Ohhhhhhhh, Canada

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?

24 thoughts on “Ohhhhhhhh, Canada

  1. mhasegawa

    Farley Mowat. There’s a name I haven’t heard for years and years. I’m American, but I have read some of his books.

    And my husband and I sometimes talk about moving to Canada if Mitt gets elected. Do you think that would be possible?

  2. Not up to me to decide! πŸ™‚ But I sure share your sentiment there.

    Canada tends to have very strict immigration policies, so best to check on those. They use a points system and let people in according to how many points they get; speaking French helps.

  3. I’ve never had a place to miss and am always okay to be here, wherever here is. But I love Canada, for its languages (my French is awful, but I love to hear it), the wonderful comedians, writers and musicians and what I find to be a very laid back attitude in general. Of course, I’ve been up there for music festivals, so they could be high, but still…

    1. High or not, I bet you’d find most Canadians (outside of workaholic Toronto) pretty mellow. I really feel calmer here and wish I felt that calm in the States, where economic anxiety seems to be the new normal for many of us.

  4. Ahhh, the “no-we-can’t-do-that thing.” Sometimes I hate it, in an affectionate away. Sometimes I kind of like it (humility is valuable!) but it’s hard not to notice the attitude about Canadian-ness. I see it in myself all the time….

    1. It stuns me after the “can do!” attitude in the U.S. where people will (it seems) do anything for a dollar. I dislike the selling-out-ness and admire Canadians’ values being more than the $$$ but sometimes it’s irritating as you CAN get almost anything done if you’re willing to be flexible and resourceful. Canadians, you, know, like to do things correctly.

  5. John Ralston Saul (a Canadian philosopher, married to our previous Governor General, Adrienne Clarkson who cut her teeth as a broadcaster with the CBC – only in Canada you might say!) has written a book entitled: A Fair Country: Telling Truths About Canada – a must read to understand this kind of crazy thinking we Canadians have about living next to the US and dealing with our love/hate relationship with Queen and crown – our legacy of colonialism. He contends that we have been far more shaped by Aboriginal influences than by anything else. Interesting.

    1. I’ve heard of it and maybe I’ll buy it when I’m here. I’d read about his theory that we have aboriginal values (?!) but wonder how much of that is true. I think the legacy of cooperation between French and English and Indian (with a lot of bloodshed as well!) might be something to look at.

      I think Canadians love to feel safe (who doesn’t?) and Americans demand to feel free. Both carry significant costs — emotional, legal, professional, financial — that we rarely look at from a distance if we live every day in that place. I think it’s one reason I so appreciate having two countries. I can see them both fairly clearly.

  6. mylifeisthebestlife

    They don’t have Shreddies or butter tarts? Bizarro!
    I like to cross the border once in a while to check out all the differences. However, the majority of my American time has been spent in Vegas, so I may have a skewed view…

  7. There’s truly nothing like a homemade butter tart! My husband got a new car that came with Sirius satellite radio for 6 months. He’s had it glued to CBC Radio. As good s NPR is, it doesn’t hold a candle to it.

    1. How cool! Of course you can always listen to it on the Internet as well.

      Not sure if you ever listen to WNYC…? 93.9 They’ve been picking up Q, a Canadian cultural affairs show that is excellent. I think it’s the first time ever I’ve seen or heard something Canadian playing regularly in the States.

  8. After several years of wandering about, I decided to finally try and settle in the U.S – a move which a lot of my family members who live here have been nagging me to do for years. Like you in your early days, I am also hoping for better opportunities to build a writing career. Well, I’ve been in the U.S a few weeks now and, aside from being terrified of becoming I’ll, I feel a hankering to travel again. It’s not just that I might have picked a pretty horrible time to look for work here, or that the idea of a settled life, while pleasant in theory especially because I’d have all my loved ones nearby, makes me go all curdly inside. Those are all true but here’s the real thing, and the reason I was moved to go beyond just a “like” and actually comment on your post: the place I want to travel to most and explore all corners of, even more than my native Ethiopia, is Canada. I’m a new Canadian, naturalized since 2007, and I have yet to appreciate what that means. I used the freedom of travel that being Cnadian afforded me to the hilt. And now I guess I’ve gotten homesick. Coming to the U.S “for good”, I thought I had made a financially and emotionally smart decision for once, but find myself missing the Canada I barely know. Strange (said in French)!

  9. Thanks for making the time to comment — and so thoughtfully!

    It took me a long, long time to feel at home in the U.S., far longer than I expected. Many times, friends and family (esp. after 9/11) urged me to come home. But I didn’t and likely will not until (if) retirement. I miss my friends, always. But there is a lot more opportunity for work in the States so, if you decided to stay (or come back and stay) you would find, I think, an open-ness that would surprise and please you.

    One of the qualities I most enjoy about living in the U.S. (and it’s really different from Canada) is how eager people are to just do business, to get on with it, and if that means taking a risk (it often does), they do it anyway. Canadians will hesitate and hold back and back away and it drives me nuts!

  10. This post gave me such a strong sense of who you are and some of the basics of what it is to be a Canadian living in America. Of course, opening with Joni Mitchell drew me in πŸ˜‰

    I’m from NY, and live in NY, so homesickness isn’t an issue, but the butter tart reference (never had them) sent me down memory lane, thinking about the amazing guava tarts a relative used to make. I spent Friday afternoon making pastry, and Saturday morning baking the tarts. πŸ™‚

    1. Thanks for this…I love the sound of guava tarts!

      I’m still in Ontario until Sunday and, as always, trying to parse what resonates here so deeply for me. I suspect it is the same for every ex-pat or immigrant…we miss the light, the music, the cultural references that everyone we grew up with get but no one in America does…I’m so lucky to have such dear friends here for decades. In NY I’ve had to re-do my address book so many times as “friends” bailed or got bored. Canadians are slower to let you in, but once you’re there we tend to keep you close for life. I miss that constancy.

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