Am I Crazy or Are They? (Overheard in Ottawa)

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Self portrait on Merivale, Ottawa, July 14 2017

“Sorry… can I ask you something?”

For a split second, I thought the man had mistaken me for one of the supermarket’s employees. It was unlikely considering I was wearing shorts and a tank top but hey, he did start the sentence with “sorry” so I was willing to point him to the pasta aisle if needed, even though I’m not on Loblaws’ payroll.

“You didn’t take a bus, did you?”

“Huh? I’m sorry?”

Now it was my turn to use the magic Canadian all-purpose word because I had no idea what he was talking about. Besides, it was already 5:30 p.m. and a queue was forming at the cash register. I just wanted to pay and go home before the daily downpour.

“Yes, I saw you on Fisher. You walked all the way to the supermarket?”

“Er… Yes, I did.”

“Good for you, good for you. Is that why you’re so tan?”

Oh, for fuck’s sake, not AGAIN! I sighed inwardly. “Ah, ah, yes I guess.”

“Because I was wondering if you were a lifeguard.”

“No, definitely not.”

“Are you’re not foreign either, are you?”

Where the fuck was this conversation going?

“Well, I’m French.”

“Not from… “He pointed to the dish detergent aisle, which was probably Quebec in his mind. “Overseas French?”

“Yes.”

Please let me go, don’t ask me what I think of the French spoken in Quebec, don’t tell me you’ve been to Paris thirty years ago, don’t attempt to say “bonjour” or “au revoir”.

“Ah. So, you walked to the supermarket, right?”

Yes, that’s me. Apparently, I have a noticeable feature and one noteworthy skill: I’m tan and I walk to places instead of driving. And I’ve been dealing with the tan/walk police for over a month now.

“Do I look any different?” I asked Feng the other day.

“No,” he replied. “Why?”

“Because every single fucking day this week, I’ve been stopped by a stranger who feels the need to tell me I’m tan or that he/she saw me walking somewhere! Older folks seem oddly fascinated by the fact I can put one foot in front of the other, something I mastered like 33 years ago. And women comment on my tan, while younger guys are… catcalling, I guess.”

It’s not anecdotal, I swear. Just this week I had:

  • “Are you a movie star? I was wondering, by the way you walk” (didn’t sound like a pickup line, the guy at the wheel who slowed down to ask sounded genuinely intrigued)
  • “You’re tan!” (from a woman in a convertible as I was crossing the street)
  • “Wanna exercise with me? Ah ah, you’re probably fitter than me!” (a guy standing in front of a gym)

Feng laughed. “People go crazy in the summer. You know, joyriding and all… and there may be more tourists than usual because of Canada 150.”

In France, where catcalls and unwanted invitations to suck dicks are more common, I had mastered the art of walking past the idiots while giving the middle finger at age 13. But Ottawa lured me into thinking I was invisible. Canadians do the small talk thing in social situations or when waiting in line, but otherwise, we all mind our business. Until this summer, I don’t think I ever heard an inappropriate comment.

I tried to find a logical explanation to this puzzling situation. Yes, I have been out quite a bit lately—I have a contract with a client downtown and I often have to go deliver or pickup documents. Since it’s construction season and that the bus runs on a summer schedule, it’s cheaper, easier and more enjoyable—for me, at least—to walk to places while listening to podcasts. And indeed, one thing leading to another, I am probably tanner than the average Canadian of British descent. I never quite lost my tan from last winter and I tan easily in general (Mediterranean blood), plus I wear shorts and tank top every day, or a dress if I have professional meetings.

And apparently, walking to places and being tan makes me an oddity in Ottawa.

“I saw you on Somerset!” a neighbour I don’t know called out the other day, as if it was particularly comment-worthy. I’ve just checked on Google Map: Chinatown is about 7 km from where I live—no wonder he saw me there, first this is completely within walking distance for me, second it’s where I shop.

“You walked all the way from XXX?” someone else noted, as if it was some kind of major life achievement… and this is in a city where locals enjoy spending their weekends running marathons or jog in the blizzard!

“I saw you this morning at Starbucks and I passed you on Carling later!” someone else told me. Huh… yes. I had a coffee this morning, then I went downtown, taking Carling.

I mean, if I saw someone in Montreal in the morning and in Toronto a few hours later, I may make a comment. Occasionally, while travelling, I met someone in country A and later, we’d bump into each other again in country D—that’s funny and maybe noteworthy. But is seeing me between the West End and downtown that memorable?

This makes me feel strangely self-conscious, realizing that people actually see me, remember me, pay attention to the way I look. It reminds me of when I was hanging out with Mark before he went to daycare. There was always someone to ask me whether I breastfed, how old was the baby, if he slept through the night or whatever. I mean, it was nice to take an interest but most of the time, I just wanted people to mind their own business.

Life is weird. I wish I’d be known as a writer but I’m just the tan woman who walks.

Self portrait on Merivale, Ottawa, July 14 2017

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About Author

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

31 Comments

  1. Hahaha it’s so…. Canadian? Hey, you have nice legs, maybe that’s why?
    I’m known as the girl who walks her dog (now the 3 legged dog so it’s even more conspicuous), dresses nicely and is from Mexico or France depending on their intel. I’ve actually had people say that they knew me “from around town” and had noticed my dog / sense of fashion (did I say everyobody here dresses like a Decathlon add?) when properly introduced before. And I’ve overheard guys wondering or commenting about the “Mexican chick” lol
    Anyways, I hear you, I feel invisible here too (looking at people and commenting on their appearance is not a national sport the way it is in France) but I guess people do pay attention in their own ways?
    Think of it that way (touch wood it will never happen), if you ever have an accident / twist your ankle or something people will know who you are and help you lol

    • It’s funny because around here, many people walk their dogs at sunset and I tend to remember the dogs, not the people 😆 I just don’t pay attention unless someone really stands out and/or we have a meaningful conversation (i.e. beyond “pretty hot, eh” or “pretty cold, eh”).

      Most women here wear either the typical office attire, either shorts and tank top in the summer, so wearing shorts is definitely not strange in Ottawa.

      (And thanks for the “nice legs”! :lol:)

  2. 🙂

    Juliette, since you have blog post on this now, I might as well share with you we saw twice last month, of course you were walking. While we didn’t talk about your tan, you know coz big deal eh? :), we did comment that you walk often and maybe it is a habit we need to pick up, keep walking!

    • Ah! You know what, I *thought* I saw you recently but I wasn’t sure. It’s very likely though because the two camps Mark went to the first couple weeks of July were in your area, and I dropped him off/picked him up a few times.

      I do walk around our area quite a bit, I have a few clients around. I’m sorry I didn’t see you, though, but this is very much expected from me. I just don’t pay attention to people when I walk! I’m usually focused on getting from point A to B and/or I’m thinking of the upcoming meeting.

    • People just don’t walk anywhere. You’ll see them walking their dogs at night in summer, but that’s about it. To illustrate this, most of the time, people park right beside the community mailbox to get their mail instead of parking at home and walking the ten meters to the mailbox. It’s a mindset. We have three supermarkets within walking distance (1-2 km, which is nothing… Mark can walk this distance!) yet no one walks to the supermarket even though it’s a nice walk, on sidewalks and through a residential neighbourhood. Drives me crazy.

      • Yeah, it’s pretty much the same in the USA. People are very focused on maximizing their time so “wasting” an extra 30 minutes on a walk when they could just drive would seem foolish to some. But to others, neglecting one’s health would be even more foolish. I’m with you — happy to walk and luckily it’s normal in France!

        • I don’t know if it’s typical of Western Canada or just the small town I live in (people are SUPER fit here) but everybody walks / bikes everywhere. To the store / post office / school / restaurant etc.
          I guess Ottawa being a bigger city it’s a bit different?

          • Locals are pretty fit as well, but they tend to dedicate time to a specific activity (i.e. jogging, running, gym) rather than exercising “naturally”.

          • Martin Penwald on

            I would suggest that in the Rockies, it is not easy to spread a town as in the plains, so they are smaller and more easily walkable. Plus, you seemed to say that where you live is famous as a skiing resort, so there is already a sportive background in the area which probably help locals to be more inclined to be fit.

        • Did you adopt walking right away when you move to France?

          I noticed that in big cities (NY, Toronto) people do walk quite a bit. Ottawa is an exception because it’s so damn spread out!

  3. Martin Penwald on

    In the cases when someone ways they saw you, I would say, in a loud and glacial fond : « Ouais … Pourquoi ? T’es d’la police ? »

    • :-/ I’m afraid they would just follow up with the regular questions: “Are you from Paris?” “OMG, your French sounds so pure!” “I went to France once 45 years ago!”

      • Martin Penwald on

        It happens regularly that someone ask me where I come from or if I’m French. Very rarely, people who ask can’t say if I’m French or Italian, but habitually, my French accent is recognizable.
        I don’t like too much when I’m asked to speak French, but if the context permits it, I use the quote in French from the Merovingian, played by Lambert Wilson, in Matrix Reloaded : «Nom de dieu de putain de bordel de merde d’enculé de ta race» and specifically reference it, and noting that ‘fuck’ is particularly bland next to it.

  4. Martin Penwald on

    Mmmmh, so in Ottawa, there are people who have asked you to speak French? I can understand when it happens in Texas or Montana, but here it is a little bit weird.

  5. It is what I used to call the Canadian bi-polarity. In winter anyone barely looks you up in the eyes, sight sadly glued to the slosh / snow / ice combo, but as soon as the sun comes out they (we?) switch personality and they (we) are all suddenly overly friendly and talkative. It’s a bit weird, and no one ever gets used to it!!! ha ha 😀

  6. Ooookay…even I think that that is weird, and I live here. I would be really freaked out, actually, if someone said stuff like this to me. One time only, I was about 19 and shopping at a mall in downtown Toronto, and some random dude came up to me all excited because apparently he was often on the same subway car as me for our morning commute to work. I got serious stalker vibes. JUST BECAUSE YOU HAVE SEEN ME PLACES DOES NOT MAKE US FRIENDS.

    On the up side, I am super impressed with your walkabouts. Now I want to get out there and get walking!

    • ” JUST BECAUSE YOU HAVE SEEN ME PLACES DOES NOT MAKE US FRIENDS.” Can I steal this line? Please, please? I love it!

      I must look friendly/naive enough because I attract weird people :-/

  7. Oh boy, I’d feel uncomfortable ! Je suis vraiment mal à l’aise avec le fait que des étrangers me fassent la conversation de manière générale. Comme je suis assez timide je ne sais jamais quoi répondre. Alors je souris de toutes mes dents et c’est tout 😉 but this is super weird. On dirait que quelque chose chez toi a changé qui fait que les gens te remarquent plus. T’es sûre que Feng te fait pas une joke pis qu’il a pas accroché un panneau dans ton dos ? 😉

  8. You’ll be also a completely stranger in my country (well, despite the look)

    http://metro.co.uk/2017/07/13/worlds-laziest-country-revealed-and-the-uk-is-looking-pretty-active-6775553/

    Indonesian people is the laziest in the world, they said (in term of walking). I do agree in some extent, even to buy a cigarette 200 m from home they use motor cycle (I think I made a comment regarding to this when you traveled to Brazil)

    once i walked from the hospital to my home (less than 1 K) and seems that everybody looking at me with their confuse look.

  9. I just read an article in the NY Times that insisted on the fact that a poor woman had to walk 30 minutes to the hospital twice a day. And yeah, if you have places to be, 2 hours of travel time can be a lot in a day, but 30 minutes of walking is actually not hard; I walked 30 minutes work, 30 minutes back, then 35 minutes to the movie theater and 35 minutes back last week. I guess it’s more a North American idea that walking more than the mall entrance to your parked car is freakish. If you’re going to walk that far, you need special clothing, running shoes, and to your phone on an armband.

  10. People are so weird!

    I might have mentioned before that one time a stranger asked me why I was so tan if I was Chinese. (We were standing on a train platform in a Parisian suburb and he had asked what my ‘origine’ was.) Ridiculous. I think he didn’t believe I was really of Chinese descent.

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