Hello strangers!
Hello strangers!

Every night, after Mark is tucked into bed, I take a walk in the neighbourhood. This tradition started when he was a baby and when it was Feng’s turn to parents because I needed to physically step out for a bit, drained from my futile attempts to put a drowsy but awake Mark to sleep. Now, this walk is a much-needed transition buffer between the “mommy hours” that revolve around Mark (daycare pickup, dinner, lunch box, playtime, bath) and the third and last part of my day, where I finally wind down and work on my own projects.

Hot or cold, windy or still, rain or snow, I dress for the weather and I head out in the dark. Without my bag, I feel lighter and I walk fast, lost in my thoughts—I look back at the day, mentally draft emails, and make a note to do this or that.

Our quiet neighbourhood, a residential area, is dead at night. There is very little traffic in the side streets, almost no one on the sidewalks. Once in a blue moon, a car slows down and a lost driver asks me for directions—I’m often useless because the streets are a maze of crescents and dead ends, and my advice is usually to “drive back to the main street and take it from here.”

Ottawa is a morning city and 8 p.m. or 9 p.m. is “nighttime,” not “evening”—the day is very much over for most residents. Canadians eat dinner when they come back from work, around 6 p.m. Then it’s TV time—or so I gather because in many homes, if the curtains are open, I can see bright lights flickering on the walls. I’m not a voyeur but I like catching these slices of private life spent at home. It makes me feel part of a community, of the world. We are all in this together, tired at the end of the day, wrapping up chores and relaxing.

I often cross the Tim Hortons parking lot, right in front of the Experimental Farm. This is the only business in the residential block and it’s a busy store. The cars queuing at the 24/7 drive-through mostly come from Merivale Road or Baseline Avenue, while foot traffic comes from the less affluent neighbourhood past Caldwell, a street with a very bad reputation in Ottawa (the top Google results associate it with several stabbing incidents). These few blocks North of our newer neighbourhood are a mix of older single houses, two large apartment buildings and flophouses. Both communities coexist just fine, though, this is Canada.

The Tim Hortons and its large parking lot is a gathering point. While the employee turnover rate seems high in the donut world, there is a large group of regular customers for whom I’m pretty sure the “no loitering” sign was invented—and promptly ignored. Among the regulars are several taxi drivers, a couple of cops and a group of… shall we say, “characters.” Picture a cross between Metallica roadies, Woodstock fans and Lynyrd Skynyrd band members, fifty-something dressed in biker clothing, with cowboy hats, facial hair and a “just got out of jail, remember where my drug dealer lives?” look. During summertime, they hang out in the parking lot, listening to music and barbecuing sausages. In the winter, they buy a cup of coffee and settle inside the Tim Hortons.

Like I said, characters.

Most nights, when I walk by the Tim Hortons, I’m eating a snack because I’m hungry and I eat dinner much later, at the end of the night. And most days, I opt for the perfect portable snack I can peel with my gloves on—a banana.

A few times, walking by the parking lot, I heard the group calling me and making jokes. I’ve always ignored them because, at the time of the day, I’m not quick and witty—I’m tired, cranky and I’m zoning out.

But one day, hearing the umpteenth dirty joke, I stopped and turned around.

“Dude,” I said calmly. “You wanna talk dirty? I’m French. I know every single woman-eating-a-banana innuendo you can make. We invented double-entendre.”

Against all expectations, the group burst out laughing. A friendly laugh.

We exchanged a few jokes.

The day after, we exchanged names.

Then we started commenting on the weather, Canadian for “harmless small talk.”

Turned out that despite their attitude and their bravado, they are very decent guys. They seem to care for each other and I saw them helping out other people too. Tonight, they were busy giving a stranger a hand to change a flat tire.

I never chatted for more than a minute with them but now, I offer a friendly smile and they smile back.

They never forgot my name or the fact I’m French.

And now, every night, when I walk by the Tim Hortons parking lot, I’m greeted by a loud and friendly and accented “bonsoir, Juliette.”

My friends, the outlaws.


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  1. Christiane April 4, 2016 at 1:11 pm

    awww it is weirdly sweet ! I usually shy away from talking to strangers but then again I try to be friendly.

    1. Zhu April 4, 2016 at 4:51 pm

      I was shy before moving to Canada but I’ve gotten used to talking to strangers here because people seem to enjoy harmless small talk. I go with the flow!

  2. Jeruen April 5, 2016 at 1:07 am

    This reminds me of the punk groups that often hang around train stations here in Germany. They’re often large groups, with alcohol, cigarettes, and a dog, wearing black outfits and crazy hairstyles. As an outsider, sometimes I don’t get why these folks just waste their time all day hanging out in public, but yes, sometimes as you say, they are decent people too.

    1. Zhu April 5, 2016 at 7:07 pm

      Oh yeah, we have the same “punks à chien” in France too. These folks a different, though, they are older and they have jobs, they aren’t panhandling.

      1. Martin Penwald April 5, 2016 at 8:37 pm

        I have trouble to find the correct planche in the Boulet’s archives, but he pointed that in your life, you are more often annoyed by people in suits (bankers, fisc, administrasive, etc) than by this kind of guys.

        1. Zhu April 6, 2016 at 6:59 pm

          😆 This is so true!

  3. Chiruza Canadiense April 6, 2016 at 5:35 pm

    Awwww….such a cute story ! 🙂

    1. Zhu April 6, 2016 at 6:59 pm

      So, are you ready for the big trip? 🙂

      1. Chiruza Canadiense April 8, 2016 at 5:08 pm

        On it ! Dentist…checked. Haircut….checked. Preparing the luggage….on it. Quitting my job….checked. Next week I’m closing my bank accounts, and that’s it.

        I’m already working from Buenos Aires on getting an apartment (like, a permanente one for the first year)….I already picked a building, just gotta find the right apartment in it. I’m staying downtown Montréal, the building even has a 24/7 Tim Hortons underneath, so when I saw that I realised it’s definitely the right place for me. xD

        1. Zhu April 8, 2016 at 7:20 pm

          😆 In all fairness, anywhere you go in Canada, you’re never far from a Timmies!

          Glad to see your drea is about to come true very soon. Welcome! (I know I must have bienvenue-d you many times before, but eh… :lol:)

  4. Gagan April 11, 2016 at 11:40 am

    Amazing story Juliette!

    There’s a homeless guy, who I mostly see sitting outside this independent store, and he asks for change to some people passing by, and then he starts swearing at them, most people just ignore. This one time this guy stopped with a look of bewilderment on his face, then the homeless guy started smiling and went to the confused guy and started apologizing excessively. I was on the other side of the road, I think he’s quite a Character.

    1. Zhu April 11, 2016 at 4:46 pm

      Oh, I think I saw him! I think he is mostly trying to get people to notice him (and he may have mental issues as well…) but I think he is pretty harmless.


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