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

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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