I have been mostly gone from Canada for forty years. In that time I lived for twenty years in Oregon, two years in Japan, and sixteen years in Istanbul, Turkey. During those years, I often said that the only thing Canadian about me was my passport. However, now I am settling into a small town in Ontario and I am learning how to be a real Canadian again.
First I spent six weeks at my sister’s, a wonderful nature place on the curve of a small river bounded by two series of rapids. The trees were full of birds– crows, starlings, goldfinches, blue jays, nuthatches, chickadees, wrens, woodpeckers, hummingbirds. A couple of herons often flew to the river to feed, occasionally landing in a tree. Groups of mallard ducks ranging from 15 to five to one, often came by to see if we were going to feed them. Gray, red, and black squirrels came to the bird feeder and scolded down at us from the trees. Once we saw a muskrat and sometimes turtles. It is a beautiful place. But it is not my place. My sister and her husband were very generous with their space and were happy to have me there, but when it seemed that the process for my green card was going to slow way down as I gathered more documents, I decided to move into town, where I could have my own place and potentially find some work.
Orillia is a very Canadian town. It is at the meeting of two lakes, Simcoe and Couchiching. Samuel de Champlain made it this far on his explorations. Some famous people are from here, including Stephen Leacock, a writer, Gordon Lightfoot, a singer and musician, and Brian Orsi, a skater. There are probably some more. The downtown is still working though the edges of the city are lined with box stores and malls. The downtown is actually rather pretty, and there is obviously civic pride here. The Opera House is tall with two towers, there are flowers and street art, and a general sense of care. The train does not stop here anymore, but the train station has been changed into a bus station and government service office. The former car maker Tudhope’s building has been converted into flats and some classrooms for the Lakehead University campus here.
Orillia is very white. I have seen maybe a dozen black people, the same amount of Asians, including one Sikh man with turban. There are some First Nation people around, but they are more likely to be out towards Rama, their reservation. There seem to be a lot of older people and more motorized wheelchairs than I have ever seen in my life. In my neighbourhood there are quite a few kids, including a couple of boys I talked to. They have six or seven siblings, so no wonder they are out wandering the neighbourhood. I have also seen several developmentally challenged people, no doubt because of the old Huronia school for the retarded, now thankfully closed.
I went to the farmers’ market for the first time the day after I moved in. It is two blocks away in the parking lot of the library. There I can buy weekly seasonal vegetables, pickles, jams, honey, olives from Italy, breads, sausages. I was happy to see that I can buy locally so close, at least until Christmas, when it closes down for a few months, at which time it will be back to the supermarket.
My language is changing. The Turkish words that were liberally sprinkled through my English are gone, though occasionally I still say inshallah, partly because it fits and partly because I want to give a little jolt to whoever is listening. I find my accent is getting more Canadian, little by little. Aboot and oot, but still not many ehs.
The dress code is different here. In Istanbul it was casual for the most part, but people had pride in their clothes. Here it is definitely casual, as it is also usually practical. I don’t see women dressed up much, except perhaps for summer dresses. However, those are already packed away. Long dresses and skirts are not practical, especially in the snow. Everyone seems to wear some form of jeans, t-shirts in the summer, and sweaters in the winter.
Many people drive various sizes of SUVs and there are a lot of working pickup trucks. There are also a lot of electric scooters and I wonder what happens to them during the winter. Older vehicles show signs of rust from the salt for the snow, a Canadian tradition.
I find myself asking people for directions. When I took the bus for the first time, I had to ask a few people for the cost and the right bus. The bus was very late and the girl beside me on the bench said that busses were not very reliable. Considering that they only run twice an hour, it seems hard to believe that they can’t stay on schedule. The one I took was at least half an hour late. In fact no one got off the bus until Walmart, so I wonder where the other passengers were going.
This is definitely a cultural experience for me. After living in a city of 20 million for so many years, a city with all kinds of public transportation, it is quite a change to be getting around a small town that was started only in 1820. There is still a feel of pioneer about it and definitely a feel of English Canadianness. The things I took for granted in Istanbul– good tea, for one– are hard to find here. However, there is an unending supply of cheddar cheese, butter tarts and interesting breads.
When I go outside to smoke (yes, no smoking inside anywhere and even not outside at cafes and such), I watch what little is going on on the street. Sometimes there is a traffic jam– six cars waiting to cross the intersection! Some bicycles, skateboards, lots of strollers, electric scooters, and the aforementioned motorized wheelchairs. But really, not many of any of these. People do walk, especially to and from school, which is around the corner. In general there is just not much going on here. The sidewalks are rolled up about 8 downtown and on Sundays. There are lots of squirrels and birds to watch and now flocks of geese are squawking their way south.
I chose to live in this older part of town because it is my style and it is close to downtown. I like looking at the old houses and wondering what they were like when they were new. These must have been built by prosperous middle class families. They are a good size (after all this one was divided into four small apartments) and have yards. The adornment is also nice, under the eaves, over the windows. When my father was here he commented on how the baseboards, which are about 30 cm high, were hand carved (by a lathe I am sure). Now these things are purely practical and aside from paint or stain do not attract attention.
Even in this small place people often do not look at you as they walk by. If you happen to catch someone’s eye, there may be a smile, but generally people are not quick to interact. This is not to say that they are not friendly. Once you get talking, they are generally fine. I do know that the fact that I lived away so long may or may not be acknowledged, and if so, quickly glossed over. That is an experience that most people here cannot relate to. But I expected that.
This is a good place. It is rooted to the earth and I am happy to be here for a while. It gives me a chance to be Canadian again.