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The Art of Explaining Abroad What Canada Is Known For

Ottawa, March 2018

Like most immigrants, anyone with a slightly exotic look or people with proficiency in several languages and an accent in all, I’m often asked about my background.

It used to give me pause for thought—there’s no easy answer because in my mind, there’s what I am, where I am from and where I live. But if I hesitate before replying, the person I’m speaking to feels guilty for opening Pandora’s Box, so I trained myself to take ownership of my identity as a Canadian.

I don’t mind travelling as a Canadian. Canada isn’t a country people are mad at. Canada is easy to spell, easy to pronounce in many languages, easy to locate on the world map.

It’s easy to be Canadian abroad. Really, you should try it—American friends, go ahead, sew that made-in-China Maple Leaf on your backpack! Canadians don’t bomb other countries for fun or resources. You don’t have to explain how a dumbass was elected to the highest office in the land. You don’t have to apologize for a former dictator, nationalist tendencies or a colonial past (as long as you’re not chatting with the Indigenous peoples in Canada…). You don’t have to defend your country’s position and argue over foreign affairs because nobody knows what the fuck Canada is doing these days—except legalizing marijuana, a domestic decision that somehow captured Latinos’ attention. I find it very funny considering the rest of the world often associate South America to drug cartels—well, they associate us with weed and Bill C-45, or the Cannabis Act.

No, really, as a Canadian abroad, you’re just responsible for introducing people to cities other than Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto and you’re only expected to speak of winter.

The first task is completed when I mention where I live. “Ottawa? Where it is?” “… Well, between Toronto and Montreal,” I reply, fully aware of the fact that even I have to use RealCanadianCities™ to put the nation’s capital on the map—I’m sure Australians in Canberra and Brazilians in Brasilia are familiar with the exercise…

But really, Canadian geography is irrelevant. What people want is more details on winter, descriptions of snowflakes, first-hand experience of never-heard-before temperatures, stories of frozen Niagara Falls and harrowing tales of grocery trips with sled dogs.

I’m used to it. Fifteen years after I documented my first Canadian blizzard, my mother still starts every phone conversation by asking “how cold it is today?”—yes, even in the middle of summer, and I’m always afraid she’s going to jinx the weekly forecast.

“It’s not just the kind of cold that makes you shiver,” I attempt to explain. “It hurts. You lose feeling in your hands, your feet, your legs. Breathing cold air burns. Your muscles are stiff.”

At this stage, the person I’m speaking to is suitably impressed and possibly scared by the PTSD look on my face. “But you have a good heating system at home, right?” “It’s a matter of dressing for the weather, isn’t it?”

Yes, yes. Or rather, fuck yeah, and trust me, you’ll want to wear as many layers as you can.

But there’s a lot more to it than I can describe. Cabin fever setting in when you’re stuck inside because of the weather. Walking in the snow, an exhausting exercise. The relentless cold wind, attacking you from all sides until you give up and take shelter. The mess to clean up after each storm. Your muscles, tight and painful. Bracing yourself against the cold twenty thousand times a day—some evenings, I know taking a hot shower would help but I can’t bear the thought of taking off my clothes and shivering for a few more minutes, waiting for the water to warm up. These days when the city feels deserted and the streets vaguely menacing with steam rising from beneath the ground, coming out of manhole covers.

The first winter is an experience. The second one can be more enjoyable because you’re a bit more prepared. If you’re lucky, the third or fourth winter is warm. After that, you know what you signed up for—an extreme version of any kind of winter you were used to.

Winter isn’t just a season here. It defines the country and impacts our life in ways that are difficult to explain.

Ottawa, March 2018

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