When visiting Canada…..

I just came back from another road trip!! I love to travel. I love living out of my suitcase. I love not always knowing where I’ll end up the next day. I’m not a resort person or a guided tour person. Being served pink drinks with umbrellas in them in an artificial environment isn’t for me and neither is running around on a bus seeing this place and that place for an hour or two. I want to see the biggest ball of string, or the statue erected to the kid who ate the most pies in 1936, or the little museum dedicated to sailmakers – that’s what I want to see – and I want to see it on my schedule 🙂

It occurred to me, as we were driving through the USA for like, the 100th time, that even though we are neighbours and share a lot of the same cultural elements, Canada and the United States are two very different countries. I thought about the things at home that are definitely not the same, and it dawned on me as a traveler, that there are things unique to Canada that someone might not think about until they are here, faced with whatever IT is that is different. This does not apply to American visitors only, because I know that despite the jokes about Americans not knowing about Canada, most of the ones I’ve met are quite knowledgeable. This is for anyone who might want to visit my country:

  • Canada is expensive. Like other Northern countries, Canadians are used to paying more for everything. If you’ve been to the US or you are coming up from the US, then you may be shocked at the prices for things. When we cross the border into the United States, the first thing we do is fill up the cooler at a grocery store. I am always amazed that I can still fill a grocery cart for about $120 because the same amount of food would cost close to $300 up here. The sort of sales that people come to expect in the USA, like being able to walk into an outlet store and get a $200 pair of jeans for $24.99 that is reduced again by 50% at the counter – that doesn’t exist up here as far as I know. I spent $95 at a woman’s designer clothing outlet on my last trip to Nebraska and walked out with four pairs of jeans and a sweater all worth about $600 at regular prices. That doesn’t normally happen up here. There are sales in Canada, but there is a reason that those of us who cross the border to shop, will move mountains to make it happen. Hopefully you aren’t coming to visit for the shopping 🙂
  • The price is not exactly the price. Having spent time in other places around the world, I found it really, really convenient that a lot of other countries put the price in total on a price tag. Yeah, that doesn’t happen here. The price on the tag is the price before all the taxes and those taxes are different in each province. For those of you visiting from places without massive taxes – how is that? Most Canadians have a rolling calculator in their heads that will estimate 20% to add to their total before they head up to the counter to pay. If it ends up being less than we guesstimated then we get all happy. There is PST, GST, and HST. Don’t ask a Canadian to explain the different taxes or what gets taxed. We try not to think too hard about them – we just pay them. The Northern provinces and Territories don’t pay very much in sales taxes, I think they just pay GST, which is what the federal government imposes, but then the cost of things up north are ridiculous – like $20 for a tiny package of baby wipes or $10 for a green pepper.
  • ……and the price is still not exactly the price. Canada dumped the penny a couple of years ago, BUT the prices have not changed to accommodate this. What this means is that you can still purchase something with a $2.99 price sticker on it, even though that number (and the number after taxes) will require pennies to make up the price. So let’s say that you buy a few things at the grocery store that total $67.23 before taxes. Your final bill in the province where I reside (Manitoba) will be $75.97. If you pay with a credit card or bank card, you will pay $75.97 – the exact price. If you pay in cash, you will probably pay $76.00, depending on how the merchant is rounding their prices. If you give $76.00, don’t be shocked when you don’t get change back. Yes it is confusing, and I’ve seen some visitors get their noses out of joint a bit, but it’s one of those things that isn’t going to change any time soon and we’re all used to it, so pony up that extra nickel, eh?
  • Your pockets may get heavy. The smallest bill that Canada has is five dollars. We used to have one and two dollar bills but they were phased out ages ago for one and two dollar coins. Please don’t ask us why, we just live here. Canadians call the one dollar coin a “loonie” because there is a loon on it and so we just started calling the two dollar coin a “toonie” when it was released. At the end of the week I do a big purse dump and put my loonies and toonies in a jar. It adds up pretty quickly.
  • This is a BIIIIIIIIIIIIIG country. I know it’s an old joke that people like to make, about the tourist in Vancouver who wants to have lunch in Toronto, but there is a grain of truth to it. Most countries are not 5,799 km wide from coast to coast – this is the distance to drive from Vancouver to Halifax. That’s a lot of land to cover and most Canadians don’t ever see their whole country. I am fortunate, having grown up in the military, to have seen lots of Canada. Each region is very different in terms of land and culture, and it is better to pick one region and explore it – chances are good one our regions is still bigger than the place you came from so be prepared to do a lot of driving around. By the way, you can still have lunch in Toronto if you are in Vancouver, but you have to fly out from BC at about 4am to do it. Make sure you say hello to Office Glen if you do that.
  • Get used to driving…..lots of driving. Canada has a population of about 35.3 million people, give or take. The state of California has 38 million people. The only country physically bigger than Canada is Russia. You can fit Europe into Canada. You can fit California into Canada, many times over. There isn’t a huge population up here, relative to the size of my country, so there is a lot of empty space. A friend in the UK once said that Canadians think 100 years is old and 100 km is quick. That is probably true. We think nothing of getting into the car and driving 100, 200, 300 km to get to another town, but that is how it is when our population is so small relative to the size of our country. The population is heavily concentrated in some areas, like the lower mainland of BC, Toronto and surrounding townships in Ontario, and Montreal and its townships in Quebec.
  • We talk about distance in terms of time up here. This annoys the hell out of tourists, especially the anal retentive ones that clutch their atlases with white knuckles. I live in Winnipeg. If you ask me about the drive to Regina (the next city) from here, I will tell you it is about six hours away on the TransCanada Highway. I’m not going to tell you that it is 567 km west of here. This is not something that we really think too much on up here, like these others things I’ve mentioned, it’s just part of how we are. We don’t dwell too much on distance because it doesn’t matter – everywhere here is far from everywhere else so there is no point in bothering to say exactly how far something is. It will take you six hours to drive there. That is what you need to know. If you don’t need to stop to eat, pee, and gas up then it will take you 5.5 hours to drive there.
  • We are (mostly) metric. This irritates the Americans, but the rest of the world, also being metric, is totally ok with that. So if you’re from the US and I’m telling you that it is a six hour drive to Regina from Winnipeg, and you insist on knowing the distance, I am giving it to you in kilometers. Please don’t ask us for the miles. We don’t know. The reason I say that we are mostly metric is that being next to the USA and only having been metric since the early 70s, we have created our own blended measuring system for things. We measure distance in kilometers but most of us measure length, width, and height in feet. We cook and bake in Fahrenheit, but we know the outdoor temperature in Celsius. We ask for 200 grams of shaved ham at the deli, but add one cup of flour to a recipe instead 240 grams. I am part of the transitional generation, my 20 year old son was educated only in the metric system. However, it’s all there in our Gen X memory banks, so if you really irritate us, we can be 100% metric in .000045 seconds, just to really get under your skin.
  • We are bilingual. Most English speaking Canadians learn French in public school and most French speaking Canadians learn English in school as well. We have two official languages and this is reflected in our signage, labels, and the voluminous amounts of paperwork that we love for you to fill out at the border when you leave. This does not mean that we can actually function in two official languages. What we excel at here in Canada is bilingual label reading. We can tell you how to say various advertising slogans in either language, or if you ever find yourself confused by the sign that says “Chalet Suisse”, we can bravely step up to the plate and let you know that “Swiss Chalet” is Canada’s best-loved chicken restaurant from sea to shining sea. Really advanced Anglos can order “…deux cinquantes…” at the tavern in Montreal (“…two fifties…” Fifty being a brand of beer) and everyone knows the proper pronunciation for “poutine”.
  • We are a liberal country. Obviously there will be some areas that are more conservative than others, but for the most part, Canadians are a tolerant, accepting bunch of folk. Depending on your country of origin, you may be shocked to see interracial couples, mixed race children, topless women in the summer (this one might be rather rare but it still happens), people with physical or intellectual disabilities in the mainstream, single parents, multi-religious families, multi-ethnic families, same sex couples, same sex couples with children, the rich hanging out with the poor, and multi-racial neighborhoods where we actually know our neighbors and don’t worry that they’re going to rob us blind or drive down property values. And we’re all out in public on display like it’s no big deal…..because it isn’t. If you don’t like it, don’t look.
  • We love lineups. If there is one thing that Canadians love to do, when they’re not reading bilingual ingredient labels or furiously converting from metric to imperial and back again, it’s getting in line for things. We love a nice, organized, polite lineup where everyone makes quiet conversation and waits their turn nicely. We don’t even have to know what the lineup is for, if we see a big lineup we might get in it just for kicks because who knows, we could make some new friends.
  • We are polite and apologetic folk. While there is no such thing as a uniform Canadian culture (the country is too big and the population is too diverse for that) there are a few things that are uniquely Canadian and our politeness tends to stand out. We say please and thank you, we hold doors and give up seats, we take turns, we line up, and we’re nice to strangers. We are also known for saying “sorry” and “excuse/pardon me” a lot. The sorry bit perplexes outsiders to a certain extent. We don’t have a collective guilty conscience and we know we’re worthy – “sorry” doesn’t always mean sorry. Like any other idiom in any other language, sorry has a multitude of uses and it is important to pay attention to things like situation, tone of voice, and body posture to really decipher the meaning of sorry. For example, if I step on your toe and say “Sorry!!” probably preceeded by an “OhmygoodnessI’mso” then I am genuinely sorry that I stepped on you and caused you pain. Probably I wasn’t behaving as nicely as I could have been while I was waiting in line. That’s ok because now we will engage in another great Canadian passtime – small talk. We will become friends and probably figure out that we are distant cousins. After we’re done lining up we probably won’t speak again, until we meet in another lineup, but that’s ok – that’s how we roll in the Great White North. Here is another example: if you cut me off in the parking lot and make some snide remark about driving/turning/parking as you take the spot, I may say “Ooops, sorry, my bad” which in this case means “Go fuck your hat you son of a bitch, you knew I was trying for that spot. I hope someone knocks you in the shin with the door and you wait in line all night and it’s really unfuckingfulfilling.” So you see, we always try to be polite, but we aren’t always sorry.
  • There is no such thing as bad weather in Canada. Only stupid wardrobe choices. We love to talk about the weather up here because it’s a big part of our lives. In The Maritimes, most of us have an umbrella in our bags, on even the sunniest days. Here in Winterpeg Winnipeg (all of the prairies, actually), the smart Canadian invests in winter. Sorel boots and Canada Goose jackets are only outrageously priced until you’ve been outside in -50C trying to scrape the ice off your windshield because nothing ever gets canceled in this place and you still have to go to work. Then when you realize that you haven’t frozen to death in ten minutes, they are the best! wardrobe items! ever! and you want to wear them all the time, everywhere, and so you do. There is a reason that our national “look” involves boots and a flannel shirt.

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