5 Things I Learned About Canada After Traveling From Sea to Sea

It’s Canada Day(!!)

As usual, my love for this country is on overdrive.

Despite the dark parts of our history (there are many, no doubt), I do hold a lot of hope and pride in my heart for good ol’ Canada. It’s nuanced and critical, but it’s there.

This is my first Canada Day since I did my cross-country train tour last August. I suppose that should make me feel like I have some level of insight on this country. Not so much. The more I have learned and seen of this country the less I want to make general claims about it. Even writing this seems a bit strange.

BUT BUT BUT, there are five things that I observed that felt pretty solid. So here goes. Just for you, just for Canada Day. Let’s listicle this bad boy.

1. Canadian humour? I think it’s a thing.

I met a lot of funny people on my trip. Good storytellers, great attitudes. At the Just For Laughs festival, I tried (with little success) to crack the code of Canadian comedy. While that experiment fell flat, the people I met as I traveled across this country gave me more of a clue.

The humour in Canada seemed to be a really unique mix of joy and sarcasm. I know satire is often characterized as a dry, cold humour, but the sarcasm I felt throughout Canadian seemed almost warm. I met so many people across this country who looked at everything with a wink of “Eh, this is life! And it’s ridiculous!”

Which it is. Living in Canada is kind of ridiculous. The weather, the empty space, the strange array of cultural indicators (a leaf and poutine and hockey and whatnow?).  Canada also has the unique position of having a lot of rural spaces, small towns, and harsh winters…while also having a literacy rate of 99% and high scores on international education rankings. I’m sure the doesn’t hurt the development of a unique kind of outdoorsy wit.


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2. Community is everywhere.

Everywhere I went in Canada, the communities I visited seemed to offer community in relatively the similar ways–survival, sports, music, food, drink, repeat. Obviously events varied based on size and geography, but generally it was pretty status quo–downtown parades and fireworks on special occasions, community theater in the warmer months, concerts in the park, sports bars with hockey specials. In Halifax, the experience made me seriously question why I didn’t just do more of these things at home.

That said, I found that community often wasn’t a super important value for folks in Canadian cities.  I’m guessing that’s because “survival,” which is historically at the heart of most Canadian communities, has become less and less an issue (thanks, indoor heating and modern medicine). We all are relatively free and mobile and proudly different, so sometimes it feels like we don’t seek each other out as much.

But we do still need each other. And the lucky thing is that community is available, and it is worth pursuing. I found it literally everywhere I went, and it was awesome.
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3. Oh, and French is also everywhere.

My whole life, I was fed this ugly lie that there are only French Canadians in Quebec. No where else.

Turns out, that is so very wrong.


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Seriously, if I ever have kids, I’m raising those buggers to be bilingual. I underestimated the Frenchness of this country so much. It’s everywhere. When I went to the French quarter of Winnipeg, no one was speaking a lick of English. Not to mention New Brunswick, or Northern Ontario. I even met a tour group of French first language kids from British Columbia recently.

Yes, Quebec has a lot of French people. But it also has more people, period. I loved Quebec culture and deeply enjoyed my time there, but I was wrong to assume that different versions of French Canadian language and culture didn’t stretch from sea to sea.

 

4. So. Much. Patriotism.

Oh, you thought Americans were proud?

Hah.

omg we're so great look guys here's an infographic
omg we’re so great look guys here’s an infographic

Yes, the United States is known for having overzealous residents who are patriotic to a tacky degree. But when I worked and lived in the States, it turned out that I was the one who patted myself on the back for my citizenship on a daily basis. Gay rights? Medicare? Cool looking federal police officers on horseback? Canadians think they are the coolest.

It can be annoying, I’m sure. I was basically like that pretentious friend everyone has who proudly collects records and forces obscure music on everyone…except instead of indie tunes, I was dealing out ketchup chips and maple syrup.
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5. We don’t really go to church.

Empty pews are certainly a major theme throughout the country. I don’t totally know how I feel about that–the United Church of Canada is a big part of my life, and I think the church can be a wonderful and remarkable space for people (see point #2). But I’m not necessarily disappointed in our emerging “churchlessness.” I’m mostly just curious about it.

I’ve heard a whole host of reasons for people moving away from the church, most of which are not only confined to Canada: Corruption, postmodernism, the perceived conflict between science and religion (or between social justice LGBT/women’s rights and religion), individual spirituality over community practice. I get all those things, I do.

But Canada is an interesting study simply because recent generations have been so privileged, so lucky, so educated and connected, so blessed….and so secular. I often wonder if there is a connection. Either way, it will be interesting how churches and people transform in this environment.

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Basically, I learned that Canada is the True North strong and free…and funny…and diverse…and proud…and changing all the time. All the time. Like, right now.

So, I guess we should probably go out and look at it pretty seriously and take good freakin’ care of it. Because whatever this country becomes…we’re a part of it.

Happy Canada Day, everyone!

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Watermarked: How Rivers, Oceans, and Leaky Faucet-ing Won Me Over

It rained a lot in British Columbia.  It wasn’t really wet, as rainy weather goes; In Victoria, “rain” seems to mean “a mist gracefully puttering from the sky.” The light sprinkle was a little lacking in pyrotechnics, at least by my standards.  “Do you ever get, like, storm storms here?” I asked my uncle.

He shrugged. “Not really. Maybe 3 or 4 since I moved here, if that.”

I shuddered at the thought. “Man, I could never live like that…love storms way too much.”

Never. Overstatement, I know.  Of course I could live like that.  Besides, Vancouver Island’s water action trumps any old rainstorm because it is surrounded by the freaking ocean.

Downpours and lightening strikes might lose this round (though I do still love them).

Later, as I dipped my toes ceremoniously into the chilly West Coast ocean, I wondered why I cared so much about rainstorms. I wondered, too, why hitting both oceans in one month felt so profound and incredible–it’s just water, right?

My whole trip across Canada was watermarked. I don’t just mean I saw a lot of water flowing through the country (though, that too). I mean my internal responses to oceans and rivers and even rainy weather were hella powerful. Eventually, I caught onto the pattern.

And apparently got SUPER excited about it.
And apparently got SUPER excited about it.

Water. Water falling–from the sky, from a cliff, through the cracks. Water rushing past the train. Reading by rivers, walking through rain storms, tears. I’m a leaky faucet sometimes, and have no complaints when the world is, too. Watching the country I call home pass by my forever tear-producing eyes, with its tiny streams and life-giving lakes and salty oceans, I can’t help but take off my shoes and breathe it in because this is what being lucky feels like.*

Traveling across Canada, I became very aware of the water surrounding me, and intensely grateful of what it meant–for myself, for the life around me, for the very definition of Canada. I walked along a lot of rivers, you guys. I used 8 different showers, in 8 different cities, and had many people to thank for it. And, of course, this happened (and was awesome):

A Mari Usque Ad MarI also had those leaky faucet moments, of course. The only thing worse than being a history geek is being an emotional, embarrassingly patriotic history geek. Being an emotional music lover is just as fatal, especially since this damn beautiful country kept throwing me history and music…and water…and wonderful people. All at the same freaking time.

So I wept a few times, all warranted. Most notably, I broke down in the middle of a museum. Also in a train station. Also on the train itself.  They were tears of privilege–I missed my guitar, I loved my country, I felt strongly about how my family got here.

And when I cried, it rained. Or I made my way to a waterfront. Or the train passed by a river. I was surrounded by water, and it started feeling really special.

I’m not sure what to make of this alleged connection between water and my soul and this country and the world.  No guarantees, but I may just be re-entering “finding myself” territory. This experience may change my habits, or at least my outlook.  I might try to get a little more quality time with the canal, appreciate the taps and tubs and scenery I take for granted, light that candle that smells like the beach.

Like I’ve said before, this was never my intent with this trip…but here I go. Growing as a person. Making connections. Damn it. Sorry, guys.

At least there were a few funny, awkward stories in between the oceanfront epiphanies.

My phone tracked everywhere I took a photo last month. Pretty amazing.
My phone tracked everywhere I took a photo last month. This is the result. Pretty amazing.

Another thought bubble from the cross-Canada trip, one that I can’t seem to pop:  Until last month, I probably would have claimed that I could never live out of a small, tattered school bag. Could never deal with not knowing where I was sleeping the next night. Could never sleep on a train. And, oh man, could never feel close to someone less than an hour after meeting them.

Wrong, wrong, wrong, double wrong.

When I have never done something, sometimes I assume it’s because I could never do it. This is one of the lies my brain tells. Maybe your brain tells it, too. I am forever grateful for the people who reach out and pull me out of that. Because as much as I was “traveling alone”? None of this was done alone. It didn’t start alone, and it hardly ended that way.  I still remember studying with a girl in my history class, telling her about my trip. She looked at my small, black backpack, filled with a few books and a laptop, and said “Yeah, I traveled Europe using something about that size. You could do it easy.”

So I did.

I still remember when my co-worker, Julia, dropped off her ukelele at the office; “You can bring it with you if you want, I never use it anyways.”  She insisted that she was sure I could learn how to play it, and suggested I cover it in stickers from across the country.

I did that, too.

An old high school acquaintance Facebooked me after reading my blog, offering her air mattress in PEI. Another friend told me his wonderful folks could host me in Saskatoon. West Coast family members welcomed me with open arms.

So I stayed with them.

Friends before me had conquered enough of the train that I felt I could take it on.

I trusted their judgement. And they were right.

After awhile, all these wonderful friends and prayers and instincts sent the message that “You can trust God. You can trust some people. You can trust yourself.”  No one learns to believe something as crazy as that alone. And certainly, no one can confirm it alone. I needed a ton of help, coming from all sides–from upsides, downsides, from inside, outside, from everywhere.

Is this getting cheesy? I’m sorry. I promise it’s honest. I just owe a million thank yous. Even though my trip was through my own country, more of a backyard bash than an exotic adventure, it taught me some crazy things.  And now I know Canada–I don’t care for it any more, or any less, but I know it now.  I’ve reconnected with water, profoundly so. I am filled up with stories. I’ve visited my aunt and uncle in their hometown and it’s about damn time, really.

And now I’m home. I took the bus to work today, past the Ottawa river. My heart lept at the sight of it, just a bit–a new response, to say the least.  I gazed out the window and smiled.

A Mari Usque Ad Mare.

* By the bye, the “being lucky” thing is pretty serious:  lack of access to safe drinking water affects a LOT of people around the world.  If you’re one of the lucky ones, consider paying it forward: http://thewaterproject.org/

Ontario Snob in the Prairies

My internal dialogue has been so snooty these last few days. In my worst moments, I even heard myself saying “Well, it’s okay, but in TORONTO…”.

I don’t even live in Toronto. I don’t even like Toronto.

This is how much my attitude sucks sometimes. I am only admitting this to you because I know everyone can slip into those moments (‘sup, humanity?) when the “grass is greener on the other side,” or worse, when twisted nostalgia overtakes reality.  According to my inner dialogue, everything is better in Ontario. Customer service, festivals, transit…

…hours of operation for the local Subway…

Yeah, I’m getting that bad.

Visiting other provinces is like going to an open house on your street–sneaking around with curiousity, slightly judge-y, slightly inspired. Throwing a grateful, guilty nod to the realtor on the way out, because oh, you were just taking a peek.

Even over 4,000 km from home, I’ve stayed in the neighbourhood. This is a good thing: I’m learning a lot.  It’s always important to know where you come from and who’s on board. The food is good, the people are great. But it certainly makes for a different kind of tourism.

The word “interesting” is annoyingly nondescript, je sais, but I feel like it fits here. I’ve been observing, and enjoying, and I’ve checked out what I can. I adore the football fans in Saskatchewan.  I appreciate how locals respond to festivals in more remote communities.  Meeting new people is fun, as are endless walks along riverbanks. The beer of the Canadian West–Big Rock, Kokanee–is good and cheap.

But I needed to remind my Ontario snob self: There are less people in the prairies. Meaning there is less stuff in the prairies. And it’s flat, mostly. It’s a strange place to take a vacation, really. People live there, and work there, and use what there is to use.  Sometimes, this feels small-town charming. But sometimes, it’s just dry and functional.

Either way, though, it’s Canada. Our home and native land. My patriotic soft spot remains.

Also, Saskatoon is SUPER pretty.
Also, Saskatoon is SUPER pretty.

I got my “home sweet home” fix in Edmonton. Edmonton was busier, more commercial, more bustling–I wish I didn’t value those things, but after a week in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, it was kind of nice. It was my fix of familiarity. My host let me borrow his guitar, and I spent a much anticipated morning letting the strings sink into the softened flash of my fingertips. There were conversations over cereal, Fringe plays, window shopping, and, joy of joys, old friends.

Judi and Patrick. High school buddies, close ones, the kind you stay in touch with. The latter is military, posted in Edmonton. The former came down to Alberta after working in the Northwest Territories for a summer.  Judi and I ziplined through the West Edmonton Mall; Patrick and I watched a giant fish get hit over the head with a mallet in a Chinese market. We found a restaurant with a “10 wings for $3.50” special.  Patrick ordered 30, and ate them all.  Judi ordered the the “super super super hot” wings, and ate them all.

I was a wimp and did neither of those things…but watching them go crazy with their orders, it felt good to have my friends back.

And then–and THEN! I took a train through the Rockies.

You guys.  If you ever decide to do something cool in Canadaland…this. This is what you should do. Go to Alberta, to Edmonton (or even Jasper, if you can afford it) and take Via Rail or the Rocky Mountaineer through to Vancouver. And then just fall apart in the country’s lap because “wow-wow-wow it’s so beautiful.”  I didn’t take many pictures, because I didn’t want to watch the scene go by through a camera lens, but here’s a taste:

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Though, if I’m being honest, there were amazing train-window moments all over the country. Mountains are amazing, but picturesque valleys and hilltop cabins and tiny, criss-crossing rivers are no less inspiring.

After watching the sun set over this amazing scene, a bunch of the people on the train got together for a nighttime jam session. There were two guitars, my uke…someone even brought a mbira.  We sang, and sang, and sang.  There was so much noise. Really good noise.

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I’ve lucked out so hard with people.  Train people. New travel buddies. Old friends.  Three hosts in a row, all beyond hospitable.

And, I’ve lucked out so hard with music. Impromptu ukelele teachers, guitar sharers, singers, dancers.

It’s hard to believe that I’m ready to go home, but I am. 5 days in British Columbia, and I’ll be back on a plane to Ottawa. I’ll be done with the daily goodbyes, the testing my luck, the sleeping on trains, the “I’ll order this, cuz it sounds local.”  I’ll trade in my vagabond chic look for the 9-to-5 pencil skirts and blouses. I’ll play my own guitar (I miss her in a very heart-wrenching, real way). I’ll hang out with people who live down the street…and aren’t moving any time soon.  I’ll have a fridge (!!), and a bus pass, and appointments.

And I’m ready.  I’m ready for this last leg of my trip.  I’m in British Columbia, hanging out with family, trying to deal with how-freaking-beautiful this part of the country is. We’re going to go camping, and they’re lending me warm clothes. It’s a good way to end things.

It’s good to feel so ready.

How I Learned the Ukelele on a Train (and other transient tales)

My ukelele was out of tune.

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I was sitting on the train; alone in my section, as far as I could see. I had given up wrestling with the strings, and was resting my head on a soft area of my backpack.  An older woman came by, saw the instrument and asked if I wouldn’t play a song.  “It’s super out of tune,” I explained, sitting up and fiddling uselessly with the knobs.  “My little brother got a hold of it.”

That was a lie.  My little brother hadn’t touched the uke.  The screechy, stringy sound was entirely my fault–I had tried to tune it by ear in Toronto, and  failed miserably. But, oh ego, I didn’t want to admit that. “Maybe I’ll just get the musician to help me tune it when she’s done her set, if she knows how.”

“The musician?” The lady asked. I smiled and explained.  Along with wine tastings and trivia-filled talks, Via Rail hosts Canadian musicians who perform shows throughout the commute.  My train had enlisted a retired postwoman from Kingston, Ontario who played folksy guitar.

I found the musician sitting in the “Activity Car” after her set, and approached her cautiously. “‘Scuze me. Can I ask you something, maybe?” As if she could say no. As if we weren’t stuck on a train together for two days.

“Mhm?”

“I have this ukelele, with me, I’m trying to tune,” I stumbled, repeating the lie about my brother. “Do you know what notes the strings are supposed to be?”

She looked confused.  “Oh!  Um, well, the bottom string is an A, and…hold on.” She dug into the seat beside her, pulling out her own small ukelele case.

“I could bring it here, if that’s easier?” I offered. “It’s just in my car, back there.”

She nodded in my direction. I power-walked to my seat, snatching the pale brown uke. I gave it a quick strum–wow, that is really, embarrassingly bad. Like,  I can’t believe I’m even going to show this to someone bad.  I braced myself for condescension, the way I do when I’m going to the dentist and haven’t really been flossing, or when I go for a haircut with major split ends.

“Oh, wow, this IS out of tune,” she said, twisting the strings into sanity. I sheepishly agreed and apologized because, well, that’s what you do when someone smarter than you shakes their head and tells you what you already know. She just laughed at me.  “No, I mean, it’s fine, it’s just really out of tune. It happens.” She finished screwing a few knobs and handed the uke back to me. I exhaled, relieved to have a working instrument.  I strummed a C, then a G, then an A.  In response,  the musician produced her own ukelele–the same type as mine, a Mahalo, but hers was green.  She picked a few strings. “Wanna jam?” She asked.

Shit. I DID want to, of course, but now I really had to paint myself amateur. When I told her I was new to the insturment–really, really new–she smiled at my insecurity once again. “So then, you want to learn something?”

And so we sat, for thirty minutes (probably longer), patiently strumming through folk songs. She sketched out chord diagrams and we played and replayed. I finally mastered “Home on the Range.” We hi-fived.

“You know, George Harrison always traveled with two ukeleles.” She said. “He would just hand one to someone in an airport, or something, and they would play. Can you imagine that, being that person, doing this kind of thing with George Harrison?”  She grinned, satisfied that we were somehow part of a great tradition. Later, I would hear her recount our lesson to another passenger and cite the same Beatles story.

Beautiful meals, on board wine tastings, champagne and h’ors d’oeuvres, live entertainment, and now a free music lesson…that train ride was the real deal. Most of  this was because I was traveling in “sleeper class,” which is a big step up from “economy class.”

Seriously though.
Seriously though.

When I told her about my trip, my friend Caitlin all but demanded  that I travel in sleeper class, because “Shauna, it’s SO worth it.”  I refused at first, my budget was too tight, but there was a sale and the trip from Toronto to Winnipeg included two overnights, so I splurged for that portion of the trip.  I’m riding Economy the rest of my trip (en route to Saskatoon as I write this!), and it’s more than fine.  Still, “sleeper class” was a serious experience.

Economy class. Still awesome.
Economy class. Still awesome.

When we reached Winnipeg, I really didn’t want to get off of the train. I was having way too much fun aboard, and the city outside looked dingy and construction site-esque.  I struggled to find a Tim Horton’s upon arrival (somehow, I thought it would be easy), and struggled more to find a place which sold bus tickets. Finally, I made my way to the bus–I was staying with a woman from Couchsurfing, whose house was about a 10 minute ride from downtown.

I sat myself down at an empty seat near the back. The bus was nearly full, and it wasn’t long before someone sat down next to me: a young boy, maybe a year or two my junior, with sharp aboriginal features and faded brown skin.  He struck up a conversation by showing me his hand, which had scabs all over the knuckles: “See this?” He grinned. “Don’t drink and drive. Not any vehicle.”

“Oh. Dear. Ouch.” I threw him a polite smile, then looked out the window as the bus tumbled down a rough-looking Main Street.

“Yeah, yesterday was a shitty day for me,” He continued, clearly wanting a conversation. I motioned politely to his hand.

“Because of your accident?”

“No, no, that was last week. Yesterday, I was about to smoke a bowl, right, and I had it all packed and everything, right, and then, like, I just dropped my bong right there on the floor,” He mimed the accident.

“Oh. No. That…sucks. Was it expensive?” I had no idea what else to say. The woman across the way shot me a look; you aren’t from around here, are you?

“Naw, it was maybe like 30 bucks but like man, I was about to smoke a bowl and then–” He acted out the accident again. I watched as others on the bus nodded sympathetically, and tried to nod the same way.  Unfortunately, I am a terrible actress.

“Well, I guess, I mean, that gives you an excuse to buy a new one?” I offered. The world’s most house wife-y response to a broken bong.

He shrugged. “Guess, but it sucked. Where you from?” At this point I was pretty sure this kid was high, or drunk, or something. Even through his haze, he could tell that I was no local.

“Ottawa,” I said, then quickly added. “I’ve been here before, though. Visiting a family friend. Just busing to her house.” The lie slid off my tongue and covered me uncomfortably, like a heavy invisible armour.  I hate lying. Between the uke story and this, I was up to two falsehoods in one day.  I contented myself that this was just a safety precaution, that didn’t want to publicly proclaim my vulnerability. The woman across the way finally spoke up.

“Well, be careful ’round here. Like, y’shouldn’t go walking down Main Street by yourself any time of day, especially at night.” She said. I looked out the window at the street in question. Her advice was pretty self evident. “Winnipeg isn’t the most dangerous city in Canada anymore, but like, I’m pregnant right? So I’m still pretty nervous walking down the street after I babysit my niece.”

I wanted to congratulate her on her pregnancy, or thank her for her local insight, but instead I just sat there looking like a frightened kitten. I pounced off the bus like one, too, scurrying towards the street my host lived on. I saw the street sign and turned.

Houses. Pretty little houses. Cut grass. Laughing children.

I exhaled.

You guys, I have never been so excited to see suburbs. It was ridiculous.

A French couple opened the door upon my arrival. They were staying under the same roof–live in travel buddies!–and had actually been on the same train as me.  The host had left a note and snacks for the three of us in the kitchen.  My room was cosy and comfortable.  I felt safe. And when you’re traveling around, talking to strangers, STAYING with strangers, and sleeping on a different air mattress every other night…feeling safe is something you never take for granted.

You don’t take showers for granted, either. And you certainly don’t take live-in travel buddies or beautiful, free-spirited hosts for granted. Getting clean and walking about was just about all I did in Winnipeg, but I was fine with that (most of the time, anyways).

Now for a series of confusing images which sum up my time in Winnipeg:

Kareoke and Bubble Tea. For those lunch breaks where you really just want to sing alone in a creepy room.
Karaoke and Bubble Tea. Open noon to 11 pm. The home of Asian small business stereotypes.

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Terrifying stained glass.
Terrifying stained glass.

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I never did fall in love with Manitoba. This sucked more than it should’ve, mostly because I have silly expectations and want Canada to be magical and beautiful and happy all the time. Sometimes, though, it’s just real. Or weird. Or even a little dangerous.

But I wanted to see all of Canada, even the STI ad campaigns and rough streets and suburbs and shopping malls.  And it’s nice to know that, no matter where I seem to go in this country, no matter how comfortable (or uncomfortable) the place, I always seem to find somewhere to temporarily call home. For that, I am incredibly grateful.

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“Home” in Winnipeg, thanks to my amazing host.
And
And, of course, “home” on the train.

Quebec, You Make Me Self-Conscious (But I’m Just Being Silly)

“The greats weren’t great because at birth they could paint, the greats were great because they paint a lot..,’

I was listening to Macklemore when I first set foot in Quebec City. It was 6 am, and I had “slept” on an overnight train–the music wasn’t for entertainment, it was a much-needed pep talk.

“I will not be a statistic, just let me be…”

The streets were empty, steep, and (of course) uphill the whole way. I trudged forward with the song on repeat, clinging to the words. I’ve listened to this anthem countless times. It has been good to me. I’m lazy and insecure and my creativity needs constant motivation, so songs that kick my ass are more than welcome. Plus, Macklemore is just fantastic. Plus, I like the themes: Hard work. Potential. Passion. People.

This time, though, my brain didn’t connect the message to creative endevours. It didn’t motivate me to learn a new chord, or write a semi-meaningful poem. I had one thing on my mind: le français.

I was in Quebec. I have been studying French for…a long time, at any rate. The last 5 years I have put crazy effort into it. I take a third of my University classes in French. I do customer service-lite in my second language. I claim bilingualism on my resume (then explain it away at interviews).

This was the test. Would I be able to speak French in this province, or would they snarl at my messy accent? Would I shrivel into a poor, defenseless anglophone? It wasn’t impossible. This was Quebec. I was one mispronunciation away from an eye roll and the ever-deameaning “Eez h’okay, vee can speak anglais.”

Ten thousand hours felt like ten thousand hands, ten thousand hands, they carry me.

Ten thousand hours, the song repeated to my tired brain. If you’ve practiced for ten thousand hours, you should be an expert. That’s how it works, right?

I must have spent ten thousand hours speaking French by now. In that moment, I decided I needed to find out.

I sat down on a bench and pulled the phone from my sweater pocket–20% battery, draining with every stroke. I pressed my thumb to the calculator icon and began to tally up the time I’ve spent studying French.

One hour a week from Grade 1 to Grade 6, is 1 x 42 x 6, is…only 242? Maybe it was two hours a week. 484. Okay.

Around 500 hours of class in high school. About the same in University. What about those 3 months in France? Can I put that down for 2,000 hours?

All my totals were a stretch. I added up the liberal estimates, pushing the “equal” button firmly. The number on the screen mocked me. I scrunched up my face. 3500 hours. Not ten thousand.

Not even close.

I mentally scanned through my short life, realizing that “eating,” “sleeping,” and “talking” were the only things I have practiced for ten thousand hours (which, my calculator informed me, is an enormous 416.67 days, or 1.14 years).

Great. I’m not even very good at those.

I’m no Outlier, and I’m certainly no language scholar.

My feet were heavy as I moved further uphill. This was just another chapter in my weird relationship with bilingualism. Terms like “studying French” or “learning a new language” always sound so simple–they don’t properly embody the embarrassment, frustration and word-wrestling I’ve been doing these last few years. It’s a rewarding process, but it always plays games with my confidence.

Or, at least, I always play games with my confidence. This time, I used a calculator and arbitrary standards in a rap song. Ten thousand hours? I thought bitterly. How is that possible?

time

By the time I reached the Quebec hostel, I had successfully chewed away most of my second language confidence. The words “Parlez-vous anglais?” practically fell out of my mouth. The lady at the front desk smiled back at me. “Yes, of course,” she responded, helping me check-in and stowing my bag. I told her thank you–didn’t even attempt a merci– and headed out the door.

I immediately felt bad about it. One of my personal rules is “love > fear.” It’s a cutesy and unspecific rule with about a million flaws, but I use it all the same. I use it because, in some moments, it’s a solid reminder. It was certainly a solid reminder as I stepped down the sunny Quebec City streets in search of breakfast. My fear of francophone judgement was overriding the hours (albeit not 10,000) that I’ve put into learning their beautiful language.

So I ordered my breakfast in French. They served me right back in French.

I asked for directions in French.

I went back to the hostel, and spoke to some francophone roommates. They asked if I could switch rooms so their friend, in another room, could bunk with them. I agreed. We sorted out those details in French, too.

I even met a friend from Ireland who couldn’t eat gluten, and inquired about the menu for him at a couple restaurants.

Not bad for 3,500 hours.

And so, as I get ready for my government bilingualism test and my fourth year courses en francais next year, I’m feeling just a little bit more confident. Just a bit. But for me, that bit is a really big deal.

So thank you, thank you Quebec. Thank you for not laughing at my accent, or switching to English when I mixed up my pronouns. Thank you for understanding when my imparfait was particularly imperfect. Most of all, thank you for serving me in French–and for smiling at the fact that I’m trying to speak your language.

Thank you for a great 3 days, Quebec. You’re really not as scary as everyone seems to think.

c'est si bon

How I Learned the Ukelele in a Laundromat (and other East Coast stories)

An update on the “vagabond chic” look: My original “disheveled at the airport” collection is so last week. Make way for the super-sexy “laundromat after a rainstorm,” fashion fans…

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I try, really.
Features of the collection include a messy ponytail, rolled up jeans, and tired, wet feet. I’m also pretty sure there’s sand in my backpack–a souvenir from two beachy days in Prince Edward Island.

I modeled the collection in Moncton. The small, humid laundromat was stop #2 on a quest for clean clothes, and I greeted it by getting barefoot and playing the ukelele with a friend I met two days ago. Stop #1 had been a shop on the corner with a large sign reading “LAUNDROMAT.” That place, they told us, was actually not a laundromat. It was a cool-kid cafe/bar called “Laundromat.”

I’m not hip enough to understand these things.

Pictured here: Not actually a laundromat
Pictured here: Not actually a laundromat

When we finally found a place with quarter-devouring washing machines and dryers, we made ourselves nice and comfortable. Waiting for our clothes to wash, we braved the stormy (and very empty) streets to seek out cheap pizza, shitty wifi, and a compact, Disney-themed umbrella from the drug store.

Finally, it was time to say goodbye to my new friend and jump on a train to Quebec. I actually jumped, you guys. It was a thirteen hour train ride and, oh-my, was I ever excited for it.

The train is the real heart of my trip. All these big adventures and bigger revelations are just spaces in between.

I made small talk with the cute guy in front of me at the station (“Oh, you’re from Ottawa? Me too!”) and, as he briefly disappeared from sight, I jumped on board with a wicked smile on my face. I bought a ham sandwich and little container of white wine on the train, and “je m’excuse, je m’excuse” passed by the friendly French man beside me. The man smelled like smoke and had a giant skull and crossbones inked onto his leg, but his voice was gentle and his smile was genuine and –yes! He kept speaking French to me even after hearing my troubled accent.

And so begins my life for the next month:

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The train reached Quebec at 6 am, and I dragged myself through the tourist-covered streets until hostel check-in time and–oh! Here I am! Sitting at a hostel bar in la belle province, reflecting on the last two days.

(That’s a lie. I’m actually sitting here feeling way-too conscious of my feet, way-too happy about this beer, and way-too guilty that I fell asleep during a bus tour today. For the sake of the segue, though, let’s just say I’m reflecting on the last two days.)

To be reflected upon.
To be reflected upon.

In the days since my last post, I finished up in Halifax and headed to Prince Edward Island. I arrived in Charlottetown at noon(ish) Wednesday, and left at 8:15 Friday morning.

Translation? I had 44 hours in PEI. Ready, set, go.

I don’t know what I was thinking when I scheduled my trip. I’m pretty sure I was bitter–I always hated labeling the damn province in grade school geography. Or maybe I looked at the province on a map and said “Psh, that’s small. I could walk across that in 44 hours.”

Either way, I didn’t give myself enough time on the Island. Not even close.

Thanks to the people I encountered, however, it was (limited) time well spent. I suppose that’s part of this whole traveling thing, right? “What was your name, again? Right. That. Let’s do something cool.” My people-luck went as follows: I crashed on the air mattress of a wonderful girl I knew in high school (thanks, Alex and Danny!). I adventured with another girl I met on couchsurfing, Amy, who was being toted around town by a local named Bob.

(Amy was crashing in Bob’s spare bedroom. Everyone, it turns out, crashes in Bob’s spare bedroom. If you’re ever in Charlottetown, you should too. More on that later.)

On Thursday morning, I walked past an old Protestant cemetery. An artist, Carl Philis (potter by trade), spotted my interest right away. Carl had a paint can in his hand, and was working on the cemetery’s restoration. “If you come by some time later when you’re free, I can give you a tour around.”

I knew there would be no later. “Well…I’m free now, I guess. Can you give me a tour now?”

And he freaking did. His boss stood by smiling as he spent at least an hour showing me the history of PEI, stone by stone. I wasn’t used to such unscheduled hospitality.

“In Ontario, everyone’s just in a hurry to be late,” he explained. “It’s not like that here.”

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He was right. When I arrived an hour later than expected to visit my Islander aunt, she was only happy I was there at all.

Bob was most flexible of all. From beginning to end, his main priority was for Amy and I to have a good PEI experience. I told him I was an Anne of Green Gables fan as a kid, and he happily drove us to Cavendish for the day. He showed us the tourist-y “Avonlea Village” and the trails around Green Gables in the after-hours, saving us from paying for the tourist traps. Bob was a Green Gables tour guide in a past life, and is an expert host in this life.

People-wise, I hit the jackpot in PEI. When my aunt told me she had sending me prayers for “travel mercies,” I practically fell all over her.

“It’s working! It’s working! Keep it up!”

Poking my presence into Bob's "map of guests"
Poking my presence into Bob’s “map of guests”
Yeah. This guy hosts hardcore.
Hardcore hosting.

To recap, a few pieces of advice if you ever visit Charlottetown:

  1. Stay with someone awesome and central.
  2. Look up Bob. Seriously. I will put you in touch personally, just drop me a line.
  3. Eat potatoes. And seafood. And donair. Dude, just eat.
  4. Go to the beach. This will be easy, since it seems that a good chunk of PEI is straight beach.
  5. Clap your hands and stomp your feet at a Ceilidh. If you don’t know what that is…look up what a Ceilidh is first. Then go to one.
  6. Talk to any and everyone. Chances are, they will talk to you right back (and then some).

And with that…

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Hammer Quebecer time.

That Awkward Moment When You Start Finding Yourself

I had a bit of a revelation yesterday.

“Revelation” is a dramatic-sounding word, I know, but I can’t think of what else to call it.  I was standing on the curb, surrounded by a small crowd of Halifax locals. It was Natal Day, a big local celebration, and I had arrived in time to catch a glimpse of the parade.

The parade went by. People cheered. Some overly chipper marketing girls offered cans of Red Bull, which almost everyone accepted–because, you know, 10:30 in the morning seems like the right time for that.  Maybe, maybe I can blame my “revelation” and its feelings (so many feelings…) on hardcore stimulants and my sleepy brain. Really, though, the reflection was long overdue.

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As I stood there–clapping for someone else’s community, drinking 10 am Red Bull with wise-cracking locals, preparing to take in their Busker Festival for a third day–I tried to compare the celebration with parades in Ottawa.

I couldn’t.

I have never been to a parade in Ottawa.

I could barely compare it to parades in my hometown, Kitchener-Waterloo.  As for the busker festival, all I had were vague childhood memories of the Waterloo Buskerfest.  I hadn’t actually checked it out since I was a kid.  I certainly hadn’t spent time at Ottawa buskerfest, despite the fact that it was happening on the street I work on the day before I left.

Yes, the day before I left to go watch another city’s Buskerfest.

Silver Elvis
Which was totally worth it.

In between acts, I found quiet spots along the waterfront to read. “Kinda like reading along the Rideau canal,” I thought. But I wasn’t really sure.  I couldn’t remember the last time I took a book to the Ottawa “waterfront,” the beautiful river a few minutes from my house.  The thought made me strangely sad.

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Need to do this way more often.
Don’t get me wrong. It has been awesome to check out a new community, to test drive this beautiful East Coast city for a few days. But there was something uncomfortable about how actively I was checking it out, talking to people, and enjoying the environment. It was uncomfortable because, frankly, I don’t do this enough at home. Even though I could. Even though I should.

how-to-build-a-community

This wasn’t supposed to be one of those trips where I “find myself”! I wanted to learn about other people and places! How am I getting so reflective only 3 days in?

And yet, I have already learned things. Very personal, real things. Things I can actually take home with me. I hate how romantic and empty that sounds, like I just skipped through a field of roses, and found God, and “Oh, friends, you wouldn’t understand.” I don’t want to be one of those people who talk about traveling like there’s no other way to live or learn (though, if you have the resources, I highly recommend it).

I was hoping to have a quirky, hilarious, bizarre trip to share with you.

Instead, I think I’m winding up with a meaningful one.  Awkward.

To fulfill the “quirkiness” quota, here’s an instrument made out of a surfboard. Eh? Eh?

I’ve had some other so-called “revelations” during my time in Halifax. I got it into my head that want to make a documentary about buskers (okay, so that was one of my less practical considerations). I also decided I need to read a lot more than I do. My faith is getting more and more present-tense oriented, (“Will everything be okay? Let’s go with yes. Even if it’s not okay, it’s okay. Right, Jesus?”).  I’m unnerved by how happy I am traveling alone, making friends for one night and then moving on.  It’s a weird brand of loneliness that really just feels like freedom. Maybe its temporary, but I’m glad I feel this way.

I’m learning about myself, damnit. I guess that’s how this goes.  I’m more of an introvert than I thought. I’m more anxious and fiddle-y than I thought.  I’m much kinder and wittier than I thought, too; I guess when you only have a few social interactions, you really give them your all.

And, thanks to years of playing serious Tetris, I also seem to be pretty alright at getting a lot of things in a teeny-tiny bag.

Okay, I’m feeling self-conscious about this post.  I did my best, but it’s entirely possible that the whole thing is dripping with twenty-something sap.  To make it up to you, here’s a weird picture of me brushing my teeth in a rickety old hostel:

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#thuglife

10 Reasons My First Day in Halifax Will Be (Really, Really) Hard to Top

1. This city smells so, so good.  Even as far out as the airport, your lungs and nose are filled instantly with the ocean breeze. I wish I could bottle up and take it with me.

2.  Seduced by the scent, I headed down to the Halifax boardwalk right after checking into my hostel. I had a book with me, thinking I might be able to find a place to read. Instead, I was greeted by crowds and music and stages. Halifax Buskerfest was in full swing! Fact: the only thing better than a magic show is a magic show with a lively East Coast audience and a beautiful ocean backdrop.

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3. Okay, so it was only day one, and I’m not usually inclined to feel homesick, but…if I do get to missing Ottawa, turns out the taste of home isn’t too far away.

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4. Public transportation rocks out here. Besides having the world’s nicest driver on the bus downtown from the airport, Halifax also offers a ferry ride across the harbour as part of their public transportation for $2.24 (take that, overpriced Toronto Island ferry). I was extra spoiled yesterday, because for the Natal Day festivities the ferry was free!

5. Oh yeah, Natal Day. Totally didn’t see that coming, either. The day I arbitrarily chose to fly in (because, honestly, the plane ticket was the cheapest) turned out to be right in the middle of Halifax’s birthday party. Natal Day, a huge commemorative festival for Halifax-Dartmouth, is on all weekend. I had no idea! And a kickass festival “created with a commitment to provide low cost/no cost activities wherever possible”? Basically a backpacker’s dream.

6. All this came together when one of the buskers, a percussionist, pulled out his drumsticks for an impromptu performance on the ferry ride to Dartmouth.  Using everything from seats to the ceiling to a woman’s wheelchair, street performer Peter Rabbit spontaneously took over the boat with his drumsticks as everyone watched in awe. I got a clip of it on my phone for you; Check it out:

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6. Seafood is obviously a staple of any coastal visit. I kicked mine off with something called “Maritime Poutine” from a street vendor. It was just like any other poutine, except topped with some way-too-good breaded fish. Amazing. Possibly heart attacking inducing, but amazing.IMG_0184[1]

7. Thanks to last night’s Natal Day festivities, I was able to check out some awesome free music, including the end of a free Joel Plaskett show and Slowcoaster (check them out in the video below). I’m always a sucker for a great concert (or two, or three…). It probably goes without saying, but the energy of the audiences out here is just amazing.

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8. Fireworks, you guys. On my first day in town, they were putting on an epic fireworks show off the bridge. So much luck.

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Obligatory blurry fireworks picture.

9. On the ferry back to Halifax after the fireworks and the music, I got to talking with an outgoing group of people–two of whom, I learned, had lived in Ottawa for a solid chunk of time. They invited me to come out with them for a few beers at a patio bar along the boardwalk. The live music and completely mixed crowd (everything from college kids to middle aged couples) was absolutely perfect, and my new friends couldn’t have been friendlier.  I wasn’t even allowed to buy my own beer that night; “East Coast hospitality,” they argued, ensuring I always had a Keith’s in my hand.

10. After splitting a cab with my unexpected hosts, I returned to the hostel I’m staying in. I really, really like hostels. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because I know I kinda have to like hostels. This one is kind of divey, small, and old, but…I really like it. The couch I’m sitting on as I write this is soft and springy from overuse, and the walls are marked lovingly with pen and stickers.  It might not be luxury, but it’s a great place to lie my head (though I might need some earplugs to sleep through the snoring roommate tomorrow night!).

halifax

Alright, day two. Hit me with your best shot!

In which I am “Vagabond Chic”

When I was a kid, I tried to run away from home (all. the. time.).  I don’t know why. My parents are awesome, my bed was warm, and we had waffles for breakfast every Thursday–I really had nothing to escape. Still, my major appetite for melodrama and imagination prompted a monthly attempt to pack up all my stuff up and sling it over my shoulder.  Inspired by illustrations of adventurous storybook characters, I tried to throw everything I loved in the middle of a picnic blanket and to pull it together in a bundle. I brought a stick in from the yard, hoping to attach it to my pack and run away from home à la Three Little Pigs.

I think you can imagine how that went. The laws of physics were not really in my favour.  Don’t believe everything you see in books, kids.

threepigs

It’s been a decade or two since that happened, but the dream of throwing everything on my back and running away lives on.  I guess that’s why I am so damn excited right now.

I’m in an airport lounge.  There is a small backpack at my feet and an instrument case by my side.  Somehow, I have fit  my life for the next month inside of a schoolbag. Awesome. So awesome.

When I checked in, the oh-so smiley lady at the desk asked if I preferred a window or aisle seat.  I made an awkward face and shrugged. “Psshftt, I don’t really care I guess?” She followed up by asking if I wanted to be at the front or back.  Again, I had no idea.

I just wanted to get on that plane. Which I will be. In twenty minutes, that is exactly what I will be doing. I think I heard oh-so smiley woman say “Okay, well I’ll just put you at the front, then,” but I really don’t know or care where I’ll be sitting.

It took me a few tries, and I never did master the picnic blanket over the shoulder. But I’m (finally, finally) wearing my life on my back and getting the hell outta town.

backpacking

The packing process was a lot easier than I thought it would be: One pair of shorts, two pairs of jeans (I’m wearing one of them), one pair of track pants. Make sure all pants have pockets. Make sure all shirts won’t wrinkle as you roll and squeeze them in. Underwear. Socks. A piece of thin but sturdy material to act as a scarf/shawl/towel/blanket. Mini toothpaste. Mini toothbrush. And, most importantly, a little bit of room for a book and my writing machine at the back.

I’m calling my new look “vagabond chic.” There’s already a coffee stain on my plain, pinkish shirt. My hair is up in a messy ponytail, overgrown bangs held back by cheap sunglasses.  My sweater is wrapped around my waist, 90s style.  I’m wearing no make up, unless lip balm counts, and an elastic band is replacing the bling I usually wear around my wrist.  This morning’s caffeine fix may have made contact with my clothing, but it neglected the rings around my eyes–proof that I was up until 3 am cleaning and laundering and packing is all over my face.

But according to the streaked mirror in the airport bathroom, I haven’t looked this pretty in days. I guess being so damn excited does that to you.

And with that, I board. See you soon, Halifax!

(How I Failed At) Seeking Canadian Comedy

Let me start by admitting that I am a born overanalyzer. I can totally find symbolism that doesn’t actually exist. I’m so good at reading subtext, I end up creating subtext.

Sometimes this leads to insight. Mostly, though, it leads to my mother saying “Pffffft yeah, okay then, kid.”

This weekend, I was at it again. I was at the Just For Laughs Festival in Montreal, desperately seeking a thoughtful, patriotic story I could tie in with my cross-Canada trip (or, as my Eastern European grandfather called it in an email last week, “the BACK-PK TRAVEL GO WEST YOUNG WOMAN “).  I had been watching Canadian comedians like Jay Barachul and Mark Little (who you should all check out because he is hilarious) at the Festival for days, and had a notebook full of words ready for me to twist outside of their actual meaning.

My “Media” badge was staring me down. Canada. Comedy. There has to be a story here.

I considered digging into the CRTC, or geoblocking, or something else technical/policy related.  I collected evidence against the infuriating Vanity Fair article “Of Moose and Men,” which claims Canadians aren’t funny.  Maybe, I could approach bilingualism and language in comedy.  Or maybe, I could pick out enough Canada-specific humour; lay on the superficial psuedo-identity.

Basically, I had it in my head that there is such a thing as “Canadian Comedy.”  There has to be. I just needed to figure it out. Maybe sit and eat timbits watch reruns of Kids in the Hall and This Hour Has 22 Minutes for a week straight. You know, research.

Despite this enthusiasm, I struggled to find a real story at the Festival.  I figured my opportunity would come on Friday night’s Homegrown Comic Competition, an annual showcase of young Canadian standup. This was going to be a goldmine of Canadianisms! The advertisement had a maple leaf and everything!

homegrown

The good news is that there was a commonality between several of the performers, something beyond just Citizenship. There was something that stuck out, something unique that that really resonated with the audience.

The bad news is, that thing was jokes about menstruation.

I’m good at finding meaning in just about everything. But I’m not that good.

I had to accept it. Maybe Mark Little is funny because he is funny, not because he is from Halifax.  Maybe jokes about a national chain store make Canadians laugh because local references rock, not because of an unwritten “Tim Horton’s Brotherhood.”

In a free country, chances are someone will be using that freedom to make people laugh.  In a capitalist country, this “someone” will probably go wherever that skill is most marketable. And in a massive country (say, around 9,984,670 km²), different people in different places will probably find different ways to make people laugh. So yeah, Canada has entertainers. And those entertainers are a big cultural export, especially in the American biz.

I felt deflated. Unless I wanted to sound off about Canadian broadcasting policy, or confirm that Just For Laughs is an amazing festival, it seemed that my nationalistic meaning-finding was just about over.

But then I remembered an earlier conversation, some small talk with an Australian guy in my hostel room.  We were talking about our plans for the night, and I mentioned the Homegrown Competition.

“Oh! That sounds cool. Canadians are funny.”

“Yeah? Really?  I mean, yes, but…yeah?”

(Note: I’m very articulate when talking to strangers. That morning, I spent a full minute trying to pronounce my own name as I fumbled through awkwardly introducing myself to Dan O’Brien from cracked.com. So much charm, so little time.)

He nodded. “Yeah, well, that’s what they’re known for. Funnier than Americans, that’s for sure.”

The guy had hit my Canadian comedy fan g-spot.  I melted, shooting an appreciative grin his way.

I couldn’t prove what he said to be true.  I didn’t know what it meant or where he got it, really. I agreed because I am patriotic, and because Canadians have a pretty good track record of making me laugh–not because I could prove he was actually right.  There is no defensible argument for borders and geography affecting hilarity, unless you make some long-winded historical argument or factor in the education system to an extreme.

I’m not willing to do that here.

I didn’t find my story about “Canada. Comedy.” on stage at the Just For Laughs Festival. It wasn’t a certain brand of funny, something I could understand by over-analyzing comedians and collecting quotes. Instead, my story was in that hostel room.  It was the fact that the Festival exists at all, and that people from around the world have heard of it.  The fact that the Homegrown Competition is a thing.  The fact that people from other countries believe Canadians to be funny (how great of a reputation is that?!).

Mostly, it’s the fact that fans like me get excited by even the idea that Canada has an identity, and that the identity involves funny people.

And so, with very little proof or reasoning, I will keep considering Canadians funny. Or maybe, I will keep considering funny people funny, and get weirdly excited when they are Canadian.

Also, this foreign stranger saying “Canadians are funnier than Americans,” is the best pick-up line I’ve heard in months.

You want Canadian identity? That’s a good start.