It has now been four months since I left England to study in Ontario. After asking if I have ever met the Queen, I will often be asked ‘so what is the biggest difference between Canada and the UK?’ It is a relatively simple question, yet I am still struggling to pinpoint the biggest difference as I mostly encounter lots of small -albeit merciless- disparities between our countries. Here I present a short list of just some of these differences.
#1 Crossing the Road
Feminists beware: if the thought of a white man telling you when you can and cannot cross the road sends a thousand patriarchal daggers down to the tips of your fingers, Canada might not be the place for you. It turns out our familiar friend the Green Man who has helped you cross the road since you were young enough to think jumping in front of a car might be a good idea; did not make it across the pond! Instead, Canadians rely on a slightly paler incarnation of our friendly road guide.
#2 The Yorkshire Accent becomes the Queen’s English
If you’re tired of being told whatever accent you managed to pick up in your years of living on English soil is unrefined and lacks all promise of sophistication, Canada may be the place for you. It turns out that I only had to travel 3500 miles for my Yorkshire accent to be heard as the Queen’s English and I never stop getting kicks from people telling me, for the first time in my entire life, that I sound elegant. However, from first hand experience I should warn the Brummies that even Canadians can sniff you out as sounding not entirely like the royal family- indeed, you might have to travel a little further before you can hope to fool anyone!
#3 It’s Bloody Expensive
In Canada, shopping for food genuinely feels like you’re purchasing your weekly groceries from an Odeon cinema. As well as that, just as you think six dollars for a bag of crisps was expensive, you are reminded as the bill is handed to you that tax is also added at the checkout. I have learnt to brace myself for the impending total of my groceries at Walmart as though I am about to find out that I have some obscure and incurable disease and one that usually means I wont be able to afford my Diet Coke fix for the next couple of days.
#4 Becoming an Inadvertent Explorer
Ontario may be the only place in the entire world where you can walk from Dublin to Wellington in under five minutes. As far as road signs are concerned it’s almost impossible not to find yourself in places named after all corners of the globe. One memorable journey in particular took me from Pickering to Scarborough and finally to Perth where they were advertising their annual garlic festival. As a result of my ceaseless amusement, I can only be thankful that Canada does not appear to care a great deal when it comes to originality.
#5 You Live in a Petting Zoo
It wasn’t until I arrived in Ontario that I came to realise that black squirrels roamed the Earth- having only previously encountered the red and grey variety. Although my mother is insistent that the fluffy creatures look entirely evil, I think they are impossibly cute. Yet, if black squirrels don’t quite do it for you, there is no doubt that living in Canada will sooner or later enable you to become face to face with a plethora of exotic animals. Just the other week I was cooing over a family of raccoons that were scavenging my friend’s bins as he attempted to shoo them away. Just don’t tell your Canadian friends that you want to go hunting for beaver, however much you want to.
Having survived my first semester at university, albeit somewhat haphazardly, I like to think that I have already learned a great number of things with regards to surviving the ‘outside world’. In what I hope will become something of a ‘how-to’ series, I will share my snippets of advice alongside my first-hand woes that naturally stem from a girl who has yet to master the art of living smoothly.
A lot can rest in first impressions- it is the difference between being ‘that intelligent female who knows a lot about 17th century literature’ and being ‘that girl who parades around with yesterday’s lasagne stuck to her face’. And never are first impressions quite so important than when you start university; when every impression is both first and nightmarishly immortal. It’s not breaking news to reveal that a drunken slobbery kiss the night before is a terribly awkward encounter in Tesco’s the day after.
But even those ‘did I really lick his face last night?’ encounters do not compare to the events of my first day of higher education. It started with the mishap we all dread- walking into the wrong class- complete with a sorry face of pleading embarrassment together with lost eyes longing for a hug and a forgiving cup of tea. The mathematics seminar group looked almost offended when I asked if this was the literature seminar. It wasn’t.
But all hope was not lost.
I turned around to see a young man waiting in the seats opposite the room I had attempted to enter. He was witness to my shortcoming and in a blaze of nervous adrenaline I blurted out my unrefined introductions. ‘Are you waiting for this room?’. I was relieved to learn that he was indeed waiting for the same class as me and- seeing a fine opportunity to start my quest for making friends- I began to chant my pleasantries.
‘Oh! That’s so cool! Where are you from?! That’s awesome! I’m from North Yorkshire! I really like your jumper! Do you have any plans for tonight?! That sounds awesome! Me? Oh! I need a night off, had a bit of a mad one last night that ended in me and my flatmates comparing dolphin impressions in the kitchen! …So, is it American literature you’re studying?’
‘Oh no’ he said.
‘I’m teaching it.’
And that is how not to make a fruitful first impression with your lecturers.
I have learned a great many of things during my year as an Art student, not least of which being how to ‘pull-off’ the splodges of paint that stubbornly stick to locks of my hair and refuse to be washed out. Here is a small collection of work that didn’t fall victim to my follicles.
I was nine years old when I first saw my wife naked, when both her body and maiden name remained intact. It was summer. The outdoor pools were dense with sweating bodies cradling the water’s cool waves. Middle-aged men bobbed up and down beneath the ripples whilst little wet droplets crept down their brows. She was heedless as I was headless; diving so intently and carelessly her swimsuit unravelled, blossoming a naked, virtuous flame from the communal pool. The splashes instantly curtailed and her beautiful, spotless body –ripened from embarrassment- started to cry unto an audience of sorry parents and mocking children. As a premature young boy I had no intention of staring, although my fascination of the human form begged me to, I grabbed a towel from the side and threw it at her. The towel immediately soaked her shame as she galloped from the pool and retreated. I was nine years old when I first fell in love with my wife.
Within the passing decades she no longer relied on me to cover her up. She used make-up to hide the imperfections that I enjoyed. Men would frequently leer in their short bouts of lust. Her cheeks didn’t blush from childish tomfooleries but from pink dusty powders. Her fresh, teary eyes were blackened by heavy-handed mascara. She was a cut-out from a magazine that I had no desire to read. Women try so desperately to conceal the truth. My father did not run out on my mother, for example, he had died in the Second World War but was later discovered- quite alive- in another lady’s bed.
Writing poetry is, for me, the sweetest form of expression.
In what could have been an ordinary English lesson I sat down in front of a small pile of paper which my teacher had already set out for the class. Thinking it was another addition to our ‘wider reading’ I took a quick glance and was immediately dumbfounded when I realised the scripture wasn’t the fine work of some Victorian classic or contemporary genius, rather, it was mine! In turns we analysed my poems as a class and individually- they were otherwise anonymous- and it was one of the finest moments of my life.
Not only was I flattered that my teacher had chosen my poetry to analyse that lesson but because all those lines and words that hold bitter (and even painful) shards of old memories which I had tucked away under the screen of a poem now didn’t bare those burdens. They belonged to a subjective pair of eyes and it was so relieving in a way.
I can remember every reason behind every poem I have ever written- the feelings which had stirred it or the events which inspired it. They are indeed clinchingly haunting in that sense. But in that lesson the words weren’t mine any more… to the people in my class they did not bare the heartache or memory- they were a blank canvas of infinite interpretation and such a transition was alleviating.
It appeared the general consensus from the class was that the poems were written by a hopeless romantic female so perhaps I may need to work on my poetic guise!
Nonetheless, my teacher took a grand risk that lesson as my poems could have received unhesitating criticism; my self esteem as a writer (hah) was undoubtedly, therefore, on the line. I will always be eternally grateful for this.
Never did I fall in love with you. And, though it may be somewhat unwelcome to know, I can not particularly recall falling in ‘like’ with you either. At first I ardently fell for your mystery; a charade, an enigma. I could only conclude your quiet nature was the product of silencing; a mind trapped by infinite unspoken words but muted in world that wasn’t made for them. Then I was struck by the tide of familiarity and found myself attached to what had become conventional in our composition as showcased lovers. My façade became rooted by habit and no longer could I consciously recall the intricate peculiarities which had drawn me to you so ruthlessly; instead I had only the credulous belief that somewhere I loved you as I had believed, in the sincerest of prematurity, so many times before. The final act; realising that there was no mystery to your being. The silence you so characteristically bestow was always merely an echo of your nothing. It was all nothing. Beautiful, corrupt nothing.
Another example of my attempt at ‘creative writing’! I’m not sure I’m quite made for happy tales!
(Here’s me with a butterfly! Excuse the man hands!)