However many times you do it, moving to another country is a big deal. We try to wrap our heads around it by learning as much as we can about the new place before we go; climate, currency, language, demographics… but it’s the small stuff that someone once said you shouldn’t sweat, that can make you feel like a visiting alien.
Here are five things the guidebooks didn’t put nearly enough emphasis on that made an impression on me when I moved here from the UK:
1. Car culture
Yes, Canada’s a huge country, but I never thought that it would be so car-centric. Here, the car is king. Forget popping down the road on foot – there might not be a sidewalk and at some point you’ll have to cross six lanes of traffic! Road systems, housing and shopping areas are all designed for the motorist.MacDonalds and Tim Hortons are perfect examples; as drive-thrus, they’re encircled by a roadway with no thought given to pedestrians trying to reach the door in one piece.
Public transport is deplorable and consideration given to safety even worse; ironic in a country obsessed with germs – in this case, there are bigger things to worry about. Motorists here have to be reminded to share the road with cyclists! No one heeds lane discipline; everyone’s on their phone or drinking coffee and collisions are a daily occurrence. If you thought driving in Paris was bad, wait til you see this…
The majority of homes are two-car families so there’s little demand for a decent bus service, but at least with your own wheels, you have the means to explore. The only thing between Vancouver and the North Pole is mile upon mile of pristine wilderness. Canada is one country you won’t get to see by bus! Crystal clear glacial lakes, towering peaks or vast arboreal forests make it the perfect place for a road trip and the Trans-Canada Highway runs through all ten provinces.
Read what it was like to spend our first year carless in Canada here.
If it serves food, it’s a restaurant, or “resto” as they’re colloquially known. Even burger joints and fast food outlets qualify, so bear this in mind when asking for recommendations; be specific about your expectations or you may end up in the equivalent of a British greasy spoon.
Unless you’re in one of the major cities, eating out involves the usual suspects – wings, burgers, pizza, steak – and is largely limited to chain outlets. The Keg, Applebees, Kelsey’s, Red Lobster and Swiss Chalet are all examples of standard American fare.
There’s a big street food culture in “Tronno”, with carts called food trucks catering to the lunchtime frenzy. But the food has only lately started to reflect the diverse culture of the city, with the recent opening of trucks offering fish tacos, Southern barbecue, fried calamari pitas, and Indian dosas. Before that, it was your usual warmed through hotdogs.
But don’t let the picture painted by the commercial food industry fool you. Despite the slow progress, the desire to try new foods does exist here, it’s just hampered by City Hall restrictions and lack of demand. The standard of fresh produce available and the popularity of farm shops is testament to Canada’s hidden healthy-eating contingent and their willingness to experiment.
I wrote about my early experiences with Canadian cuisine here.
In Britain we have football, rugby and cricket but if you mention football here, people think you mean the NFL – no-one’s interested in the World Cup, the Premiership or the European Championships outside of the big smoke. Canada’s national obsession is hockey and nothing prepares you for the depth of devotion to the sport.
During winter months parents get up at dawn on weekends to take kids as young as 4 to hockey practice, then shiver beside the ice-rink while Junior learns to bodycheck. Families make their own rink in the backyard if they have the space. Boys drafted into the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) often travel far from their homes to play with a team they’ve been selected by. Like an exchange student, they lodge with local families and attend the neighborhood school. Plenty of ice-rinks offer free skating, though finding one with skates for hire is a rarity in a country where everyone owns a pair of their own!
Sport in Canada is a family affair with the emphasis on participation rather than armchair support. Throughout the year you’ll see lacrosse, basketball and soccer (yes, that’s your British football!) and baseball played on local sports fields. Most sub-divisions (housing estates) have municipal baseball diamonds and sports pitches.
Although the cost of sports activities for children can easily mount up, they are tax deductible, and there are plenty of second-hand equipment stores with barely used stuff that kids have outgrown from one season to the next.
For some choice phrases to help you sound knowledgeable at a hockey game, look no further than here.
We might share a common tongue, but there are enough differences between UK and Canadian English to keep you on your toes. Pasta is also known as noodles, chips are fries and crisps are chips, when you get your hydro bill, it’s for electricity (as in hydro-electric) not water. Some days it feels as though nothing is what it seems; your mobile is now a cell, your trousers have become pants and “truck” can cover anything from a flat-bed pick-up to an SUV or a tanker! You’ll get blank looks if you ask for a plaster, say you’re knackered or gripe about whinging kids.
Canadians are suckers for an English accent (apparently, we sound intelligent) and are always thrilled to learn some Cockney rhyming slang or colourful expletives! Think Hugh Grant in the opening scenes of Four Weddings and go from there.
For your handy English/Canuck dictionary, click here.
Canadians have a more laidback approach to clothing (or “apparel” as it’s charmingly known here). Vancouver is well known for it’s unofficial uniform of yoga-pants that earned it the title of Third Worst Dressed City in the World. As far as work is concerned, guys, you can ditch the tie, and the three-piece will seem a bit much. Smart casual in “slacks” and a “sports jacket” is the way to go.
Don’t be surprised by signs at supermarket entrances requesting that patrons wear shoes, shirts and refrain from arriving in pyjamas – it’s not unusual to see people out shopping or picking up their mail in their PJ’s.
BUT, because activewear is inordinately popular here, it’s not hard to cut a dash with some classy British tailoring. You’ll look the business with minimal effort.
Oh, and a word of warning, the winter weather WILL impact your ensemble! For more insight into how Canada has influenced my wardrobe, click here.
So, there you have it – a few things glossed over by the guidebooks that make a big impression nonetheless. Let me know what you’ve discovered on your travels that had an impact but didn’t warrant a mention in Lonely Planet…
Aisha Isabel Ashraf is a freelance writer and author of the popular blog EXPATLOG – a collection of irreverent observations from her experiences as a "cultural chameleon". It's where you'll find her, strung out on caffeine, humorously dissecting the peculiarities of expat life for her own amusement and the benefit of future generations.
She can be contacted via the usual avenues (e-mail, Twitter, Facebook) – just swing by the blog for directions.
Read Aisha's other Expat Focus articles here.