two observations, part one: canadians are still so nice

It's been a long time since I've written a post comparing life here in Canada to my former life in New York City. This is no longer "my new life": it's just my life. In a few months, we'll have been here four years. The Transition Complete sign is no longer even visible in our rear-view mirror.

Every so often, though, something reminds me that what's become commonplace was once amazing.

When we first moved here, I was constantly flabbergasted at how nice everyone was. When you're moving to a new country, there are so many business details to take care of. We had to get our SIN cards, our health care cards, our shiny wonderful new Permanent Resident cards. We had to open bank accounts, buy a car, set up utilities, have cable installed. And on and on and on.

Without exception, every person we dealt with was polite, friendly and helpful.

Here's a story I always tell. When we arrived at our little rental house in Port Credit - lets see if I can do this without choking up, thinking about who's missing - there was an electricity bill waiting for us. We paid rent for a month before we moved, so the bill wasn't unexpected, but $420? That can't be right.

Now, in New York City, calling ConEd is not a task to be undertaken lightly. You'll want to have a good night's sleep and appropriate amounts of caffeine in your system, or maybe Xanax. I knew I had to call the utility company, but I was dreading it. I took a deep breath and girded myself for battle.

"Hi, I have a problem with my bill."

"Hi, how are you today?"

"Uh... fine thank you. I have a problem with my bill."

"All right, why don't you give me the account number and I'll take a look." I give her the number.

"The account is only one month old, and no one was living at this location during that month, but I've been charged $420."

"Oh my, that does seem like a lot of money! Let me see... Are you new to the area?"

"Yes, I am."

"New to Mississauga?"

"I'm new to Canada. We actually just arrived today."

"Today? How exciting! Welcome to Canada!"

. . . I'm almost too puzzled to respond. "Uh, thank you."

"Where did you move from, if you don't mind me asking?"

"Uh, no, we moved from New York City."

"Oh my, from New York City to Mississauga, now that's a big change, eh?"

I'm thinking, where am I? Who are these people?

The representative then cheerfully and politely explains that because we have no credit history with the company, they are asking for a deposit, which will be held in escrow, earning a small amount of interest. After a year has passed, I'm to call again, and the deposit will be credited to my account.

"I'm so sorry you didn't know about this. I hope it's not a big problem for you?"

"No, no, it's fine."

"Is there anything else I can help you with today?"

"No, thank you."

"Good luck settling in, and welcome to Canada. I hope you and your family will be very happy here."

When I hung up, I related this story to Allan. We looked at each other, puzzled. I have a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore.

And this is how it went - everywhere.

Now I'm used to this. It's made me friendlier. It's made me take an extra moment to add a little friendliness to a business transaction. It's not the ten minutes of small talk that I associate with small town life and so dislike. But it's not the slam-bang-next! that you get in New York.

* * * *

Over time, I also came to see what might be the flipside of all this politeness. I've written about the indirectness, the passive-aggressiveness that I find so maddening here.

I prefer to have more clear communication than I get with so many people in Canada. If USians are accused of being brusque, they are also more direct and straightforward, more likely to say what they mean. And if Canadians are more polite, they are also more indirect, more likely to speak in code. (With the usual disclaimers for generalizations and exceptions.)

I've blogged about this enough, I don't need to go into it again. But I see that over time, I may have started to focus on the downside, the indirectness, more than the upside, the politeness.

Something happened recently that made me recall how nice everyone is here.

As you may recall, the law firm where I work on weekends recently cut our transportation benefit, so I now take a GO bus home on Saturdays and Sundays. I always sit in the front to avoid motion sickness, so I hear whatever comes over the driver's dispatch radio.

Frequently - not every day, but often - a driver calls in with a passenger's special need. "I have a passenger at Square One who is trying to get to the University of Guelph. The Guelph bus doesn't run on Saturday. Can anyone help him?"

Another driver's voice is heard: "I can pick him up at Square One and get him to Airport Road. It will be about an hour, but I can definitely get him."

The dispatcher asks, "Can anyone help him at Airport Road?"

Another driver responds, "I will be at Airport Road at 21:40. I can take him as far as..."

The conversation continues until a route is mapped out whereby the passenger will ride a series of GO buses and slowly make his way to the University of Guelph.

I've never heard anything like this. I've never heard public transit employees take their jobs so seriously, or go out of their way for passengers like this.

* * * *

Here's a New York City memory for contrast.

In the 1980s, the subways were pretty bad in New York. This was somewhere between the graffiti era of the 1970s and the improvements of the 90s. (I see people are worried about it again.)

Hundreds of miles of track were being relaid and bridges were being rebuilt, so there was a lot of re-routing going on, often unexpectedly. Subway cars were gradually being replaced, but there were more decrepit, filthy cars in the system than shiny new ones.

The signage was horrendous, both in stations and on the actual trains. I used to say you have to know where you're going to get anywhere; you had to know the system to use it. You'd be walking through some maze of corridors and stairs connecting various lines, you'd get to an intersection, and all of a sudden: no more signs. Or you'd find yourself on a platform that said "Broadway Local," "Broadway Express," and "Nites Only". What is now the #1 train went by something like seven different names.

The PA systems either didn't work at all or were completely inaudible. You'd be sitting on a train and you'd here, "Attention passengers, attention passengers. This D train will now be running on the grrthpwmpzthp track beyond thpdgrzyz Street. Any passenger wishing to go to bzzztkcrtz or zzzztpgdthp, you must exit at rjzzzzzp Street."

Remember, in New York City, many different trains run on the same track. You don't just wait on a platform and get on whatever train comes; you have to see if it's your train. Then there's the perennial question: is an R train running on a D track now a D train? Well, it depends who you ask.

So there I was at Jay Street-Boro Hall in Brooklyn, switching from an F train to an A train. A subway pulls in. It has the big blue A on one car, a purple F on another car, an orange F on yet another car, then two more cars with As.

I find the car with the transit operator leaning out of his window and ask, "Is this an A train?"

He replies, "Can't you read? What does it look like?"

Ah, New York.

I won't say that all New York City transit workers were quite that polite and helpful in the 80s. Let's just say his answer wasn't so unusual.

Sitting on the GO bus, listening to the drivers coordinate a travel schedule for the dude trying to get to Guelph, I thought of this and chuckled to myself.

I also thought of it when I read this post by Impudent Strumpet.

* * * *

PS: the discussion in comments on this post is great.

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