The morning I left Belgium, a man approached me in a cafe and asked if I was Canadian. He'd seen the flag on my backpack as he'd held the door for me and my friend.
I told him I was, then he asked if I was from Toronto, and again I said "yes."
He pointed at the middle of my Canadian flag patch and said "but this is from Quebec."
There was a moment of confusion, and a back and forth dialogue, as I thought he was saying the flag was from Quebec. I finally realized that he meant the maple leaf on the flag. He explained that he'd worked in Quebec for a while and that these leaves were everywhere - to him the maple leaf was a regional phenomenon.
I explained that the maple leaf is everywhere in Canada, as a tree, and a symbol we all share. He put his hands up in wonder and we all went back to our croissants.
How big must our country seem to outsiders. One man's experience of the maple leaf was so tied to his time in Quebec that he couldn't imagine these red trees being anywhere else but in that province. To imagine a country lined with maple trees and all its people identifying with it as a symbol of home made this Belgian bewildered and he needed to pause for a moment to consider it. To me, a red leaf on a snow-white background is a tell-tale sign of unity, but to the many people who visit Canada it may be how they remember that one place at that one time - it's their impression of the Vancouver Winter Games, Toronto's Pride Parade, or, in this man's case, a work visa to Quebec. Our national symbol became a token for his memories of his time spent working abroad.
He held the door again for us as we left the cafe. I bid him goodbye in French and he said "see you later" in Spanish. I knew then that I would definitely return to this place - with a maple leaf secured to my backpack.