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Ditching the ugly American

June 12, 2008|Jay Smith | Special to The Times

The summer I was 21 and my sister was 20, we hitchhiked through Quebec. Striking sisterly poses by the side of the highway, we oozed naivete. We wore short shorts. We smiled. People stopping for us assumed hitchhiking "these days" was hard, but we found the opposite to be true: It was too easy. Successfully fending off the advances we received, however, was not. We needed a particularly brutish encounter to teach us when to respect social etiquette and when to throw it out the window.

In Quebec City, we stayed at Laval University, which rented out its residences during the summer. Like the others staying there, we spent our time and money at the pragmatically christened "Le Pub," which served up mean poutine.

Now, my sister and I aren't twins, but we share a resemblance: the same height, slight physique and auburn hair. People who don't know us well, or have bad eyesight, regularly confuse us for each other.

One afternoon, I stayed in our room to nap and my sister went out. When she was still gone after I awoke, I decided to find her, figuring she was probably at Le Pub. She wasn't there, either, so I bought a coffee and sat down to wait. My solitude was short-lived.

"So have you thought about where we should go tonight?" asked a strange man, plopping down at my table.

"I'm sorry?"

He repeated himself.

"I think you might have made a mistake."

He insisted he had not. We teetered on the edge of cliched roles: The polite Canadian apologizing; the brash American insisting. Meanwhile, he rambled on about sports, how Quebecers should speak English, how nothing in Canada compared to New York City.

I was annoyed. It wasn't just his unkempt appearance that revolted me, but his whole demeanor. Every arrogant movement, every Jersey-accented word, projected his certainty he was sexual desire incarnate. I finally simply got up and left. "See you tonight!" he bleated. "I'll pick you up at 7!"

Back in our room, I found my sister. She shrieked to see me. "You'll never believe! I've got a date with the worst man you could imagine!"

With dull horror, we realized we'd met the same man.

Our friend was punctual. For this hot date, he hadn't bothered to change his clothes. He was wearing an awful ball cap, terrible tee stretched tight over his big belly and grimy bermuda shorts.

"I'm here!" he announced between bites of a candy bar.

Then he saw my sister. Stunned, he looked from me to her. A flush spread over his face: He had hit the jackpot of sexual fantasies. The identical sisters! Barely concealing his enthusiasm, he scurried us to Le Pub, explaining that it was cheap and, moreover, close to our rooms.

"What beer do you girls drink?" he asked.

I named a Quebecois brew.

"Ugh," he grunted. "I like Molson. Tastes like Bud." He ordered a pitcher in his brutish French, simple English spoken loud: "ONE MOLSON'S, OK?"

The waitress politely complied. While sipping our beer, we intended to mirror his self-absorption, but we were outclassed. He monologued with determination, oblivious to attempted interjections.

We finished the pitcher of beer, and he leapt, sprouting generosity from his greasy pores, to buy another.

My sister and I exchanged glances. We bolted, wordlessly, guiltlessly: Politeness be damned; we were getting out of this the only way we could.

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