Alaska and the Yukon, the two places are intertwined in history and location. Visit one and you will likely find it hard to resist visiting the other. A shared history of the Klondike gold rush, of wild, adventurous folk pioneering the last frontier of North America, of traditional peoples linked through trade and culture back to a time when the modern borders of the USA and Canada had no meaning.
It is easy for the absent-minded traveller to forget which country they are visiting—are you in the USA or Canada?
Until you try to buy something.
Order a pizza, a beer, try to buy a carton of milk in Alaska and you will be greeted by a friendly waiter, bar tender or sales clerk. They will happily smile and make polite conversation. Their infectious grin will make you oh-so-glad you decided to buy that carton of milk this morning.
This was new to us, the customer service at home in New Zealand is hit and miss at best—alternating between friendly greetings at the dairy and people at the pie shop who would clearly prefer a trip to the dentist to serving you.
In Alaska, we were constantly amazed with how even the checkout operators at big chain supermarkets seemed determined to ensure that you had the most super-fantastic-sunshine-filled day when you were buying your tomatoes.
Feeling a bit low? Go order a burger, the smiling server will make you feel so great about parting with your money, you may even stretch to dessert.
We sat at a drive-in burger joint in Alaska, watching the waitress make friends with everyone at the tables. Talking and laughing affably with each customer, making them feel like they were the only ones ordering a burger and fries that day. A little old man slipped on the wet decking—the nearby army recruits had helped him up and in to a comfortable seat. The waitress rushed straight over to him with a look of concern, offering him a hug and having a laugh with him to ease his shattered nerves.
So many times in Alaska we would buy something somewhere and find ourselves so delighted with the thoughtful and friendly service that we couldn’t resist a return visit the next day. Damn you Alaska for being so cunning, no wonder we spent so much on coffee and beer! Cunning, polite scumbags.
The Yukon, on the other hand is a bit more like New Zealand—but stroppier. Sometimes your coffee is served with a smile, sometimes just open hostility with a side of death-stare.
Our first true encounter with Canadian retail hospitality was when we made the mistake of trying to buy groceries. The checkout operator was deeply offended that we had chosen to disrupt her day by queuing up at her counter. She was, after all, enjoying a hot cup of coffee. We politely waited while she sipped on her hot latte and counted in her head how many more hours of this torment she would have to suffer through.
Finding ourselves once again in need of tyre repair we pulled up to a building that read in bold letters down the side: ‘Tire Repair’.
Strangely, the last thing the attendant wanted to do this particular day was fix a tyre. He reluctantly agreed that we could leave the tyre and come back in a couple of hours. Upon returning his frustration only increased. We had come to collect it? Really?
Fine, “pay at the diner”, he rolled his eyes with disdain that we hadn’t figured out that when we returned to pick up the tyre that the obvious place to go was the diner next door. The reception from the waitress was equally welcoming although she reluctantly took our money and we left with a repaired tyre, deciding to give the sandwiches a miss.
The woman behind the counter at the general store seemed nice enough as she served the locals in front of us, but as we got to the front of the queue she was clearly in no mood for foreigners. Our “good mornings” were greeted with a seething silence as potatoes were lobbed into the bag with the kind of angry force we can only assume she usually reserved for the throwing of bricks through the windows of people who had crossed her.
We meekly shuffled out the door with our bag of mangled groceries, just grateful that she had deemed us worthy of serving at all.
Later that same day we found ourselves at the end of a mildly disinterested scowl from the owner of an RV park. The minutes of silence ticked by as he assessed the situation. Staring us up and down with distaste as he decided whether we were the kinds of customers he wanted in his nearly empty RV park. Fortunately—we made the cut, we backed out the door spouting grateful thank-yous, receipt in hand, hoping he wouldn’t find a reason change his mind and send us on our way, with cash still sitting in our pockets unspent.
We were pleased to find out later on, when talking to an Aussie couple who had stayed there as well, that the RV park owner disliked everyone equally. He wasn’t just frustrated by homeless people in tents. He also wished misery upon people showing up in genuine RVs, or maybe it was just us folk from the Southern Hemisphere that got his back up?
Canada, it sort of feels like home, but we sure miss the retail charms of the USA.
…although maybe our budget doesn’t.
Disclaimer: Although Yukon retail service may be of a similarly low standard to back home, we loved our time there, met plenty of great folk (some of whom even worked in customer service roles!) we saw some pretty stunning scenery—and really hope to head back there one day!