Travelling While Canadian

In the autumn of 2016 I was studying at a university in central Italy. The morning after the American election, my grammar professor walked into class muttering “incubo, e un incubo!” A nightmare! It’s a nightmare. We all knew to what he was referring. Italian universities lean the same way politically as those in Toronto, New York or Middlebury, Vermont.

He kept shaking his head in horror, and asked my one American classmate, a woman from Texas, “Come ti senti?” How do you feel? I felt sorry for her, put on the spot like that, but she handled it with aplomb, admitting surprise at the result and nothing more. If our professor was hoping for an argument or confirmation of his own views, she wasn’t going to help him.

How great to travel while Canadian, I have often said, because no one knows or cares whom you elect as leader, just as no one seems to know much about your country. I was working in Japan during a Canadian federal election years ago, and not one of my highly-educated colleagues knew or cared Canada was having an election, much less who won.

What people do “know” about Canada is often inaccurate: it’s always cold everywhere (no); Canadians all have moose in their backyards (if only!); Canadians are nice (“harmless” might be a better word); English and French Canadians hate each other (those days are gone – now it’s all about indifference); Canadians are boring (“sanctimonious” might be a better word).

But things are changing, and not for the better, as I discovered on a recent trip to Ireland.

Ireland is a glorious place – my trip was in the middle of this year’s hot, bright green summer — and I travelled primarily in the counties of Cork and Kerry along the southern Atlantic coast. It was as wild and elegant and stunning as I imagined, and as friendly. People speak English in Ireland, but occasionally they use expressions one cannot decipher, even if one has read or sung “Finnegans Wake.” (I have attempted the former and accomplished the latter.) Couple that with the chattiness of nearly everyone I approached, and the simple act of asking “do you have decaf Irish coffee” or “what breed of sheep are those” could lead to confusion, which could lead to extended conversations, which often led to my being asked my nationality.

And whenever the great Canadian reveal happened, I would be met with a variation on the following: “Justin Trudeau is so cute! He’s a feminist! He’s so clever!” The power of social media added to an energetic, left-of-centre politician with Tiger Beat looks – the son of the other globally famous Canadian politician –has brought the bliss of being a Canadian abroad to a halt.

When my standard reply was, “Yes, he is cute.” Sometimes I would go out on a limb with, “Yes, he’s super cute!” I couldn’t bear to risk the crestfallen look on people’s faces if I admitted that I think his main strength is virtue-signalling or that while I feel lucky to be Canadian, I don’t share what appears to be the glowing international consensus on Canada’s leader.

And it is international – during my trip I met people from all over the world who made similar comments. A French woman got the truth out of me, though – or perhaps it was my heavy sighing, eye-rolling and nose-crinkling when Trudeau’s name was uttered that gave it away — and told me how tired she was of hearing similar praise of Emmanuel Macron. She singled out his posturing as the “gender equality” president as something that drove her particularly mad.

I too recoil at men who make a public display of caring about “women’s issues” – it reeks of condescension and protesting too much. I was in Ireland shortly after the referendum which liberalized that country’s abortion laws, and about which there was still much talk. Trudeau, woke fellow that he is, tweeted enthusiastic praise for the results – “what a moment for democracy and women’s rights!” I am pro-choice, but I found the cheering unseemly.

Fortunately, I did get some respite during my trip. It happened at a beautiful spot in Kerry – a redundancy if ever there were one – when I began chatting with a man from Kansas about our respective itineraries. We were joined by some friendly German tourists far more interested in expressing their mystification at Donald Trump than in discussing the wonders of Canada’s prime minister, or of Ireland. As in Italy, I felt bad for my midwestern acquaintance – who remained affable under bombardment – and it occurred to me that I could derail the conversation by, say, mentioning the war.

I was so relieved, though, to not be hearing odes to Justin Trudeau, that I stayed mum. Because I’m a Canadian and we’re not that nice.