Gordon bennett, it’s tiring to be foreign some days. Even after three years in Saskatchewan, I am still relying on Canadians in my close acquaintance to translate for me in the post office, the coffee shop and all eaty-out places. I now automatically say any food order, ask for directions, and state where I am trying to send my mail twice in a row so that whoever is trying to understand me can pick it up on the second go-round.
And I thought I had it. After all, having for some time been a counsellor for recently immigrated Canadians to the UK – “counsellor” here meaning “person who offers a cup of tea to” – I already knew all the good things about “home”: their home, that is, and my home-to-be. I was constantly extolling the virtues of a life in England and coming up against the Seven Wonders of the Canadian World: Hortons, Hockey Night in Canada, Kraft Dinner, cruise-control driving, the CBC Heritage Moments, politeness, and Eugene Levy’s eyebrows.
So as an immigrant to this country, amongst my weaponry were a degree specialising in Canadian literature, a rudimentary knowledge of curling, and a general willingness to talk to just about anyone, which I hoped would give me a sort of force field against problems with settling in. I knew this country. I knew its people. I knew its history and its literature. I spoke both of its languages. Bring it on.
Cut to: Safeway, a checkout, being offered “kerbside pickup”(that is, they wheel it to the kerb so you can drive your big-ass truck right up to the door) for my purchase of precisely one quart of milk.
Me, incredulous: “But it’s just a bottle of milk!”
Checkout lady and bag packer, amused by my accent: “A BOT-tle!! A BOT-tle!!!” (they are gone for about ten minutes with hilarity)
Cut to: Real Canadian Superstore, fruit and vegetable section:
Me, exasperated: “Excuse me? Can you tell me where the spring onions are?”
Several inordinately patient salespeople, many hours later: “These are called SCALLIONS (you crazy foreign lady)!”
Cut to: work, phoning someone whose book order has arrived:
Me: “Hello, could I speak to Barb, please?”
Barb’s husband: “There’s nobody here called Bob. Please go away.”(click)
Cut to: work again, phoning someone else:
Me: “Hello, could I speak to John, please?”
John’s wife, off: “John, there’s someone vaguely colonial-sounding on the phone.”
Me: “I unreservedly apologise for the actions of any and all Europeans up to and including the 21st century. I will be taking the next ship home. Sorry to disturb.”
Only someone new to this great country can appreciate the terror of being asked at top speed “double cup? bag in? Bread bowl or ordinary?” when ordering tea and soup at Tim Hortons. (Mentally punctuating this in a panic, by the way, brings up “bread (comma), bowl (comma), or ordinary?” which leads one to wonder why bread and bowl are alternatives to one another (“you mean, if I have bread, I can’t have a bowl? What is this crazy country?”)
Even the wool shop, blessed haven as it is, is a bit of a source of difficulty. After all, in England, anything you knit with is called “wool” whether it is made from sheep or acrylic or cotton or linen or bamboo or marmalade or cyanide. Here, it is “yarn”, and not only “yarn”, but “yaRRRRRn”, because otherwise I suppose I am asking for “yon”, a word only really useful in a Shakespearean or medieval context.
I’m really very tired.