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‘Holding up the mirror -to ourselves’

November 3, 2008 - “The most important part of travel is when you come home, because that’s when you see your country with new eyes.”    Lewis Black, American satirist and commentator

November 3, 2008  By Ralph Pearce

“The most important part of travel is when you come home, because that’s when you see your country with new eyes.”
Lewis Black, American satirist and commentator

    I have come to love the comedic rants of Lewis Black. So much so, that I seldom refer to him as a comedian; instead I call him a commentator. And for good reason: his comments are hilariously funny, sure, but more often than not, they are also strikingly and unfailingly accurate.
    And in the case of this particular quote, I recently found he was once again ‘bang on’ target.

    My wife, Deb and I are just back from a five-day journey to the US, during which time she ran in the Nike Woman’s Marathon. For this athletic endeavour, San Francisco was our host, and while I won’t fall for the cliche of leaving my heart in San Francisco (as much as I love Tony Bennett’s music), I will say the City by the Bay is warm and inviting, as are many of its people.


   I write that, and I’m still in awe of what I find is an always surprising, yet consistent friendliness of our neighbours to the south. As portrayed in television dramas and news programmes, America is often nothing short of inhospitable and even dangerous. Yet the people we encountered in San Francisco, and before that in Boston and Chicago for previous marathons, have gone out of their way to prove those stereotypes are wrong.

   In fact, when they find out you’re from Canada,  most Americans are suddenly curious about so many aspects of life ‘up here’. What’s our health care system really like? Are winters really that cold? And on a professional level, some are interested in the inner workings of supply management or farming without a support program (notice I didn’t call it a ‘subsidy’?) like the US Farm Bill.

   All of the people that we’ve encountered are cheerful, polite and downright friendly. In fact, the more we tour these cities, the more we have come to realize that many Americans are…..well, a lot like us. They worry about managing in their retirement years, about their children, their government and who’s running their country. They may not know much about people in other countries, but then again, I’ve noticed that many Canadians are just as ill-informed about  people in other lands.

   Americans do not have the market cornered when it comes to ignorance, folks, no matter what Rick Mercer or Jay Leno show you on any given night (I’m reminded of a news story with a voter, who, following the French language debates leading up to our federal election, declared her surprise at how well Stephane Dion could speak French).
   No kidding!
   If there is one difference I’ve found in these larger American cities, it’s the contrasting ‘wealth’ of homeless and destitute people. I have not seen the same level of despair on recent walks through streets in London or Toronto.

   I realize that in an overly-simplistic sense that if these people are free to choose not to work or to live on the street, that I should have the freedom to choose not to give them any money. But that is too simplistic for my liking, if not a little cowardly. It is far too easy to look at someone in that situation and judge them to be lazy or unwilling to work. The fact is, none of us are in a position to know what that person has been through or why they couldn’t cope with the cards life has dealt them. In an overly-simplistic answer, I say, ‘there but for the grace of God go I’. What’s the difference between me and the gentleman sitting on the corner, swirling a paper cup full of dimes and quarters? What different path did I tread to avoid the outcome with which he’s dealing? 
   And who am I to look down my nose with such disdain?

   Sure, that person that I just gave 73 cents to (the contents of my pocket) might be a professional beggar, and live in a house that’s comparable to mine (as was the case of the elderly beggar in Toronto, who, a few years ago, was discovered to be living in a modest but comfortable home in the west end of the city, yet begging from the confines of a wheel chair, which she did not need to get around). Or he might use the money he collects for drugs or cheap alcohol. But I’m betting that most people who live on the street are not the same conniving, unscrupulous individuals as that Torontonian (who, by the way, moved to Montreal after being exposed as the fraud she was, where she was subsequently identified by a visiting reporter).

   What I do willingly acknowledge is that giving money to people on the street is futile, like pouring money into a bottomless pit. As much as I wished I could be a deep-pocketed philanthropist (maybe in my next life), what money I did give was probably not very helpful. And as much as I’ve enjoyed visiting Chicago, then Boston and now San Francisco, and been thrilled by our encounters with people in those cities, when all is said and done, I couldn’t agree more with Lewis Black’s contention:
   “The most important part of travel is when you come home, because that’s when you see your country with new eyes.”
   It’s great to get away, but it’s wonderful to be back.


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