Suffocating Blandness

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Tim Hortons Cups at the Bus Stop, Ottawa

Tim Hortons Cups at the Bus Stop, Ottawa

“Yeye’s house!”

“No, Mark, this is not your grand-parents’ 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 that all look the same because they were built just a few years ago by a developer eager to invest in 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 neighborhood, 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 meet 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 neighborhoods are boring. It feels like living on a movie set.

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 have 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, sometime I’m disappointed, sometime 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 wanted 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 neighborhood, the choice is between Second Cup, McDonalds’ and Tim Horton. In this case, I like “my” Starbucks best because 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’m suffocating.

I like misfits, old mismatched stuff, small touches of madness and nonsense, chaotic places, funny details and urban decay. These fuel my dreams, creativity and are 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.


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. Love love love this article.
    Franchises. You know how I feel about them.
    A friend of mine who grew up in the 80’s in suburbian Chicago told me that back then, and even early 90’s, her neighborhood was full of mom and pa’ local businesses. No franchises, none. And it was a very peculiar neighborhood as it was full of italian immigrants like her family, it was colorfull and lively. It’s not anymore, since it’s been taken back by so many bland franchises that you can’t even count them.
    Anyway, I loved this story, felt really sad, and told myself that there’s nothing like “real” businesses to shape a neighborhood/city identity, even if houses all look exactly the same!

    • Even I’m seeing Ottawa changing over the years. A few neighborhoods still have many independent businesses, like Chinatown, but when they close and another franchise opens I feel so sad… the worst part is in new development in suburbia. Developers replicate the exact same malls and shopping centres. It’s awful.

  2. Martin Penwald on

    If you pass by Chamberlain, SK on highway 16, one time (and if it is open), there is a small hamburger shop, with very good stuff. I think the name is Old Western Express. For example, they don’t remove the potato’s skin before doing the french fries, I really like that. Compared to shitty frozen fries, berk. The bun are made with organic grown wheat, and the meat is free of shit.
    Yet, I am not sure it is still operating.

  3. Martin Penwald on

    Damn, I forgot. In Atlantic provinces, there are still some nice small towns with colorful houses.
    And cardboard houses, built somewhere else and moved through truck on site, where the basement has been built to support it, are strange things which do not exist in Europe. That explains partly why they all look the same. And I really don’t want to live inside one.
    I like log houses, they are nice looking, but I am not sure that all cities permit building one. Citiy codes seems to be pretty annoying, depending where you live : (Yes, it is Texas, not Canada, but still).
    And remember, grass, as seen in front of houses, is absolutely not a local plant. It is a parasistic plant imported by the English, the goal being showing one’s wealth. It is so absurd to have mandatory grass, especially in drought striken area, but human stupidity has no limits.

    • Oh yes to that silly grass obsession! Fortunately, we don’t seem to have this HOA nonsense I sometime hear about in the USA. These people should get a life.

  4. When I came to Ottawa I loved the order, etc but soon I realized was boring besides Ottawa is a small town and that doesn’t help much to bring some messiness….

    Canada is diverse and so but I just got the impression that Ottawa is the less diverse city of Canada. Yes you see many people from many different places but nothing compared to cities like Montreal, Toronto or Vancouver. I still come to Ottawa when I need some quiet time though!

    • I agree with you, Ottawa is a great place to be when you want peace and quiet, an easy life. Toronto and Montreal are a bit more chaotic (by Canadian standards). I think Ottawa is as diverse, culturally speaking, but it doesn’t have many typical multicultural neighborhoods.

  5. Quand nous avons visité Toronto, je n’arrêtais pas de répéter “Mais est-ce qu’il y a un endroit où manger qui ne soit pas un Tim Hortons ou un Subway?”. J’étais épouvantée par toutes ces franchises. À Montréal, je me sens mieux, je retrouve le concept de petit resto, petit café etc, malgré les grosses franchises qui sont partout vers mon bureau.
    Et quand nous avons cherché une maison, mon chum avait repéré un quartier dont un collègue lui avait parlé. Un vrai truc à l’américaine, que des maisons toutes pareilles! Je lui ai dit que c’était nooo way, imagine je rentre saoule un soir et je me trompe de maison ?? 😉

    • Ça se trouve bien à Toronto les restos indépendants, y’en a même beaucoup mais faut connaître les quartiers. Je te filerai des adresses avec plaisir pour un prochain voyage! Et tu vois, moi qui connaît finalement assez mal Montréal, ben j’ai l’impression de ne tomber que sur des Second Cup et Poulet St Hubert quand j’y vais 😆 Ok, hormis les pièges à touristes du port…

  6. You perfectly describe how I often feel about life in Canada – with the exception of the extraordinary natural beauty in Canada, the towns and houses bore me. We could do with being a little more colourful and vibrant in Hamilton for sure.

  7. I like this post. I love seeing different perspective and point of view on things. My house is a cookie cutter (except for the mismatched patterns in some rooms…don’t ask long funny story lol) but i try to focus on the memories that i make in it. Though i do agree that my neighborhood is a bit too quiet and boring. Sometimes it is good and sometimes i just want to get the hell out.
    i try to avoid Timmies but it is tough when it is the closest thing to me and i need caffeine stat ! Wish Starbucks was close to me. Btw, i am currently addicted to those almond pastries at Starbucks. I am in withdrawal mode now. It’s sad lol.
    It is funny you talk about the blandness because i was thinking how, in Ivory Coast, there are no franchise restaurants but we tend to eat a lot of the same staples food constantly and we get used to it our whole lives. It’s interesting.

    • I need to ask now: what are the staple food in Côte D’Ivoire? I know NOTHING about “Black Africa” food (as opposed to Northern Africa, which exported many specialties in France). It’s embarrassing considering we are very close culturally speaking!

      • LOL don’t be embarrassed…plaintains is one food that is so versatile in Ivory Coast that we use it different ways in other dishes (i.e. fried, boiled, mash). Another favorite staple for me is okra stew…yum!!…my mom made some a few days ago and i was in heaven 🙂

  8. Hi Zhu, I think that moving to a different place/district in Ottawa would really help. Aren’t there any vibrant districts with character? maybe it will not be a big house, but just a flat, and maybe that would help. In Bratislava qe live in a very nice, but boring district, so I am thinking of a move within the city, cause I miss basic infrastructure here and feel disconnected… but I am still thinking:-) good luck!

    • A few districts have a distinct character, like Chinatown or the Glebe, but moving there would be a bit difficult for many reasons. That said, we are lucky because we live close to these areas, not in far away suburbia, we are still very close to the city (I can walk there).

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