Whenever I have to cross of these gigantic North American parking lots, I slow down. First, I have to be careful because drivers check for other cars when backing out but they tend to forget there are pedestrians navigating the lot as well.
But mostly, I slow down because I like to look at cars.
I don’t care about makes or models—they are all the same to me—but I love the way drivers customize their ride.
So I’m car watching the same way I would be people watching if I was sitting at the terrace of a busy café somewhere in Europe. Instead of checking out people’s shoes, I look at bumpers and plates.
In North America, cars become part of people’s identity and some drivers like to make a statement, much like French love to hang geraniums in pots on the banister of their one-foot-wide balconies. After all, you can do everything in your car: go to work, eat, and yes, have sex. Or so I’ve heard anyway. I mean, I wouldn’t eat in a car.
One of the first things I noted when I moved to Canada were the licence plates. In France, they show a boring series of number and letters, the last two numbers being the numéro de département. In Canada, each province/territory issue plates that bore a slogan and unique design. For instance, in Ontario, plates are blue on reflective white with screened crown separator and say “Yours to Discover”. In Ottawa, we often see vehicles from “Je me souviens” Quebec, “Friendly” Manitoba, New York State, Florida or Maine, but I always find it interesting to spot “rare” plates like PEI or the very cool bear-shaped design from the Northwest Territories.
Instead of the traditional sequential alphanumeric combinations, some drivers pay extra for “vanity plates” personalized with a custom serial. The result can be puzzling or funny: yesterday I saw “LAWPROF”, I also remember “TAX FREE” and “BECOOL”. Licence plates also give insight into the professional background of the owner: a red one is a diplomatic car (common in Ottawa, very often badly parked), they are plates for war veterans, armed forces, senators, members of parliament, etc.
Plates are often mounted by the dealerships, in which case they have their address or some kind of ad on the frame, so you can tell that such or such car has a license plate from Ontario but it’s not from Ottawa as the dealership is on one of Toronto’s main highways—the devil is in the detail.
Bumper stickers are also very popular and are part of the driver’s identity, like this Tea Party member in the US or this hippie driver. There is an entire stickers and symbols subculture that took me years to decipher. Start with the easy. The most common stickers are the ubiquitous “stick family” members on the back window, each character symbolizing a family member and their role or passion (daddy with computer, mommy with a book, etc.). There are variants on the theme, such as the “zombie family”, “robot family”, etc. The trend even sparked a backlash.
Then you have the fish that some Christians sport at the back of the car, while secular individuals may opt for the Darwin fish. Magnetic awareness or support ribbons are also popular, often with the “support our troops” message but also in support of various conditions or targeted individuals.
A look at the bumper is enough for a basic personality study. There is a guy in Ottawa who drives around in a red car covered in Sens stickers. Maple Leaf fans can also be spotted, there is a blue leaf on their licence plates. There are the religious zealots who display ugly and often graphic “abortion is murder” messages, the travelers who have “Mile 0” decals along with road trip souvenir stickers, and let’s not forget the outdoorsy folks who drive around with a canoe mounted on their vehicle (do you really need to take your canoe to go grocery shopping?).
The driver’s cultural background can also show through small details. Asians, for instance, often have the 福 character hanging on the rear-view mirror, or other red ornaments. Believers can have hanging lockets with Surahs, prayer beads, medals of saints, plastic Jesus, crucifix, crosses…
As for our car, well, other than for Mark’s mess, it’s very ordinary. We only have a small dolphin hanging from the rearview mirror, and I don’t even remember how it got here!