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After realizing that the shoe worn by Paul for so many years as a Canadian expat living and working in the United States would soon be on the other foot, I contemplated starting a blog of my own to capture the experience from my uniquely warped vantage point.

During the earliest days of our relationship, Canada existed as an abstract place in my mind.  My entire Canadian experience was spent in layover at the old Mirabel Airport outside Montreal in 1977 while flying from Paris to Chicago.  In those days, layover zones for international passengers weren’t what they are now.  No shops, no restaurants.  Just a waiting room.

I knew little of Canada then except that it was there, it was big, and, I was certain,  really, really cold.  In hindsight, I got most of that right.

While working in Dallas, I found myself learning basic nuts-and bolts Canadian geography just to do my job.  I had to know that Calgary is in Alberta, Toronto in Ontario, Halifax in Nova Scotia, Montreal in Quebec and Vancouver in British Columbia.  My biggest headache was remembering that St. John and St. John’s are two different cities in two different provinces (New Brunswick and Newfoundland respectively).

I didn’t have to know how to find them on a map.  Good thing considering it is a very big map.

Lots of Canadians can rattle off the names of all 50 U.S. states and their capitals.  Few Americans can perform the same feat by reciting the names of Canada’s 10 provinces and three territories, let alone their capitals.

Living with a Canadian wearing an invisible maple leaf tattooed on his forehead changes everything.  During the interim between an afternoon visit to Thunder Bay, Ontario and my first Canadian stay of over a day years later in British Columbia, I learned a lot about Canada.  Enough that, as it now stands, I could probably notch its citizenship test cold.

Canada’s late Prime Minister Pierre Eliot Trudeau once called Canada “a mouse between two elephants.”  His was an oblique reference to the country’s being geographically pinched between two superpowers.

For me, however, Canada is a bit like the Twilight Zone.  At once it appears so familiar, yet so strange.  Most of Canada is predominantly English-speaking, just like in the U.S.  For the most part, Canadians drive the same kinds of cars as Americans, eat the same foods, shop in malls, love their sports heroes and grumble about politics.

But Canada and the U.S. are completely different forks in the road.  Even familiar things can be different here, hilariously so on first encounter.  Every year, the President of the United States of America delivers a State of the Union address to both houses of Congress.  Canada’s Governor General delivers the annual Throne Speech – the Canadian equivalent of the SOTU – to the House of Commons.  The kicker is that Governor Generals give that speech while randomly alternating between English and French.  Watching my first Throne Speech, I blurted, “She’s doing what?”  Prime Ministers flip regularly between English and French during the weekly Question Period in the House of Commons.  It’s not something former PM Jean Chretien did for sport merely because, as a bilingual Quebecer, he could.  It’s expected.

That’s only the tip of the 40 foot snowbank.

Crossing the invisible line that is the 49th parallel means learning a whole new way of dealing with seemingly simple tasks.  Beginning in the 1970s,  Canada adopted the metric system, while the States resolutely follow the U.S. Customary Units for weights and measures, based upon the British Imperial System.  Temperatures here are reported in Celsius, not Fahrenheit.  Grocery shopping and temperature readings tax my brain.  No immunity is granted when dealing with household thermostats.  They’re in Celsius too.  Strangely, most oven controls are in Fahrenheit.

Most painful for me as a wordsmith is language.  Canadian English is a hybrid of American and British English.  Some rules are the same in American English, other copy British English.  Not all Canadians say, ‘She is in the hospital’ as is heard on Canada’s west coast.  East Coasters say, ‘She is in hospital,’  Their language is rife with extemporaneous ‘u’s tossed into words:  labour, arbour, colour, etc.  They even write “armory” with a ‘u’.  They attend theatres, not theaters.  They watch hockey games televised from Air Canada Centre, not Center.   The combination of the letter ‘a’ followed by ‘e’ is a big hit too.  It’s a Commonwealth thing.

Canadians might stifle a giggle when a restaurant server is asked to retrieve a napkin, probably wondering why anyone would want to wipe away crumbs with a diaper.  In a cruel twist of role reversal, I’m the one most often remembering to ask for a serviette.

Asking for Canadian Bacon could result in being presented with a DVD copy of a classic comedy by the same name starring John Candy, another gift from Canada.  Back bacon is what you want.

Old habits die hard.  I can ace that Canadian citizenship exam with flying colors, but if asked to write it  in Canadian English, I will surely fail.

Which brings us to that last little letter in the alphabet, the one that outs me as an American every time.  No matter how you slice, dice, chop or grind it, that one is a harder fix.  I can set my word processing software to Canadian English and it will wipe away my sins of ‘u’ omission.  No such remedy exists for those times I have to spell out loud using that letter.  I’m not sure I’ll ever learn to think of zed as anything more than a household product.  The phrase “zed-28 Camaro” does not roll naturally from my tongue.  There is no ‘d’ there!

This blog will be as much about our transition to life in Greater Vancouver and the idiosyncracies of adjustment to new ways of living, thinking and being.  On the journey, I’ll lampoon many targets along the way.  Few grants of immunity will be issued to Canadians and Americans alike.

Other differences will come into play on a regional level.  Even without the metric system and extemporaneous ‘u’s, Seattle (about 2 hours southwest of Langley) and Minneapolis (about 1,700 miles away) are very different places with different mindsets.

Let’s face it…Canadians are funny.  As in flat-out laugh-out-loud funny.  Plenty work in the American entertainment industry as writers and performers.  This is the country that birthed comedy sports as seen in Whose Line is it Anyway?

Little is immune to Canadian playfulness.  Overheard around Langley, “I’m going to BunsMaster,” doesn’t mean planning a visit to an exercise equipment or dietary supplement store, nor to a gym.  BunsMaster is a bakery.  (I still can’t stifle my giggles.)  And what else can be said for a sign at a park encouraging visitors to “bike the dyke?”  (They said what?)

Paul Tombu is my love and my reason for being on this journey.  Allowing him to move alone was never an option.  Without him sharing my life as soul mate as well as Canadian tour guide, interpretor and human mathematical conversion kit, I would be lost in space.  His patience and love know no bounds.  This is dedicated to him.


Posted July 17, 2011 by noslenca9300

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