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!

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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.

The Journey Begins Before it Even Starts (wait, what?)

I learned awhile ago that the “journey” was a significant part of any voyage.  Maybe even the most significant part.

I know this is not a new idea.  I just Googled the thought and came up with a whole bunch of cutesy quote pictures to back me up (always a good sign…right?)

The clichés are with me.

Usually, my definition of the “journey” has to do with road trips, running for trains, and airplane (mis)adventures.  When I was 16, I decided to sleep on a bench during a twelve hour layover in France–and classy is as classy does, that is now the sum total of my Paris experience.  Total strangers on train rides have offered insights on communism, abusive relationships, grieving, and the Beach Boys (you know, typical polite conversation).  Confusing maps, broken down buses, tight connections and “Oh! Finally! Coffee!”  are all memories. They’re good memories. They’re funny.

The actual “traveling” is always at least half the fun.

Currently, though, I’m becoming acquainted with another side of “the journey.” This part is happening at home, in Ottawa. No wheels underneath me. No open road or visible sky. Instead, this part involves sitting on my couch with a mug of hot tea. (I should point out that it’s not really a couch. It’s a futon mattress propped up against a wall. Again, classy is as classy does.). Music is playing, a YouTube lyrics video of a catchy song on repeat for the 10th time. And browser tabs. So many browser tabs.

Train schedules. Tourist destinations. Hostels. Bus fares. Airline discounts.  Local blogs and forums. Festival lineups.

Oh-my-goodness, am I really doing this? Am I really taking a month off to travel across Canada? More importantly, how do I even start planning for this?

Props to my brother Mike for wood-burning my awesome Canada flag.
Props to my brother Mike for wood-burning my awesome Canada flag.

I have a plane ticket to Halifax. I have a 21-day train pass, scheduled to start as soon as I’m done with the Maritimes. My family and friends across the country have been warned.

I’m scheduling, scheduling, scheduling. It’s a lot more work than I thought it would be. It’s a whole lot of fun. And it’s definitely part of the journey.