Just the Other Day: When In Rome

There’s on old saying; When in Rome, do as the Romans. I have not been to Rome, but I have been to Canada many times. That concept applies to all countries – not just Rome.


Canada and America are much alike. We both drive on the right-hand side of the road and slow traffic should stay in the right lane, except to pass. Other things are similar, but a little different.


We both like doughnuts. In the U.S. we have Dunkin Donuts.  Canada has Tim Horton’s.  In the states one can buy almost anything at Walmart, while up north Canadian Tire has it all. On either side of the border a big yellow M is a burger joint and the long-haired lady wearing a crown, inside the green circle is coffee.


Language can be a barrier in some parts of Canada, but I do okay understanding a little French. When visiting our friends to the nord, knowing your directions is a good idea: nord is north, sud is south.  Quest will take you west, and est is the same as our east – it’s just missing an a, which surprises me, in a country that uses the A so frequently, eh?


Other common French words I understand are overt, which means open. Aret is stop. Reduced speeds will debut (begin) ahead and resume to normal at the fin (end) of a school zone. Other words and terms can be figured out if you just think about it. Speed Measuring Warning Devices Are Prohibited. (No radar detectors.)  Most Canadian’s speak English. I know I’m in a French speaking area when I’m greeted, “Bonjour Monsieur.”


Pictures on highway signs are helpful and mean the same in both countries. A bed with a roof is a motel. A fork and knife will lead you to restaurants and a pump means you can buy petro at the next exit.


I had to brush up on my metric conversion skills when I started traveling to Canada.  I still get a little excited to see gasoline (petro) at just $1.26 but the thrill quickly diminishes when I remember, that’s per liter, or, $4.77 per gallon, which seems really expensive until you calculate the US/Canadian currency exchange rate, then it’s only $3.57 which is still higher, but not as bad as it seemed. Oh my! All those conversions combined with the extreme run-on sentence, just gave me a headache!


An American traveling in Canada should be aware of our differences. For example, in the United States, OPP is a 90’s rap song. It means Other People’s Property. In Canada, OPP is the Ontario Provincial Police, who will come after you if you have OPP in your possession! The OPP will also be there should you fail to correctly convert miles, to kilometers-per-hour.


Both our state troopers and OPP officers are nice people, so long as you stay on the right side of the law. I’ve learned, a heavy foot in America is also a heavy foot in Canada and both law enforcements agencies are on the lookout for speeders.


The other day I was entering Sarnia, Ontario, Canada, from Port Huron, Michigan. Traffic was heavy. I was in the righthand lane pulling my Scamp trailer.  Coming over the tall Blue Water Bridge that spans the St. Clair River below, I could see the lines were long at the border crossing. I was trying to read the overhead signs to see if there was a special lane for RV’s and campers.


The far-right sign read, Trucks. The lane I was in said, Nexus and the rest of the lanes were open to all traffic. Not knowing what Nexus means, I had my signal on, trying to merge left.  Every car inched up closer to the vehicle in front of them and no one was going to let me move over. Getting closer to the booths, I finally just stopped, waiting for an opportunity to merge left, but the impatient driver behind, laid on his horn and wasn’t going to let up until I started moving.


There was a pickup pulling a camper and another towing a boat and several cars ahead of me. A motorhome was at the head of the line, so I assumed I was okay to be in this lane with my Scamp. This line was moving faster than the others, still uncertain, I kept trying to move to the left until I reached the concrete barrier dividing the lanes.


I pulled to the booth with my driver’s license in my extended hand. They always want your ID first. Ignoring my ID, with a monotone voice, the officer asked, “What’s your plate number?”


“My plate number?” I repeated, never being asked that before.


“Yes. Your license plate number. What is it?” He asked.


“I don’t know it right off hand. Can I get out of my car to read it?”


He seemed perturbed at my question, “It’s on your vehicle registration.”


I shuffled through the glove box but couldn’t find the registration. I looked in the center console, the side door pockets and sun visors, then confessed, “I can’t seem to find it.”


“Give me your Nexus card.” He said.


Feeling ignorant, I answered, “I have no idea what a Nexus card is.”


“You’re not a Nexus member?” He snapped in disbelief. Moving from perturbed to the edge of angry, he said, “Yeah, get your plate number.” He snatched my license from my hand and hastily slid his window shut as if slamming the door in my face.


I got out to read the number on my license plate.  I kept repeating it until I got back in the car, grabbed a pen and quickly wrote the number on the palm of my hand. When he opened his window, I read the plate number to him. He was irritated, “What are you doing in this lane?” I explained I was trying to move over and…  Disinterested in my answer, he interrupted me, “It’s marked halfway out the bridge!”


“I know.” I said, “I saw the signs. I didn’t know what Nexus meant and I was trying to move left but as you can see, traffic is backed up, bumper to bumper and no one would let me move over.” Then I asked, “Is there someplace I can I turn around and go back to another lane.”


“No! You cannot turn around.” It seemed he thought I was trying to pull something over on him. He demanded, “Why were you even in the right lane to begin with?”


Becoming annoyed with his rude attitude, I took a deep breath to stay calm before answering him. “Because U.S. rules call for trucks and slower vehicles to stay in the right lane.  Since everything behind me is still the United States, I was simply following U.S. law and IF you allow me to pass through, I intend to follow the Canadian laws on the other side to the best of my ability.”


The man glared at me. I had much more to say to him but quickly considered my dog, June. Her health papers and rabies vaccination documents were in the same plastic sleeve with my vehicle registration and proof of insurance – lost. I was in no position to get smart or challenge him at this point.


He handed me a card upon which he had checked several boxes.  “Take this to the building over there.” I asked if I would need to pay a fine or something there. “Yep.” He seemed to answer with delight. “You’ll have to see an immigration officer. They’ll tell you how much the fine is and next time, stay out of the Nexus line!”


IMMIGRATION?  Good Lord! This was starting to sound serious. I pulled ahead having visions of spending the next 20 years in a Canadian prison.


At the next building, two officers directed me where to park. The younger one greeted me, then asked why I was sent there. When I handed him the card and explained briefly what happened, he asked, “Why were you in the Nexus lane?” I started to explain, but he cut me off. “You’re going to have to see an immigration officer.” He saw June and said “You can’t take your dog in the building.” He pointed to a small kennel that looked like a jail cell. “Leash your dog and go put it in the cage.”


I was concerned for June. I was the one who messed up. There was no need to send her to the cage. “Can I leave her in my car? She’d be much more comfortable in here.”


“It’s too hot to leave a dog in a car,” he said, “she has to go to the cage.”


It wasn’t that hot out and we were parked under a canopy, completely out of the sun. “I can leave the air conditioner on for her.” I was almost pleading. I didn’t want June going to jail.


He was adamant, “You can’t leave your car running unattended. She has to go to the cage.”


The second officer stepped up. He was more compassionate, sensing my worry. “If you leave your car running, do you have a way to lock the doors and get back in?” I assured him I did, presenting my spare key. “Okay, go ahead and lock it up. She can stay in the car while you’re inside.”  Completely relieved, I thanked him and went into the building.


I stood line waiting my turn.  Without looking up, the agent called out, “Next.”  I walked to his window and handed him the citation card.  “What’d you do?” He took the paper, still not looking at me.


“Apparently I went through the wrong line.” I answered.


He looked at the card, then looked up at me. “Why were you in the Nexus lane?” I explained again, telling him I didn’t know what Nexus meant. “Have you been to Canada before?” I told him I had been there many times. “And you don’t know what Nexus is?”


“I’ve only been through at Port Huron a couple of times. Normally I enter at Grand Portage, Minnesota, near Thunder Bay.  I’ve never noticed a Nexus lane there.” I told him.


“Nexus is at every point of entry. Go to the waiting area until your name is called.”


In the waiting area there were several people.  I’ve never been to jail before but I could imagine this is what it felt like in a holding cell at the county pokey.  I struck up conversation with another inmate – a young man, “What are you in for?” I asked. His name was Jeremy.


Jeremy went through the Nexus lane too, not knowing what it was. He said, “When they saw my Airforce ID, they told me to report to immigration.” He expressed his frustration saying, “I’m about to just turn my truck around and go back to the States. I don’t need this BS.” I suggested he not do that. “Why? What can they do if I decide to turn around?”


I explained, “Once sent to this building, if you drive away, they’ll assume you did something illegal and they will come after you. If you get into a rift with Canadian Immigration, I got a hunch the Airforce isn’t going to be happy when you return from leave.”  He agreed.


Our attention was diverted when four officers wearing protective gear marched out the front door. A few moments later, a fifth officer went rushing by with a rather enthusiastic canine wearing a badge.  I hoped and prayed they weren’t going near my car with their dog – June would go berserk!


I couldn’t tell where they went, but a female officer came back to the waiting area. “Who left a dog outside in their vehicle? We’re trying to work our drug dog and your dog is distracting her.” Oh my gosh!


My heart raced instantly. This was getting worse by the minute and I didn’t have June’s papers with me.  Jeremy and I responded simultaneously. “In the white Subaru?”  “In the red truck?”


“The dog in the red truck is trying to jump out the window. You’re interfering with an official border patrol search. You need to restrain your animal – now!” She was serious and forceful.  Jeremy went outside with the officer.  Another lady got my attention and waved for me to come to a window where she was. Saying something in French I didn’t understand, she pulled my arm moving me to a place where I could see what was going on. I was grateful and stupidly said, “Gracias.”


From the window, I could see the officer escorting Jeremy to put his dog in the cage.  Sitting in my driver’s seat, June was intensely watching the commotion, but not barking at all. “Good girl June Bug.” I whispered, “look, but do not bark!” I was very proud of her.


The drug dog and handler made circles around a dark blue Dodge Caravan. The dog was very curious about the open tailgate.  Officers removed luggage from the van, setting it on the ground.  The dog sniffed a couple bags, then started pawing at one.  An officer opened the bag, looking inside.  The handler pulled his dog back and began petting her with praise, then gave her a treat or something from his shirt pocket.


I too praised the canine for a job well done. I wanted to watch the bust playout, but a voice called, “Thomas?  Thomas Palen.”


At the window the interrogation began. “Why did you try to go through the Nexus lane?” I explained I had no idea what the Nexus lane is.  He explained, “It’s an express lane. You have to be pre-qualified with a background check and have a currently paid-up membership.” He went on to say, “Sometimes people will try to bring things into Canada that they shouldn’t. They think they’ll get right through in the Nexus lane, but our officers are very well trained to watch for such people.”


Then came a barrage of questions: Why were you in the right lane? Do you have any marijuana with you?  Have you been to Canada before? Why are you coming to Canada today? Do you plan to buy any marijuana in Canada today? How long will you be here? Do you have cash amounting to more than $10,000 Canadian? Do you smoke marijuana? Any guns, alcohol, or drugs, including marijuana? Have you ever smoked marijuana?  I answered all his questions.


He paused, “Have you ever been arrested before.” I assured him I had not. “If I detain you to do a background check, will your answers prove to be true?” I told him they would. He looked me in the eye, “Are you telling me the truth?”


I raised my right hand, “The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help me God.” He cracked a smile and asked why I said that. “Because they always say that on Judge Judy and she’s a Canadian so I figured it was the appropriate thing to say.” I actually got a little chuckle out of him over that.


“Is she Canadian?” He inquired.


I shrugged my shoulders, “I think so; maybe; I thought she was; I don’t really know.”  (She’s not, she’s from New York)


He pounded my citation with a big red rubber stamp, scribbled something on it, then tossed it in a small white basket to the side. “I’m not going to fine you today, but you better start paying attention to the information signs and watch your speed. The OPP will be watching it too.”  He handed back my license, “You’re free to go.”


I thanked him and walked away, wondering why Other People’s Property would be watching my speed. Then I remembered I was now in Canada. The Ontario Provincial Police would be watching my speed.


“Express lane my foot,” I grumbled walking to my car.  Excitement and anxiety made the time pass quickly, but I was detained for just under one hour.


June and I both avoided a jail stay and I learned a lesson: if you don’t know what a word means, you better find out before proceeding. I overted my car door and debuted our journey across Canada.


Leaving the entry point, I reminded June, we all have to follow the rules. “When in Rome, do as the Romans and when in Canada? Well, do as the…French?” We shared a good laugh over that.  I set the cruise control at 100 kilometers per hour. With a full tank of petro, we headed est on the 402 toward Niagara Falls.