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(Jeff Jackson for The Globe and Mail)
(Jeff Jackson for The Globe and Mail)

Facts & Arguments Essay

Toronto the good? Try great Add to ...

On our first trip into Ontario, we crossed the border during a snowstorm, having driven for 16 hours straight, stopping only for gas. Our California wiper fluid had frozen, seriously impeding visibility. We were exhausted and hungry.

At the border, a French-Canadian official opened the window on his kiosk, glanced at our passports and said, "I suppose you have papers for that vicious beast in the back seat?"

The beast yawned. My husband beckoned to me for the envelope containing our dog's papers. "We do," he said. "You want to see them?"

"No," the man said. "Welcome to Canada." He shut the window.

"Oh Canada!" I said with a grin. "I think we're going to like you."

Eight hours later we had our first parking ticket. The home we'd rented had no driveway. Reluctant to leave a car full of our belongings blocks away, we unloaded overnight supplies and scribbled a note, promising to get a permit first thing Monday. That was at 2 a.m. on Saturday. We thought our California licence plates ought to testify on our behalf. No chance. Welcome to Toronto.

Since then I've been alternately alienated and seduced by this city. Five years of passing the huge university sign at Harbord and Spadina, with its "TORONT" and prominent overhanging "O," have not mitigated its weirdness. I endure a similar recurring jolt at the sight of the ROM Crystal with one of its spikes jabbing an eye on a rather nice old building. The architecture puts me in mind of "before" and "after" photographs: "Following the cataclysmic quake, the building lay in shards." Every time I see these structures, I picture a sweet Canadian shrugging and saying, "Never mind. It's good enough."

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When we moved here after my husband accepted a postretirement contract to teach mathematics at the University of Toronto, I suffered through some convulsions. In our California home overlooking San Francisco Bay, we lounged on the deck nine months of the year, drinking coffee and reading the paper or sipping good wine.

Before settling here, I'd spent a total of four winter months in Toronto while my husband worked with a colleague at U of T. I dreaded the prospect of protracted winter gloom. While it's not true that it never rains in California, it is true that it doesn't rain much.

Before Toronto I had paid scant attention to my neighbours. When I asked someone about the children who lived at the top of our little hill in California, she looked at me in astonishment and said, "Candi, those people moved out 15 years ago."

Things were instantaneously more intimate in Toronto. As we lugged furniture into our new home, our neighbours introduced themselves. I took advantage of the opportunity to warn them about the tendency of our German shepherd, Jessie, to bark, at least for a while, every time we leave the house. Back home, I had received a few nasty voice mails about that and now I dreaded antagonizing another captive audience.

"Please tell me if she's a problem for you. I could put a shock collar on her."

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Even though about to live cheek by jowl with us in a row of townhomes, they all looked horrified and, to my relief, sternly argued against torturing my dog. But for weeks I anticipated their hostility over Jessie's vocalizations (she's a Siamese cat of a dog). Instead they seemed peculiarly appreciative. "I can always tell when you're about to take her for a walk," one said. "She squeals."

During those early months, I found out that many shopkeepers encourage dog traffic and keep treats behind the counter. Jessie came to view any counter, including the one at the bank, as a cornucopia. I began to think winter gloom might be a small price to pay for charm, especially after my mail carrier handed me a few cards, singing, "Happy birthday to you!"

Digging in my tiny garden that fall, I saw my neighbour come out with a weed whacker. "Bring that thing over here," I said with a laugh. "My lawn could use it."

To my amazement, she came over. "I'm from Winnipeg," she explained as she whacked away. "We always help each other out."

And apologize for it too. A year or two later, I heard scraping on the front porch and opened the door to see my Winnipeg friend shovelling our snow. "I'm so sorry," she said, obviously mortified. "I thought you were still away."

I looked at our long, cleared path and started to tell her she ought to be ashamed of herself, but I was too overwhelmed for sarcasm. I'd never had my forgiveness solicited for the imposition of a favour.

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As the months passed, it became clear to me that more than a good-neighbour policy marked the difference between Canadians and Americans. Often as I walked Jessie, someone initiated conversation and, hearing I was from the Bay Area, they'd invariably ask, "Why on Earth did you come here?"

Most of the time I'd say, "For the weather. We don't have any in California." But privately I marvelled at the modesty behind the question. If a Parisian moved to Nowhere, Neb., or Armpit, Ariz., I felt certain my American cousins would congratulate him on his luck.

Perhaps it's life on feet (as opposed to quarantined inside an automobile) that promotes this conviviality. Or possibly it's the difference between feeling blasé about perennial sun and celebrating the emergence of colourful blossoms after a long, grey season. My second spring, I was tending my front yard when a young man paused at the fence. "What a beautiful garden!" he exclaimed. My mouth fell open. I actually got tears in my eyes.

Thank you, Canada. It's been a lovely long walk.

Candida Pugh lives in Toronto.

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