Points North

By James Fife

I have known for a long time that travel changes a person. Most folks are affected in a positive way, but some people I've known treat travel as the greatest nuisance with no compensating benefits. I have always experienced being abroad—from my earliest trips—as nothing short of mind-expanding. "The best thing you can ever do for yourself," I would always advise those contemplating visiting or living in a foreign place.

So it was no surprise to realize that Victoria living was creating some subtle shifts in attitude the longer we spent time in our James Bay home and immersed ourselves in the rhythms and patterns of Canadian life. The general effect was totally expected; the discovery to come was in what precise way we would be changed.

It first presented itself in the way we found day-to-day interactions with Canadians much more pleasant and less confrontational than we were used to experiencing. We saw it in the way that people just smiled at us when we passed them on the street or said, "Good morning"—out loud, and not just muttered grudgingly under their breath. It was this, rather than the overly friendly way store clerks greeted us (which could, after all, just be a trait of the retail trade), that convinced us that Canadians were offering up a better public attitude than down south. At first, it was just one of the pleasant experiences that attracted us to Victoria, but, as we went along, it became part of life and started infusing itself into our own moods and behaviour.

I knew this, because when we returned to San Diego, I could feel the difference making its presence known in this new context. I started acting in small ways as if I were still in Canada. I was acknowledging people on the streets; I was letting pedestrians cross without gunning the motor; I was engaging strangers in conversation. I felt my bonhomie growing, and I was willing to tolerate many more of the things and people that, in my usual course of life and increasing curmudgeon-ness, I would disdain in those who crossed my path. It was definitely noticeable, and I realized its origin. I had brought home some of the attitude I had felt around me in Canada. I was no doubt exaggerating my sense of the niceness of Canadians, but I was taking them at their best, and being inspired by it.

However, like some other trip souvenirs one accumulates, the novelty faded, and eventually we went back to our accustomed, San Diego façades and habits. Yet, when we recently returned to James Bay, we found the feeling come back and start to infect us again. We fell into the mode of being friendly, thinking and acting in little ways that fit our perceptions of the Canada around us. One concrete sign: we started picking up and disposing of bits of litter that we came across as we strolled through parks and scenic places, something we'd never do in San Diego. It just seemed right: make an effort from yourself to improve things for others. Somehow, it just seemed that attitude fit our surroundings here more than in the US, and the more you practiced it, the more it was promoted and grew. It all felt great. Some of it, like the litter removal, was more altruistic, but, I have to admit, other impulses I indulged in also had other, side benefits—like showing my support by patronizing the Songhees Nation food truck at the Belleville Terminal. But it was all part of the pattern of what our life in James Bay was like and a main reason we enjoy it so.

J.R.R. Tolkien had a theory about fantasy writing (what he called 'fairy stories'). He said that fantasy provided a type of psychological 'recovery' of things lost. Day to day, we get used to a lot that is truly amazing and a source of wonder, like the moon, the stars, growing things. We 'acquire' them and cease to see them; they become part of the background. Fantasy helps us recover the lost wonder in the moon and stars by putting them in a new and strange setting, so we see them afresh and appreciate consciously their magic.

I feel that way about my Canadian 'souvenir,' that it makes me see again the need for day-to-day courtesy and kindness and concern for things around us. And it makes me want to hold on to that feeling a little longer when I'm back in San Diego. I want to work to keep this 'souvenir' from becoming like so many others: something that sits on the shelf and becomes one more acquisition that we just stop seeing after some time. It makes me want to make more effort to remain conscious of those small acts that seem to come to mind more easily in Victoria.

As the US federal elections in November move closer and the grim rhetoric increases, I want to counter it by honouring my (other) Country by using the attitude I find there to improve my (other) Country just a little bit more. That'll be a much better souvenir than a fridge magnet of the Legislative Assembly building.