Back to the window, basking in a winter sun blazing through glass, I warm my hands on my cup and inhale the aroma of toasted bagels, hash browns and coffee. Monday morning may take a while to get off the ground in my local Tim Horton’s, but it still effects a steady bustle. I look around – who else is here? – a rounded, grizzled old man with a face reminiscent of a teddy bear sits nearby. His hair is grey but his eyebrows are stubbornly black. I wonder if they hint at a mulish temperament.
Reaching into my shoulder bag for a book I stretch out in my chair, languorously crossing one leg over and tucking the foot behind my calf like a contented cat.A tall heavyset man walks past with a pepsi bottle and a resigned expression. He says something I don’t catch to his companion who explains gently as they take their seats that he won’t know what he can do for himself if he doesn’t do things for himself. I study the speaker of these words in his royal blue jacket with something Nordic emblazoned across the back. Part of it reads ‘svenska’.
It’s possible the tall man is an inpatient at the mental health facility down the road, out on an accompanied day pass; starting small with coffee shops and MacDonald’s, and moving up to bigger things like public transport and shopping malls. Reality is a tough place to break into if you’ve been away for a while – something I understand as a bipolar autistic.
A young boy and his father sit at a table to my right – chewing in companionable silence.
Beyond this pastoral scene my gaze runs across an orange conglomerate in the corner of the café by the door. A group of seven construction workers in high-viz orange and yellow mumble and chuckle in conversation. It’s always with a sense of relief that I remember the simple act of looking at them won’t elicit lascivious glances, or worse, the humiliation of a leery comment tossed across a crowded room, as it might in the UK.
On an unseen signal the colourful coterie rises as one, like a flock of exotic birds, and moves to leave – holding coffees, adjusting caps. It’s only then I notice the lone man, dressed the same but sitting apart. He has his back to me and from the tilt of his pink, tonsured head I’d guess he’s reading. Imagining him a fellow book-drunkard, I like him instantly, just as I liked his colleagues for not being lecherous creeps.
My attention returns to the two men, they’re sitting close by me and it’s hard not to hear their conversation. Anyway, I remind myself, you’re a writer – it’s your job to notice all the things no one else does. I listen to them talk, trying to put myself inside the head of one, then the other.
The blue-clad escort earns my admiration for keeping a relaxed, steady dialogue going in the face of lukewarm responses. “You like football don’t you?” No reply – he offers comment on the game results anyway. Before long his garrulousness pays off and the conversation equalizes as the tall man’s contributions become more enthusiastic. I think about how it feels to keep forced company and talk even when you don’t feel like talking, considering it from the point of view of the tall man, and then, from the perspective of his companion, who might well share the sentiment but keeps it hidden. Funny how sometimes, doing something you don’t want to is the perfect antidote to antipathy.
Steam from a coffee machine I can’t see rises with a sigh and dissipates. From the corner of my eye I’m aware of a man at a nearby table, sitting alone, typing on a tablet keyboard. A businesslike zipped leather folder lies beside him. Presently, he gets up and walks past me. I notice his dress seems at odds with his activity, he looks like a sports coach. He doesn’t order coffee or something to eat as I thought he was going to, but instead crosses the restaurant en route to the washroom without a backward glance at his makeshift office.
Again and again the trust and honesty of the Canadian soul catches me by surprise. Honour systems abound here, from train-travel to yard sales. The ‘see-what-you-can-get-away-with’ mindset is conspicuously absent, replaced instead by an earnest generosity of spirit. I’m reminded of something a neighbor said the other day – about being the recipient of some pay-it-forward karma at the Tim’s drive-thru, where people sometimes ask to pay for the order of the car behind them when they settle their own bill.
Coffee in Canada comes with a side of humanity it seems – unless you’re in Starbucks, in which case they won’t even get your name right whatever continent you’re on.
Behind my eyes the outline of a nobler existence grows more defined and I can almost see it, but I don’t let myself be fooled by the dream. I vow to watch the man’s belongings until he gets back.
To me the world is a bright festival of harm – beautiful but terrible. Perhaps, if I live here long enough, Canada will rehabilitate me.
by Aisha Ashraf.
Aisha Isabel Ashraf is a freelance writer and author of the popular blog EXPATLOG – a collection of irreverent observations from her experiences as a "cultural chameleon". It's where you'll find her, strung out on caffeine, humorously dissecting the peculiarities of expat life for her own amusement and the benefit of future generations."
She can be contacted via the usual avenues (e-mail, Twitter, Facebook) – just swing by the blog for directions.
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