Oh Canada

‘A cool clean place is how she thinks of it, with a king and queen and Mounties wearing red jackets and people drinking tea and speaking to one another in polite tones…It seemed to her that June day, as her train slid at last over the Michigan State line and entered Canada, that she had arrived at a healing kingdom.’
Carol Shields, The Stone Diaries

I feel like a draft dodger.

On July 1st, 2002 I left New York to travel around the world for a year. On June 30th, 2003, I arrived in Ottawa the night before Canada Day. The exact timing was accidental, of course—I never plan that far ahead. My sister lives here now, and for immigration reasons I can’t go back to the US until the end of the summer. So here I am, marveling at the niceness of the Ottawans and their civilized city. I am getting used to not having skeevy Peruvians follow me with their shouts of ‘Gringa! Gringa!’. Doubtless they are here too, but they are quieter in their new home.

Claire has a New Yorker cartoon hanging on her fridge. ‘You seem familiar, but somehow strange,’ says the woman to her dinner date, ‘Are you by any chance Canadian?’

I lived in London when I was 18, and again from 22 to 25. It was a sort of homecoming to see Leicester Square, Bloomsbury, and Sloane Square at last, and to find the more obscure pushpins on my childhood map: Kings Reach Tower, where Jackie magazine was published. Cromwell Street, where the children in Ballet Shoes had lived. I fell in love with the placenames that were odd yet familiar: Leather Lane. Costermongers Alley. Piccadilly.

When I first moved to New York I couldn’t forgive the dreary street names. 41st and 9th: Christ, it was so rational. Still, they were storied streets, and as in London I felt again that I was finally meeting an old penpal when I walked down Broadway for the first time, and saw Greenwich Village, Wall St, and Central Park. Judy Blume books had prepared me for the United States. Though I’d never tasted them, Baby Ruth, Oh Henry!, and Reeses Pieces were names of my childhood. I knew how to spell American. I knew not to correct them when they mistakenly referred to the pavement as the sidewalk. I knew to say cookie. Faucet. Ga-rawj, not garridge. I never quite figured out how to pronounce pasta, Palm Pilot, and television without making my friends laugh, but on everything else I was good to go within a week. Good to go.

That’s what I’ve specialized in since childhood. Faking it, acting like an insider inside a week, being a method actor of the English-speaking peoples. I horrified my parents with a gin-soaked, diphthong-ridden drawl after a just a summer in London when I was 18, and I had a South County Dublin accent down by October of my first year in college. After a year in New York no one ever asked what part of Ireland I was from. If they thought I sounded strange they assumed I was Canadian.

But I’m not Canadian. I know that now. Being in Canada is like walking in a dream, an odd mixture of different pasts and yet another thing entirely. None of the Ottawa streets and buildings preexisted in my mind. I stare uncertainly at the Queen on their dollar bills and note that she needs to get her eyebrows done. Claire translates the stores/shops.
    ‘Second Cup, that’s their Starbucks. Tim Horton’s is their Krispy Kreme, but better. Roots is sort of their Gap.’

I am flubbing the basics, I who pride myself on passing instantly.

   ‘Do the states control education, or…?’
   ‘Provinces. We have provinces here.’
   ‘Oh. I knew that. Sore-y.

   ‘When the separatist government came in in the Seventies—do you know about that?’
   ‘Oh, um, yes, of course…’

   ‘Who’s that guy?’
   ‘Chrétien. The Prime Minister.’

I’ve been a diligent student this past year of travel. I scoured the travelers’ bookstores in each country, looking for material on the next. Not just guidebooks, but history, travelogues, local literature. I wanted to cram in advance so that I could arrive at strange places and have some sense of recognition, however vague.

But it didn’t occur to me to study up for Canada, any more than for Ireland or New York. Without noticing, the last three novels I picked up were Canadian: Carol Shields’s Stone Diaries, Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance, Anne Michaels’s extraordinary Fugitive Pieces. I’m absorbing the country through its own words, immigrant and native, and recognizing in them the slow rhythms of my Canadian friends. I spent my last Mexican pesos on a copy of The Economist to read on the plane, and felt obscurely patriotic when I read about Canada’s legalization of gay marriage. I’ve already started to bore email friends with exhaustive lists of Canada’s comedians and writers, their intelligent laws, their humane welfare state. I cheered when Vancouver won the Olympics bid. Claire had to talk me out of buying a Roots Canada sweatshirt and baseball hat for July 1st.

I’m still no more Canadian. They interrogated me at the immigration desk in Toronto when I arrived. A backpacker? Arriving from Mexico? Why did I want 60 days in Canada? Where was my onward ticket? Late at night, after four solid days of traveling from southern Peru and a year with a backpack, I felt my throat swell with a need for a home where I would be welcomed back instead of peppered with questions. But next day, as I trawled the Canadian immigration website, I felt weepy again at the kindness of the layout, at how clear and helpful they made the process compared to the unfriendly US, where one is a deadbeat/terrorist/dirty foreigner until proven otherwise over and over. I would be prouder to become Canadian than American now, a result of the belated political education I finally picked up by spending some time in the developing world. Surviving a Toronto winter, though, is a different story. We’ll see.

4 thoughts on “Oh Canada”

  1. Thanks for the link, Kevin, that’s exactly the cartoon, though I’d managed to switch the genders.
    Checked out your site and loved the reminders of wonderful Radio 4, which I have deeply missed in North America. I’d listen to their feeds, but it doesn’t work out well on AOL dialup. And the Alistair Cook link; how wonderful.


  2. Got to your weblog by way of Doc Searls pointing to Halley’s reference. I am a Canuck living in the Haliburton Highlands of Ontario, east of the Ottawa, south of Algonquin Park.
    “Wood warms you five times, he says. Chopping the tree, splitting the logs, stacking the pile, carrying it in, and finally burning it.” I’d say six times if you cook with wood.
    Have you met Terry Tufts and Kathryn Briggs?
    Singer/songwriters living in/around Fitzroy Harbour
    I am enjoying your writing…just starting to poke around.
    Eric Lilius


  3. Hi Dervala,

    As a Canadian I’d like to thank you for your kind words on Canada. A need for external validation continues to be a defining Canadian characteristic. How did you end up living in that cabin on the shore of Lake Superior? I’ve travelled across the humped spine of Superior a number of times but never had the opportunity to stop and linger for a while. Yet I’ve always wanted to.


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