I held the door open to allow additional time for several people stepping into the elevator at the Holiday Inn Express in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia.
“Merci,” said one of them, a tall, 20-something man with a goatee, and it was that moment when it finally hit me that I was in another country.
Marianne and I had flown to Bangor, Maine, and drove a rental car another couple of hundred miles over the U.S. border for a summer vacation and, we hoped, some cooler weather. Yellow highway signs warning of moose crossing and “petrol” stations advertising $1.50 per liter were our first reminders we had left the friendly confines. But hearing French in the elevator was secretly thrilling, promising a week of exotic escape.
So the last thing I expected while way up in Canada was a reminder that racism remains rampant back home in the U.S.
The reminder didn’t come while I was watching cable news or reading a newspaper up in my hotel room about the president's racist tweets at four congresswomen of color. In fact, one of the reasons for our vacation over the border was to unplug from the grid, including from all media, and reconnect with Mother Nature.
Rather, one evening, after enjoying a dinner of fresh haddock, we drove to The Thistle, a local pub that advertised a live band. Listening to local music — whether the musicians played original songs or covered Canadian icons like Gordon Lightfoot or Anne Murray — was among the most enjoyable ways, I thought, to get a sense of another culture. The joint was jumpin,' as they say, but a man at the bar moved over one stool so we would squeeze in. His kindness did not stop there. He inquired about our hometown and our travels while also graciously answering my questions, after we ordered a couple of steins of Moosehead lager.
Mind you, I had not set out to interview anyone for a newspaper column. But, as a fan of the late travel celebrity Anthony Burdain, I'm always curious about the lifestyle, perspective, and character of citizens in other countries.
And our new friend was more than happy to satisfy my curiosity. He said his name was Peter Borden, an African-Canadian born in Quebec and fluent in French. He addressed us in unaccented English, save for the familiar Canuck pronunciation of “aboot” for “about.”
The Thistle had the feel of a neighborhood tavern, as nearly every group of locals that came in stopped to greet Borden, including one man insisting Borden drink a shot with him before he joined other friends at a table.
Borden told us he was semi-retired, having moved to Nova Scotia after sustaining an injury while working on an offshore oil rig a couple of hundred miles off the coast of Galveston, Texas. He was hurt on one of those floating oil platforms, to which “roughnecks” are transported via helicopter and where they live and work for three weeks straight, followed by two weeks of time off on the mainland. So coworkers form stronger-than-usual friendships. A crane fumbled a heavy pipe which crushed Borden's shoulder. He lifted his shirt to show us, in the dim light of the bar, a scar and an unnatural-looking protrusion, remnants of broken bones and several surgeries for which he received a disability settlement.
The most memorable of his stories, though, was a time when he and 20 members of his oil-rig platoon went, en masse, to a Texas bar. The proprietor looked at Borden and told him he did not belong. All 21 men, the other 20 white, stood up and marched out the door. What surprised me most about this Jim Crow-era story was that it happened in 2014. What I told Borden was that he must have been proud of his fellow rig workers, who proved to be far nobler Texans than the despicable proprietor.
Borden nodded and said he was very moved by his companions and how they helped to counteract the damage and hurt from a hateful act of discrimination. He also told us the other 20 were not Texans but Newfoundlanders, workers brought in for their experience on the rigs in the North Atlantic.
I felt angry and ashamed that this personable, popular Canadian, along with 20 Newfoundlanders, had endured dehumanization in my country from an ignorant southern bigot. But then I realized I was also guilty of reacting with a stereotype about the population of a state and an entire region on the basis of the words and action of a bar owner I did not know.
I needed, in fact, to take a lesson from Peter Borden who, in spite of this and his likely other experiences with racial prejudice, welcomed me rather than assuming I was another ugly American.
David McGrath is a former Hayward resident and frequent contributor to the News Tribune Opinion page. He previously taught English at the University of South Alabama and is the author of "The Territory." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.