I don't know if Spanish has a word for "to banter," but if it does, I like to think it finds frequent use, in the many Latin American places where citizens of different countries mix or at least meet. English has the word, and Americans and Canadians can do it with each other. When I entered Canada on my trans-Ontario bicycle trip, I remarked on how the formalities, well, EXISTED this time. The last time, crossing into Quebec in '06, I'd found the border post abandoned, so there was no record of my entering the country. One of the border guards here made a triumphant fist and said, "We finally got 'im!"

A common language is probably less important than a common faculty of speech, a similar sense of witty punctuation. The language in fact is far from identical, and I am not even thinking of what's spoken in Quebec, the Canadian-German house I saw, or the Canadian-Hungarian house I saw. In five days in rural Canada I publicly heard or read the word "cenotaph" twice, and that won't happen in fifteen years anywhere in the U.S.

The cashier in The Beer Store displayed that vital quickness when, after finally getting a successful scan of a barcode, he said, "I thought maybe it was free today." The guy backing his laundry truck up to the motel was likewise on the ball. I'd locked my bicycle where it appeared he needed to get close. He stopped well short of me and got out. As I removed my vehicle, I asked if I'd been in the way.



"Oh, I'd've just walked right over you."

Maybe just being in a legally bilingual country makes folks get and keep good chops. I met some folks who actually were multilingual, and not just in English and French. I was able to toss some semiprecious stones into the conversational mix. I also described the impediment at the very beginning of the trip - you're not allowed to bicycle from Detroit to Windsor - and how I'd decided just to ride clear around Lake St. Clair rather than do what the bridge employee had suggested, namely take a cab. I said - and everybody at breakfast agreed - it was highly unlikely a Detroit cabbie could be made to understand what I needed. OK, we go over the bridge to the border, but you don't cross the border, I cross the border, and you go back over the bridge, OK? A Windsor cabbie, I am sure, would have enjoyed this routine.

I could have, and should have, done even better by these Canadians. One had been to Austin recently. No longer interested in criticizing the place, and especially not to innocent strangers, I volunteered very little. What I should have said - and it would have been as truthful as it was compact - was "I'm used to a wider world - that's why I came here!"

2014 J.A.Hutter

Other travels