Growing up in one small country and living in another that is smaller, comprehending the vastness of others is not easy.
Visiting Canada for the first time in 1998, a Sears catalogue came in our host’s morning mail. Growing up in the immensity of the prairie province of Manitoba, she recalled the excitement the arrival of the catalogue had brought to her home in her younger years. ‘When you live miles and miles from a big store; it was the only place where you would see new and interesting stuff’.
An avid viewer of CBC programmes, no evening would pass without her watching ‘The National’, the evening news broadcast. It was ‘The National’ that was baffling. It was screened twice each evening, but even with a second screening two hours later than the first, it must have been eleven o’clock or so in the Maritime Provinces before those in Vancouver were seeing the early evening news. How did one create a national sense of community across such huge distances?
Driving across British Columbia that year, crossing from the Pacific to the Mountain Time zone, and then crossing into Alberta where cars queued at filling stations to buy fuel much cheaper across the Provincial boundary, there was a sense not of division, but of the unity across the miles.
Driving the west coast of the United States last year, crossing from California, a state that if it were a country would be in the top ten economies in the world, into Oregon, it would have been easy to have assumed that an international boundary was being crossed. On the carriageway south into California, there was a customs station, presumably necessitated by California’s higher taxes on goods. Yet no-one would have suggested that the states were anything but united. Even a ranger in a park deep in Oregon, a retired naval man who declared himself a man of conservative views, had no problem with California, it was San Francisco he did not like, and wondered why anyone from a country like Ireland would have gone there.
Steve Goodman’s song ‘City of New Orleans’ always intrigued. The refrain begins, ‘Good morning America how are you?’ One could not realistically bid America ‘good morning’ unless those on the west coast rose exceedingly early, and the Alaskans and Hawaiians accepted it was morning before they had gone to bed. The song tells of a north-south journey, from Chicago down to New Orleans, by its conclusion, it is asking, ‘Good night, America, how are you?’ Those Hawaiians would still only be having lunch, but it is not about geography, it is about an attitude, a state of mind.
Watching the BBC World News as it reported on last night’s debate between President Obama and Governor Romney, the American coverage of people’s reactions featured in the report was from the news programme, ‘Good Morning, America’. Whatever the geographical facts, it is one country.
Some people can occupy a continental vastness and live as one country; others can live on a small island and behave as those a hundred miles away did not exist.