At the end of June, I went back to Canada for the first time since I left more than three years ago.
I put off writing this blog post for a long time. First I had to deal with the jet lag when I returned. Then I had some work engagements that took up more than a week of my time. Eventually I wrote on my to-do list “prep photos”. A few days later I forced myself to resize the images I wanted to use. Then a couple of weeks later I added “write blog post” to the list. It’s been more than a week and I’m finally getting round to it. I’ll probably need to use spray to get that off my whiteboard to-do list later.
But really, what can you say or write about when you revisit your home country for the first time in a long time? I wasn’t exactly a tourist in Edmonton, photographing the Santa Maria model at the West Edmonton Mall (okay, I did do that, because my mom wanted to send a photo of it to one of her German friends who had been there before. But still).
In some ways, going back was like stepping into a previous life. While my mom and I obviously didn’t return to our old house, we did stay on the same street. We could see our old house from our room in our former neighbour’s house.
I tried to prepare myself for inevitable culture shock like I had experienced first upon my return when I travelled Europe for ten weeks, and again when I came back from studying in Sweden for six months. I knew there would be a shit-ton of pickup trucks, that the roads were really wide, and that the prairies have a lot of flat farm land. I had to train myself to speak Canadian English again instead of the British English I’d adopted among my European friends.
The drive from the airport was surreal. I turned the car radio to the station we used to listen to and attentively listened to find out what kind of music was popular in Canada at the moment. Everything around me was so familiar, like the Flaman Fitness guy running on his treadmill along the QE2, but it felt distant.
In some ways it seemed like nothing at all had changed. And at other times everything was engraved so plainly in my memory that I would notice when some small strip mall store had been replaced.
Of course, the longer I was there, the more normal everything began to feel again – just like how I’d adjust pretty quickly every time I switched between living in Germany and living in Denmark. On the second night I went out with some former co-workers for beers, and one friend pointed out that after a couple of drinks my English was tainted with a bit of a European accent. (It didn’t help that these were all colleagues from my time at a sports store and we called football by its proper name, allowing me to slip back into the British English habits again.) A week later, I was hiking in the Rocky Mountains with my best friend, listening to the people around us, and thinking that I was starting to sound more like them again.
For the most part, everything came back to me naturally. Although, I did keep a running list while I was there to remind myself of everything that was shockingly different. Either it was something I had never noticed while living there and only time abroad could make it reveal itself to me, or I just thought it was absolutely absurd compared to the way other cultures I’ve lived in do things.
So, the list, as written in my phone and elaborated upon:
- Roads in terrible condition: Wow, the roads in Edmonton are just awful. Obviously the harsh weather plays a big part in that. But when I think of how often the autobahn gets re-paved in Germany, even when it’s not looking too bad, it just blew my mind how bumpy and uneven everything was in Edmonton. We drove along a road near our old house that I remember as being particularly smooth; it wasn’t.
- Toilets so low, automatic, and only one flush level which uses a lot of water: On my second night in Edmonton, when I was in a craft beer bar with my old co-workers, I came back from the bathroom all excited about their European toilets. Up until that point, and pretty much everywhere else in the city, I had encountered only automatic toilets. They flushed when they didn’t need to, used up so much water, and were absurdly low to the ground. It just felt strange.
- Turning right on a red light: I constantly forgot this was allowed and would have a minor panic attack whenever a car in the right lane rolled across the stop line at a red light.
- Clothes have huge discounts: As someone who worked a long time in retail, I know that storage space is valuable and expensive. So it’s always surprised me that in Europe, clothing doesn’t really get marked down that much at the end of a season. I remember going to H&M to find shorts for my unexpected trip to Egypt in February, and only finding some that were 30% off. In the middle of winter. When you could use that rack space for a warm sweater. On the other hand, things were completely the opposite in Canada. Almost every clothing store I shopped at had massive sales, not only on past season merchandise but also new arrivals. It made me ponder consumer psychology a lot more.
- Being approached by multiple salespeople in one store: I don’t know how to say “Is there anything you are looking for?” or “Do you need help finding anything?” in Danish, but when a salesperson in Copenhagen would ask me something after I walked in the store, a simple “Nej tak” would suffice to let me look around on my own. While shopping in West Ed there was pretty much a salesperson in every corner of the store asking me if I needed something. The helpfulness was overwhelming.
- Everyone asking “how are you”: One of the things incoming exchange students at my university always found weird was when grocery cashiers and the like would ask them how they are. Of course, I know the automatic response is “good, how are you?” but I had gotten used to elaborating when people ask me that question, since over here it’s really only asked by people who actually care about you.
- Metal signs with changeable slogans owned by companies: Yeah, I have no idea what those are called. You know those black signs, with the neon letters and occasionally some bright doodles? Usually found outside strip malls or restaurants with offers or funny sayings? I hadn’t seen one of those in years and pretty much forgot they existed. But they were everywhere.
- Occasionally warning lights for when an upcoming light is going to turn yellow or red: I guess when Canadian roads get icy and it takes a long time to stop, it’s convenient to know well in advance that the upcoming traffic light is going to be red. So Canadians occasionally build extra signs before traffic lights that start flashing when you should slow down. When I lived in Canada I don’t think I ever considered why those signs were necessary.
- Fixed shower heads: How did I ever live without having a handheld showerhead?! Every time I showered in Canada it felt like there was definitely still soap on me somewhere.
- Censoring songs on the radio: I remember turning up the radio when DNCE’s “Cake by the Ocean” came on and singing along to it. The difference was, when I got to the chorus, I blurted out, “let’s lose our minds and go fucking crazy,” and the radio echoed, “let’s lose our minds and go crazy crazy”. I had totally forgotten this weird North American thing about not cursing on the radio. Whereas in countries where English isn’t the first language, no one gives a shit about the English-speaking musicians dropping f-bombs.
- Massive milk and juice containers: I wanted to buy a one-litre carton of milk for my breakfasts, so that it wouldn’t spoil because I kept going out to eat so often and not using the milk for days at a time. That’s the standard size of milk in the other countries in which I’ve lived. I felt like I was in an American coupon reality show when I walked through the dairy section of the grocery store and the shelves were full of four-litre jugs of milk and juice. Think of the limited fridge space!
- Boxes for leftovers when eating out: I eat out way more often in Europe than I did in Canada (probably because I’m no longer a student whose idea of dining out is ordering a plate of nachos for the table to share at Dollar Drafts). The portions are, in general, smaller here, and I usually eat most of what I’m served. Somehow I’d forgotten the legendary North American portion sizes in restaurants, but luckily I was always offered to have my food boxed up after I’d already stuffed myself with half the plate. Other than with pizza or Greek food, I don’t think I’ve ever taken leftovers home in a box in Germany.
- Frequency of TV commercials: German TV usually only shows a long block of commercials between shows, or during one or two points in a reality show. The crime mini-series that are 90 minutes long, and movies that are shown, have no commercials at all. It took some getting used to watching Canadian TV again with commercials every ten minutes; Corner Gas: The Movie, which runs 90 minutes, was stretched into a two-hour affair.
- Constantly playing the same new songs on the radio multiple times a day: When we drove from the airport, I keenly listened to the radio to get a feel for what songs were popular. By the time we drove back, I was sick of them all, having heard them pretty much every time we were in the car. Luckily a different Imagine Dragons song is playing in Germany at the moment, because I heard enough of “Believer” to last a long long time.
- Way too cold air conditioning in stores: We had some of the best summer weather I’ve ever experienced in Edmonton, so the contrast between inside and outside stores was more obvious than ever. And it was damn cold inside. Think of the environment!
- Over-reliance on cars: As they do in Copenhagen, I used to travel by bike everywhere. But on weekends, I would also go for really long walks, about 7-10 km, just to have a look around neighbourhoods I wouldn’t explore otherwise and maybe get an ice cream or iced coffee somewhere. On more than one occasion after a filling dinner in Canada, when I wanted to walk off a bit of what I ate with a short two-kilometre stroll to some nearby place, I had people offering to drive me there. It’s a twenty-minute walk, let me get my exercise! Of course, it was also impossible to go anywhere except the local farmer’s market without driving, which just made me feel lazy and guilty about my emissions.
- Ground floor is floor one: We visited my paternal grandma, who lives on the top floor of her building. I stood outside and counted the floors to see what button we would have to push in the elevator and settled on three. Only once we were in the elevator and I saw the button for the fourth floor did I realize that I’d been counting storeys the European way: the ground floor is the ground floor, and then the floors above it start at one. Not the case in Canada. Oops.
- So dry in the prairies: Alberta is probably one of the driest places in the country, but daaaamn is it dry! I felt like I was lotioning my hands constantly.
- Enormous trailers: Camping trailers in Canada look like houses on wheels. It was a shocking contrast to the little trailers Dutch tourists tow along on the autobahn.
- Not getting smoked on all the time: Bless Edmonton’s no smoking laws!! In the years before I left, lots of different laws were implemented to cut down smoking, and they appear to be pretty effective. It was (literally) a breath of fresh air to be able to go to parks, leave and enter buildings, and walk around markets without being smoked on.
It truly is strange the things we pick up on when we leave a place for a while. My experience returning to my home country was a reminder of how much we have to learn when we travel and live abroad; sometimes other cultures do things better, and sometimes they do things worse. The more we experience, the more we can appreciate what we already know.
Beyond my silly list, the most noticeable thing about returning to Canada was the people. Canada is known for being stereotypically nice and to be honest, I thought I was exaggerating how nice the people are whenever I reminisced about home. But I wasn’t. From the Tim Horton’s cashier who listed us all the different kinds of bagels they had during the busy lunch rush, to the bouncer who scanned my ID on Canada Day and wished me a happy early birthday, to the waitress who convinced a man we didn’t know to leave my friends and me alone at the bar, to our old neighbours who were always down for a glass of wine, to the friends who took time to hang out with me even after years apart – everyone was so friendly. At times I wanted to cry with joy at how nice the servers were, or how everyone said sorry at the slightest bump. I was worried that my time in Europe had turned me into a rude and negative person, but luckily the “sorry”s just came naturally again.
Thanks for being you, Canada, with all your weird and wonderful quirks. And hey, happy 150th birthday!