Sorry to disappoint, but this post has nothing to do with Estonians, though many potato-loving, meat-jam and mustard enjoying Estonians do live there, particularly in the Toronto area.
No, this is about Canada - the country to our north, the kind of place Americans consistently forget they need a passport to enter. I almost made that mistake last week when I was about to leave for Vancouver. This was my second time to Canada and I was looking forward to an extra day there to enjoy the fresh, moist air of the Pacific Northwest.
Canada should be similar to the US. I mean, we Americans basically think, as South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker stated in Bigger, Longer, and Uncut, that they "aren't a real country anyway." I mean they talk like us, look like us, and basically are us, just farther up north and with a maple leaf on their flag, right?
Wrong. Obviously the first thing that hits you is that Canada is officially bilingual. That doesn't mean that everyone speaks two languages. But it does mean that Air Canada has at least one French speaking flight attendent on all its flights. And it does mean that the Air Canada flight magazine features interviews only with Canadians and that it is all in French and English.
Reading the magazine you have to feel sorry for those poor Canucks. For all the greatness they've exported - Jim Carrey, Neil Young, Dan Ackroyd - there are hundreds of artists and writers toiling away getting attention only in Canada. Canadians also have a strange, disarming English accent. They pronounce most "a"s as "ä" not "ah." The "ou" in "out" and "about" is pronounced as in "bow" rather than "owl" - which is how we do it, at least in New England. So their "about" sounds like how we would say "a boat."
All of their vowels are condensed and tight, which gives Canadians a sort of controlled air when they speak. Perhaps they are all suffering from lockjaw. The women sort of have a sing-song, Valley Girl lilt to their voices, while the men - who often have names like Neil, Mitch, or Bruce, have this unnervingly polite, soft-spokenness to them. You get the impression that even when a Canadian gets mad and yells, the anger is to be heard in the content, not in the voice.
Canada's big nasty secret is that they still love the Queen. They love Queen Elizabeth II so much they put her face on nearly all of their money. It's not like the US where we have republican scalywags like Alexander Hamilton, Andrew Jackson, and Ulysses S. Grant on our cash. Sure they have pictures of dead white Canucks on their money, along with the requisite waterfowl and maple leaf. But the Queen is on the twenty dollar bill. The Queen of England. All the way in Vancouver. How strange.
Vancouver itself is an interesting amalgam of cultures. The dominant culture is the Anglo culture - and by "Anglo" I mean FROM ENGLAND - and Ireland and Scotland too. That's where the peculiar accent comes from, because their ancestors were mostly from there, and many didn't get to British Columbia until late in the 19th century. But the other big culture is Asian - and by Asian I mean Japanese, Korean, and Chinese, in that order. The Japanese played a major role in the development of this region - some even fought for Canada in WWI and there are monuments and such. My hotel was in an Asian neighborhood and there were many restaurants and Internet Cafes where the characters were all in Japanese or Korean or Chinese or Vietnamese. On a weekend night these places were packed with Asian teenagers and young adults, all crammed in drinking beer and eating noodles. They seemed like the kind of places you had to be invited into. I even went into a Korean grocery store which stank of dried fish. They even had cute, cuttlefish munchy snacks for children with cartoons on them. Yum!
Directly north of Vancouver, through the verdant Stanley Park and across the Lions Gate Bridge (which sadistic härdcore Vancouverians crossed on rollerblades and by bike - I walked) is the Squamish First Nation Reserve. This is what we in the US would call a reservation, and it looked like one and was situated like one - right under the bridge. The anecdote is that when Europeans destroyed native economies and cultures, they gave them the shittiest land. My guess is that when the Vancouverians were plotting to build a bridge from Vancouver to North Vancouver, they chose to put the foundation right over the Squamish's remaining homeland.
On the other side I met a Squamish woman and her two kids. At first I thought maybe they were also asian, but no, they were definitely Native Americans. I usually don't run into Native Americans in New York City as the people that lived here 400 years ago were driven west to the Lenape nation and eventually moved - you guessed it - to Canada. The Squamish have lost their language and are trying to keep their traditions together. But they have this weird feeling about them - like they are so involved in what their culture is that they don't pay much attention to all the noise around them. I envied them in a way.
At a restaurant nearby I ate a burger and watched hockey with some steel-eyed Canadians who like to drink beer and watch hockey. The bartendress and waiter were so polite I began to quietly wonder if they were conspiring to have sex with me after serving my food. It was the, "Anything else I can do for you?" and gleam in their eyes that set me uneasy. After awhile I started to like the dull rhythm of hockey, punctuated by the silly fights. I could see how up in the mist of Canada, watching a puck go back and forth could be entertaining.
Back in my hotel room later I settled down to watch Canadian television. I got to catch the remaining moments of a show where Quebecois sing French pop songs together (they have similar shows in Finland and Estonia) and watched some local news, "a ferry sank near Victoria Island." There were "heated" political discussions with people diplomatically expressing their views, so unlike our news channels. There was even a program called "Out and About." Ha ha ha. Eh, not that funny anymore. I also watched a cartoon show where the hero did everything "by the book." People often thought he would screw up - like not catch the crooks - but he did everything "by the book" and wound up on top in the end. How Canadian!
After awhile, the accent started to be less prominent (in fact, I was told that I didn't have a New York accent, and sounded like a Canadian) and I just pondered how polite the Candians were. A good example of this is when my bus ticket had expired, and the bus driver said that it was ok if I rode the bus anyway. That would never happen in New York. A bad example would be waiting in line to check my bags where the Air Canada clerk tried to hard to make chatty conversation while I had to a) pee really bad and b) catch a flight. She even told me I should get a härd case for my guitar. Thanks but...Interestingly, Canadian passport control was equally as chummy. I had to explain how I got my job, I even mentioned the Estonian Genome Project - just to get in the country!
Just when I thought I was headed back to normalcy, I met US Passport Control and came face to face with a guy that looked like US Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez and had a southern accent, which is even more foreign than a Canadian accent to me.
"Deed yew pack alyur belongins? (did you pack all your belongings?)" he asked.
"Is this guy really from my country?" I thought to myself. Oh well, I guess he was, at least according to my passport.