01 August 2009

Um, Canada

The ubiquitous Canadian backpack patch. This one is on Brandon's bag.

“Miss, where you from?”

“What is your native place?”

“Where you come from?”


This is the most common question that a backpacker is asked. I am asked where I am from (“well, you're clearly not from here, missy...”) on a daily basis and the question ranges from polite and friendly to mildly accusitory, asked with a leering eye.


But I find that lately the moment that the word has escpaed my lips I feel like a fraud. Am I really from Canada anymore? The answer seems too limiting. I haven't been home in 10 months. I lived in Mumbai for part of that time. My accent is changing. And is Vancouver even in Canada? It doesn't snow and we are all left wing commies. Aren't we like, our own thing? I feel like I should add this information into my answer, but that would just confuse matters. So, Canada it is.

My brain is always like “Wait – don't you wanna know what part!?” because to a Canadian that is of tantamount importance. A Vancouverite is a very different animal than an Edmontonian, a Montrealer, a Haligonian (from Halifax – the coolest demonym ever) and especially from a Torontonian. I think that some of us have more in common with the closest American cities than to eachother, other than the weak thread of patriotism, politeness and pride in our free health care. Some cities even have full blown rivalries. So, if was going to answer truthfully the response should be “Vancouver – in Canada.”

But no, they do not care about your city. Just country – and Canada is an acceptable answer. “Canada – very good country! Very Cold!” Sometimes in small villages people have no idea what or where Canada is. “England?” they will respond.

I sigh. “Near America.”

“Oh! Amereeka!!” Suddenly I am much more exciting.

In India the word Canada would really confuse matters. “Bangalore?” people would ask, confused. Not as confused as I was, until I pieced together the fact that B'lore is in Karnataka, and they speak a Dravidian language called Kannada....

I spent my teens and early twenties (and still do some days) dreaming that I was European. Some kind of European – any kind, just so I could get my hands on that EU passport and live and work freely on the continent – settle in Berlin, Paris, Prague. (That still sounds pretty good, actually.) I regarded the Dutch, French and Italians I met as unimaginably lucky, born into a wealth of history, art, food, culture and tradition that made ole' (young) Vancouver look like a vapid (but beautiful) cesshole of mediocrity.

I have been to Europe four times - strolled cobblestone streets, ate croissant and cafe au lait, visited magnificent museums and unimaginably hip bars and clubs and felt like what I was – a Canadian. Regarded by the Europeans as sweet, polite and friendly but a little thick – kind of like a really good dog. (I won't tell you how they regard Americans...)

There is a Unicorn on the Canadian passport - look on the right hand side of the crest. It's like we're a nation of wiccans....

I was fascinated by the locals, who always seemed so poised, so cool – so far ahead of the trends in Vancouver or Seattle. They sat at sidewalk tables drinking wine and coffee until the wee hours discussing politics and philosophy looking effortlessly chic and all I could think was “wow – these people are the ancestors of the great poets, playwrites and sculptors in a much more tangible way than we Canadians or Americans are.” I was jealous of that link to our shared history.

But lately, as I meet more and more Swedes and Germans and Spaniards who seem really fascinated with me and my Canadian-ness I realize that I am just as exotic to them as they are to me. Maybe my cadence has a lot of 'likes' and 'ums' and even the odd Canuck “eh” thrown in, my country is young and uncultured and I do guiltily regard Pizza Hut quite highly (it's not exactly pizza, but whatever it is, it is delicious. Stuff that crust!) but my relationship with my country is full of quirks.

Things that have amazed and interested Europeans:

*There was a bear attack at my Junior High. I lived in a city that edged onto the woods, and cougars and bob cats were also spotted nearby on a semi regular basis. In my province we have bear sirens in mountain towns, and if one sounds you nonchalantly head indoors.

*My grandfather drove a tugboat up and down the British Columbia coast in the 40's. Landlocked countries find tugboats neat, I guess.

*My great grandpa came from the Ukraine in 1898 and lived in a dug out house (a room dug into the ground to protect from the cold) on the Alberta prairies for the years that it took his family to clear the land and begin farming it. My Baba (great grandma) was born in Canada and died in her 80's never having learned any English other than “Eat, Eat – you're too skeeeny.”

*One of my dearest friends is First Nations (Native Canadian.) This one endlessly fascinates Germans, who collect Native art more than anyone. They are even more fascinated when I tell them that he is gay and speaks fluent Swiss German...

*My city is hosting the 2010 Winter Olympics. I voted against it in the referendum we had 8 years ago (because we also have a major poverty and drugs problem) but now that it is happening I am really excited.

*I visited Winnipeg (S's hometown) last year and it was minus 40 degrees Celcius outside. When I started crying on Portage Avenue ( I am pretty sure my face was getting frostbitten) S was like “Ummm, baby. Maybe you better not cry. Your eyelashes will freeze together.” This made me cry harder. We had to spend a lot of time in the Portage Place Mall....

*I know all of the major hockey teams and players despite watching roughly one game every few years. “It just kind of gets in your brain in Canada. Like math.” I tell them.

Admittedly, these are not the same as being able to see the Eiffel Tower from your bedroom window, but I can drive to Whistler in 3 hours. It's also a lot easier to get a railpass and explore Europe than it is to try and backpack the vast emptiness of Canada if the roles were reversed. That's something, I suppose. It all depends on perspective. And I guess that even though some people in Asia don't know where Canada is, it is a lot easier than trying to tell them I am from Estonia or Luxembourg...

And if you are an Estonian or Luxembourger in Asia – just say “Near America” when people are confused. They'll get really excited.

Will I be needing a new passport for this move?

(It turns out that I may be re-locating to ....gasp!....Toronto when I return home, which will really wipe out any ambiguities I have about my national identity. I actually suspect it will feel like living in a Margaret Atwood novel, and you can't get much more Canadian than that.)


Stephanie C said...

My Jeff and I visited Toronto a couple of years ago and i stated and stand by that statement now that if i had to live in Canada i would happily live there. The restaurants, the boutiques, the cleanliness and friendliness the transport - I loved it all, we loved it. Enjoy.
p.s this piece amused me no end. I'm English living in Milwaukee WI and inevitably get asked where i'm from, then how long ive been here. Sometimes i still feel like telling people that I have only been in the country for 5 days. Oh how i remember those days giving that answer. They just couldn't believe it. So excited to tell me of their town, what to do, where to go, have i heard of summerfest? Polishfest? germanfest? Now i'vs been 5 yrs they ask 'why here?'

Floridagirl said...

Love your spirit and sense of adventure! Your blog this morning and America, Uh Huh perfectly captures some things about being American. We've only traveled to Scotland and Ireland and were pretty much like puppies. Really friendly until someone snapped at us. In some cases we were handled cautiously until they knew we were friendly and truly interested in their country and them and not 'uppity'. We were snubbed by a French couple and a Danish couple at a B&B quite clearly because of where we were from. Since I'm usually friendly that stung but there are rude people in every country. I try to stay out of political discussions since they rank with religion in being contentious but (as you said) not everyone (by a long shot) liked Clinton or Bush but contrary to what the media portrays not everyone likes Obama. I love to travel and you're correct; I try not to say where I'm from unless asked (but as a southerner my accent gives me away very quickly). It was interesting though, when asked we would say "America" or "the United States" and almost invariably there'd be a slight roll of the eyes (I KNEW that!) and "No, which state?" Since we're from the south but living in Colorado we felt obligated to explain our life history. :) We never did get it down quite how to answer the question with leaving something hanging-for them or for us. Anyway, I really enjoy your blog, thanks for keeping us posted.

iz said...

I love this post - this is a major question for me when I travel. I still say I'm Canadian even though Ive spent less than half my life here. OR I'll say I'm from lots of places, or I'll say I was born in such-and-such but I've lived mostly in other places. Really it just depends on my mood and on the person asking.

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JCM said...

Great post. I know how you feel. NYC is so completely different from the rest of America, but we get lumped into the whole thing. Actually, NYC is so completely different from New York state. And within the city, Brooklyn (where I'm from) is very different from the other boroughs. So, Brooklyn should be its own country. :-)

Jean-bean said...

I am new to your blog and I find it fascinating. It’s amazing how you travel around the world. I am very jealous. I wish I could do it too.

Ps: You should call yourself a ‘citizen of the world’

Heather said...

I loved this post! I'm American and want to travel in Europe, but it makes me nervous to know that most Europeans don't like Americans! =/

The Bug said...

For some reason I always say I'm from North Carolina, even though I've lived in Ohio for 12 years & will most likely be here for many more (my husband got a teaching job at a university here). I want to acknowledge where I'm FROM, not just where I live now.

J.Me. said...

I loved this post, you made me laugh out loud. Personally, as an American, I am intrigued by Canada and I want to go explore all of her treasures! It's my latest infatuation, since I've done the Europe thing. Haha. Toronto will be quite a change! Were you offered a job there?

J.Me. said...

Oh, P.S. I'm from Michigan, but live in Illinois. Maybe my new found fascination w/Canada has something to do with my love for the Upper Peninsula or my curiosity about Alaska...Anyway...Safe travels!

Keith Jenkins said...

Another brilliant article! I absolutely love your style. Your stories are fascinating and insightful. Well done!


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Leonard Parker said...

fasinating exploration on nation heritage views. I've have some similer feelings myself on my own even though I've lived just in different parts of america all my life.

Regina said...

Ok, as I said on Twitter-loved this. I'm Irish, living in London, married to an American. We've lived in the States (Wisconson and Illinois),lived in Spain and travelled a lot of Europe. We also plan to move to Thailand early next year.
Why am I telling you all this? Well, because this blog made me laugh soo much. It just hits the nail on the head with every word.
Being from Ireland and living in England, you would imagine it's not that difficult for people to comprehend where I come from, but you'd be wrong.
I live and work in a community in East End London which is majority Bangladeshi (Bengali-as they say). Every time I say I'm Irish they say "it snows a lot there"-referring to Scotland Highlands in the depths of winter. They also comment "so you're English then", which means I end up giving a short history of why I'm not(it helps if I compare this to Bangladesh becoming independent-always a smart move to get them on side).
However, worst of all are the English themselves who have no excuse for thinking so, but still regard (The Republic of)Ireland as part of their "empire" and so on almost all Official forms on which I have to fill in White Irish (yes, they still think all Irish are white?!), the paperwork will later state British-Aargh!!!!!
Just as well my obviously very brilliant Irish wit gets me out of any politically heated situations-right? Afterall, being Irish means being super friendly, witty, a great storyteller and surely drunk 90% of the time. In actual fact, we're sometimes all of those because we're trying to live up to the sterotypes we created for ourselves back when we needed the tourism.
So you see, Canadian, American, Irish... we all have to smile our way through the stereotypes and the mysteries that our countries conjure up around the world-would we really have it any other way?
Thanks again for the great blog.
You can check out my blog at http://aonceathairtri.blogspot.com/

Gwen McCauley said...

ha, ha, ha. As a fellow Canuck I can relate to pretty much everything in your post.

I'm an Ottawa girl myself but have had the luxury of living in B.C. (on a barge anchored off Princess Royal Island, working for the Prince Rupert Fisherman's Co-op), Alberta, Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland.
I've traveled to every province and to the NWT. Yukon and Nunavut are on my list, but lordie the prices to get to the far north are incredible! You could practically do a round-the-world-tour for the cost of a couple of weeks in Nunavut.

I guess the thing that strikes me about the understanding (or lack thereof) that people in other parts of world have about Canada is their inability to understand the incredible scope of our geography. And why should they? Most Canadians barely have come to grips with it.

I personally love not only our traditional diversity of landscape and culture, but our newer immigrant cultural diversity. When I travel overseas I am always amazed to discover how much more geographically and culturally homogenous most countries are.

I could go on and on, but this is a comment not a blog post! Thanks for showing the world how we can be ambiguous about our country and still love her! And you'll do just fine in Toronto. I personally know a few friendly folk there!! :)

By the way, that 'hole in the ground' your great grandparents lived in was called 'a soddie'. I can't imagine surviving a prairie winter in one, but clearly they not only survived it but thrived.

When I am in Europe and, like you, being impressed by how cultured everyone seems to be, I remind myself that there are definite advantages to being a hick. Clear, open skies, highways that stretch forever, lakes & rivers like no place else, and bears, deer, moose & elk wandering through countless cities, towns & villages.

Alperun said...

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Anonymous said...

I love your blog. I also liked the fact you wanted to be European... but you didn't mention the English! Now, I know that a huge proportion of Brits don't like to think they're European, but the geography is unavoidable!
On a different note, when I went to the US, people thought I was Irish/ Australian. I guess it's easy to get confused as so many Irish/ Australians live in England. I like the diversity. It's always nice to hear how wonderful their country is when they live in yours. ;-)
Happy Travels!

the real mia said...

I just visited “Vancouver – in Canada” for the first time. It was beautiful and I wish I'd had more than 2 nights there, especially since one was spent sick in bed with food poison. But really really a beautiful city from the small bit I saw.

Princess Superstar said...

hey, thanks for the message on twitter, but i couldn't reply cuz you're not following me, so i looked you up here. love your latest blog - boy, can i relate, right down to where you're from! ;) here is my blog, i just started, so i hope you enjoy my ramblings! http://princesssstar.blogspot.com/

Anonymous said...

O my gosh!!! you are hilarious!!! I wish I was that interesting. And now you have 985 followers
(Including me)

Sam said...

Well, hopefully when you're back here sometime this year or early next it's not -40 again and we can actually show you around some. It's not quite half bad here in Winnipeg in summer. Except we haven't had summer yet. You bastard Vancouverites stole it from us, it's been 15-25 (max) and rainy here for all of July.

Kaotic said...

Haha...cracked up over the Canada-Kannada one, as I sorta saw that one coming.

Also, I peeked into some of the India archives, and found them quite entertaining, so not only am I going to be keeping abreast of current posts, I guess I'll be going through the archives as well. Yay, new reading material.

And here's to your newfound exoticness. :-)

Tixey said...

Generally I also answer easily that "I'm Russian". I was born and lived all my live in Moscow. This city is like a small country inside huge one. Moscovites are different to any other "animals" living in Russia. Moscowites have their accent, history, culture even mentality is different to people who lives in, let's say, Toula (about 200KM from Moscow). Even more, inside Moscow, it is possible to distinguish 2 main populations which significantly differs: natives and newcomers. (By the way newcomers are usually trying to underline that they are Moscowites, and this is how they can be identified). The thing is that by saying "I'm from Russia.", I'm also feeling like I'm saying nothing. There are so many things which should be added...

However I think that in smaller countries situation is slightly different. During 4 last years I was living and working in Cyprus. An island in Mediterranean sea with native population less than 1 million. You need only 5 hours to cross this island. Life here reminds a life of a big village. A lot of people here are interconnected with far or near relationship. They are like a big family. And it seems to me when somebody says that his surname is XYZ he is native Cypriot, he really says a lot about himself!

Another funny remark:
Russians are generating not less than 30% of Cyprus tourism income. However you may easily confuse typical Cypriot by saying that you are from any city (even with population more than million) apart from Moscow or St.Petersbourg. It seems to me that average cypriot knows not more than one or two Russian cities - Moscow and St.Petersburg.

Jay said...

You're a Canadian tried and true. The things that you complain about are the same things that Haligonians, Torontonians etc... complain about. There was a huge electorial upheaval in Nova Scotia and they voted in the NDP a few months ago. That is a big deal out there. They were really pissed.

Left-wing commies that we supposedly are out here, we continually vote in the Liberals. As much as I love Seattle and its' culture (more now than ever before), Vancouver has more in common (mentally) with Ontario than Oregon or Washinton. We can try to differentiate as much as we want but we're still-down-to-the-bone Canadians. We wait for other countries (US) to innovate and take hold of their manifest destiny while we wait 5 years to see if it works out. Then maybe we'll try it out. Or simply just complain about it.

That said, if you have the skill to communicate with any human being on their respective level and I know you do you'll do well anywhere on the planet.

Bengal Tigress said...

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timexwatch said...

Good post your blog..congr

morefutility said...

Great writing! I am new to this site, but I must say that your blog is the most well-written, and interesting I have come across. As an aside, I would give several of my toes to travel to Asia. The literature that comes out of that continent is amazing. As a history buff myself (have a useless degree in said area), I think it is useful to know a bit about a people before I offend them.

Michael Reardon said...

I've only been asked my country of origin twice.

Once I said France and once I said Russia and each time I did a rather convincing accent.

I'm not from France or Russia.

I'm American, but I find it's more fun to play a part seeing as how
I'll never see these people again.

I'm jealous that you travel the way you do.

Chuck Dilmore said...

incredible journeys, photographs!


I am Samantha Nicole said...

Great post! I know what you mean about the differences between even the cities and regions in Canada. I live in Northern BC and I attend university in the Okanagan. I actually have Southern BCers asking me if we live in igloos or if we drive snow mobiles to get around town (no joke)! And no, we drive regular old vehicles like everyone else in BC even though we have snow 8 months out of 12. :)

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