Settling in the Great Green North


— 11:15 PM on May 20, 2010

One of our loyal readers recently asked why I haven't talked more about my experience moving from France to Vancouver, Canada back in March. Truth is, review samples and other obligations were quick to pile up, and I've had to allocate my time wisely.

Scott asked Geoff and me to update our blogs more frequently, however, so I thought I'd take the opportunity to delight you with a Yakov Smirnoff-esque list of differences between my native country and the Great White North (or, to be fair to British Columbia's surprisingly mild climate and thick pine forests, the Great Green North).

Now, before we begin, I should acknowledge that I'm not much of a Frenchman. I went to high school in Scotland, and I've spent the past four years living in a sort of North American bubble under a rooftop in Nantes, France. So, you might say I speak more as an Americanized European than a dyed-in-the-wool Frenchie. Still, a number of things jumped out at me after my arrival in Vancouver.

  • The veneer of politeness. I've been told this is more of a Canadian thing than a general North American trend, but wow, people here go out of their way to be nice. Never in Europe has a store clerk asked me how I'm doing today, a cashier told me not to worry about the extra two cents after receiving a $5 bill for a $5.02 item, or a bus driver said "it's okay, you'll know next time" after being handed a ticket for the wrong zone.

    I've witnessed a similar veneer of politeness in Scotland, but back there, it often seemed to have a hypocritical and patronizing aftertaste. In France, meanwhile, people subscribe to entirely different social norms, making no efforts to conceal their bad mood or to refrain from poking fun at you. There's something more frank and natural about the French, but it can feel a little abrasive, especially for tourists used to more civil interactions.

  • The grid city layout. We Europeans built our cities over hundreds, sometimes thousands of years, tearing them down and rebuilding them repeatedly in the process, yet generally retaining an antiquated, mostly unplanned street layout. In stark contrast, North American cities like Vancouver were planned and carefully laid out on a grid.

    The grid can make navigation much, much easier, but it has other implications. Instead of talking about street numbers (e.g. 22 rue Jean Jaurès), I can give directions by simply naming the nearest intersection. Instead of nimbly cutting through small, diagonal streets, however, I need to follow the same long street for multiple blocks, waiting for the light to turn at each intersection, and when on foot, sometimes awkwardly following the same pedestrian. I do give Vancouver props for being very walkable, though; some North American cities don't look like they were designed with pedestrians in mind.


Can you guess which is the European city?
  • The pharmacies. "In my country, drug store sells drugs. In your country, drug store sells sandwich!"

    Okay, let's not go there. Nevertheless, the North American pharmacy is a concept entirely alien to the average European. On the Old Continent, pharmacies sell drugs, soaps, vitamins, cosmetics, placebos homeopathic tablets, and maybe a handful of other little items on the side. If you want to buy a sandwich, a candy bar, or a light bulb, you have to head to the nearest supermarket or convenience store. Mixing the two just ain't done. But here? Casual shopping and buying life-saving medication seems to go together like bread and butter.

    I still haven't fully grasped the benefits of this overlap between supermarkets and drug stores, however. Some grocery items seem to be cheaper at pharmacies, but I'm never quite sure where I should go for what, and I'm sometimes forced to visit both. Too much freedom! Back in Europe, the average-size supermarket serves as your one-stop shop for everything besides prescription drugs.

  • The huge pickup trucks. I must admit, automobiles on the Old Continent seem to have gotten larger over the past decade, and Europeans drive their fair share of SUVs. However, no European vehicle comes quite close to the level of extravagance of the North American pickup truck. Sleek, freshly waxed, and obviously never used to actually, er, pick up anything, the mighty GMC truck roams streets and highways with a loud, baritone roar, its sunglassees-wearing pilot peering over the hood at other cars like Sauron from the mighty black tower of Barad-dûr. It's an impressive sight.
  • The Sunday shopping. Try going shopping on a Sunday in France. I dare you. Unless you're in the capital, chances are almost all stores, supermarkets, pharmacies, and restaurants will be closed. Need to get a prescription refilled ASAP? Then you'll have to call an automated service to find out which pharmacies are staying open that week—it's usually only a couple, strategically located as far from the city center as possible.

    Over here, puzzlingly enough, businesses don't mind letting you spend the money you were busy earning the rest of the week. Actually, I believe France's Sunday lockdowns have to do with some type of local or national legislation. Either way, I hate it, and being able to go out and buy things any day of the week is a refreshing change. (In case you're wondering, no, I don't believe France has a particularly large population of orthodox Jews. Just lazy bureaucrats. Lots of 'em.)

  • The delicious high-fructose corn syrup. In the EU, most pops and sweets contain sucrose made from sugar beets. Here in North America, high-fructose corn syrup is king. I've heard HFCS's good name dragged through the mud for allegedly being an ill-tasting, unhealthy sugar substitute, not to mention being the product of oddly assigned government subsidies, but I'll be damned if it isn't delicious. Pop seems to taste a little sweeter here, although I should probably go back to not drinking any. For now, Slurpees are my main HFCS consumption vehicle; I can't get enough of the things, so long as I don't buy them with a Big Gulp straw by accident.

Sweet, sweet nectar.

  • The almighty banks. Since arriving in Canada, I've gotten my first credit card, and I've paid my first fee for using an ATM not emblazoned with my bank's logo. Why? Because neither of those things exist (or are widespread, at least) in France. Back there, I can use my French Visa card, which pulls funds directly from my checking account, in any ATM anywhere in the country without paying any fees whatsoever. North American-style credit cards just aren't done, either; the closest thing you can get is a debit card that delays transactions until the end of the month. My resulting lack of credit rating forced me to kick and scream to get a credit card here.

    North American banks go much further than nickel and diming their customers, of course. TR is a U.S.-based business, so I still receive paychecks in U.S. dollars—and because of the skewed exchange rates used by Canadian banks, currency conversion costs me about three times as much as it did back in France. Yes, converting U.S. dollars to Euros is apparently cheaper than converting them to Canadian dollars. Who woulda thunk it?

    On the flip side, my bank (TD Canada trust) keeps the sort of hours that would make a French banker faint. I can visit my branch Monday through Friday between 8:00 AM and 4:00-8:00 PM, depending on the day. In France, my bank keeps its doors shut every Monday, Thursday, and Saturday afternoon, plus holidays.

  • The soft metric. Spending my teens in the United Kingdom prepared me for Canada's odd mish-mash of imperial and metric measurements, but my girlfriend wasn't quite as ready: she recently asked me, "What does 'lifting 25 I B S' mean?" Of course, Canada's non-metric roots aren't immediately evident when looking at printed package labels and other signs. The elevator in our apartment building proudly quotes a maximum weight of 1,134 kg. Fruit cans have a volume of 598 ml. And Tootsie Roll bars weigh 85 g. An uneducated European might never know that those strange numbers are simply direct conversions of round imperial figures—2,500 lbs, 14 fl oz, and 3 oz, respectively. That same European might, however, be misled by the per-pound pricing of fruits and vegetables, since those items are sold by the kilogram back home.
  • The huge portions. Everything from restaurant dishes and food packages to shampoo bottles and toothpaste tubes (seriously) seems to be considerably larger here. That's both good and bad, I've found. As a European, the concept of asking to get food wrapped up at the end of a meal is alien to me, and my good manners also urge me to finish my plate before getting up. This can have... uncomfortable consequences.

    Luckily, Vancouverites seem to feed each other less excessively than some other North Americans. I recall eating at a diner in North Carolina during my first trip to the United States six years ago; it was the first time I ever ate to the point of being nauseous. I had ordered a salad.

I've encountered plenty more little differences, some of which escape me right now. If anything, however, I'm struck by how alike these two continents are. We have many of the same store chains, brands, and foods; we drive many of the same cars; we speak the same languages; we watch the same movies; laugh at the same jokes, and are warmed and cooled by the same summer and winter. I still relish the small peculiarities, if only because they put into perspective things I might otherwise have taken for granted. But I somehow keep forgetting that I'm half a world away.

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