I will admit that my family is perhaps a little more internationally-minded than the average American family, but we really were just looking for lunch when we headed into Canada one Friday. When we were in Switzerland a regular outing would be to take the train to Germany or France for shopping and lunch. The border was so close, just asking to be crossed. The Schengen zone has made visa-free travel the rule in Europe, and crossing borders is as natural as a daily commute. (In fact, many border-crossers live and work in different countries) For the USA, borders are considered a little more serious areas of security and protection. U.S. citizens now need passports to get into Canada and back, and have long been profiled and searched while coming through land-crossings from Mexico.
Still, my troupe is fresh from Europe, with a slightly less sense of danger while around borders. This is why we decided to take a day trip into British Columbia one day, just to find a restaurant and then head home. In all my traveling, from Athens to Oslo to Cairo, I had never been to Canada. So we set our plans, not knowing the interrogation to come.
When one enters another country there are bound to be the standard questions about one’s business there. As we drove to have our passports checked by Canadian customs, the questions were the same as any German, French or Swiss customs agent. “Where are you headed? Why? When were you last in Canada? Are you planning to leave anything there?” All valid questions to figure out what kind of visitor is entering the country. We genuinely just wanted to have lunch in Canada and see the sights, and the customs agent waved us through.
We found ourselves in Creston B.C. and located the local diner/burger joint. We had a fine lunch, and decided to head to the grocery store to compare prices and find some “Canadian cookies.” I was not sure what kind of cookie offerings our nice northern neighbo(u)r might have, so we figured that would be a nice souvenir. Luckily? we found maple syrup-flavo(u)red cookies, in the shapes of maple leaves. Though the cookies were linked to Quebec, we figured they counted as genuine “Canadian cookies.”
With curiously-tasting loot in hand, we drove back toward the USA. We pulled up to the customs house and were greeted by an agent with a serious tone.
“How long were you in Canada?” A couple hours.
“When were you last here?” Me? Never. My wife about 10 years ago.
“What were you doing?” Lunch.
“Where did you go?” Creston.
“No, where did you go?” Oh, the burger joint…Broaster’s or something.
“You went all the way to Canada for lunch?” Yes.
With a serious look, and deeper tone, the agent said, “Why today?” Because we had nothing else to do.
“What do you do?” I’m a journalist.
“Bringing anything back?” Some cookies.
“Did you purchase any over-the-counter medications?” No.
“When did you last come back through?” Sorry, what?
“Through the USA.” What do you mean through the USA? From Canada?
“Yeah, from Canada.” Never. And my wife about 10 years ago.
“Where is [my son]?” In the back seat…
Needless to say this questioning seemed a bit excessive. Maybe it was more intense because there were not as many cars coming through and the agents wanted to be extra thorough? But the suspicious glances and serious tone conveyed nothing close to a “Welcome to the USA” attitude. Such interrogations are also common-place in airports, but usually involve a little more small-talk. The small-talk is what tips the agents off to whether someone is nervous or guilty, and not the intimidation of a drawn-out question and answer session. Also at the airport when the document check is over, agents offer a friendly “Welcome back.”
I understand the need for security in travel. When we are on the road, or in transit, we are vulnerable. We are away from our family and friends, traveling sometimes great distances for work and recreation. That journeying needs a safeguarding from actors wanting to prey on weary travelers. But returning to the USA is not always a warm experience. Many a European has told me that they feel like criminals entering the U.S., having to give fingerprints and answer many questions.
I probably had it easy coming into the U.S. after lunch, but it wasn’t comfortable. I have been patted down and questioned in Greece. Scammed and questioned in Cairo. But, still, coming back “home” to the U.S. feels the least welcoming. Maybe because I know I belong here, and feel like anything more than the basic questioning is excessive.
Safety and security is one thing. But for anyone wondering: sometimes a family just wants to go have lunch in a place it has never visited. And sometimes the only thing someone’s bringing back is oddly-flavo(u)red cookies. It is not about meds, or drugs, or crime of any sort. Just lunch, and cookies. Canada and the USA are both lands of the free, but it seems the middle space between them isn’t for anyone but the brave.