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Friday, February 26, 2010


When in Canada do as the Canadians do

On Sunday night I found myself in a downtown Vancouver sports bar surrounded by people covered in red maple leafs. The leaves covered their hats, their boots, their shirts and their jackets. They even had temporary maple leaf tattoos on their faces. We had all gathered together to watch a men's hockey game between the US and Canada. While there were other Americans in the room, I was apparently the only one not decked out in red, white and blue. With the US in the lead I wasn't about to announce my national heritage, especially given how fast my Canadian cohorts were tearing through the contents of their pint glasses.

Little separated them from wild animals at this point and even the staff didn't want to intervene in the melee. Instead of kicking me out after I stumbled down the stairs and slammed into him, a manager helped me up and nudged me towards the bar. Over the course of the second two periods, only one patron was kicked out and that was for puking all over himself and a table.

After a near comeback, an empty net goal by the Americans sealed their win and drained all the life out of the place. Moments prior, I was watching a woman in an aviator hat jump around on a stool while madly waving a Canadian flag. Now she was slumped over at a table staring into a half-empty pint of beer. A drunk in a jersey slung his arm around me and lamented this sad state of affairs. "It's ok, man," he slurred. "We'll get in the finals, we're gonna get the gold. This is *our* game, eh?" I nodded and shrugged, afraid to open my mouth. If I made a mistake such as inadvertently pronouncing "about" as anything but "aboot," my true identity as an American citizen would have been revealed. This guy would have no doubt started shrieking like one of the clones from Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Or not. A table full of Americans began cheering when the clock went down to zero and one of them even did a little dance. The Canadians only glared in return. They paid their tab and managed to escape the bar without incident.

During our stint at the 2010 Winter Olympics, my colleagues and I stayed with a few Canadian relatives. One of our hosts wanted to know why we hadn't brought along USA paraphernalia or at least a tiny American flag. After all, European tourists and the locals had absolutely no reservations about displaying their nationalistic pride so why should we? Over the course of our six days in Canada we encountered plenty of Germans decked out in gear from their native land. Numerous Norwegians were running around town dressed in viking hats. One of them even had enough national pride and competitive spirit coursing through his veins to carry a large bone with him, merrily conking spectators from other countries gently on the head during photo opps.

So why not us? Continued guilt from the Bush-era, I guess, plus we're not the sort of people that typically want to draw a lot of attention to ourselves on unfamiliar ground. Furthermore, we witnessed a father and his young daughter get heckled by locals in a Sky Train station for wearing Uncle Sam hats. I don't know if there have been any acts of violence between Americans and Canadians at the Olympic games but perhaps our paranoia was completely unwarranted. At least we weren't alone. With the exception of the fans in the bar and a few others, they were the only Americans I encountered that were willing to reveal their identities through clothing.

Plenty of media coverage has been devoted to how the games have drawn out fevered patriotism in the typically reserved Canadians. The entire city of Vancouver is practically covered in national flags right now. Maple leaves can be found on everything from mittens to doughnuts. One building downtown has a gigantic flag draped across its entire 10-story exterior.

Several local school districts in Vancouver declared a two-week holiday during the games and, ultimately, the city seemed like it was in the middle of a gigantic Fourth of July-style celebration while we were there. The downtown streets were jammed at all hours. The Bay department store had three hour long waits for Canadian apparel. People were standing in line for up to eight hours to take a ride on a zip line that crossed over several blocks and the heads of thousands gathered in a public square near the Hotel Vancouver. Dozens of pavilions and "house" drinking halls were scattered across town offering food, booze and free music to all. The spectacle had grown so large that city authorities had considered shutting down all the city's liquor stores on Saturday for 24 hours.

In short, it was an epic scene and one on a scale I haven't seen since, well, Burning Man last summer. One of my favorite moments from the trip: watching what appeared to be a very shy, very uptight wallflower couple begin madly swing dancing after The Great Lake Swimmers went on stage at the Ontario House. I wish I could be back up there for the closing ceremonies this weekend.

Click here for a Flickr gallery filled with more photos of international fans and Canadian uber-patriots, including Chewbacca.

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