Stories from our Land: Celebrating Canada’s 150

An intriguing tale of international coffee—in search of Timmies

EDITOR’S NOTE: In conjunction with Canada’s Sesquicentennial in 2017, members of the Manitoulin Writers’ Circle are crafting stories and poems to pay tribute to our country on this pivotal milestone birthday.

by Emily De Angelis

I often notice when travelling in Canada how readily available coffee is. Whether at Tim Horton’s, Starbucks, Country Style or a plethora of independently owned and operated coffee shops and cafes, Canadians love their morning coffee. The further south one travels into the southern states, coffee seems to be just another drink option and tea is always served cold. I didn’t recognize my love of coffee (it may have been the cream and sugar I truly loved) until early January 1998. In those days Tim Horton’s was the main coffee shop in Canada and had not yet made its way into the US. My husband, children and I were driving back from a holiday in Florida, two weeks of sun and sand, cold tea and scarce coffee. We encountered freezing rain in Fancy Gap, Virginia, a small community high in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Unknown to us, we were on the edge of what would later become known as the Great Ice Storm of 1998. That night almost every license plate in the parking lot of our motel was from Ontario.

The next day we drove with few breaks trying to beat the worsening weather. We stopped only for emergency pee breaks and grab-and-go meals. Coffee here and there, but not really good coffee, at least not along the main thoroughfares. As we came into the outskirts of Buffalo New York in late evening, the emergency warning lights on the side of the road were flashing telling motorists to tune into a particular radio station. The message was that a “no-drive” order would be going into effect. All drivers had to be off Buffalo area roads within the next hour or risk having their vehicles impounded. Desperate for a coffee and pee break, our goal was to make the Peace Bridge and be in Canada within the hour. With a little luck and decent map reading skills (there wasn’t any GPS back then) we managed to make it to the border with relative ease.When we got to the mid point of the bridge where both the American and Canadian flags fly indicating the actual physical border line, there was a sense of relief that we had made it home. The relief would have been more profound if not for the brutal winter wind rocking the car as we drove suspended across the black roiling waters of the Niagara River. In the distance, however, shining like a beacon in the night was a familiar sign and I excitedly blurted out, “Tim Hortons! I need a Timmy’s and bathroom!” We arrived within minutes at the Canadian border crossing. The guard was young and very official in his demeanour. We felt comfortable though, because we were more or less back in Canada.

After the usual questions about citizenship, where we had been, where we were going and whether or not we had anything to declare, he waved us through.

“Right! Turn right here!” I was determined to get my coffee.

Like any good husband, mine took the right lane up a walled ramp to the Tim Horton’s I had spied on the bridge. After using the washroom and ordering double doubles my husband asked the young woman behind the counter what the easiest way to the QEW was.

“You can’t get there from here,” she said with that typical Fort Erie quasi New York accent. “You’re in the duty free. You can only get to the bridge from here.” We exchanged glances, my husband’s miffed, mine apologetic, thanked her and left. We weren’t exactly sure what she told us meant, but going back across the bridge into the US was the last thing we wanted to do.

We followed a similar walled ramp out of the duty free area to the base of the bridge. Now most likely my discomfort about crossing the border comes from my grandmother who was very nervous when she left Canada. In her case, she was born in Canada but lost her Canadian status when she married my Italian grandfather. She had to become a Naturalized British Citizen and then in later years apply for her Canadian citizenship. She always carried her “papers” with her and was fearful of becoming person without a country. If we went back over the border so soon after coming into Canada, what kind of disciplinary action or “search” would we be opening ourselves up to. I was too nervous to drink my coffee.

Fortunately, the way back through the Canadian border crossing was accessible from the duty free so we got back in line. As luck would have it, we drove into the stall of the same young border guard we had seen minutes before.

“Country of citizenship?”

“Canada,” my husband responded. “Actually, we just came through here a few minutes ago. My wife wanted coffee from Tim Horton’s and we accidently drove into the duty free.” The young guard’s shoulders dropped and he sighed. Clearly he had heard this before.

“Do you have anything to declare,” he asked with great patience. I gingerly held up the two double doubles toward him and gave him my best fellow Canadian smile.

“Welcome back,” he said as he waved us through.

Almost 20 years later my taste in coffee has changed. I drink it with low fat cream or milk and sweetener now days. If truth be told Tim’s is no longer my favourite, preferring the dark roast yumminess of the competitor. But when I think of Canada, coffee and winter, Tim Horton’s is still the symbol of all that and more.