Before April 12th, the only thing I knew of America’s northern neighbor was the South Park song “Blame Canada” and some vague-ish stereotypical notion of folks with gosh-golly, toe-the-dirt-with-their-shoe humility. Oh, and Michael J. Fox.
What a perfect object lesson: Never judge a country by a cartoon.
Once I got over my gnawing sense of inadequacy as the only American at the first Food Bloggers of Canada conference—and as its keynote speaker, no less—I was charmed. Utterly charmed. And I don’t mean that in a provincial, patronizing, aren’t-they-cute kind of way. Everything—from the wonderful conversation at the bar of the Hockley Valley Resort while waiting for my room (who actually speaks to strangers at a bar unless they’re looking to get picked up?) to the final embraces of conference founders Mardi Michels, Melissa Hartfiel, and Ethan Adeland as I headed out the door on my way back home—was special.
So entranced was I by my brief sojourn to an outlying town near Toronto that I contemplated mounting a campaign to convince The One (Who Brings Me Love, Joy, and Happiness) to move our upcoming summer vacation from Mount Desert Island, Maine, 706 miles west to Ontario.
Certainly the enchantment could have been due to the short and intense time we had together—not unlike an incredible first date. But it wasn't just the initial chemistry that struck me. Everything about the conference worked beautifully. (Okay, so the power outage was challenging. Through it all, though, Ethan soldiered on and got me to a working outlet so I could revamp my keynote speech on my computer. Of course, the Internet was down, so it couldn’t be printed and I had to riff on some scribbled margin notes. But that’s another story for another time.)
The structure of the conference was unique, at least to me. Having everyone in the same room for the entire event gave all of us time to get to know each other, grow with each other, and share a communal experience. And that, to me, is the single most important aspect of a conference: that the attendees have a shared experience upon which to build a future, both personally and professionally. Dare I count the number of conferences I’ve gone to with friends, only to discover we had completely different experiences, leaving us zilch common ground? I dare not.
Looking beyond structure and schedules, I learned as much from my fellow bloggers as from the folks on the dais (including the fact that Canada doesn’t have a president, which I’m still not convinced is true). Breakfast, lunch, and dinner turned into quite delicious working meals, as plenty of information was lobbed back and forth over the tables. Casual time in the lobby became a chance to learn about new technologies or an old recipe. Even the ride from the resort to the airport after the conference proved insightful in many ways.
Since my return, I’ve been asked again and again what is the one thing I’ve taken away from the event. My answer is the people. Quite simply, they had me at “eh?” Their warmth, generosity, and humility made me fall—and fall hard.
So from now on I’m changing my tune from “Blame Canada” to “O Canada!”—the William Shatner version, of course.
David Leite is the author of The New Portuguese Table: Exciting Flavors from Europe’s Western Coast, which won the 2010 IACP First Book/Julia Child Award and for which he received the 2009 National Leadership Award from the Portuguese-American Leadership Council of the United States (PALCUS). Leite’s Culinaria, which David created in 1999, won the 2007 James Beard Award for Web Site Focusing on Food, Beverage, Restaurant, or Nutrition and the 2006 James Beard Award for Best Food Web Site, a 2006 Food Blog Award, the 2005 World Food Media Award for Best Food and/or Drink Web Site, and was named Best Writer’s Web Site for 2002 by Writer’s Digest. David is also podcasting these days, check it out.