On being … an island custom worth adopting

By Ingrid Sapona

Waving is one of the first things we learn. It seems such a little thing and yet, from a developmental point of view, apparently it’s quite an important thing. I’ve always found observing a baby transition through the wave learning steps particularly sweet. The early attempts almost always involve a kind of backward wave, as babies hold up their teeny little palm facing themselves – rather than toward the person the wave is intended for. At some point something clicks and they miraculously begin waving with their palm facing out.  

And then, in kindergarten or first grade or so, kids start feeling comfortable waving hello to strangers. For kids on a school bus – especially if they’re on a field trip – waving at cars in hopes folks will wave back is practically a game. I never know whether the game’s about them seeing me, or me seeing them. Regardless, my natural inclination (and I suspect that of most adults) is to smile and wave back.  

Sadly, at some point, we pretty much stop spontaneously waving at strangers.

Last weekend I took a day trip to Pelee Island, the southern-most part of Canada. The island, which sits in Lake Erie about half way between Ontario and Ohio, is about 16 square miles. About 150 people live there year-around and about 1500 in the summer. I went there mainly to check out a winery on the island.

To get to the island you take a ferry. The ride takes about 90 minutes from the Ontario mainland. The day I visited there was one ferry in the morning and one leaving the island late in the afternoon. Though the ferry is big enough to accommodate cars, I was told the winery was not too far from where the ferry lands. And, in terms of exploring the island after visiting the winery, I decided I’d rent a bike on the island for a few hours, because it was cheaper than bringing the car on the ferry.

When I got off the ferry I was surprised I didn’t see a sign pointing in the direction of the winery. Given that my time was pretty limited, rather than risk getting lost, I decided to ask someone for directions.  I saw a gentleman sitting in the ferry dock parking lot in a golf cart and so I asked him. He pointed in one direction and said the winery was about a third of a mile. I thanked him but before I could head off, he said he was just waiting to pick up the daily newspaper that was brought over on the ferry and if I could wait a couple minutes, he’d give me a lift to the winery. Though I don’t usually ride with strangers, I figured a senior in a golf cart wasn’t too dangerous, so I said, “Sure, thanks!”

As we made our way down the road, I chatted with Bob (not his real name). Turns out he spends summers on the island and has done so for 20 years. As we were chatting, a car headed up the road toward us. When we got close, Bob waved and the other driver waved back. After we passed the car, Bob said to me, “Everyone on this island waves.” Frankly, I didn’t think the waving required an explanation – I figured they knew each other, given how much time Bob’s spent there.

Later that afternoon, as I was biking around, the driver of a car that was headed toward me waved. I didn’t think anything of it and I waved back. Then a car came up from behind and passed me and – as he did – the driver waved. A few minutes later, another car passed me and sure enough, up – out of the window – came a wave.

Every time it happened, I thought about Bob’s seemingly off-hand comment. By the time I was ready to return the bike, over a dozen cars passed me and nearly every time, someone in the car waved. It was such a standard occurrence, I suspect the three who didn’t wave were tourists – not locals!

When I dropped off the bike, I asked the two twenty-something girls behind the desk what was up with the waving? They giggled and one of them said, “Yeah – it’s kind of an unwritten law around here. Everyone waves. When I go back to school in Windsor after spending the summer here, it takes me a couple weeks to stop doing that.”

On the ferry ride back, I couldn’t help but think about the waving and about how quirky it seemed. Since I’ve been back, I’ve told the story to a few friends. Their reactions are similar, admitting that a friendly wave of acknowledgment between strangers is pretty unusual, and yet, kind of delightful.

I’m sure your parents were thrilled when you learned to wave. And, as a kid, I’ll bet you waved to passing strangers in hopes they’d notice and wave back. And yet, at some point – like many adults – you probably stopped acknowledging strangers with a wave. But you know what? There’s no reason you can’t take it up again – just ask the folks on Pelee Island. I say give it a try, I think you’ll be surprised at how nice it feels to recognize – and be recognized by – strangers.

© 2013 Ingrid Sapona


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