Sunday, April 27, 2014

Stray Transatlantic Observations

Just two weeks ago, I made a life-changing, transatlantic move. 

For reasons arguably outside of my control, I was thrust from the pub-grubbin’, public-transport-mecca of London’s “commuter belt” to the spacious and exhaustingly automotive sprawl of interior British Columbia. Yes, I hold a Canadian passport and was born on Vancouver Island, but really, I haven’t lived here since 2008. I’ve been in 19 different countries since I last lived here. And although I’m sure my plaid-wearin’, syrup-guzzlin’ Canadianisms will return, they haven’t just yet and I feel like a bit of a cultural mishap -- nestled uncomfortably between England and Canada, like a bastardized child of my own cross-cultural flirtation. 

See, I’m still in a state of moderate culture-shock (or culture-shift, if you’d prefer), so I thought I’d seize the moment and talk about a few of the petty, jarring things that this Canadian forgot were a reality in his own country. Let’s start with three.

1. Friendly strangers

I was all over the British Isles and I know that nearly any place that isn’t named “London” can be very hospitable, but I spent most of my time in England a stone’s throw away from Westminster Abbey. I will never forget one of my friends approaching a well-dressed man leaning on 30 St. Mary Axe who - before my friend uttered a word - coldly begged us: “please do not talk to me”. His eyes didn’t even leave the newspaper he was reading to acknowledge us. See, the British Reserve thrives in central London (don’t talk on the tube) and because of this, stiff-arming strangers feels a lot more normal than the apparent Canadian habit of shoving your business into everybody’s lives. 

It’s kind of a delightful change of pace to be in Canada for this reason. 

I was walking home the other day and a completely sober, cowboy-hat-wearin’ middle-aged man stopped me near my house to offer me a Budweiser. Although it was sealed, this encounter is undoubtedly creepy, so I probed him for the reasoning for this. He says, “I’m lost in this neighbourhood, I have too much beer, and you look sad.” 

I’ve been pretty disappointed with Canadian beers since being in England, but I figured: “you’re already prepared for disappointment with a Budweiser, so what’s the harm in having your expectations met?” 

He happily stuck it in my hand and then pulled a Batman thermos out of his pocket. After shaking it wildly and he locked eyes with me and said, “don’t think I’m weird, but I have whiskey in here. You can’t have any of that... but I hope you have a really nice evening and you settle into Canada quickly.” 

He gave me a warm smile, a hand-shake and some parting words (“don’t do anything I would do!”) before calmly carrying on his aimless journey. 

2. Language and accent 

Obviously, there’s a lot to say about this. I remember in Europe being so excited to hear an American accent, because it was an instant, unusual connection -- and as my North American twang has noticeably softened, tracing some rural Oregonian dialect on a dodgy tram in central Hungary is a rare treat. Now that I'm back in Canada, it’s nearly overwhelming to hear this accent exist on every side of me, and I need to stop myself from trying to reach out to these people as if we’re compatriots in the ‘living-overseas’-arena. “Oh, are you from Canada? So am I!” 

“Well, yes, we are in Metro Vancouver. Well spotted.”

Side note: those on the British Isles don’t need convincing I’m not English, but people at home always love telling me that I’ve developed an “accent” while I’ve been away. Most fascinating was being told I needed a passport in order to set up a mobile phone (err... cell phone?). I was submissive for a moment before thinking, “only 60% or so of Canadians own passports, how do the other 40% get phones?!” I presented my concern about non-traveling Canadians being denied basic phone privileges, and it was revealed that the kiosk employee only asked for the passport because she was convinced I was foreign. Whoops. 

Canadians, may the truth be known: you don’t need a passport to call your mum. 

3. Accessibility 

“You don’t know how to drive?!” 

The North American reaction to this embarrassing truth is always the same: shock and bewilderment. The reaction grated me while I was living in England (and all over Europe, really), because I was in walking-distance from everything I needed and the train/underground/public transport situation was so practically evolved that I’d have a harder time getting around if I owned a car. But now I’m living in a spacious, automotive-society-built neighbourhood in a city with critically underdeveloped public transport and I understand the reactions! You cannot get anywhere or do anything really life-enhancing (like you know, seeing people) unless you or your friends have access to a car. 

And what of going to the pub on a weeknight in England? What of knowing I’ll see familiar friends swingin’ pints of local cask ale and laughing by the fireplace in these low-ceilinged community hubs? A Canadian bar is not a British pub, by no means. And I’m pretty sure that inside the nearest Canadian equivalent, the ubiquitous ‘coffee shop’, going up to strangers and hanging out with strangers is sort of taboo. “I’m sorry, it’s obvious you have a preordained group of friends with you and you’re all trying to study in peace, but would you mind if I sit here and small-talk aggressively at you? I’m reaaaally lonely.” 

No, see, I can’t do that, because it’s unwittingly creepy. I would love to see Canada embrace community hubs and meeting areas further. I would love to see pedestrian friendly urban areas that aren’t simply big-box developments with gargantuan parking lots veering off the sides of eight-lane thoroughfares. And yes, I truly miss the park-culture of Europe, and am unequipped to infiltrate the backyard-culture of Canada. 

But I know this is a friendly country, there’s no doubt about it. And I eagerly anticipate figuring out how to live here again.