Damn, I Wish I Had Known That...!

Ooops, I Did It Again

Ooops, I Did It Again


I have just received the pre­cious let­ter from Cit­i­zen­ship and Immi­gra­tion: on June 11th, I’m invited to write my cit­i­zen­ship test. I’m excited! I applied for Cana­dian cit­i­zen­ship in August 2008 and con­sid­er­ing the back­log, I wasn’t expect­ing my test to be so soon. It’s not the last step (which is the cit­i­zen­ship cer­e­mony) but I’m closer.

So here I am, lying on the bed, learn­ing Canada 101 with the book­let I have to study to pass the test. His­tory, geog­ra­phy, soci­ol­ogy… interesting.

But deep down I’m think­ing there are other stuffs I wish I had known dur­ing my first year in Canada. So here my “damn, I wish I had known that…!” list, a list of seri­ous and not so seri­ous things most immi­grants should be aware of.

Iced snow is very hard to shovel: we have all been there… It’s snow­ing hard, you just got home and you are tired: “I’ll shovel tomor­row…”. Except it got very cold dur­ing the night. And trust me, iced snow is hell to clear up.

Freez­ing rain is actu­ally dan­ger­ous: the road and the side­walks are like a skat­ing rink. We had two minor car acci­dents a few years ago, both because the roads were extremely icy. In one of the acci­dent, the car just skid­ded across the four lanes on the free­way, and we ended up unhurt in a snow bank. We were lucky that Feng is a good and expe­ri­enced dri­ver, and also that all the other cars we dri­ving slowly.

Win­ter is fun too: we all bitch about it, but win­ter can be a lot of fun. Put on your gloves, scarf and a warm coat and join the fun! Each city cel­e­brates win­ter its own way. In Ottawa, we have the Win­ter­lude fes­ti­val, the Rideau Canal which turns into the longest skat­ing rink in the world and snow sculp­tures. Don’t be afraid of the cold, go out and play!

Tip­ping is the rule: in Canada, you have to leave a tip (15%) in restau­rants. Accord­ing to the eti­quette, you also tip your hair styl­ist, you mas­sage ther­a­pist, the lady who does your nail, the pizza guy and pretty much any­body who does any­thing for you. This can be con­fus­ing if you are from a coun­try where tip­ping is not the norm! I still have the tip­ping dilemma in some cases…

Cars fist, pedes­tri­ans sec­ond: Canada has a strong car cul­ture and I some­times think pedes­tri­ans are con­sid­ered an annoy­ance. Never never assume a car will give you the way. Cana­di­ans are nice, but when dri­ving, they are… dif­fer­ent. Out­side city cen­ters, always wait for the green light to cross and hurry up: it never seems to last for more than ten sec­onds, which is pretty quick if you are cross­ing a major road. Oh, and watch for cars turn­ing right at the red light. It is allowed and it’s just weird.

Mar­ket your lan­guage skills: I’d say speak­ing at least French or Eng­lish is pretty much a pre­req­ui­site to get a job. But the more lan­guages you speak, the more oppor­tu­ni­ties you may have. Speak­ing another offi­cial lan­guage is extremely use­ful in the Ottawa region for exam­ple, or if you want to work in the fed­eral gov­ern­ment. But some employ­ers may also be inter­ested in employ­ees who speak other lan­guages, such as Span­ish, Chi­nese, Russ­ian etc. because we live in such a mul­ti­cul­tural country.

Streets are really really long: in Europe, I was used to walk­ing every­where. As long as I had a street name, I could also eas­ily find the place I was look­ing for. One thing I learned the hard way in Canada: streets are often sev­eral kilo­me­ters long, they even cross cities! So don’t start walk­ing on, let’s say, 12 Bank street if you are look­ing for 1423 Bank street!

Learn Que­bec slang is you don’t want to look too puz­zled around French speak­ers: I still don’t speak flu­ent Québé­cois (why would I, after all I live in Ontario!) but at least, I can under­stand peo­ple around me. Well, mostly. Some stuffs are really lost in trans­la­tion!

There are some touchy issues in Canada: I’m not talk­ing about seal hunt­ing or soft wood lum­ber. French & Eng­lish or the des­tiny of a bilin­gual coun­try for exam­ple is one. The lan­guage issue is com­plex and highly polit­i­cal here…

Never smile on pic­tures: Cana­di­ans are weird with offi­cial pic­tures, and most of the time, you are not sup­posed to smile. I heard it’s the same else­where now, but it really sur­prised me the first time my pic­tures for my visa appli­ca­tion were refused because I was smil­ing on them!

It’s okay to com­plain at the cus­tomer ser­vice: unlike in some parts of the world where cus­tomer ser­vice is non-existent (France, any­one?), Cana­di­ans do care about it. And it some­times pays to com­plain, as long as you are right of course. It may not work, but occa­sion­ally, you get your prob­lem solved (some­times you don’t though).

Read the god­damn fine print: this one always con­fused me at first. See, North Amer­ica is really big on mar­ket­ing. There are coupons for every­thing, a spe­cial deal each day of the week and as many spe­cial offers as there are snowflakes in the sky in Jan­u­ary. But never ever for­get to read the fine print. This “din­ner for two for $20″ coupon? Valid on Feb­ru­ary 31st between 4:30 and 5:00. The “one time offer” for great financ­ing? Rate goes up to 20% after the first two hours. If it’s too good to be true, it prob­a­bly is. Really.

North Amer­i­can food isn’t so bad: sure, this is the land of plenty and the birth­place of junk food. But North Amer­i­can cui­sine can also be sur­pris­ingly inven­tive, cheap and inter­est­ing. Eth­nic restau­rants are your best bet for a cheap and fun meal, and Canada has some really cool sweet stuffs. Yes, I betrayed the French cui­sine!

It’s okay to ask for a doggy bag: see above… por­tions are insanely big in most restau­rants, espe­cially North-American style din­ers. Bet­ter not fin­ish and ask to take your left-overs home: it’s per­fectly accept­able and very common!

Suck it up, it does get bet­ter: you will get used to most of the things men­tioned above, it just takes time. It took me almost two years to decide whether I really wanted to live in Canada or not, and another one to be com­fort­able. And I’m still learn­ing!


About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.


    • Unfor­tu­nately, 15–20% is pretty much expected even when ser­vice is barely ade­quate. Tip­ping is so “cus­tom­ary” that it no longer serves as an incen­tive for excep­tional service.

      • Like you said, it’s just too bad. At least in Canada wait­ers make the min­i­mum wage, unless some US states where they are paid $2 and hour!

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