Cross-border Library

Halfway out of Canada,
Halfway out of the U.S.A.
Derby Line, USA
July 22, 2013

Parts of me are in two countries at the same time. My left foot is in the U.S. while my left knee is in Canada. My left shoulder is in the U.S. while the hand connected to it is across in Canada. My head bobs back and forth between the two countries every few seconds, depending on how closely I look at my computer screen.

How is it I've placed myself in such an unusual position? It's all on account of my birthday ritual. For each of the past 27 years I've made a trip "out of the country" on my birthday.

My personal requirement to be "out of the country" used to be simpler. Before I started living abroad it just meant leaving the U.S.. Even if I didn't have much time or money to spare in any particular year I could still make my way to the nearest border crossing to Canada for a quick dash to observe my ritual. But, now that I'm a resident of Canada I feel it no longer counts to stay on anywhere in that country. However, it doesn't feel right to make a trip back to the U.S. on that day, either.

Flowerpot Frontier
It was even more complicated where I could choose to go to observe my ritual this year. I have a heavy schedule of language courses in-session back up in Québec City. Even if I booked a ticket to fly to the closest third country--perhaps somewhere in Mexico or some island in the Caribbean--I'd have just a few hours abroad before having to turn around to return in-time for classes Monday morning.

I have been in a similar dilemma, before. Another summer three years ago when I was also taking intensive language classes I was too constrained by time to observe my ritual with a proper jaunt abroad. For that birthday I found a loophole in my definition of being "out of the country". I made a trip to the nearest consulate figuring that counted in some way as a sovereign entity on foreign soil. This year, I've come up with a similarly hair-splitting solution to satisfy my own requirements.

This unique place where I've come to mark my birthday this year, the Haskell Free Library and Opera House, was built over 100 years ago. It was deliberately laid in a location straddling the frontier between the U.S. and Canada. As I type this entry, I'm seated in a chair in the library reading room where a large, black strip of tape along the floor demarcates which country the library patron finds themselves in.

I've convinced myself that by sitting here I am now, in a certain fashion, simultaneously "outside of" both Canada and the U.S.. Half of me is out of Canada. Half of me is out of the U.S.. Yes, I do recognize that I'm just as much still in those same countries as I am out of them. But, in a certain leap of logic, I've been able to meet my peculiar constraint for another year running--at least well enough to satisfy myself.

In the end, the purpose of my ritual has less been about the act of making a long journey so much as reserving one fixed day for myself every year. On each birthday I always reflect on where my life has gone over the past year and on what's to come with the next year. It's also a way to make certain that I'll always have some trip to look forward to within a year. It's just my own way of celebrating my day.

Things have worked out well for this trip. Since I always travel on my birthday it's rare that I have company of other people I know. But this time, as with when we went to New York back in February, former classmate Siliu and I rented a car to make the cross-border drive.

We started our weekend getaway with dinner at a Korean restaurant in Montréal, last night. I found it amusing when our poor waitress hesitated, trying to figure in which language she could to speak to us. The default language people start speaking on the street in Montreal is French--but we happened to be in a predominantly English-speaking neighborhood. Siliu and I still speak in Chinese with each other about 80% of the time which is what our waitress overheard when she brought menus to our table. She addressed us with a good, educated guess that would work whether we were French or English speakers:

"Mandarin?", she asked us.

"Yes, but I can speak French and English too," Siliu said.

I'm not sure who she expected to reply in which language but our waitress was utterly baffled:

"He... ? He... ? He doesn't speak English?", the waitress asked Siliu, repeatedly turning her head from side to side to scrutinize our faces.

Dumplings, Bi Bim Bap
& Pickled Vegetables
After we'd cleared up in which language we could order dinner, Siliu presented me a birthday present wrapped up in red wrapping paper. It was a very nice, brand-new fountain pen. She knows how much I enjoy writing postcards but had seen the cheapo fountain pen from China I'd been using before. It's rare that I'm with anybody I know on my birthday so it felt especially touching to receive such a thoughtful gift, let alone handed to me in-person.

Once again, as we did for our long Easter weekend in New York, we announced our roadtrip destinations to those in need of a lift on rideshare website Amigo Express. Once again, we'll have the entire cost of the car rental paid for by passengers with a fair amount on top of that to go toward gas. I'm estimating that we'll each pay about $20 for our weekend transport expenses.

Okay. It's time to move along. Even if it was just a couple hours sitting on the border, I feel I've observed my birthday ritual for another year. Siliu, has been sitting across the table from me patiently writing postcards, mostly to her friends back in China. I'm going to jot a few off with my new fountain pen. Then we'll continue to drive on through Vermont and make our way up to Montreal the long way around.

Happy birthday to me.