Selected Minor Works: Oh. Canada. Part II

[An extensive archive of Justin Smith’s writing can be found at]

I’ve always loved borders.  I still have a photo album from a 1978 tip across the United States, and remarkably the great bulk of them –matted, square prints from those old, flat cameras– are of my sister and me in Montessori school T-shirts and short shorts, sporting identical bowl cuts, grinning contentedly in front of signs such as ‘You Are Now Leaving Wyoming’, and ‘Welcome to South Dakota’.  I believed we were making history that summer, in the back of our grandparents’ AMC Hornet station wagon that always smelled like burnt butter.  Who before us had crossed so many borders?  We heard ‘50 Ways to Leave your Lover’ on the AM radio, endured a plague of locusts in Nebraska, saw scattered dinosaur-themed monuments, and, when the outer edge of my right knee would by gravity and heat-induced lethargy drift into contact with the outer edge of her left, she would say ‘gross’ and insert a napkin between them.  The skin too is a border and sometimes must be secured.

Years later, I discovered that I enjoyed travelling to places principally in view of the places my destinations were next to.  In Leningrad, I fantasized about Finland; in Istanbul, I couldn’t stop thinking about what life is like in Bulgaria; in Egypt, I wanted nothing more than to cross into Libya; and in Argentina, it was Paraguay that captured my imagination.  I hate my whereabouts on principle just as I loathe the specious present and yearn for some authentic future. 

Sometimes my curiosity overpowers me and I depart to see what is on the other side.  In Leningrad I pretended I was sick so that the Soviets would give me an exit-entry visa to go to Helsinki for medical care.  I departed on the train with the Kalevala and a russko-finskii razgovornik filled with Finnish phrases written in the Cyrillic alphabet.  From the former, I still remember the opening lines of a spell intended to keep away bears: ‘O bear.  O honey-paws.  O handsome chubby lad of the forest’.  From the latter I can still remember the numbers one through five, which, transliterating back into the Latin alphabet, look something like this: yksi, kaksi, kolme, nelja, viisi.  I spent all the money I had on a hotel room and a vending-machine sandwich, and returned to the Soviet Union the next day, rather less gloriously than Lenin before me.  To the Finland Station, yes, but without even a plan for myself, let alone for world revolution.  This is what always happens when I succumb to my longing for neighboring territories.  I realize I am there for no good reason, and I return.    

In 1978, from some point in Minnesota, we crossed into Canada.  My six-year-old mind struggled to grasp the difference between national and state boundaries.  I knew that on the map the boundary between Minnesota and Canada consisted in dashes followed by two dots instead of one, and this I found significant.  They made us stop at the border, not just to ask us about any produce we might be carrying, but about our very identity.  We ate lunch, I believe, at a border truck stop, and turned right around, and our grandparents announced to us that we were now ‘world travellers’. 

In 1987 or so my mother sent me to sailing camp along the British Columbian coast, but what we didn’t know when I set off from Sacramento was that I would be stuck on a boat run by proselytizing Christians.  The summer prior I had been stuck at a Christian horse camp, but at least when you’re on a Christian horse you can jump off and run to the nearest payphone to demand to be picked up.  When you’re on a Christian boat, you have no choice but to wait it out, which is hard when you are 15 and have recently discovered Trotsky and Kafka, and want nothing so much as to get back to Victoria and find that punk-rock chick who invited you to some show just because you looked cool.  But no, you’re stuck on ‘night watch’ 100 ‘knots’ up the coast of Vancouver Island.  What the hell were we watching for, pirates?  I remember pulling up a bucket of seawater and stirring it to see the bioluminescent sea creatures glow.  ‘Explain that, Christians’, I remember thinking.  No doubt they would have thought themselves capable. 

Back in port, I found the punk-rock chick and she got me into a show.  A group of us spent the night on the floor of some kid’s parents’ home, assured that the parents were away on the mainland.  There was plenty of Southern Comfort and marijuana.  We listened to Crass.  A skinhead girl wearing tennis shoes recounted her recent trip to Montreal, and how when she was sleeping on the sidewalk there some other skinheads stole her Docs.  Montreal’s bad ass, everyone agreed. 

It would be 15 years before I would come back to Canada, and the next time it would be to Montreal, and, apparently, for good.  Earlier in this space I disputed Montreal’s claim to bad-ass status by any interesting measure.  I do see plenty of squeegee punks with tattooed faces lurking about in traffic, accosting drivers, hoping to strike that perfect balance between threatening and pitiable.  I hear they’re on a circuit between here and BC.  Some are old and particularly worn out, and sometimes I imagine I recognize the skin chick sans Docs, now in her thirties, like me, but now of an altogether different species. 

In those 15 years I never once thought about crossing into Canada.  Living in New York, I never developed a trace of the transborder fugue syndrome that brought me to Finland and Bulgaria from Russia and Turkey.  Into my psychical geography I factored New Jersey and Long Island, and a sliver of Connecticut, and most of that mass of land we call ‘Upstate’.  But Canada was as non-existent.  All my fugues in those days were trans-Atlantic.

I do not wish to complain about Canada for a second time, as I had initially planned to do.  I was in a foul mood when I wrote my first essay on the place, and I apologize to all those I offended.  I will say nothing about Stephen Harper, that hair-helmeted, Mattel-doll version of Newt Gingrich, nor about the complacent idiocy that clings, generation after generation, to a borrowed and vestigial queen.  Recently, I’ve been re-reading Montaigne, and this affects my mood dramatically.  You will get off easy if I don’t drift off into a discourse on my favorite sauces.  Come to think of it, that québécois gravy with cheese curd known as poutine is just fine, and so, even, is sirop d’érable.   

It is noteworthy, though, what an important part of Canada’s own psychogeography is its southern border.  The Canadians live pressed up against it like it were a source of heat.  From my 14th-floor window, facing the South, I imagine I can see the Adirondacks of Upstate.  But increasingly it is not, for me, in facing South that I have the sharpest feeling of what it is like to be in Canada.  This I have facing North, or even, with eyes closed, feeling North by I don’t know which sense.  Just as I get settled in a place where the border is all-important, accounting for 85% of the commerce of goods and at least as much of what Leibniz far too optimistically called the ‘commerce of light’, I find that borders have ceased to matter so much for me. 

This country, along with Russia, is one of the only two in the world to habitually leave out a good percentage of its land mass in the maps it makes of itself.  This is a shame, for it is that great mass, like the dark matter of the universe, that gives the place its weight.  Without that great mass that is left off the maps, that never figures into the squeegee punks’ circuit, that is largely neglected in CBC weather reports, I don’t think I could bear the place.  Russia’s vast expanse to the East is cumbersome, and always seems too much for Muscovy to bear.  Canada’s North in contrast is a source of power (literally) and majesty.  Baffin, Kugluktuk, and Vuntut are toponyms charged with life and wonder.  Handsome chubby creatures roam wide up there, I like to imagine.  The very thought of them frees a would-be fuguer, if only for a moment, from this string of makeshift border camps that most are content to call Canada.