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Posts Tagged ‘Canada’

Happy Canada Day!

In cities, culture, History, travel on July 1, 2013 at 12:03 am

By Caitlin Kelly

This is the week I celebrate both my countries — July 1 is Canada Day. I was born and raised there, (Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal) and the U.S., where I’ve lived since 1988, celebrates July 4.

We have a big Canadian flag we’ll hang off the balcony. After my hip replacement, in February 2012, I walked the hospital hallway, thinking it might be fun — with ceramic and metal in me for good, now — to look like a super-hero.

caiti flag

It’s odd to have become a long-term expatriate, (a word often mis-spelled, with an interesting twist of meaning, as ex-patriot.) When do you become an immigrant? When you take the citizenship of your new land? I will probably do so here because of estate planning issues; I’ll be able to retain both passports.

Ironically, my ability to come to, and stay in, the U.S. was thanks to my mother’s American citizenship. She now lives near my birthplace, Vancouver, and I now live near hers, New York City.

I do miss my Canadian friends and a shared set of cultural references so Jose and I head north usually 2-4 times a year.

Will I ever move back? Hard to say. Living in the States is rougher professionally, but new opportunities come much more easily here, I’ve found.

Here are some fun Canadian facts:

— Insulin was first produced by Frederick Banting and Charles Best at my alma mater, the University of Toronto.

English: Frederick Banting ca. 1920–1925 in To...

English: Frederick Banting ca. 1920–1925 in Toronto, Ontario (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

– The singer Neil Young had a very nice guy for a dad, Scott Young, who worked in the same Toronto newsroom as I did, The Globe & Mail, as a sportswriter.

– If you love the work of smart, tough-minded women writers like Margaret Atwood (who attended my Toronto high school), Alice Munro, Margaret Laurence and Miriam Toews, you’re reading Canadians.

– If you’re in Canada and need a painkiller, ask a pharmacist for a bottle of 222s, which have codeine in them (forbidden in the U.S. without a prescription). They work great.

– Canadian candy bars rock! My favorites include Big Turk, Crispy Crunch, Aero and Crunchie , all of them in milk chocolate. American mass-market chocolate, like Hershey’s, is a contradiction in terms.

– To truly understand how Canadians ran the 18th. and 19th-century fur trade, kneel in  a wooden canoe and paddle for a week or so. Then do some really long, twisty, slippery, muddy, rocky portages, swatting away black flies and mosquitoes as you hump the canoe and all your packs on your shoulders between lakes or rivers. Visit the Canadian Canoe Museum in Peterborough, Ontario to see a replica of a voyageur canoe, used by the earliest explorers. They are simply amazing. It’s one of my favorite museums in the world.

– There are some astounding fossils to be seen in the Badlands of Alberta. The Royal Tyrell Museum is well worth a stop!

– A great way to enjoy Vancouver’s Stanley Park is to rent a bike and ride the whole thing. As you circle the seawall, you’ll see huge freighters off-shore and dozens of float-planes zooming overhead.

Splurge on a helicopter ride from Vancouver to Victoria; the cheapest fare is $150. The views of the ocean and the Rockies are stupendous.

– Did you know the Vikings arrived in Newfoundland? I’m dying to visit L’Anse Aux Meadows, the curiously bilingually-named site from the 11th. century.

– If you enjoyed the movies Superbad and Juno, and the star Michael Cera, he’s Canadian, from Brampton, Ontario.

– If you’ve never tried poutine, tourtiere, a butter tart or a Nanaimo bar, go for it! They’re all caloric suicide, but well-loved: cheese curds with gravy; a meat pie; a sweet small tart and a chocolate, icing-covered brownie. Hey, those long cold Canadian winters require some metabolic stoking!

Nanaimo Bar at Butler's Pantry, Toronto, Canada.

Nanaimo Bar at Butler’s Pantry, Toronto, Canada. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And here is my favorite short video of all time, Canadian Please.

Enjoy, mes cher(es)! C’est un pays bilingue.

Have you been to Canada? What did you see?

Do you love Joni Mitchell as much as I do?

In art, beauty, culture, entertainment, music, women on June 22, 2013 at 12:29 am

By Caitlin Kelly

If you took away every other piece of contemporary music and allowed me only one artist to listen to, it might well be that of fellow Canadian Joni Mitchell.

Joni Mitchell, performing in 2004

Joni Mitchell, performing in 2004 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

She’s now 70, living in L.A. dividing her time between there and her property north of Vancouver in Sechelt, B.C.

Friends of mine in Toronto last week had the rare and fantastic opportunity, at the annual Luminato Festival, to hear her sing — when she had only agreed to read a poem. So jealous!

You may never have heard of her — while those of us who grew up singing along to her work keep playing and re-playing her work — after all, there are 28 albums listed on her official website.

She officially retired in 2002, although you’ve likely heard one of the 587 (!) versions of her song “Both Sides Now”, written when she was only 21. Singers including Taylor Swift and Madonna have cited her as a major influence on their work.

A winner of eight Grammy awards, her classic album “Blue” was named one of the 100 best albums ever made by Time magazine.

She started out as a visual artist but got pregnant, gave her daughter up for adoption, and only by accident fell into her long career as a singer/songwriter.

Here’s one of her paintings, from 1987, linked to her song “Night Ride Home”, one of my many favorites.

She started out living in a small Western Canadian town, where her mother “raised me on words.”

She’s even inspired 47 songs by others, as recently as 2011 — including the classic “Our House” By Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young and “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” by Neil Young, yet another Canadian.

Many other artists have recorded her work, some of them making her songs into hits. A favorite, “Michael from Mountains”, off the 1967 classic by Judy Collins, “Wildflowers” is a song written by Mitchell.

Cover of "Hejira"

Cover of Hejira

I have so many favorites among her work, but Hejira is an album I could play all day every day and never tire of. The word has several meanings, one of which is “a journey to escape something dangerous or undesireable.” It came out when I was a second-year university student, living alone in a crummy small apartment in Toronto, struggling to combine freelance photography with full-time studies at a large and demanding bureaucratic institution.

(If you’re lucky enough to be in Pacific Beach, CA on November 9, 2013, a band called Robin Adler and the Mutts will perform the entire album. Wish I could be there!)

Hejira expressed the aching, overwhelming multitude of feelings I felt so powerfully then — joy and excitement at leaving my family home for good; fear I would not do so successfully; dating a succession of men, many of them unlikely; trying to define who I was as a young woman in the larger world.

I love this lyric — talk about the wrong man!

No regrets, coyote

We just come from such different sets of circumstance

I’m up all night in the studio

And you’re up early on your ranch

This is a verse from “Amelia”, nominally about Amelia Earhart, but which resonates for me, still, as someone happiest in motion, in flight, traveling somewhere new:

The drone of flying engines

Is a song so wild and blue


It scrambles time and seasons if it gets thru to you


Then your life becomes a travelogue


Of picture post card charms


Amelia it was just a false alarm

Here’s a fantastic, recent hour-long exclusive interview with her by fellow Canadian Jian Ghomeshi on his CBC/PRI show, “Q”.

I love that it ends with an audible hug.

Are you a fan as well?

Have you ever heard her in concert?

What does it cost you to live these days?

In behavior, cities, culture, domestic life, life, Money, travel, urban life, US on January 29, 2013 at 3:09 am
Apartment buildings in the English Bay area of...

Apartment buildings in the English Bay area of Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Beautiful but oh so spendy!!! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A recent New York Times article made clear — again — why living in Manhattan is increasingly for the wealthy:

The average Manhattan apartment, at $3,973 a month, costs almost $2,800 more than the average rental nationwide. The average sale price of a home in Manhattan last year was $1.46 million, according to a recent Douglas Elliman report, while the average sale price for a new home in the United States was just under $230,000. The middle class makes up a smaller proportion of the population in New York than elsewhere in the nation. New Yorkers also live in a notably unequal place. Household incomes in Manhattan are about as evenly distributed as they are in Bolivia or Sierra Leone — the wealthiest fifth of Manhattanites make 40 times more than the lowest fifth, according to 2010 census data.

Ask people around the country, “Are you middle-class?” and the answer is likely to be yes. But ask the same question in Manhattan, and people often pause in confusion, unsure exactly what you mean.

What many people outside New York don’t know, necessarily, is that many “New Yorkers”, and I include myself in that bunch, have never lived in The City, as we call Manhattan. It’s too damn expensive!

They live on Staten Island or Queens or the Bronx or Brooklyn or (as we do) in Westchester or New Jersey or Long Island or Connecticut. We waste hours of our lives trading time for money, commuting an hour or more each way.

Since leaving my hometown, Toronto, in 1986 — where real estate is insanely expensive, (only Vancouver is worse), — I’ve lived in Montreal, a small town in New Hampshire and in suburban New York. I’ve seen huge differences of the cost of living firsthand.

In Toronto, rent/mortgage costs are high, almost no matter where you live. In Montreal I rented a stunning apartment — top floor of a 1930s building, with a working fireplace, elegant windows, two bedrooms, dining room, good-sized kitchen — for $600 a month. It was the 1980s, but my then boyfriend was paying $125 a month to share the entire top floor of an apartment building. I didn’t need a car, food and utilities were reasonable, but the taxes! Holy shit. I moved to Montreal with a $10,000 a year raise, and looked forward to extra income. I only kept $200 a month of that, the taxes were so bad. More to the point, I hated the lack of services I got in return — a high crime rate, pot-holed roads, lousy hospitals and libraries. I moved away within 18 months. (Not to mention a winter that lasted from October to May. Non, merci!)

Rural New Hampshire, with the U.S.’s lowest taxes, was cheap enough, but we needed two working vehicles, plus gas, insurance and maintenance, an expense I never needed in Toronto or Montreal.

Moving to suburban New York, where we bought a one-bedroom 1,000 square foot top-floor apartment, with a balcony, pool and tennis court, allowed us a decent monthly payment, thanks to a 30-year mortgage, all we could then afford on one salary, his, a medical resident.

I still live here, now with my second husband, paying $1,800 a month for mortgage and maintenance combined. That may sound like a fortune, but it’s pennies in this part of the world. We could easily spend that for a tiny studio in Manhattan. He pays $250 a month for his train pass to travel a 40-minute trip one-way into Manhattan.

The larger problem?  Our salaries are stagnant, if not falling. I earned more in 2000 freelance than any year since then.

Gas here in New York is just under $4/gallon — it was 89 cents a gallon in 1988 when I came to the U.S. Food is much more expensive than even two years ago, so we spend about $150+ every week for two people. We do eat meat and I work at home, so I often eat three meals a day out of that.

Our cellphone bill is absurdly high and something we need to lower. Electricity is about $75 a month as is the basic land-line bill. We also pay about $100 for a storage locker and $75 a month for our (unheated, unlit, no automatic door opener) garage.

The local YMCA wants $89 a month, (which I think really expensive) for a monthly single membership. One of the worst issues here? Tolls! It costs $4 each way to cross the cheapest bridge to get into the island of Manhattan, and another is $9 each way. Parking, if you choose a garage in the city, is routinely $25-50 for a few hours, while a parking ticket is more than $100.

These smack-in-the-face costs are only bearable, for me, because I’m self-employed as a writer, and can write most of them off as business expenses.

So why stay?

– My husband has a steady, union-protected job with a pension and a decent salary

– He likes his job

– I have ready access to the editors, agents and others in my industry I need to support my writing career. Online is not enough to build profitable relationships, at least for me

– I enjoy New York City a great deal. I love ready access to Broadway, Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, fun shops and restaurants and quiet cobble-stoned streets to wander on a fall afternoon

– Where would we go? I have learned (after two deeply disappointing moves to Montreal and New Hampshire) that being happy somewhere is often a complex mix of things: housing (and its cost and quality), access to culture, a liberal (or conservative) environment politically, neighbors who share some of your interests and passions, weather, climate, taxes, government, your job/career/industry.

As several fellow Canadians I know said, “I moved to New York, not the U.S.” I’ve seen a lot of the States, and can appreciate the appeal of many other places here. But almost nowhere has made me feel confident enough to up stakes and start all over again. I was up for a cool job in San Francisco once, but the dotcom collapse ended that. I like L.A. a lot, but Jose refuses. (Next stop? South of France, s’il vous plait!)

– I love the Hudson Valley’s beauty and history

– We have some good friends, finally.

Here’s a fascinating blog post by a Canadian then living in Sardinia, now in the Cayman Islands, about the cost of living there. Many of her followers weighed in, from Hawaii to China.

What are your costs of living these days?

Are you thinking of moving to lower them?

Ohhhhhhhh, Canada

In behavior, cities, culture, immigration, life, travel on September 21, 2012 at 12:12 am
Cover of "Hejira"

Cover of Hejira

Our home and native land/Terre de nos aieux…

Is how my national anthem begins. One of them. The Star-Spangled Banner is the other.

I left Canada, where I was born (Vancouver) and raised (Toronto, Montreal) in 1988 to move to the U.S.

I’m back again for a few weeks, with no greater agenda than seeing old friends, attending a service at the island church where I was married last September, poking around antique stores.

Just being home.

I started my nine-hour drive by crossing the Hudson River, the Manhattan skyline ghostly in the distance, but the spires of the Empire State Building and new Freedom Tower clearly visible. The trip is easy, but wearying as I covered pretty much the entire length of New York State, a 5.5 hour journey just to reach the Canadian border.

I spent the drive listening to some of my favorite tunes from college — Hejira by Joni Mitchell and Talking Heads — but soon switched to Radio-Canada to listen to the news and weather en francais. I love speaking French and hearing it and miss that piece of my native culture terribly. Americans are furious when others refuse to speak English; we grow up in a country founded by two nations, French and English, and much of what we read and touch (cereal boxes, government signs, toothpaste) is labeled in both tongues.

Hejira is a great choice for a woman traveling alone by car — as Mitchell wrote it while on road trip from Maine to L.A., and she says it’s suffused with “the sweet loneliness of solitary travel.” Is it ever!

I loved “Refuge of the Road”, which I think might be my theme song.

Here’s the final verse:

In a highway service station
Over the month of June
Was a photograph of the earth
Taken coming back from the moon
And you couldn’t see a city
On that marbled bowling ball
Or a forest or a highway
Or me here least of all
You couldn’t see these cold water restrooms
Or this baggage overload
Westbound and rolling taking refuge in the roads

It’s a measure of the independence we both value in our marriage that two days after our anniversary, I left for a two-week trip by myself. I feel such a hunger to travel. Sometimes I really need to travel alone. And I always need to come back to Canada.

It’s such a different place from the U.S., even though both speak English and, to many eyes, look so alike.

Even basics like:

Metric measurements, a $2 coin and colored paper money. A wicked HST adding serious tax to everything — my $2 newspaper cost $2.26.

And the sort of rock-ribbed political liberalism that’s exceptionally rare in the U.S., certainly in the mass media, like this story in the Toronto Star, about an AWOL American female soldier living with her five kids (two born in Canada) in a one-bedroom apartment. Kimberly Rivera, the first female war resister here, was to be deported today.

I’m a little desperate right now to flee the ugliness and in(s)anity of the American Presidential election campaign, and the class warfare that is only getting worse and worse — the latest issue of Fortune magazine asking us not to hate the 1% but emulate them instead.

I miss my personal history, and re-visiting the places and light and landscape that shaped me; Jose deeply misses his New Mexico skies and mountains. He gets it.

And I always miss my oldest friends, people I’ve known since I was 16 or 22. I’ve found it very hard to make good friends in New York.

I like going to the drugstore and the grocery store and seeing brands and magazines only sold here, like Shreddies cereal and butter tarts.

This is a butter tart. Yum!

In the small town where I’m staying lives a man, Farley Mowat, whose adventure stories I read growing up. For me, that’s like knowing Shakespeare is around the corner.

I miss knowing people who know who he is. So I’m glad, for a while, to be back in my (second/first?) home.

People tend to be more relaxed when they know (as they do here) they will never be bankrupted by a medical emergency, a pretty standard nightmare in the States.

I also like being reminded of the stiff-upper-lip thing and the we-hate-Americans thing and the no-we-can’t-do that thing, which remind me why I do not weep with longing for Canada but see it with more distant critical eyes as a longtime ex-pat.

If you haven’t seen this amazing video, check out it. It makes me laugh and it makes me hum.

Canadian, Please

And here’s a BBC video explaining why Canada should simply run for U.S. President.

Do you ever feel homesick?

Did I choose the wrong country?

In aging, behavior, business, cities, Crime, culture, immigration, life, news, urban life, US, work, world on July 26, 2012 at 12:05 am
Globe

Globe (Photo credit: stevecadman)

How interesting to see that Canada — where I was born, raised and lived until 1988 — now has a higher per-capita wealth than the United States; $363,202 in assets to the average American’s total of $319,970.

From the website Daily Finance:

Indeed, the crash in U.S. home prices means that Canadians own real estate that is on average worth $140,000 more than that held by Americans. They also own twice as much property and have nearly four times as much equity in it after mortgages are taken into account.

One small bright spot for residents of the beleaguered U.S.: Americans still have greater liquid assets than Canadians. But even this statistic serves mainly to underscore the magnitude of the housing market catastrophe.

Public policy may be in part to blame: As The Globe and Mail points out, “Canadian leaders rejected mortgage interest deductibility,” making it somewhat harder for citizens to get so deep into mortgage debt. Moreover, subprime mortgages — those ignes fatui of the American economy — did not catch on in Canada the way they did here.

All of which leaves our “thrifty, socialist neighbors to the north” — who have long eschewed both the dynamism and the risk of the American system in favor of higher taxes, greater regulation and a sturdier social safety net — looking pretty clever right now.

Having survived three (so far) recessions in the U.S. since moving here, I’ve often questioned my decision. But I’ve also met some of my professional goals here, and more easily in a nation whose population is 10 times larger, than would have been possible at home, where about ten people in my industry got the best jobs and clung to them for decades.

I’ve married two Americans, one wretched, one not. I’ve survived being a crime victim here twice and the subject of a $1 million lawsuit from a minor car accident. Instructive!

Canadians are generally much more risk-averse, which I find boring and annoying (if, yes, more fiscally prudent.) Americans, for better or worse, are generally excited to try new things and less freaked out by failure. I like this a lot, and it’s one reason I came and stuck around. But it also assumes — which isn’t true for so many people here now – you can actually afford to fail.

Without a toxic mortgage I kept my home and built equity; the U.S. mortgage interest tax deduction (thank heaven) was a real help to me as a single freelancer.

The “American dream” of home ownership is typical of a major difference between the two nations — because it has long been such a powerful part of how Americans view their lives, no politician (even if it would have been wise to do so) dared mess with it.

And so bankers made out, literally, like bandits, selling the most appallingly toxic mortgages to people with no clue what they were getting into.

Canadians don’t have a “Canadian dream”, at least none I’ve ever heard as part of the standard cultural conversation.

The CDO crisis, fueled by greed on both sides and fed by the oxygen of enormous profits on one side and the illicit thrill of actually buying a house with 0% down, almost left the financial system here DOA. If you want to watch a real thriller, which really explains it, rent the terrific films Too Big to Fail and Inside Job.

While Americans, once more, are this week mourning the latest massacre of civilians attending a film near Denver by a deranged shooter armed with four guns, urban Canadians in Toronto are also confronting a shocking level of gun violence; ironically, Jessica Ghawi, a young sports reporter, had just escaped a shooting in June at Toronto’s Eaton Centre, a huge downtown mall, when she was killed in Aurora.

I wrote my first book about American women and guns, which one critic called “groundbreaking and invaluable”, my goal to understand, and explain, why Americans are so deeply attached to private firearms ownership.

But another recent shooting in Toronto claimed the lives of two people and when I went to check that story, yet another shooting had occurred since then.

So — which country is the better choice?

It’s an ongoing question for ex-patriates like myself, some of whom have husbands or wives or partners and children and jobs they value in the United States (or vice versa.) After the horror of 9/11, many of my Canadian friends urged me to “come home”, even though I’d already lived in the U.S. since January 1988.

While he loves Canada and would be happy to live there, my husband has a great job in New York City, which offers a pension we will both need. As an author and freelance writer, I can, theoretically, work from anywhere.

Both my countries have strengths and weaknesses.

The reasons we each choose to move, or stay, are multi-factorial: friends, work, climate, proximity to (or blessed distance from) family, excellent medical care and insurance, history, geography, a spiritual community, a landscape we love, a sense of history or shared culture…

Here’s a recent radio interview with Paul Martin, former Canadian Prime Minister, with Brian Lehrer, one of my favorite interviewers, on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show. He does a great job explaining the differences in public policy-making between the two countries.

If you’ve left your native country to try another, how’s it working out for you?

If you’ve moved to the U.S., do you (ever) regret it?

Do you plan to move elsewhere?

Why?

Have paddle, will travel

In culture, History, life, travel on June 26, 2012 at 12:11 am
Canoe Manned by Voyageurs Passing a Waterfall ...

Canoe Manned by Voyageurs Passing a Waterfall (Canada). Scene showing a large Hudson’s Bay Company freight canoe passing a waterfall, presumably on the French River. The passengers in the canoe may be the artist and her husband, Edward Hopkins, secretary to the Governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A Canadian is someone who knows how to make love in a canoePierre Berton

Well, kids, I don’t personally know if that’s true. But I do know how much I love being in a canoe.

I rented an aluminum one this week for a big $7 and paddled for 45 minutes on the very edge of Lake Champlain. It was a long way from the 3, 5 and seven-day canoe trips of my adolescence, at summer camp in northern Ontario.

I loved how, still today, it felt automatic and natural to pick up a paddle and carve it smoothly and cleanly into the water with that distinct, delicious gurgling noise of water being pushed behind me only by my own muscle power. The gentle slap of waves against the hull. There’s an intimacy with the water and the land you can’t get any other way.

The last time I canoed, also solo, was in Quebec, on Lake Massawippi, where I crept up on that most elusive and Canadian of sights — two beavers swimming by. (I solo, so far, because my husband Jose does not swim, nor paddle. But since he bought me a tent for my 55th. I see a canoe trip in his future!)

I learned to paddle in 65-pound red wood-and-canvas canoes, learning strokes like the J, feathering, the pry, running pry, C-stroke. We’d set off into Algonquin Provincial Park, (7,630 square kilometres), our packs laden, our eggs packed in oatmeal, our cookpans covered with thick soap to protect them from burns. We got to know these dark, deep, cold lakes as well as our streets at home — Cedar Lake, Biggar, North Tea. We’d start out at the Amable du Fond, which sounds really romantic but was a river winding through a marsh full of mosquitoes, a winding passage deceptively easy compared to what lay ahead.

At night we’d hear the haunting cry of loons. If something crashed a little too loudly in the woods, we pretended it didn’t. We skinny dipped in water lapping against ancient granite, carved millions of years ago by glaciers. The air smelled deliciously of dried pine needles.

We portaged across muddy, rocky paths. Portaging quickly separated the wussies from the trippers — it means carrying all your stuff across a piece of land, no matter how steep or slippery or mucky or thick with black flies. It means hoisting that bloody canoe yourself, up onto your shoulders, solo or with another paddler, while also carrying a heavy pack, no matter how sweaty or miserable you are.

We didn’t freak out when a diabetic camper once took the wrong path — it’s easy to do when all you can see are your own feet and a bit of path beneath the canoe on your weary shoulders. Someone just ran and got her.

This is what you learn on canoe trips — what you, and your companions, are made of. Who whines. Who lily-dips. Who’s willing to scrub out the grimiest pot. Who freaks out over nothing and how deeply annoying drama is.

We paddled in rain, in fog, on chilly mornings. When we were sore and tired and fed up, when the lake seemed endless and the next campsite unimaginably distant, we’d sing, loudly, sometimes in a round with choruses echoing across the waters, a song written by a woman in 1918:

My paddle’s keen and bright
Flashing with silver
Follow the wild goose flight
Dip, dip and swing
Dip, dip and swing her back
Flashing with silver
Swift as the wild goose flies
Dip, dip and swing

One of my favorite museums in the world is the Canadian Canoe Museum, in Peterborough, Ontario. If you are a lover of canoes and kayaks and the world they open up to you, it’s a must-see, with 600 beautiful examples of  both.

As every Canadian knows (or should), the country was opened up by the coureurs de bois and voyageurs often led through the wilderness by Indians along their well-established routes. Only at the Canoe Museum did I finally understand the bravery and organization it took to load up one of these enormous vessels — usually 25 feet in length or 36 feet.

June 26 is National Canoe Day.

Paddle on!

Five ways I’ve become American — and five Canadian holdovers

In aging, behavior, culture, life, politics, travel, urban life, US, war on June 20, 2012 at 12:22 am
A typical Baseball diamond as seen from the st...

A typical Baseball diamond as seen from the stadium. Traditionally the game is played for nine innings but can be prolonged if there is a tie. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the 24 years (!) since I left Canada, where I was born and raised, for the United States, it’s inevitable I’d take on some of the characteristics of my new home. Although I was always mistaken in Toronto for someone south of the 49th. parallel — I talked and walked too quickly, laughed too loudly, was far too ambitious and direct in my speech.

“You’re American, aren’t you?” is not a compliment there. (My New York City-born mother married my Vancouver-born father and moved north. She has since become a Canadian citizen. Both my husbands have been American, one from New Jersey [divorced 1995] and one from New Mexico, [married 2011.])

And yes, I realize, these are generalizations — there are Canucks who enjoy baseball and Americans who love to travel and desperately want some form of government health care.

Here are five ways I’ve begun to feel more American:

1) I enjoy watching baseball. Sitting in the stands for hours, inning after inning, watching the sky grow dark and the lights grow brilliant. Popcorn and a chili dog for dinner. Overpriced souvenirs. Hokey games on-field like the race between the hot dog, the ketchup and the mustard. I play second base and can hit to the outfield, (and did not grow up playing), so I now appreciate it more as a player.

2) I love how Americans do business. They just get on with it! I’m amazed and grateful for the chances I’ve been given to succeed and thrive, by people who don’t know me from childhood or my family or with whom I attended college or grad school. That takes guts and decisiveness, both of which I value deeply.

3) I fight like a demon over healthcare, bills and any form of my rights. The single biggest change an immigrant to the U.S. must make, and quickly, is realizing no one is looking out for our interests but you (and possibly your lawyer.) Coming from a nation that’s much more of a nanny state, Canadians tend to look to the government for their solutions. Not Americans! I think this is not a bad thing, but I do not envy those with little education, poor English skills or a shy personality.

4) I’m optimistic. This is huge. I didn’t used to be. But if you’re not, you’re toast. The United States, for all its many problems — a completely useless and fucked-up Congress, growing income inequality, outrageous costs for post-secondary education, racism, the war on women — rewards those who see the glass as half-full. Whiners do poorly here. I hate whiners.

5) I generally think people create their circumstances and success. Within limits. I can’t vote, so I’m not a Republican. But barring severe mental, physical or emotional disability, I think people can achieve much without endless hand-wringing or government intervention. I was a Big Sister, a volunteer mentor to a 13-year-old girl, about 14 years ago. It was a shocking eye-opener. I had long been a default liberal, but saw within minutes that her toughest challenges were being created by her own family, whose emotional abuse, manipulation of taxpayer-funded benefits and habitual behaviors left me stunned. (Yes, I was very naive.) I absolutely believe in giving help to those in real need, but have no patience with those who abuse it or take it for granted.

And yet…

1) I believe, strongly, that excellent health care is a right, not a privilege accorded only to those with jobs, or whose employers choose to be generous. Free-market health care is an obscenity and stupidly expensive.

2) Unions matter. Barely seven percent of private sector workers in the U.S. belong to a union. Workers are too often treated like crap; they can be fired any time, for any reason, with no penalty or severance. It still shocks me how weak labor is and how powerful the wealthy.

3) I revere nature. I feel more at home in a canoe than in an SUV. I completely fail to understand kids who refuse to play outdoors and parents who allow this. If you don’t feel a passionate, deep-rooted (pun intended) attachment to the natural world, why would you fight to nurture and protect the environment?

4) I know, and have always known, that I’m a global citizen. I’ve carried my own passport since early childhood and it’s my most treasured possession, in addition to my green card. Every nation is intimately linked to the others, and Canadians travel widely. We know it, we value it. (Only 30 percent of Americans own a passport — 60 percent of Canadians did, according to government stats, in 2009-2010. If you’ve never left your borders, how can you possibly understand, and care about, how others think?)

5) War stinks. It’s a terrible waste of lives, money and taxpayer income better applied to a whole host of issues — education, health care, infrastructure. It’s appalling to watch billions spent on two wars at once in the U.S. I never understood why I didn’t know more about Canada’s essential role in D-Day until my American husband took me to Normandy to the beaches and cemeteries there. For Canadians, going to war is seen as a nasty, last-ditch necessity, not a matter of national pride and economic interest.

bonus: Skepticism!

Canadians are generally much slower to warm up socially and professionally. We’re not (as many Americans have been taught to be) “real friendly.” Why bother? Until we know, like, trust and respect you, what’s the upside? In my time in the U.S., I’ve been scammed, cheated and lied to with breathtaking impunity — as my Mom warned me would likely happen. It’s left me weary and wary of glad-handers. I also now know, and have hired, a private detective and multiple lawyers. I get it.

This worldview also complicates trade and diplomacy between two countries, as their underlying principles are often quite different — American risk-taking versus Canadian caution; American in-your-face-ness versus a more European reserve.

Whether because I’m a journalist whose life has been spent questioning and challenging authority, or it’s cultural or I just like being a curmudgeon, this is one Canadian-ism I’m hanging on to for life.

What cultural differences matter most to you in your daily life?

Back again, 24 years later

In aging, behavior, books, business, culture, domestic life, immigration, journalism, life, urban life, US, women, work on June 18, 2012 at 12:06 am

The women are still lean, in Tevas and cargo pants. The men wear beards and drive pick-up trucks. The kids are plentiful.

I used to live up here, far from a big city. Muddy Subarus everywhere. Ads at the local cinema for a tattoo parlor. I knew Route 89 like the back of my hand.

I came to live in New Hampshire, in a small town, in the summer of 1988, with no prior experience of rural or small town life. I’d always lived in large cities: London, Paris, Montreal, Toronto. The absolute silence of our street was astonishing.

I followed the American man I would marry in 1992 — and who would walk out of our apartment, and our marriage, barely two years later.

The woman who lived here 24 years ago was terrified.

She — I — had left behind her country, friends, family, a thriving career. My whole identity. Anyone who moves to a new country “for love” better have a Teflon soul, a full bank account of her own and the stamina for re-invention.

I remember exactly how I felt as I crossed the border into the U.S. from Canada to move here — like a raindrop falling into an ocean. The United States has a population 10 times that of Canada. Surely I would simply disappear, never to be heard from, or of, again.

How would I ever re-build my career? New friendships? A sense of belonging? Who would I be(c0me)?

And so I used to look at all the women here — almost every one of them mothers or pregnant — apparently so secure in their identity and their marriages, roaming in packs.

I didn’t want children, and everyone here did, eagerly. I’ve never, anywhere — not even far, far away in foreign countries — felt so alien, isolated and disconnected. There were no jobs for which I was qualified. I knew not a soul. My boyfriend, then a medical resident, was always gone, returning home exhausted and grouchy.

That we were unmarried, even then un-affianced, seemed to make everyone deeply nervous. What was it, 1933?

It was the loneliest I’ve ever been.

I did love our apartment, the entire ground floor of a big old house. I did a lot of sailing. I spent every Friday at the local auction house and learned a lot about antiques.  Eager for more, I drove 90 minutes each way to Massachusetts to take a class in it there. For amusement, alone, I drove the back roads of Vermont and New Hampshire. I drew. I even drove every Monday back to Montreal to teach journalism.

But, after 18 months of my best efforts, I was desperate to flee, to re-claim a life that made some sense to me, socially, professionally and intellectually. So we moved to New York, just in time for the (then) worst recession in journalism in decades. After six relentless months of job-hunting and with no contacts to help me, I found a magazine editing job that required my French and Spanish skills. I’d never edited a magazine before.

Coming back now, I sat in the sunshine at the farmer’s market, listening to a band play bluegrass and eating a slice of wood-fired- oven-made pizza. I stared at all those mothers with their babies and their swollen bellies — and felt at ease.

I’d gone to New York. I’d achieved my dreams, surviving three recessions; in 2008, 24,000 fellow journalists lost their jobs nationwide.

Achieving my dreams would have been impossible here, then. There was, in practical terms, no Internet or cellphones. Social media barely existed. And no one had ever heard of me or read my by-line.

Nor had I yet paid my American dues — attending all those meetings and panels and conferences, getting to know editors, serving on volunteer boards, showing up, landing a few good jobs, getting fired, getting other jobs, getting laid off. Finding an agent, and then another one, and then another. Selling two well-reviewed books. Mentoring other writers.

It felt sweet to sit in the sunshine here, now, content in having done what I’d hoped to and which looked impossible, here, nestled deep within these green hills.

I no longer have to prove myself to anyone here.

Especially myself.

A small-town vacation

In beauty, cities, culture, domestic life, family, life, travel on June 14, 2012 at 2:01 am
BNSF 5307,EMDX 9006.

BNSF 5307,EMDX 9006. (Photo credit: therailroadrooster)

My father moved from Toronto last year to an Ontario town that’s become popular with retirees, with elegant, early brick buildings, a river, a few good restaurants and three bookstores. Not bad for a place with 16,500 people.

– I visit one of the bookstores, buy a paperback and introduce myself to the manager. “You’re the second author we’ve had today,” he says. The first? Alice Munro. That’s like strolling into a music shop and being told that Beethoven stopped in a while before you did.

– There’s a line-up at the chips fan, selling Extreme Fries. Dad and I order the sweet potato ones and eat them, gooey with ketchup. A million calories, but so good.

– It’s dusk here at 9:30, so that’s when the drive-in starts its first show. It’s out, of course, on Theatre Rd., surrounded by fields. There’s a little booth at the entrance with a stern warning, “This is not a campground.”

We pay $20 for our two tickets, tune our car radio to 92.3 and pick a spot with a good view. Little kids in pajamas settle into the cars and trucks around us. We watch Men in Black III. Dad falls asleep. It starts to rain, so I have to use the windshield wipers to watch the movie.

– We walk to the corner deli for lunch. There are all my Canadian favorites — smoked meat and butter tarts and Smarties — for sale. Yay!

– His next-door neighbor keeps bringing us wonderful food: a cooked salmon, chocolate croissants, muffins. She’s 89 and a Buddhist.

– There are two sets of train tracks, one for the CP rail freight train and one for the VIA/CN line that carries passengers. The station, built in 1865, is brightly painted inside and lovingly restored to period condition. I take my husband Jose and we wait until the turquoise VIA train stops, pulls down its metal stairs, and he climbs up with all his bags. This sort of rail-side parting, the holidaying wife left behind, the husband heading back to his work in another country, feels somehow timeless.

The lady in her cap and uniform pulls up the stairs. I try not to cry and wave him off.

The freight train is miles long, laden with metal containers from all over the world. What’s in them? As it pulls past us, which seems to take a deliciously long time, I wave to the conductor. You have to wave to the conductor, no matter how old you are. (You can’t wave to a jet pilot mid-flight, after all.)

I wave to salute him and all the men (and women) across the centuries who’ve done this essential work. The train still brings us salamis and shoes and computers and new cars, chugging across the landscape from some distant port, from a ship that brought them to us from somewhere far across an ocean.

It’s magic.

At night, the train whistles pierce the darkness, echoing through the trees.

Three kinds of English, to start with

In behavior, culture, immigration, life, travel, US on May 24, 2012 at 12:45 am

Anyone who’s changed countries, even those speaking the same language on paper, find a whole new vocabulary awaits them. I grew up in Canada, lived in England ages two to five, then moved to the U.S. at the of 30.  One of my prized possessions is a navy blue T-shirt with a list of Canadian words, used here as an illustration. (In fact, the correct spelling is tuque…anyone know what that is?)

How many of you non-Canucks know the meaning of loonie, toonie, screech, deke or GST?

I know a few Americans now get poutine — gross! — which is cheese curds with gravy, for some reason trendy in hipster American neighborhoods. The round bacon which Americans call Canadian bacon is actually called back bacon in Canada.

We also read the Financial Times and the Guardian and see deliciously English words like nous, prat and naff(ness), none of which my well-read American husband knew the meaning of.

Since I moved to the States, (which only non-Americans call what Americans call America [as if there were no distinction between North, South and Central America. Hello, there are three Americas!]) I’ve learned phrases new to me, like:

– a do-over. You blew it: a date, a job interview, a first meeting. Ask for a do-over, a chance to get it right the next time.

a hail-Mary. A last-ditch and/or surprise attempt to salvage a bad situation. (Comes from football, a great throw that can save the game.)

-- step up to the plate. Take responsibility for something. (Comes from baseball, where the batter must step up to home plate in order to hit the ball.)

– hit it out of the park. A huge success. (Baseball, when the ball is struck so hard it leaves the stadium.)

— a full-court press. To apply every possible sort of pressure to a situation. (Basketball term.)

– hit a single/double/triple. To achieve at varying levels of success, from lowest to highest. (Meaning you got to first, second or third base.)

You can see that if you don’t play, or watch or listen to sports in the States, you’re toast! (The kind you make in toaster and eat hot, not left cold in a toast rack, like the British do.)

Then there are regionalisms, where some Americans say pop instead of soda for a soft drink or a cabinet instead of a milkshake or frappe. Here’s a funny blog post about this…

In my travels to Ireland, Scotland, New Zealand and Australia, I’ve heard some other odd ones like chilly bin for what we would call a cooler. (Yet a cooler here can also mean a sugary, low-alcohol beverage.)

Electoral divisions in Canada are called ridings; in the U.S., simply districts. A Canadian MP is a Member of Parliament; here, a Military Policeman.

One American woman recently told Bloomberg Businessweek magazine how she’d totally embarrassed herself when interviewed on British television by referring endlessly to how her product, Spanx, made one’s fanny so much more alluring. Turns out (who knew?!) that fanny  there means vagina, while for Americans it’s a polite word for ass (the Brits would say bum and we’d say butt…)

What distinctive English words or phrases are used where you live?

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