I used to work in a foreign exchange. Now this in itself is a little bit funny, given my relationship to math and numbers in general, but it was a good job: a job that forced me to practice my math skills and make friends with numbers. It also allowed me to gain some self-confidence and to learn a lot about people.
But the best part about this job was my coworkers and their sense of humour. I was fortunate enough to work with a few quirky and interesting individuals who made the jaw-dropping amazingness that were our customers, that much more enjoyable. Now, we did do the regular wire and draft type exchanges, but our bread and butter were the tourists.
I could write a whole book of anecdotes from this one job, because there’s something about tourists in a new country that makes for hilarity. Now, I live in a pretty touristy little town; it’s known as one of the best Island destinations, according to our tourism website. Because of this, the summer sees our little downtown waterfront district, the gardens, the castle and our Chinatown, full of tourists from all over the world, from as far away as Japan and New Zealand to as close as Washington State via ferry.
Now, Victoria is a beautiful city, known for its hanging baskets, totem poles, beautiful views, gardens, and the fact that Royal Roads University was used as Xavier’s school for the Gifted in the X-Men movies. So naturally, being a stop early on in many tourist’s tourist-ing, we would get a lot of questions about what was the best place to start, what was a must see and where to eat. We were happy to oblige, all being minor foodies (it’s hard not to be in a city that has an average of three eating establishments per block, be it café, coffee shop, restaurant or pub.)
Of course we also got a lot of strange and just downright peculiar questions. Things like “Where can we get an authentic Canadian meal?” and “Is that the Pacific Ocean?” as the girl was pointing to the harbour. The latter we can answer “yes” though it’s not technically the truth; the waters of our harbour are technically Pacific, but we’re not on the ocean side, rather the Salish Sea/Strait of Juan de Fuca side of the island. But without expressed interest that kind of information tends to make tourist eyes glaze over. The former, on the other hand was a bit more tricky.
What is an authentic Canadian meal? Better yet, what one place would provide purely Canadian foods? You see Canada, being a country of immigrants has several nationalities, if not hundreds, adding their own traditional foods to the mix of regional ingredients and dishes created by the First Nations and unless you were talking about eating muktuk and pemmican, our ‘authentic’ foods have a bit of flavour from other countries. So we’d send them to the bakery up the street that sold butter tarts and Nanaimo bars, the little restaurant a few blocks over that specialised in poutine or to a little shop that sold smoked and candied salmon.
But the best questions stick out in my memory like shiny hat pins. For instance:
“Where can I buy totem pole seeds?” I love this one because the woman was obviously very serious about her request. She was short and had white hair and her poor husband was obviously in the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s as he just stood there the entire time and stared at the rates screen. We tried very hard to contain our giggles (which was a feat not made easy by the sputtering laughter in the back room) and ask a few more questions to determine what it was she was really asking for.
“You mean the flower baskets?” I asked, pointing out the window to the prolific fall of flowers hanging off the light post.
She shakes her head and says “No, the totem poles, like out in front of the museum with the creatures on them,” she says succinctly as though she were speaking to a mentally challenged person. At this point I’m sure that one of my eyebrows had climbed all the way to my hairline and I answered as solemnly as I could:
“I’m not sure where you can buy the seeds for those, perhaps Butchart Gardens gift shop?” At that she nods enthusiastically and yanks her husband out the door.
And then there was the loud lady who asked “Where is the tunnel to Vancouver?” This woman was stereotypically New York with the Fran Drescher voice, big hair and bigger jewellery and her husband had the unbuttoned shirt and gold chain to match. Problem being, there IS no tunnel to Vancouver. Never has been and so far as I know the only plans that have ever been posited in terms of connecting the island to the mainland has been in the form of a ridiculous bridge. However, there are ferries.
“You mean the Ferry Terminal?” I suggested hopefully.
“No, the tunnel!”
“I’m sorry,” says The Lady J concisely. “But I’m afraid there isn’t a tunnel to the mainland. You will be wanting the ferry.”
“I want the tunnel; we went through the tunnel the last time we were here!”
Her insistence was enough to make Lady J and I look at each other with a look that said ‘is there a tunnel to Vancouver that we don’t know about? How is that even possible?’
“Well,” Lady J says, but the woman cuts in.
“I remember it was a bit of a ways out of the city, but it was a tunnel, we went down into the dark,” she said.
“Oh!” I said as though I remembered. “Of course! You will want to take the Pat Bay Highway,” and I gave her directions to the ferry terminal. If she had not got off a tour bus it could very much look like a tunnel upon entering as you do go down into the dark interior of the ferry. Our ferries are some of the largest ones in the world so the experience just might be tunnel-like.
And then, of course, there are the currency-related questions. Most of them are good honest questions that people ask because they don’t know and we enjoyed answering those – like what kind of currency do they use in the Guyana or how much does it cost to buy a Euro right now. But now and then you get a couple of weird ones.
One day I had a man come in and ask for Colombian Pesos. This was not odd, lots of people go to South America and so I told him the rate. He pulled out some US Dollars so I had to explain to him patiently that we were in Canada and I needed to change the US to Canadian then to the Pesos both for reasons of legality and system limitations. He fussed a bit and then told me to go ahead. The next morning he comes back fuming mad.
“What the hell are you getting at? I can’t use these here! I demand that you give me my money back!”
Turns out that even though I had explained to him that we were in Canada, the poor man had assumed he needed Colombian pesos because we were also in British Columbia. I think I should have written a note to Santa that the man needed an Atlas.
And one more that sticks out in my mind was the gentleman who wanted to change Disney Dollars into Canadian funds. I have never seen someone get so red-faced and hopping mad when I told him that Disney Dollars were not legal currency.
“Yes they are! You buy them at Disneyland and they spend just like US dollars!”
Funny how he shut up when I asked him why he didn’t spend them in his grocery store back home if they were legal currency.
When we had the Music Fiend start working with us, she didn’t believe The Lady J and I that tourists were as funny as we claimed. In fact there were several scenarios that kept repeating themselves. I wrote this the first week after she started:
This one lady comes in earlier today and she has this very puzzled expression on her face. She puts her purse up on the counter and leans close to the glass and says to The Music Fiend:
“Oh no!” says TMF. “What can I do to help?”
“Well, I put my bank card in the ATM and asked for some money and I don’t know what happened!”
“Oh no! Did it give you a receipt or anything?” TMF asks, thinking that perhaps the machine had rejected the card.
“Yes!” says the woman and pulls out her wallet. She pulls out a slip of paper and then several twenties. “Yes and it gave me these too, but these aren’t American at all!”
“Oh,” says TMF as she takes the paper and the twenties in through the slot. “This is easy to explain. You see, the machine gave you Canadian money.’
“But I asked for sixty American!”
“Well, you typed in 60 probably, right?”
“The machine gave you 60 dollars. All it has in it is Canadian you see.” There’s a pause and I can see the woman thinking about this. It’s obvious she had never thought of the machine having anything in it before. It makes me wonder what people think about how they work. If I had asked her before this experience would she have even thought about the actual physical existence of the machine, the physical reality of the money inside it?
“But it took out 60 American from my account!” the woman says, a slightly hysterical look in her eye as she points to the receipt.
“Don’t worry,” says TMF, your bank does the conversion for you; you only withdrew 60 Canadian worth.”
“Are you sure?” she asks suspiciously.
“Positive,” says TMF in her firmest voice. Again there’s a pause, but after a second there’s a visible slump of relief in her shoulders.
“Ok, so what do I do with this?” she asks, gesturing at the three queens in TMF’s hand.
“How long are you in town?” TMF asks.
“Three days,” the woman replies and TMF smiles.
“You’ll need this then,” she says and slides it back to the woman.
“But aren’t all the prices in American?” she asks, the edge of hysteria creeping back onto her face.
“Actually, they’re in Canadian. You are in Canada here after all,” TMF explains.
“Yes, that’s why the machine gave you Canadian money.”
“Oh,” she says and stares at the green money for a moment before stepping away. “This is so new for me,” she says and leaves the store. TMF turns to me and opens her mouth, but nothing comes out.
“It happens when they come over on the ferry from Anacortes,” I say before she can ask. I don’t know how this is true, but even though they drive off the ferry and through a customs terminal it doesn’t seem to twig that they’ve left their own country and entered a new one.
Of course we got our fair share of crazy people and a couple of downright insane ones (I actually had to call the cops once) but for the most part our customers were very nice. I especially liked when we would get a busload of Japanese tourists. Even though their English wasn’t always great they understood the numbers, so you could write down the rate and conversion and they would all talk amongst themselves and then every customer after that would have a penny, or two to give you so that you could give them bills instead of change. It got to the point that I could tell Aussies from Kiwi’s by their dress and manner, as well as accent, and just which coast an American was from.
But one thing I learned is this: If you are going to be a tourist anywhere, you should probably read a little about it first!
listening to: Groove Armada – My Friend
Drinking: Pomegranate Juice
Reading: Elizabeth George – Payment in Blood
Words: 4045 (2000 here, 2045 novel)