and leisurely lunch hours. The sight of 125 office girls running from a building for lunch on the dot of 12 will give him indigestion. He’ll he puzzled to hear us talking about our high standard of living and worrying about reducing, all at the same time; and he’ll be amazed to see us, directly contrary to European custom, dress up during the week and slop around in sports clothes on Sunday.

Our self-indulgence will strike many visitors as laziness approaching decadence when they see that we get into an elevator just to ride up one floor, and stand still on escalators, blocking the way for anyone who is mad enough to move. And the sight of a high-school kid trying to thumb a ride six blocks will be something to write home about. Although we pride ourselves on being informal, the Canadian habit of arranging evenings with friends a couple of weeks ahead, which Europeans call “making appointments,” instead of just dropping in and sitting around a table and eating and drinking with friends when we feel like it, will appear strangely businesslike.

Foreigners will appreciate the degree of social equality we’ve attained and the fact that a Canadian millionaire can't be distinguished by the way he dresses from, say, a Canadian shoe salesman. And they will delight in the fact that a Canadian pedestrian is not a man too poor to have a car, who should be pursued by motorists like a grouse, but is thought of as a motorist who has parked his car somewhere and is still in possession of legal rights and the protection of traffic regulations that keep traffic more orderly than it is in Europe. Foreign visitors will also expand in the knowledge that, with insignificant exceptions, a man can drive up to a place like the O'Keefe Centre in a Rambler and get the same treatment as he would in a Rolls-Royce. The automobile in Canada is regarded much more objectively as a necessity, and a man in a Chrysler doesn't think that he's been insulted if he’s passed by a Ford, or feel bound to overtake him (or, as one man from Germany put it, “wipe him out”).

But Europeans may be appalled to find a lot of social customs have collapsed along with the social strata. A pretty Greek woman with a soft, gentle voice told me of her shocked surprise when she heard her landlady's son tell her that he wasn’t going to do his homework because he didn't feel like it. “In Greece she would have hit him,” she said. Europeans will notice that young men don't make any effort to give up their seats on buses to women, that children acknowledge adults with. “Hi.” An Englishman observed, “Out of every 10 women I let go ahead of me through a door, I’m lucky if one even smiles, let alone has the grace to thank me.”

Many Europeans will think that the North American freedom from formality has reached some kind of horrible peak if he ever runs into that casual Canadian custom of guests bringing their own bottle to a party and presenting it to the hostess like a bouquet of roses. And the custom of holding parties, dinners and meetings in church halls and basements is something most Europeans can never get used to.

All in all, the foreigners' first look at us Canadians will be full of surprises. A few people will be furious to be asked by a landlady whether they drink or smoke and what their religion is. Teenage girls will appear to have more freedom here — though, according to one German girl. Canadian girls don't know how to be feminine (“They just know how to be sexy") — and they will appear to tend to conform dreadfully to the dictates of fashion.

Foreign visitors will notice that our newspapers have a lot of pictures, and be puzzled by seeing fur coats advertised in August. Quite a few visitors will notice that police are tougher on drunks than European cops are, not realizing at first that the reason can be found in our geography; for the average Canadian, instead of leaving a pub and walking home three blocks singing I’ve Got A Lovely Bunch Of Coconuts, steps euphorically into a 285-horsepower 1 ½ -ton car and aims himself along an eight-lane highway for a home 25 miles away.

Visitors will find our supermarkets intriguing but as cold and dehumanized as a frozen dinner, and the custom of shopping once a week and loading up the refrigerator or food locker will strike them as something quaintly North American, as opposed to the European habit of shopping every day and making it something of a social event. One of the sights they’ll be talking about for years will be that of a woman walking around the street with her hair in curlers, and oddly, one thing they'll appreciate will be getting such a wide choice of European food in restaurants. If you live in Yugoslavia, for instance, you get Yugoslavian food, but if you're visiting Montreal or Toronto you can get food from just about every nation — including Yugoslavia.

All in all. Europeans will be glad they saw Canada. Many will prefer it to the United States, many will decide to come back, all will think it's a beautiful country and will wonder why it isn't filling up faster.

Americans will wonder why we don't join the States. And once Expo is over, we Canadians will probably settle back to live the lives that just seem normal and natural to us. ★


 
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