Doing the BORF: The new world of vacationing Torontonians meeting Americans

I recently went on a vacation cruise to the western Caribbean as the itinerary included Honduras, Guatemala, Belize and Grand Cayman – four places I had never visited and wanted to experience.

Truth in advertising: this was a luxury cruise with a high concentration of prosperous looking white people and a preponderance of Americans. But I had no idea that I was going to BORF so I started to keep notes on the experience.

The qualifications for a BORF  are unique to people who travel from Toronto to another location outside of Canada and who have the chance of running into Americans. A cruise in this sense is ideal.

I should also say from the outset that I had no idea I was going to BORF and I can freely tell you that I have never BORFed before. I certainly had no idea that I would BORF eight times.

My first experience was on the back deck of the ship enjoying the sunset. A tall gentleman from North Carolina joined us on a large couch as there were no other seats available. After a brief exchange, he began by asking the secret question that initializes the BORF.

He asked: “Where are you folks from?”

I answered: “Toronto….Canada”

He broke into a broad grin, shook his head a bit and replied:

“My condolences!”

OK – I knew immediately what he meant but I was still surprised that someone would offer a reply that acknowledged our mayor’s very public persona and exploits in the first two words of a travelers’ common  first time conversation.

He then asked what I came to understand as the standard second question that comprises the ritual BORF:

“You folks think he can get in again?”

I answered that under the right calculus of entrants and campaigns, it remains a possibility. He could get in again. This was received by the American with a mix of incredulity and rueful understanding.

The American then smiled painfully and said:

“Hey, y’all know that we got a President that got himself elected twice despite the damage he is doing to our country so I can understand you completely. These guys can get back in. The real problem is the voter. They don’t understand what they are doing”

At this point, I was completely dumbfounded. I had no idea that Barack Obama was held in such low esteem by some Americans[1] to the point that this view had become – in at least some circles – the conventional wisdom.

The American then looked up and started to laugh and asked:

“Hey, you folks want to make a trade?

Just at that moment, a spectacular full moon in a light yellow orange colour I had not seen before distracted us from conversation.   I had just BORFed for the first time and had seven more to go.

I had thought of this first conversation as a curious one-off . Yet it just repeated itself over and over – at dinner – in the pool – in the hot tub – on excursions – in buses – everywhere.

By now you know that BORF stands for ‘Barack Obama Rob Ford’.

BORF experiences can vary – one fellow noted emphatically that he was not a racist – but it is the sameness that is arresting, especially as several ingredients have to be baked in to make the conversation intelligible.

The first is that both Americans and Torontonians are assumed to know the names of the parties. In the classic BORF, neither the name of Toronto’s mayor nor The US president is ever mentioned.

The second is the assumption by the American that Toronto’s mayor defines Toronto and does so in a negative way. In my third BORF, when I said I was from Toronto, the gentleman just began laughing and asked: “How did he get in?”[2]

The third ingredient is that it will be taken as an article of faith that Obama is not only performing poorly but that he is an embarrassment to his country and that a Torontonian would presumably know that.

The fourth and perhaps most important ingredient for the BORF  is that it is an occasion for humour. For the Torontonian, it is just assumed that you will share in anything from an exchange of smiles to a knee-slapper of a guffaw about the Obama-Ford nexus.

After my fourth BORF, I began to realize that the BORF exchange would characterize most if not all initial exchanges with Americans on the cruise. Only once (the proverbial exception that proves the rule) did I not BORF in an inaugural conversation with an American. But in her case, she had been to Toronto last year and wanted to go on about how clean it was.

John Kenneth Galbraith defined the concept of the conventional wisdom as having four components. Conventional wisdom is simple, comfortable, structures an understandable frame and it gives you self-esteem.

The BORF is an example of conventional wisdom at work. The two men that symbolize the BORF exchange have accessible personas and foibles. The values many of us share give us permission to comfortably criticize them in a public space. Their actions and our reactions are understandable. And it makes us feel good that their transgressions are more public and more egregious than our own.

I have also come to understand for the first time the extent to which Mr. Ford’s persona has completely eclipsed and remade the concept and reality of Toronto.

So, a word to Torontonians heading south this summer:

On your mark – get set – BORF!

John Stapleton

March 30, 2014

[2] Note to self: Is saying that you are from Toronto really a signal for someone to start laughing?