5 Things My Mum Observed in Canada

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Oh Canada Cookies, Byward Market, Ottawa

In July, part of my family (my brother, who is 19, and my mother) came to visit us for three weeks. It was the first time we had visitors in Canada and it was their first time in North America.

I loved walking around with them because they noticed a lot of little Canadian quirks I don’t even see anymore. I changed over the years—I became more Canadian. Two pairs of fresh eyes was all I needed to rediscover the city and some aspect of our culture.

So, here are five things my mum observed in Canada:

Portions are huge! — After we picked them up at Montreal airport, we stopped at Tim Horton’s on the way to Ottawa. My mother asked me to get her a coffee. I ordered the smallest one, yet she looked at it with wide eyes: “it’s huge!” “Yep”, I agreed. “And believe it or not, this is the smallest size.” A far cry from French coffee, which is usually three drops of espresso in a thimble-size cup. Fortunately, I remembered there was a size smaller than “tall” at Starbucks (“short”) and my mother got used to a lot of caffeine. Like most French, she doesn’t put milk in her coffee—Canadians usually throw away half of the coffee to make room for tons of milk and sugar.

Shops are always open — Still on the first night, I had to go pick up some groceries at the supermarket. I offered my mother to come with me—on a warm summer night, I enjoy walking to the nearby supermarkets. “What supermarket?” she asked. “It’s 10 p.m.! And it’s Sunday!” Well, in Canada, unlike in France, we can shop pretty much anytime, including late at night and on Sunday. The customer is king, right?

Missing: cheese, yogurt and other dairy products — I had told my mum many times that I barely eat cheese in Canada. Good cheese (read “imported cheese”) is expensive and relatively hard to find. My mother was surprised to see that we didn’t have a lot of variety when it comes to yogurt: it’s either plain or with fruits. In France, the yogurt and “crèmes” selection is huge. It’s a treat for dessert: caramel flan, chocolate mousse, sophisticated lemon meringue flavour are a staple of the French diet. Similarly, the sour cream and butter selection is pretty lame here compared to France.

North American food — They had the chance to taste a lot of new North American specialities: pecan pies, butter tarts, carrot cakes, banana bread, cream cheese, bagels, good burgers (not fast food!), onion rings, muffins, pancakes… overall, they were pleasantly surprised.  Food in North America is pretty tasty and local specialties make up for the number of fast foods per square metre.

The distances — I warned my mother right away: do not assume you can always walk from point A to point B. I made the mistake when I first came here. I had several appointments on Bank Street and I thought I could just walk from one to another—why not, after all, since I’m on the right street? But Bank Street is over 40 km long, and so are Baseline, Merivale and other main streets in Ottawa. And I’m not even talking about Yonge Street—the longest street in the world is 1,896 km long!

Did your family ever visit you abroad? What did they observe?


About Author

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


  1. Salut Zhu,

    I may surprise you; the first visit of family in 20+ years was my cousin this year. My immediate family has never been motivated to come.
    That is wonderful for your family’s visit! Super!

    My cousin just adored Paris! My cousin & girlfriend found it of course, romantic. They also liked being able to walk, enjoyed tasting the cuisine and the general ambiance. I don’t remember hearing any really negative feedback. They want to return in the future!!

    P.S. – When I return to N America, I always forget in the first few days that stores are open late and on Sundays. It always comes as a bit of a shock, then I relax & get back into the swing. 🙂

    • It’s good that they enjoyed Paris! I’m glad to see the city still lives up to people’s high expectations.

      It’s not always easy for friends and family to visit us abroad, I can understand that.

  2. My parents visited me both years that I was in France, and I think for them the biggest difference was the size of the roads and the cars. They loved having all the different bakery and cheese options, got used to public transportation in Paris, and had a great time.

    I definitely feel the same way as your mom about the dairy products! The other thing I’ve noticed is the lack of different kinds of fresh juices. In France there were all kinds of different Tropicana juices and lots of mixed flavors, and here ee have orange juice, apple juice, and lemonade.

    • I think we have more kinds of juice in Canada, including grapefruit, my favourite. I didn’t drink juice much in France so I didn’t notice. But I do miss the selection of dairy products!

      Roads are tiny in France, aren’t they? And all twisty!

  3. Given that my parents are diplomats and have lived in many different places, it’s hard to come up with things that are “new” or “different” for them. But there are still some. The following are a few of the things they remarked when they visited me and my sibling in New York City in 2009.

    1) They were amazed that Europe (by this, they mean Czech Republic, Austria, and Hungary) was “more advanced” than the USA when you’re in a restaurant and you’re paying by credit card. In the USA, they take your card away and swipe it, in Europe, they bring this wireless device to the table and swipe it right there.

    2) My mom loved Netflix! Seriously, it’s a genius of an idea to have a system where you rent DVDs through the mail.

    3) Public transportation sucks. In cities like New York City, it is fine, but other cities are not geared for public transportation. They never had to use taxicabs when they traveled in other European cities aside from getting to or from the airport, but when they spent a few days in Washington DC, they remarked that the metro stations were spaced too far apart, and so they took cabs there.

    • I haven’t tried Netflix yet because the selection isn’t that great in Canada, but some people rave about it.

      I wish we had better transportation systems in North America… in most cities, there is little incentive to use public transit.

      It must have been interesting growing up in such a cosmopolitan family 🙂

  4. Hi Zhu!

    Just wanted to stop by and say Hi. Nice to meet you over at Barbara’s blog!

    I’ve never been to Canada, but everyone (and I mean everyone) who I’ve meet who has ever visited there has nothing but RAVES about it.

    “The Shops are always open”

    How wonderful, because here in Philly most places close at 6 or 8 at night. All, with the exception of restaurants and pubs. Philly is more like Europe, everything shuts down early.

    Love your blog! I’ll be back. Have a super day!

    • Hi Ron, nice to meet you! I was at your blog earlier today following your guest post at Barbara’s too 🙂

      I’m surprised to hear that Philly is more like Europe. I guess it’s an old city by North American standards!

  5. I love caramel flan! It is very popular in Mexico. I agree with you about getting good cheese here, there aren’t as many varieties here as in other countries. As per the stores opening on Sunday, here in New Brunswick everything is closed after 5 pm :(, but on the other side, the supermarket opens 24 hours the rest of the week, quite impressive for a small city, and convenient. 🙂
    I still cannot get my head around abut how people are able to eat dessert at any restaurant after eating the huge portions from the main course. My wife and I are usually stuffed after the meal and have no room for dessert.

    • I love flan and I remember having some in Mexico, you’re right!

      I always never have dessert in North America, I just don’t have room for it. Only if a bunch of us share a specialty then I’ll grab a few spoonful! Besides, most desserts in restaurants aren’t made from scratch, they aren’t that great, just fatty.

  6. Zhu,

    LOL yes, everything is huge in Canada. I remember that the Big Mac was really big! Ours is so small that I can’t understand why they call it big…

    Oh yes, it is like in London: shops opened all night…I love it. In Portugal, now, we can shop even on Sundays (because the first socialist government passed a bill forbidding hypermarkets from opening on Sundays – the PM was a truly observant Catholic – but our former socialist government, this year, passed another bill allowing hypermarkets to trade on Sundays again…it was one of the few good measures PM Socrates implemented when in office).

    My brother visited me in London and he loved cosmopolitan feature of the city. Again, he love the options he had there and the fact that the client is always right and well served.


    • I like having options too, but I know these kinds of availabilities take a toll on workers. I wouldn’t want to work the night shift at WalMart…

  7. that’s some interesting observations. sometimes we need a tourist or non-local to point out at the things we don’t really see in our own towns!

  8. Maurice Chevalier on

    En sixième point, elle m’a dit à son retour que les canadiens étaient plutôt cool : lorsque moi aussi j’y viendrai, je percerai ce secret pour l’importer en France.

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