One of my oldest friends celebrated his 60th birthday on July 4 with a visit to New York City, and it reminded me of how closely tied he and I have always been to our neigbours to the south.
For him, the relationship likely began not long after his birth and subsequent residence in Fort Erie, a relatively small southern Ontario town that shares the border with Buffalo, New York; for me, soon after I moved to that area from England in my early teens.
He and I spent several summers together in a nearby resort town called Crystal Beach, whose population exploded at the end of each school year, as hundreds of Americans took up residence in their summer cottages. The beaches were filled with young buff bodies, and early July saw the dawn of many a summer romance.
The parties were endless, the under-age drinking rampant, and it was generally a magical time for teenagers and young adults alike. The Americans loved being there, and we enjoyed having them! Certainly, they were “foreigners,” yet we were so alike it was often impossible to tell us apart (except by the occasional southern drawl), our social sensibilities and morals virtually identical.
Every year, as September approached, our hearts sank as we watched the cottages being shuttered and locked for the off-season, while the summer teenage flings came abruptly to an end.
Eventually, I left the area, but took with me an appreciation of the American spirit that I witnessed during those glorious Lake Erie summers.
When I moved to the west coast in the late 1980s, I began another relationship with the Americans, discovering Washington State as a terrific holiday destination and finding Seattle a much different experience than Vancouver.
Pushing further south and then east, I found coastlines and landscapes that awed me, and national parks that were meticulously cared for and operated, and a delight to visit. The service in restaurants and shops was the best I’d ever experienced and the meal portions? Well, you all know about that…..
The ugliness of 9/11, of course, changed most everything, including many Canadians’ desire to venture south of the border, as the American spirit we had enjoyed for so long seemed to implode, just like the twin towers did, and we were forced to watch as a nation lashed out at those perceived to be the architects of the attacks.
America lost it’s “innocence” on that day, and travelling across the border was not quite the same experience in the years to follow, and certainly will likely never be as it was when I was growing up in Fort Erie.
Still, time has healed some of the wounds, and I continue to explore the American West whenever time and money allow, still marvelling at the friendliness of the people, despite the economic challenges they have faced since the collapse of 2008.
It may never be the dominant nation it once was, but maybe that spirit that swept me away on the beaches of Crystal Beach all those years ago is re-emerging and will once again shine brightly.
Let’s hope so, eh? Happy birthday, America!