Canada,  USA

one of its kind – the oddity at the USA – Canada border

When travelling across European Union, North Americans can experience many situations which they are normally not familiar with when living in the US or Canada; one of those refers to the borders. My US clients often say that when in continental Europe, they cannot even speed up and they are already in a different country. Yes, that’s true for Europe, everything is much smaller here, including sovereign states, not only the EU members, of course. The biggest country of the European Union is France, which is still smaller than Texas, the biggest in contagious USA and if France would be part of Canada, it would be only 7th in size. Poland, my home country, which is the 6th biggest country of the EU is slightly smaller than New Mexico, which would interestingly make it also the 6th US state in size right before Arizona.

Where are countries, there are their perimeters, naturally. And the more complex history, the more convoluted they are. The most famous example is Belgium – Netherlands border in Baarle with Belgian exclaves and Dutch counter-exclaves, 30 of those altogether. Dating back to the medieval treaties and land-swaps between the owners of this territories it did not seem important pre-passport times. There was one culture and one language, after all, so the only difference was government responsible for collecting taxes. The integration within the Benelux made the situation much simpler and for the sake of tourists the border has been marked on all streets running through houses, shops, and cafes. Imagine how complicated it was during Covid, when Belgium and the Netherlands had different laws on staying inside or going out.  

Border shared by Canada and the United States, apart from being the longest (8891 kilometres/5525 miles) is the most straight in the world; at least in theory, between the Pacific Ocean and the Great Lakes it should follow 49th parallel, but when it was marked out at the beginning of the 19th century, the surveyors relied on their own mathematical knowledge, not technology, so the difference happen to be several metres/feet both ways depending on the area. It seems like the most boring one, too, especially when compared to the one USA shares with their southern neighbour, Mexico. It still does have some oddities, though. Instead of the wall, it is a 20 feet (6 metres) wide empty space carved along the whole way (apart from the New England/Quebec part predating the border treaties). Over there it is, for example, the Canusa street, I suppose you can guess the origin of the name, which is treated as a border having the US houses on its southern side and the Canadian on the northern. Imagine driving there! It is crazy indeed, I’m speaking from personal experience. The yellow middle line is in fact an international border, and every time you cross it, you are technically in the other country.

By the way, entering the US by car from Canada was a bit traumatic. Apparently, there was a new document needed when travelling by a rented Canadian car and our British passports were taken by not so pleasant immigration officer who told us to go to an enclosed area where, at least this time, a nice person explained everything to us and told how to fill the new forms. On the other hand, crossing the border the other way was a totally different case. We also missed some documents, this time Covid related and since we left Canada for a few days we needed all of them to be uploaded to the system for the second time. The immigration officer told us to stop our car “somewhere there” and come back to the office where they will make sure that everything will be in order. They offered us Wi-Fi access and we spent relaxed half an hour chatting with everyone and telling stories about us, Polish, but also British living in London.

A plaque commemorating a centennary of the Boundary Waters Treaty
The US border terminal seen from the Canadian side of Niagara Falls.
entering Canada, it is definitely true what they say about Canadian kindness

Somewhere close to the eastern end of this road there is a small village in Vermont confined between the Interstate 91 and US Route 5. It’s called Derby Line and is known for one very particular structure – The Haskell Free Library and Opera House. Or maybe I should say it is the Canadian town of Stanstead being home to that edifice? Let’s stick to the first version; it was the Vermont, therefore the US, Haskell family which gifted this building to the local community on both sides of the border. Yes, both sides, because according to Wikipedia, and the locals, it is the only heritage construction (and it is recognised as a historic site by two nations, probably the only one in the world) deliberately built to straddle the international border.

The Haskell Free Library and Opera House was founded in 1901 and it was opened in 1904. The name comes from Martha Haskell and her son Horace who sponsored it in memory of their family members. They wanted both nations to have equal access to its resources, that’s why they chose the location. Martha was Canadian, her husband, Horace’s father, a US citizen. The name also indicates one more unusual thing about this place – it is both the library and the opera. What is interesting, the library collection, as well as opera seats are in Canada, but the stage and the building entrance are in the US. There is no need to report to Customs, though, as long as visitor have passport of one of the neighbouring countries and only use an assigned route on the sidewalk. Obviously, it is not possible for people like me, so I had to officially cross the border in a designated point few miles to the East. I visited this place as soon as majority of Covid restrictions were lifted; majority, but not all, unfortunately, and the local checkpoint was open to the local residents only.

Omnipresent billingual signs remind you that no matter how it looks like, it is still the international border

The black line inside the building marks the border and because Quebec is a French speaking area, the library has both French and English books which are co-filed on the same shelves. It is not confusing at all, however. The US books have their titles written from the top of the book spine, and the French do it the opposite way.

We did not expect such a place can exist in this part of the world. That is why it was on my must-visit list if I would ever be somewhere nearby. As it happened, both my husband and I, are huge fans of Schitt’s Creek, a Canadian tv-series, and because we almost share birthdays, this trip to see the set locations was our gift to each other. We also spent some time with my close friend in North Tonawanda, NY (kind of a person who drops everything and gets into her car to help you after a road accident few hours away and whom I wasn’t able to visit for many years) and decided on a round road trip from Toronto, via Niagara Falls, Acadia National Park, Montreal and back to Toronto. I simply couldn’t miss this opportunity and have a relatively short detour. Was it worth? A road trip always is!

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