Canada – cultural report

Canada is a very big country. The biggest in the world, according to the Canadians, and it stretches across several time zones. Its history includes shifting allegiances between England and France, and most Canadians are bilingual, though most of them only really have fluency in one of the two languages. According to the law all official documents and all official communication must be offered in both languages, but the Canadians admit that this isn’t always the case in small communities in which one language is predominant.

The distances are huge in Canada. A two hour drive in order to see a friend isn’t regarded as far. The country isn’t overly populated, and most of the time one drives through pine forests with a few towns scattered around. The Canadians are very fond of their nature and love doing things outdoors no matter whether it’s summer or winter. On the same note, they’re very likely to pass a comment on the lovely cold or the lovely snow if you happen to pass them in the street. I assume they’d comment on the lovely heat or the lovely sunshine if you happen to be there during the summer. Seeing as they haven’t got a gulf stream to heat up the climate, there’s snow all of the winter and you’ll constantly see people skiing, sleighing or snow shoeing.

The Canadians are a very friendly and patient people. They do not constantly honk at each other – except for the taxi drivers, who drive as insanely as anywhere else – when in a car, they’d like to hear a bit about who you are and where you’re from, and they always appear to have the time to help you out with various small things. However, when it comes to digesting information a bit beyond the usual, e.g. that you’re on a scholarship and will only be staying for 2 months and do not want to be inscribed as an ordinary student or that you do not have classes on Thursdays and the cleaning ladies will either have to put up with you being at home when they clean or find another day than Thursday, a lot of them seem to be having trouble. Undoubtedly this isn’t specific to Canadians, but I met so many people who seemed to be informatively challenged that I feel I’ll have to include it in the report.

Especially in the Atlantic provinces this friendliness is a very superficial thing, though. People are smiling, friendly and helpful, but you do not get any closer than 10 feet away, and it is rather difficult to get to know anybody beyond the stage of exchanging pleasant remarks about the lovely cold and the lovely snow. If you happen to meet somebody in a bar, they’ll abound in great ideas of outings to natural beauty spots where they’d like to take you, but nothing ever comes of it, even if they aren’t drunk when they draw up the plans. This makes living in a town like Moncton rather lonely, people have enough in themselves. I wasn’t invited to the home of any of my class mates during my 2 months’ stay there. I got as close as being made aware of the cultural evening of the University of Moncton, but even there I had to make do on my own, I wasn’t joined by anybody that I knew and had to sit with complete strangers during the buffet and subsequent show.

I decided to spend my “cultural money” on the 13 hour bus drive from Moncton to Montréal, where I have a friend, Donovan, whom I once met in Denmark. A three day visit was what I could fit into my schedule. Montréal might as well be part of another country. I felt welcome and even at home immediately, and finally I got to have conversations on a slightly deeper level than talking about the weather and the nature. It might have helped that most of the people I met were friends of Donovan’s, but I don’t think that’s the full explanation seeing as when I took the 2 hour drive to see another friend, Teresa, in Saint John, she and her friends followed the same east cost pattern as described above. Donovan explained that the people in the Atlantic provinces are white trash – which might be a tad too hard on them, but they’re definitely not too open minded.

Even though there is a francophone university in Moncton, Montréal is a truly bilingual place. In Moncton everybody speaks English except at the university, but in Montréal you hear both languages in streets and alleys, restaurants, boutiques and bars, and often even conversations in both languages at the same time.

However, Montréal isn’t just bicultural, it’s a city with many different nationalities, many different parts of the city and many different sub cultures, ranging from hyper modern, underground shopping centres, which generate income in terms of rent to old, broke, gothic churches and stretch for kilometres under the sky scrapers and modern glass buildings that surround the gothic churches, though the old city with cobble stone streets and small, alternative art shops. There’s even a China Town with authentic, imported gates guarded by Chinese stone lions and all the exotic vegetables, fried octopi and kitsch souvenirs needed to make the atmosphere complete. The architecture varies through many styles and many ages, from small, Georgian brick houses with outside, winding stairs painted in vivid colours through more modern concrete blocks to sculptural glass buildings.

Montréal is a very green city, too. I didn’t succeed in finding one single street that didn’t have trees planted between the pavement and the car lanes, and small and slightly bigger parks are scattered all over the place. I think it must be fantastic in the summer with all those green trees along the streets. The people in Montréal are very proud of their “mountain”, which is really a big hill complete with a lit-up, 10 meter catholic cross and more worldly things like a restaurant, a skating lake and kilometres of skiing pistes, on which it is prohibited to walk, at least in the winter.

The people living in Montréal are as varied as the city itself. There are skaters and punks, hippies, hip hoppers and homosexuals holding hands, window dummy girls and boys, business men and women, ordinary people in non descript everyday clothes and people observing any religion imaginable, even Indians. Though the latters mostly live in reservations, they are part and parcel of Montréal and everybody has an opinion about them and their way of living. There isn’t any extreme racial tension between the various groups of immigrants, but the older generation refers to the Indians as “savages”, whereas the younger generation politically correct refers to them as “first nations” and are all for their rights to live as they want to.

People in Montréal are generally very talkative and quite willing to engage in discussions about anything from politics to smoking hash. Because people do smoke a lot of hash in Canada, and it doesn’t seem to have the same social implications as in Denmark. On the contrary, professors, lawyers and doctors smoke it and nobody tries to hide it. Honestly I don’t know anybody in Denmark  who smokes hash several times a week without being headed for deroute in the fast lane, so I found dealing with the inevitable joints a little difficult. I guess the people I met found that somewhat funny seeing as more than one of them told me how to grow weed in a closet.

I guess it’ll be safe to conclude that I would have enjoyed my stay in Canada more if I had taken the courses in Montréal rather than Moncton, which is a small, introverted, provincial town. On the other hand side I fell so much in love with Montréal that I’d like to go back next year when time and money allows it.