Travelling Abroad Advice for Canadians: Crazy (But Accurate) Edition

Today, I spent some time on the phone with an expert on Canadian safety and protocol while traveling abroad. He was…quirky. The phone call was informative, for sure, but it was also hilarious.  Here are some highlights:

“Make sure you give copies of all your papers to someone who loves you. I define ‘someone who loves you’ as ‘someone who put up with you for your teenage years and still talks to you.'”

“You have to Register with DFAIT if you’re a Canadian going anywhere abroad for more than 2 weeks. Otherwise, you’re just being stupid.”

“If you find yourself in North Korea, you go to the Swedish Embassy. If you find yourself elsewhere and there’s no Canadian Embassy around, go to the Australian Embassy. Don’t try the American Embassy…if you think they’re going to help you, you’re dead wrong.”

“You have to be careful.  Washington DC is kinda like Vanier.”

“And now comes the part where I talk to you about Love. Ready? Okay. When you are in love, your brain chemistry changes.  I get it. You’re 20.  If you call me and you’re in trouble but you say ‘Oh, but I’m in love!’ I will not judge you. You have no control over that. It’s just your brain.”

“Canada is the only country in the world where we elect people, they pass laws, then people don’t follow the laws, and no one cares. Other countries aren’t like that. You should probably follow laws outside of Canada.”

“You’re a student of history, so I love you already. Everyone should be a student of history.”

“I might seem like a nice guy right now, but I can be an asshole when I negotiate. I will bust in on a gang and get you out of there.”

“I believe in the Trudeau years when everyone could do whatever they wanted and just had to be accountable to the consequences. Like, you can be involved with drugs while you’re living abroad if you want, but if you do I won’t care about you. ”

Word.

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Dear America: Sorry about that first impression. You’re actually kinda cute.

My first day in a new place is always ridiculously stereotypical.  We’re talking caricature-worthy.  Maybe this is normal, you know, some twisted form of beginners luck.  Or maybe, just maybe, it’s a curse I’ve been given…by a God whose sense of humour is borderline racist, apparently.

It never fails.  My first day in France was so full of cheese and snobbery and nudity, I almost fondue’d myself (for lack of a better term).  After only a few hours in Cuba, all I could think was “Well, you guys seem awfully desperate for tips and full of cigars…”.  And during my first day living in Ottawa, EVERYONE seemed to be talking politics–I even overheard the penniless men outside of the homeless shelter discussing the Harper agenda.

It’s not that these stereotypes aren’t real.  They definitely exist outside of day 1. France has cheese. Cuba has cigars. Ottawa has politics. Never, though, is anything actually at the level it seems on the first day.  Upon arrival anywhere, I am immediately thrust into what feels like a South Park episode.  I go on to realize my first day was just a bad “So a guy walks into a bar…” joke.

Naturally, this can give me a nasty case of “get me out of here!”.  After that cursed first day, I can’t help but think ‘Canadian stereotypes? I can handle those.  Let’s do that instead.’   I can rock a poutine coma, an over-apologetic neighbor, or a morning spent shoveling the driveway (eh?).  Let’s face it, Canadians: our stereotypes are pretty much adorable.

Canada
Apparently, this is my definition of “adorable.” Hmm. May need to give that one a little more thought…

This brings me to my current situation: ‘Merica.

American stereotypes are not quite so playful. There are some pretty scary -isms lying around: American exceptionalism, racism, and lets-all-get-guns-ism to name a few.  I’m not trying to attack the United States, which has been so very welcoming to me so far.  I’m not trying to oversimplify or judge, either. But whenever I get talked at by Glen Beck, or I read an American history book which refuses to admit to losing any war ever, I pack away a few pre-concieved notions. And, yes, I have read my share of scary articles on health care, teen pregnancy, religion, literacy, obesity, bad nose jobs, and worse attitudes.

To be clear, when I crossed the border and moved to the US capital, I didn’t expect to come face-to-face with all the scary -isms. I didn’t desire or even consider that Fox News incarnate might be everywhere, least of all in Democratic DC. I assumed it was going to be like Canada, just a bit warmer and with more sugary cereal options.  And it is, or so I have come to realize after a few days. But after my first day? Hah.

Hah. Hah. Hah.

Let’s review how my first 24 hours in the States went, shall we?

First, I went outside for a walk and was given reason to post THIS within the first five minutes:

Atheism

Later that day, I saw a well-dressed white woman bully a black server at McDonalds, then inform her supervisor of the altercation in an attempt to get said server fired. Yeah, McDonalds–the only place I could find to eat when I got lost (well, that and a half-dozen Starbucks, I suppose).

I discussed Obama, gay marriage, and women’s rights with a young Baptist woman from Mississippi. She is definitely one of the loveliest people I have met so far (we ate dinner together today, actually).  Southern hospitality is the real deal–she makes a mean cheese/bacon dip, and I have huge respect for her love of College Football and Jesus.  But when I asked “Are all the stereotypes about [insert -ism here] true?” she responded with a resounding YES.  Her personal views, no surprise, often flew in the face of things my little Canadian self took for granted.  There was a pretty clear distaste for the words “Liberal” and “Socialist.”  My American stereotypes lived on.

On day one, there was no eye contact. No opening doors. Stars and stripes EVERYWHERE.  The people in suits were all White, while the people working minimum wage gigs were almost exclusively Black & Hispanic. The cheese on my burger tasted even LESS like cheese than Kraft Singles do (yes, it’s possible) and the Mountain Dew can was way too big.

Around 10 pm on the evening of day one (Sunday), I went down to the dining hall for a tea.  By that point, I was positive that all of my American-ism stereotypes were true.  I struck up a conversation with another girl in the kitchen (“Really, you got lost today too? Where?  Oh, I’m so glad it’s not just me!”).  I learned that she was an American Studies major from Philadelphia, and was immediately intrigued.  She had a lot to share.

I had a lot to ask.

We talked about education. About national identity, racism, systems, state power, patriotism, language, religion…everything.  One hour, two cups of tea and a number of revelations later, she turned the conversation to me: “So, do you think you could ever live here yourself?”

At that moment, after that day, I really did not know.  “I don’t think so,” I responded, “Unless I had a serious job opportunity.”

I understand how silly it was to declare this on day one.  Every….single….time I visit a new country, I learn and re-learn just how misleading first impressions can be (especially with the first day curse).  America has proved no different.

Let’s look at today.  Today, I received more random “Hello!” greetings, eye contact, unnecessary apologies, and good-natured jokes than would in the average Ottawa week (sorry, O-town.  You know I’m still your biggest fan.).  Today, I saw people of every kind of race working every kind of job (yes, it was still disproportionate, but I could swear it was a full divide on Sunday).  And while steering clear of fast food, I remembered the infamous Rideau Street McDonalds in Ottawa (see also: full-out brawl when a customer called a server the N-word).  I really don’t have the right to call out any MickeyDs conflict after that.

Tonight, I think I could live here (this is obviously a good thing, seeing as I currently do live here). I’m not saying that I would absolutely want to live here permanently. I like my poutine comas.  But the thought itself is not so terrifying, really–not with DC, at least.

And so, I officially declare that my first day full of -isms was invalid: at least in this part of the country, at least for now.  I can handle you, DC.  Sorry about that first impression. You’re actually kinda cute.