Hello, I’m Canadian. Feel free to take my seat.

megabus man

The bus ride from New York to Toronto is long and painful. There’s just no way to make a 12-hour ride in one-seat without (functional) internet comfortable. Also, if you’re like me – and you can’t sleep on buses – then you’re stuck with 12 conscious hours during the day. So, of course, inevitably you get nauseated at some point.

Still, it’s fantastically cheap – much cheaper than a flight. So it becomes the temporary home of a community of people who would love to be anywhere else, but can’t.

There are little things you can do to make the experience better. Download movies in advance. Decide how much work you want to do, whatever your field, and download what you need the night before. Bring snacks. Space out your coffee. If you’re travelling alone, arrive early to grab a pair of seats to yourself.

If you’re taking Megabus, there’s one more trick. But it takes a sizeable upfront investment, so it’s not for most people. If you get to the stop maybe 30 or 45 minutes before the bus leaves, you can be the first on the bus.

Why is that important? Well, Megabus use these double-decker buses.

The bottom “floor” has the bathroom, the driver of course, and, unhelpfully, seats that are a little too low, such that the window starts at your neck. All in all, it’s dark and gloomy down there.

On the upper floor, a strip of glass runs down the middle of the roof letting light in. Which is a little better.

But the four best seats, by far, are right at the front. You’re immediately on top of the driver. The glass in front of you is nearly floor-to-ceiling. A big window lies to your left (or right, depending on which side of the bus you’re on). It feels like you’re flying over the road in a glass cage. (Sure you’ll be the first to die in an accident, but at least you’ll have enjoyed the ride.)

Now I’m an impatient person. I don’t like waiting in lines. So it’s usually not worth the trouble for me.

But on one rainy day this week, my girlfriend and I happen to arrive early enough to get the third spot in line to board the bus. It’s a 30-minute wait, but we share an umbrella and let our luggage and extremities soak. Two college-aged women stand in front of us – let’s call them Maggie and Annie.

Maggie and Annie board first and each snag a pair of choice seats at the front. Maggie has the pair of seats on the right side. Annie the pair on the left. We sit one row behind on the left, directly behind Annie.

The bus starts ambling its way out of Manhattan. It’s a quiet ride – the bus is maybe half empty. My girlfriend and I start debating what movie to watch (yes, I really wanted to see The Lego Movie).

I notice, peripherally, a women walk by us to check out the front of the bus. She gestures at the seat beside and ask Maggie, “is anyone sitting there?”

Maggie looks around at the half-empty bus, says no, and moves her stuff off the seat.

The woman sits down beside her and then gestures to the back of the bus. A second woman makes her way to the front. I’m not sure exactly what was said at this point, but it’s getting awkward.

Whatever words were exchanged, Maggie mutters “there’s plenty of seats on the bus” and gives up her pair. The newcomers take them and sit down, oblivious or uncaring – I’m not sure which. Maggie moves to the seats behind us, peeved. I turn around and give her a sympathetic look.

It’s funny how social compact works. A collective body of rules that somehow add up to culture.

In this case, a minor rule has been broken – don’t sit down beside someone if there are pairs of empty seats available. Especially when someone waited 40 minutes in the rain to get those seats.

In time, the newcomers beckon to a third friend in the back. She comes to the front of the bus and sits down beside Annie. The threesome talk loudly, laugh fully, and hold out their phones taking videos and pictures of the road ahead. They speak exclusively in a foreign language, but I won’t hazard a guess as to what it was.

Annie hangs on for a while, sighing, turning her body from side-to-side. Finally at the first rest stop, she gives up and re-locates too.

Immediately after, a huge bout of laughter erupts from the three newcomers. And that is how it stayed for the next 10 hours of the ride.

The same culture of rules that made it “wrong” for three women to sidle their way into choice seats, prevented any of us from saying anything about it. I mean, it’s just a seat. It’s not like they hit someone. Still, it was irritating. Particularly, because they seemed to be enjoying themselves so much.

People make fun of Canadian politeness all the time. Which I completely get (which in turn is a very Canadian thing to say, I realize).

An Israeli would never have given up her seat. An American might have told the women what they were doing was rude.

To me politeness is about respect. It’s a clear way of saying, “I don’t know you, but I respect you.” On the other hand, we all forget that our rules only make sense in our culture. And the differences between these collective sets of rules is how stereotypes get built, and, sometimes, racisms.

Was this a culture clash? Or were they just knowingly rude? Would it have been weird to ask if they knew what they were doing? Or really who cares, because, after all, it’s just a seat?

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