2010/11/12

Slightly strange land

And not such a stranger any more.

There are a lot of Canadians and Americans who think there is little difference between our two countries. It's true that there are a great many similarities. But the differences are still there if you look for them.

Before I moved to British Columbia in 1994, I had been to Quebec and Ontario quite a few times—with family when I was young, on a school band trip, with a band on a "world tour" (i.e., Montreal and Toronto), several times with Sweetie to Montreal for extra-long weekends, and once for three weeks to Jonquière for a French immersion program. As a tourist, however, I wasn't terribly aware of anything more than superficial differences.

Immersion was a little different. Yes, that was when I learned first hand that milk comes in bags (in Quebec and Ontario anyway—it's not true here). Quebec is obviously different than the United States in many ways, not only linguistically but culturally. Still, even though Quebecers might deny it, Quebec is part of Canada and shares a lot with the rest of the Canadian experience. I think it was that very immersive stay that really got me thinking that I wanted to cross the border and stay.

Sweetie and I learned some things from a completely skewed source: The Kids in the Hall. That was the first place I heard the word "line-up" used as it is here. In the Flying Pig sketches, someone would always say, "What a line-up!" In the US, a line-up is something police do when they're trying to get a witness to identify a criminal suspect. In Canada, it simply means a line, file, or queue.

The premise of the Flying Pig sketches was that the Flying Pig would entertain people who were stuck in line-ups (this was before everyone had their own personal entertainment). And that brought out another typically Canadian characteristic—Canadians know how to wait patiently in line-ups. The British are accustomed to queues as well. Americans? Not so much.

After I moved to Vancouver, I kept finding subtle but real differences in language and culture. Before I moved to Canada, I had never heard the expressions "hard done by" or "top of mind." When I was a kid, shinny was called "pond hockey." And even though I was familiar with hockey, I had never heard the term "stick handling" used as it is here, meaning to skilfully negotiate a set of difficult circumstances. And then there is one of my favourites: "shit disturber," meaning someone who stirs things up.

See, I've learned to spell Canadian: "favourites" rather than "favorites," "skilfully" rather than "skillfully." Not that there is such a thing as agreed-upon Canadian spelling. Apparently, spellings like "honour" and "honor" have both been used in Canada for a very long time. And even when you spell it "honour," as I do, the adjective is spelled "honorable." Some spellings are becoming rare, such as "programme" and "plough." But we still write cheques here, at least when we're not whipping out our debit cards, which were used here much earlier than in the States, or our new "chip and PIN" credit cards (I haven't found that technology in the US yet). And speaking of cheques and checks, when you've finished dinner at a restaurant and you're in a hurry, you ask for the bill.

We really do queue up pretty well, and fairly patiently. Line-ups are just part of life. I think we're still a bit more polite in general and a bit more reserved.

Things change with every new generation. Kids watch a lot of American TV, play American video games, and get influenced by all things American. Fewer of them say "zed" for the last letter of the alphabet. I bet they're using more American spellings as well.

We do have traditions that endure, however, something I see much less of in the States. Yesterday is a case in point. In Canada, pretty much every city and town has a cenotaph. Canada entered the First World War in 1914 and suffered horrible losses before the Armistice was finally signed in 1918. In some smaller towns, almost an entire generation of young men were either killed, wounded, or returned damaged in some way. Although the US fought in World War I, it was toward the end of the war and for only a short time. It never made as much of an impression on Americans as it did on Canadians.

November 11 is Remembrance Day in Canada. People wear the red poppy in the days leading up to it. And we remember. Around every cenotaph there is a ceremony, a very traditional ceremony. There is almost a sacredness to it, and indeed this atheist has no problem singing "Abide With Me" along with everyone else. I don't know why. It's part of the tradition, a tradition I respect. And so many people participate, including young people. It is a shared experience, something that makes us Canadian, native-born and immigrants alike. Before I came to Canada, I had never experienced anything like it.

3 comments:

Holly R. said...

Hahaha! I'm going to try to bring "shit disturber" to the U.S.! And "zed" is much cooler than "z"!

Anji said...

Do you still have the queen on your dollars?

It's interesting to hear french people commenting about Canadien french, there are a lot of funny words we don't have here.

I love the old French Canadien accent, I heard it in a TV series (with subtitles)which had to be redubbed here, the powers that be didn't like it.

Véronique said...

The Queen's head is still on all the coins, so that includes the dollar -- on the opposite face to the loon. :)

What happened with Canadian French is that migration was cut off at the Conquest. So the French here was 17th century French that then became isolated from other kinds. Thus, lots of different words, some archaisms, and a "country" accent (migrants didn't come from Paris -- mostly from Normandy).

And for all the KITH fans -- I'm crushing your head!