Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Why New Mexicans put us to shame

Nothing like southwestern hospitality

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At the risk of offending everyone on this side of the border, I'm starting to think Americans are much friendlier than Canadians.

My wife and I have just returned from a trip to southern New Mexico, where I got a sunburn while Christmas shopping.

We also got to meet a lot of Americans and they were all incredibly welcoming, especially when they learned we are from Winnipeg. And when I say "all" I mean everyone we encountered was happy to meet us, with the exception of a young U.S. Customs agent who grilled me moments after my wife and I cleared airport security in Winnipeg.

It was the first time I had shown my new passport to anyone, so I was feeling a tad nervous, partly because I didn't want to be mistaken for an international terrorist and partly because I felt confident my underwear was older than the scowling kid behind the Customs desk.

I was doing my best to be polite when the kid threw me a curveball.

"Is this your bag?" he asked, pointing at a screen displaying the bottom of a suitcase.

I began to sweat profusely, because, at the best of times, I am the sort of traveller that cannot tell one suitcase from another and -- prepare to be shocked -- I have never studied the bottom of my own suitcase because I didn't know there would be a test.

I tried to smile. "I don't know," I told the kid, "I've never really looked at the bottom of my suitcase before."

It was obvious he was not amused, so I tried to defuse the situation. "I'll bet my wife would know!" I blurted.

This only made matters worse. The young guy glared at me the way you'd glare at a naked person wandering down the frozen food aisle wielding a machete.

"You're travelling with your WIFE?" he snorted in shock. "Then you should be going through this line TOGETHER!"

In the end, my wife trotted over and, in a soothing voice, said, yes, it was definitely my suitcase and then beamed at the youthful agent, who, against his better judgment, agreed to let us enter the United States.

From that point on, however, it was smooth sailing. No matter where we went in New Mexico, people could not be more delighted to meet us and serve us margaritas.

We'd be wandering around stores in the tiny adobe-intensive village of Mesilla, where Billy the Kid was sentenced to hang, listening to Bing Crosby croon White Christmas while simultaneously sweating like Butterball turkeys because the sun was beating down like a blast furnace, browsing an endless variety of skeleton-related tourist knick-knacks in honour of the Day of the Dead holiday, when, suddenly, someone would take note of our accents and realize we were Canadian.

"Can I help, y'all?" they would say using the plural second-person pronoun that is ubiquitous in the southern United States. "It's just so nice of y'all to come down here and visit us. Would y'all like a glass of sweet tea?"

It was the same story at restaurants and bars where the servers would bring heaping platters of huevos rancheros or chicken-fried steak and ask the question required by law throughout New Mexico: "Do y'all want red or green chilies on that or do y'all want Christmas?"

"Christmas" means you want both.

The point is, we got used to everyone being polite and happy to see us, even though it was so hot that birds would sometimes burst in flames, while in the background Burl Ives told us to have a Holly Jolly Christmas.

Fortunately, when we returned to Winnipeg, we were jolted back into the true spirit of Christmas before we even stepped outside. There I was, wearily standing beside the baggage carousel, praying I'd recognize our suitcases, when a middle-aged Canadian woman to my left spotted her bag whirling past.

Unwilling to wait for her luggage to make a round trip, the woman launched herself at the carousel like a guided missile, hammering me out of the way with a perfectly placed elbow that would have made hockey legend Gordie Howe green with envy.

"You shouldn't have been in the way, eh!" she snarled.

As she and her bag beat a hasty retreat, I decided to play nice like our American friends

"Hey," I politely yelled after her, "Have a Merry Christmas... y'all!"

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 13, 2012 A2

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