Enlightenment in Britain, Hist 3213A…Professor Mark Phillips asked me why I was there. ‘I’ve signed up for the course, sir.’ ‘Yes, yes’, he continued, ‘But why are you here, at Carleton, in Ottawa?’ After the standard spiel that as an international exchange student I was hoping to make the most of simply being outside of the U.K., broadening my horizons in any which way I could, I realised that until I could figure out my own, less clichéd, answer to his question, I couldn’t possibly start blogging about my year abroad.
So why I am here? My first few days were spent with this question rattling through my jet-lagged jumble of a brain. Ottawa isn’t a New York, Paris or London…its more, well, vanilla. However, the answer is simple, and moreover, was evident from the moment I first walked into halls of residence. After taking one last deep breath and slowly turning the lock to enter my home for the year, I was greeted by two great big cheeky grins. Happily cooking away, Yasser and Bruno, my Jordanian and Brazilian flatmates, embody the diversity, willingness to help and fluidity of identity that, as I’ve come to discover, pound the skin of the Canadian drum.
Canadian politeness is no myth. In fact, grappling with the door holding policy out here has been an extremely taxing part of my cultural immersion so far. How long is too long to hold the door open for someone heading in your direction? Do we judge by distance from the door, or by an estimate of time taken for them to reach the door? It’s made worse by the need to account for exactly how the individual in question will perceive your door-holding gesture…Put simply, will the group of girls on their way back from Volleyball practice think you’re just being a bit of a perve? Essentially I have learnt that in Canada, its easiest to smile widely and wait at the door however long it might take. In any case, it’s essential to realise that even entertaining the idea that somebody might have to open the door themselves ‘ain’t the Canadian way’. Cultural integration challenge one-complete.
Reassuringly, perhaps, is the extent to which I feel like a foreigner in Canada. Reassuring in the sense that despite no longer batting an eyelid to the Americanisms that have found their way into our every day vernacular, nor coming across unseen episodes of Friends, somehow in the midst of a worldwide process of Americanisation, we have maintained at least some national distinction. Be it the bi-lingual nature of Ottawa, the peculiarly shaped cars or the fact that men don’t seem to be able to find a pair of trousers that fit, it is all extremely different. Being the ‘étrangers’ is healthy. We’re out of our comfort zone and that can only serve to produce valuable challenges and experiences.
At the moment, I’m still entertaining a great many expectations, preconceptions and exasperations concerning my new life in Ottawa. But with a log cabin at the lake booked for the weekend, some time away with some awesome friends’ I’ve already been lucky enough to meet , I hope to keep finding my feet and more importantly, find the chocolate chips in Canada’s capital city. Same time next week for anyone interested in the trials and tribulations of Edinburgh University student in Canada’s vanilla capital!