I’m a University Success Story, and I Think Undergraduate Education is Completely Broken

I’m an unlikely person to be writing this article.

In many ways, I could be considered a university success story: I used co-op to break into the job market, became bilingual, made great contacts, and earned a degree that (combined with experience) has seen me steadily employed since graduation.

What’s not to love, right? Results as advertised.

But the system that helped me achieve these things is deeply, deeply flawed. It fails students every single day, and despite the fact I came out armed with a half-decent education, it failed me on the regular as well.

One of the things my BA taught me is how to write an essay. And while that is not so useful in the “real world,” I think it could be useful here. So here we go.

My thesis is “Undergraduate Education is Broken.”

My proof is:

1)      Students don’t give a shit.

2)      Professors don’t give a shit.

3)      The return on investment just isn’t there.

If you’ve been to University recently, you probably can see where some of these arguments are going. If not, please join me on a journey into the land of postsecondary education. Keep in mind this is all based on getting a Bachelor of Arts at a middle-of-the-road Canadian University. I’m sure students from other faculties and institutions have different experiences.

(I hope they do, anyways. Maybe you’re doing it right, and can help us fix this.)

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There are a few reasons students don’t give a shit.

It starts in high school, where we’re all told we need to go to University because that’s just what you do. Students who aren’t particularly cut out for academia, or who are unsure of their true interests and goals, apply. They get in.

Why do they get in, you wonder? Because it’s a fucking business transaction, that’s why.  Schools spend tons of money on recruitment, piggybacking on the university=job security myth. Once they convince kids to apply (because what else are they gonna do?), they squeeze as many students as possible into the freshman class. Admission decisions are usually based on grade 11 and 12 grades, which mean very little. Case in point: My grade 12 English teacher was a total hardass who (rightfully, in my opinion) gave me lower grades because she knew I could do better. Meanwhile, I met plenty of people in University who had high English marks but couldn’t string a written sentence together.

This truly sucked for both parties. Overprepared and underprepared kids generously admitted on the basis of super subjective grades is not a great start.

Here’s what happens after that:

Students who aren’t academically inclined go into crazy debt pursuing a half-interested “education” when they should be pursuing jobs or entrepreneurial ventures which actually match their young talent.

Students who are academically inclined have their passion stifled as they sit through (and pay for) required basic essay writing classes.

We all lose here.

This, combined with coddling in high school and cynicism about education in general, means a good chunk of students don’t give a shit from day one.

It may take a while, but (most of) the rest will stop caring, too.

Maybe they’ll stop caring when they first watch an employer scan their resume and realize that coursework doesn’t cut it. Maybe they’ll be focused on hustling through 3 jobs to make their tuition payments. Maybe they’ll have a mental health issue and be discouraged with the lack of support.

Personally, my breaking point was when I was repeatedly forced to choose between the challenging courses I truly wanted to take and the bird courses that would allow me to keep my scholarship or get into grad school. Sure, trial & error may be an important step in learning, but GPAs don’t really make room for that. Higher education is often sabotaged by the pursuit of good grades (or, if you get jaded enough, the pursuit of a passing mark).

You know how this story ends. By the end of their education, many students just don’t care about school and quite probably haven’t learned a whole lot. The power of the degree is weakened by the low standards needed to achieve it (sing it with me–Cs and Ds get degrees!), and once passionate learners are now serious cynics.

I can only imagine how much that sucks for professors.

Unfortunately, some of them don’t care either.

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There’s a story I sometimes tell about first year University, one that always makes people smile. During a 5:30 pm intermediate-advanced French grammar class, some fellow students and I started bringing long island iced teas in coffee tumblers to class. It was a perfect solution–our professor spoke terrible French, and the booze made us giggle at the many “etre” and “avoir” mixups on his powerpoint slides. When he didn’t show up, we would have a drink together and chat. He was late to nearly every class and missed a couple with no warning, so this was an important bonus.

I tell that story in a way that makes people laugh, but the reality is that it wasn’t funny. We each spent almost $800 on that course. Many of us had moved to this city and attended this school specifically to improve our French. It was my first semester at University, and this experience set the tone for how seriously I was going to take my education moving forward. We discussed making a formal complaint, but a couple senior students in the class were worried about losing the credit. All we could do was give him a bad review on our student evaluation forms. Following this experience, I dropped the French class I had signed up for the following semester.

Another particularly memorable communications prof often searched random theories from the textbook on YouTube, selecting the first relevant-seeming video that came up and treating the auditorium of students to what was definitely a high school student project lazily thrown together on Windows Movie Maker. A few other classes featured slides directly plagiarized from a textbook. Many students saw this as a “good thing” since they could skip the class. Personally, I wish I could have skipped paying the tuition and just bought the book.

To be fair, these were outliers. What was perhaps more common and unfortunate were the professors who were good researchers and terrible teachers–who had written great books and had stunning resumes, but had no interest in teaching and certainly no talent for it. Whether it was a heavily credentialed professor from afar who barely spoke English or a disinterested book smart scholar, we met a host of characters at the front of the classroom who were not overly interested in our education.

I should stipulate here that most of my professors were wonderful, though I’m sure a few struggled with the system themselves. A system which often keeps profs perpetually part-time, regardless of their teaching talents. A system which sees teaching as a side project. A system which churns out apathetic students who thwart any effort to be innovative. A system which often overlooks its obligation to undergrad students, focusing instead on graduate programs and research grants.

In so many ways, we are ripping both kids and their teachers off and fumbling a valuable piece of continuing education.

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The graduation face.

Now we come to the part about ROI (return on investment). I know corporate buzzwords suck, but I think this is the way we need to frame the conversation for it to make sense.

The first question we need to ask ourselves is a simple one: Does education need to be correlated with employability to be valuable?

My answer is no, education is valuable in and of itself.

Whew. I can already hear every dad at every University Open House loudly crossing their arms at me.

“If we’re going to be sinking 30k into this institution, my kid sure as hell better come out more employable than they went in.”

Guess what, worried parent #52? You’re right. Of course you’re right. We’ve already established that students are often apathetic, that solid course content and professors’ attention is a gamble, and now you’re telling me that the kid is going to graduate with shitty job prospects. How is that worth an average debtload of 26k?!

It isn’t. Unless you’re super dedicated to your field of study, it just isn’t.

And here’s where ROI comes into play: Education is worth an investment of time and money. But it just isn’t worth that much, not when students don’t even have that much to give and they need to create a life afterwards. Not when online and experiential learning offer plentiful alternatives to the University stream. Not when so many of the students aren’t even interested in a job in their field.

That’s not an exaggeration, by the way. Once, during a Q & A, I asked a class of second year History majors how many of them wanted to pursue a career in a History-related field.

Only two people in that classroom raised their hands.

Now, I think it’s awesome that people want to learn about History even if they don’t want to make it a career. I think that’s great news for democracy and society. It promises us more knowledgeable lawyers, politicians, and citizens in general.

But the price those kids are being forced to pay for their curiousity is way, way too high.

…Oh, right, this is an essay. I guess this is the conclusion. In University, I would have copy and pasted my intro to the bottom, reworded it, and made it punchy. But honestly, I don’t want to drive these points home. I don’t want to “reaffirm my thesis.”

I just want this shit to change.

I’ve written about why undergraduate education is broken, because it’s a subject I know well. But what I wish I could write is why, and how, we should fix it.

As someone who wholeheartedly adores education in all its forms, I just want this to get better. Ideas welcome.

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Yep, the East Coast is still wonderful. I checked.

My time exploring this country, in all its beauty (imperfect, tree-and-rock-and-tree based beauty, but beauty nonetheless), is far from over. Last week, I found myself on the East Coast of Canada once again. This time, though, I was exploring THE BEAUTY OF FRIENDSHIP.

(I also just threw up in my mouth, dun’worry. )

I share enough of my ridiculous awkwardness with the people who read this blog that I figure it’s worth throwing up some of my happiness, too. This one is profound, in the most simple way. I have friends, lovely friends. To me, they are home. They moved. I visited. They’re still home. And that’s awesome. It’s just awesome.

I repeat: I am also throwing up in my mouth.

With the right company, I imagine someone could be anywhere in the world and be happy. But the seafood, fall colours, ocean, and calmness of the East coast made the experience next-level relaxing. This was vacation. After the last post, there’s no doubt I needed one.

It’s different, traveling with friends. My last Canadiana experience was selfish…because, well, traveling alone is selfish. It’s supposed to be. That’s the point. That trip was all about experiences, about learning and bucket-listing; short-term connections, life lessons, et cetra. And I loved that. I’m sure I still would.

But last week, I was visiting old friends. I was traveling with my plus-one. This trip was all about people. It was about sharing experiences and sitting around the table. It was just friendship. Not the one-week-long Hostel kind of friendship (which is beautiful in its own way, no doubt), but the kind that makes you think “This. Is. Home.”

Of course, there is nothing, nothing, like experiencing a brief breeze of “This. Is. Home.”  while sitting around with a bunch of strangers in a new place. It’s literally worth traveling around the world for. It’s emotional tourism. But sitting around with people who have been there for awhile and just drowning in the “Home” feeling–even in a someone else’s  “house,” even after a long flight–that’s new.

And I could get used to it.

Hopewell Rocks. Why you gotta be so gorgeous, New Brunswick?

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.

– – –

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!

Why #BringBackOurGirls is not just about Nigeria–it’s about all of us. (Yes, Canada, especially you.)

I’m glad we’re responding to this. But I’m not surprised by it, not at all.

It took us long enough to care about the devastating kidnapping of 200 schoolgirls in Nigeria. When we finally did start paying attention (two weeks later), the incident created a media firestorm. Of course it did. It has all the ingredients, really: A villain, who provides shocking media of his villain-ness. Heroes, complete with moral outrage and relatable heartbreak. We even created a catchy hashtag–hello, 2014 activism.

This kidnapping story is a simple, engaging, and heart-wrenching narrative. It allows us to point at someone specific and say “HIM. BAD.” It gives us the opportunity to talk about overwhelming topics. It lets us connect because, regardless of how you feel about oil/abortion/Jesus/Harper/Wall Street/capitalism/Congress, we all know stealing and selling people is not cool.

We don’t know that because we’re morally superior, by the way. We know that because, through our brutal histories (‘sup, slavery?) we’ve learned it the hard way.

…or so we think.

The problem is we haven’t properly learned it, not really. This isn’t a freak incident with one crazy guy and a few unlucky girls. This isn’t something that happened in poor little underdeveloped Africa. This is systematic. This is global. This is in our backyard.

If we look past the narrative and see what’s really happening here, we are forced to realize that the #BringBackOurGirls conversation is, rightfully, about so many things. It’s about education. It’s about violence against women. It’s about human trafficking, it’s about international pressure, it’s about radicalism, it’s about human rights.

The hard truth is this: If we are calling the victims “our girls,” we should also call the perpetrators “our human traffickers.” We should fight, we should talk, we should care, we should demand action, but we should not feel like our governments and our people are somehow “better” than this. We don’t get to claim the hero role, not while we are still part of human trafficking and violent repression incidents all over the world, every day.

Not while Canada has failed to address over 1,000 missing and murdered Aboriginal women.

Not while “sex tourism” is a bustling international industry worth hundreds of billions of dollars, with children making up an upwards of 40% of active prostitutes in India and Thailand.

Not while sex trafficking brings an estimated 800,000 women and girls (about half of whom are children) across borders every year, including an estimated 50,000 to the United States.

Not while American media coverage focuses primarily on missing middle-class white women, while persons of colour, runaways, and sex workers go missing far more often.

Not while there are over 64 million child brides worldwide .

Not while approximately 140 million women and girls living in the world today have undergone female circumcision.

Not while harassment against women in schools is internationally widespread, including statistics of up to 83% of women in the United States experiencing sexual harassment in public schools.

Not while the high majority of sex workers in Western Europe are undocumented immigrants with nowhere else to turn.

When we say #BringBackOurGirls, we have a lot more girls to think about. A lot more governments to hold responsible. A lot more conversations to have.

It’s not just about Nigeria. It’s about all of us.

While international efforts to get these girls back are amazing, it doesn’t mean the countries helping are paragons of virtue in the human trafficking field. Not even a little bit. From many angles, the response is downright hypocritical. That doesn’t mean countries like Canada should stop helping. It means that they should keep helping–just don’t stop with these two hundred girls.

Don’t stop until your citizens aren’t flying to other countries to have sex with children. Don’t stop until you accept responsibility for the safety and well-being of our sisters who are Aboriginal, vulnerable, poor, and sex workers. Don’t stop until you investigate all cases of missing and murdered women. Don’t stop until every woman feels comfortable walking home (or, say, walking through the hallways at school).

Don’t stop until you #BringBackOurGirls–every single one of them.

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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/

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.

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!

(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.