“No, Mark, this is not your grandparents’ house. Remember? This is my friend’s place. We are visiting her and the baby.”
I can’t blame Mark for being confused. We drove for about as long as it takes to go to my in-laws, and my usually observant little boy can’t see that all the signs are in French, a sure sign we are not in Barrhaven, Ottawa, but in Gatineau, Quebec. Yet, despite being in a different province and a completely different part of the National Capital Region, suburbia is… well, suburbia. Residential streets, manicured lawns, garage doors and one-storey houses all look the same because they were built just a few years ago by a developer eager to invest in the long-term growth of a new subdivision. And make money, goes without saying.
This isn’t the first time Mark is confused about our destination. Recently, I walked through the Rideau Centre with him and he was convinced he was getting a haircut, because malls all look the same and we usually take him to a barbershop at Saint Laurent Shopping Mall.
So yeah, it’s confusing.
For a long time, I was like Mark—except I wasn’t a toddler, just a newcomer to Canada. For example, when I first moved to our current neighbourhood, I had to memorize our house’s number because several times, I couldn’t remember which one I was staying in. Was it the one with the light blue garage door or the dark blue garage door? They were all so similar!
This is one aspect of life in Canada I find harder and harder to deal with: everything looks exactly the same—new, in good condition—and life is so orderly that it gets absolutely infuriating.
Blandness. All around.
Take houses, for instance. Outside the downtown core, as the city is expanding, developers build houses that come in two of three different designs. Detached, semi-detached, townhouses. Oh, sure, they are very practical and ready to be furnished with all the IKEA shelves and tables you will be able to fit in your car. There are walk-in closets, granite counter-tops, two or three bathrooms (God forbid you’d ever have to pee after another family member), a master bedroom with an ensuite (fancy misused French words sound classy), enough space in the garage to park one or two cars, and even a basement. Everything is new, in working order and meets all the safety laws, policies and rules lawmakers can think of.
In a way, these houses are comfortable and cozy, unlike these old French apartments with squeaking wooden floors and antique plumbing systems.
Yet, they lack character. New neighbourhoods are boring. It feels like living on a movie set.
The same goes with businesses. The friendly baristas at Starbucks keep on offering me food with my coffee. I get it, they have to, markups, profits and all. I always decline, though. Why? Because there are around ten kinds of pastries and at one point, I tested them and I decided they weren’t worth the price and the calories. I’m not excited by these treats because I see them day after day behind the window. They are always cut, displayed and prepared the same way.
They are boringly predictable.
I’m tired of predictability.
When I first came to Canada, all the franchised restaurants and fast foods were new to me. For about a year, I enjoyed testing them, one by one. I had muffins at Tim Hortons, square hamburgers at Wendy’s, chicken sandwiches at Burger King, pizzas with garlic dipping sauce at Pizza Pizza, root beer at McDonald’s, nachos at Lone Star, spicy Italian sandwiches at Subway, spaghetti with meatballs at Boston Pizza, oat fudge bars at Starbucks and biscotti at Second Cup.
Yes, I gained quite a bit of weight, in case you were wondering.
After a while, I got tired of going to the same franchises all the time, with their menus and recipes that never change and their predictable gimmicks. It wasn’t fun anymore. I knew what the food would taste like before I even put it in my mouth.
These days, if I eat out, I refuse to go to a franchise restaurant. I eat ethnic food I wouldn’t cook at home, for instance. Yeah, sometimes I’m disappointed, sometimes the portions are weird, the bathrooms are dirty or the waiter is disinterested. I never know—and that’s the beauty of it. I don’t want a standard one-size-fits-all experience.
I want bread slices that aren’t all the same size, pastries with an uneven number of chocolate chips and misshapen cookies. I don’t want the standardized formula, non merci.
It’s hard, though, because chain stores dominate the market. Eh, I’m not going to Starbucks because I’m a brand lover. I used to be very anti-Starbucks, corporate monsters, all that. The truth is, in my neighbourhood, the choice is between Second Cup, Mcdonald’s and Tim Horton. In this case, I like “my” Starbucks best because the baristas are friendly at this location and it’s not too packed, seats are usually available. If I had the choice, I’d probably go to an independent coffee store.
Am I being a spoiled first-world citizen here? Is my rant against blandness a “white people problem”?
Maybe. After all, living in a safe, clean, modern and orderly country is great, right?
I like misfits, old mismatched stuff, small touches of madness and nonsense, chaotic places, funny details and urban decay. It fuels my dreams and creativity. It’s the essence of life—nothing should be boringly predictable.
There is one thing that helps in this fairly bleak picture I painted: people. Canada is home to a very diverse population and you can interact with people from all over the world. By comparison, the city where I grew up in France was remarkably homogenous and single-minded.
I have to invent my own crazy world here.
I shall do so.