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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Jealousy has a stage name. It’s called Inspiration.

I’m going to describe to you a hypothetical scenario.  (Just hypothetical, mind you. I am not admitting to anything.).

You check Facebook. You see a post from an old friend.  This post suggests that they’re doing cool stuff, and they’re doing it well. Yes, someone else’s life is awesome.

You’re a good person, of course, so your first thought is: Hey, that’s cool! Good for my friend!

(…except that it’s not.)

You start clicking through pictures.   They have really cool looking new friends (who, you assume, are way cooler than you). And they’re hot.  When did everyone get hot? When did everyone start doing cool stuff?  By this point, your friend has completely trumped anything hanging around your profile–three months worth of George Takei “shares” and one music video from the 90s, to be exact.  You look up.  You are surrounded by all the laundry you have to do, clutter on your desk, a bleak-seeming text messaging inbox, the way your hair is growing in funny.

In a few hours you might be happy for them–but right now, you’re busy being mediocre.

Dude. Stop.

Here’s the thing about jealousy.  Jealousy has a stage name.   It’s called inspiration.

I’ve learned this the hard way (okay, here comes the admitting part).  I have spent way too much energy wanting/waiting/wishing/generally being useless.  I think a lot of people have.  It’s easy to become defeated when you see other people doing cool things.  To pick a totally random example (Judi), you could see a picture of an old friend tobogganing down volcanoes in Nicaragua (Judi).  At that point, it’s very easy to say “Well, I’m not in Nicaragua.”  It’s easy to feel a little bit smaller than you did a second ago, to just move on with your day.

But what if you were to take that pang of ‘This is something I find awesome.  Noted.’  and turn it into motivation?  You could add to your bucket listYou could surround yourself with people who live amazing lives.  You could learn from them.

Every year, I have the same overarching goal:  to make next year’s Me someone that this year’s Me would crumble in jealousy of…or at least dread going up against in a job interview.  I couldn’t even go about that without my jealousies-turned-inspirations.  The fact is, I would not be in Washington DC right now if someone (Judi) didn’t offer so many envy-inciting stories about interesting jobs in new places. And I wouldn’t even be writing this had I not been struck with admiration(-cum-jealousy) after seeing other women’s mega-blogs this summer.

“Maybe I could do that. Right? Maybe?  I don’t know.”

There was literally one way to find out. Just one.

Jealousy may be ugly, but inspiration is beautiful.  Is someone else is trying new things? Noted. We should also go try new things.  Did someone else accomplish something big? Noted.  Let’s go start something big.  Do you wish your butt looked even half that good in a pair of skinny jeans?

…yeah, me too.

Skinny jeans aside, we have a choice every day (cliche alert) to get bitter, or get better.  I’m gonna try to be on team “get better.”

Who’s in?

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.

Welcome to America: Yes, I have gotten horribly lost. Already. Twice.

I didn’t check the time on Friday.  I slept in until 2 pm.  I’m pretty sure my daily Adventures involved trying to open a can of beans without a working can opener (this turned into a 15 minute, 3-person job) and rocking an hour-long game of Wizard.

If this is the “relaxing” thing all you kids have been talking about…I could get used to it.

We spent the day at a big cottage in the-middle-of-nowhere, Pennsylvania (est. never, really). These cottages, set up as retreats in the middle of state parks, cost about $80-100 a night and give you (in our case, at least) a monster of a house overlooking the lake. There was a full kitchen, beautiful wooden furniture, board games from the 80s, and (most importantly) this awesome lamp.

So, this is my selling feature. There's a reason I'm not a real estate agent. BUT ISN'T IT COOL?
So, this is my selling feature. I may not have future in real estate, BUT ISN’T IT COOL?

Frozen lakes are kind of boring to look at, but they’re definitely pretty.  I was really feeling the “peaceful” thing. I probably could have stayed there forever.


^nothing like that.

I think my parents were tempted to stay there, too, for fear of leaving if nothing else.  The drive in is currently being referred to as “Hell.”  “Hell” took us up and down steep mountains in a brutal snow fog.  For a good 30 minutes, my ears were popping (altitude problems) and my father was breathing out G-rated cuss words: FRIG.  FRICK. DANG. (Repeat).

Don’t worry, I evened the language score by referring to the cottage’s location as “a**-f**k nowhere”–which was totally allowed, because even though that phrase makes zero literal sense, it was (f**king) accurate.  Isolated was an understatement.  But I suppose that’s what gave the place so much charm once we arrived. (And yeah, yeah, I did just bleep out my own swear words on my own blog. Feeling dainty today.)

But Shauna! I thought you were going to DC to be a big strong, independent young professional! What’s with the stopover in a**-f**k nowhere? And why in the world are your parents in this story, risking their lives (slash being adorable)?

Well friends, it seems that where I come from, “Shauna’s moving to DC!” sounds a whole lot like “ROAD TRIP!!!”

I value my parents’ love of the family vacation much more now than I did back in the day.  This is mostly because “back in the day,” family road trips meant being strapped in the backseat with 3 dudes for an 8-hour showdown over whose turn it was with the Nintendo DS (“I don’t even want screens being used on this trip. This is ridiculous.” — Mom, every single time).  These days, the road trips are a “whoever wants to go, wherever we want to go” thing, and have more to do with taking a break from routine than corralling four kids. On Thursday, four of us (my parents, one of the middle brothers and I) packed into the car, crossed the border, shopped, chilled at a cottage, and generally burned time/midnight oil/gasoline until my moving day came.  January 5th.  The move in was quick and painless, which is something I have never been able to say before.  I was sad to see them go so soon, but it was amazing to have the company en route.

…and to have a day to relax, which I totally did, contrary to my usual curse of not being able to. I even wrote half of this blog post by hand in a notebook on the cottage couch, because it just felt like the right way to do it in a place like that.

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Barefoot and everything. Kickin’ it old school.

Once I reached DC (yesterday), I wasted no time releasing my awkward self around town.  This is my first full day in the city, and I have already gotten horribly lost (Twice. I want you to look at a map of the lovely, grid-like DC and tell me if YOU could get lost twice.).  I have also already had a 3 hour political conversation with a Republican from Mississippi (we disagreed on most things, but we listened to each other and we both liked Football, so I think it worked out okay).  I also wore a t-shirt outside while everyone else had jackets on because it was 10 degrees and sunny and I’m Canadian, dammit.

With that, I think it’s fair to say: Welcome to America, folks!