La différence

It used to be like going home. Still is, in many ways. But now Canada is a place I visit, a trip down memory lane. The décor is oddly familiar, yet increasingly foreign. And I am like someone recovering from amnesia.

“I remember that!” I’ll think. Quickly followed by “That’s new!” and “What will they think of next?”

Arriving in Vancouver for the very first time, we noticed a great many things big and small. A forest of tall buildings, some of them of questionable architectural taste.

Used to Toronto’s intensely diverse ethnic population, we found Van City to be especially Asian. But like everywhere in Canada, an interesting cultural mix.

Food-wise, Sushi abounds, as does Indian. Coffee culture is on every corner. Not just Starbucks but also independent coffee shops where you can get a truly great cup of java. Not to mention mouth-watering Nanaimo bars and sourdough donuts!

The coffee is also mobile. On the street, everyone seems to be carrying a drink of some kind. But when it comes to alcohol, there is a holdover of historic British rules. At one bar, last call came at 10:45 pm!

Vancouver is a city in constant motion. In the air, sea planes take off and land along the sea wall. On the water, boat traffic of every description, including these sweet little water buses.

Everywhere, people run, ride, cycle, skate, walk dogs. We joined them and cycled around Stanley Park, one of the highlights of our week.

At intersections, the cheeping of birds tells visually impaired pedestrians when to cross. It took me a minute to figure out it wasn’t just a loud bird following us around.

Around town, crows have replaced our domestic flying rats, aka pigeons. We awoke each morning to their raucous cawing; in the streets we observed the constant scavenging of these big black birds.

Abiding impressions? People seem happy. They are friendly. They ask us how we are, where we’re from. I don’t really mind this; in fact, I quite like it. But at first, my reaction is entirely French: do I know you? Why are you talking to me?

The service is attentive, if perhaps overly intrusive. Once the introductions are over, I prefer wait staff to keep a low profile. Instead, we are continually asked how things are going, did we enjoy our entrées? (French confusion – they mean main courses), would we like another drink…? Husband becomes irritated with the freezing A/C everywhere and all the ice in drinks.

We begin to feel foreign. At home. Again.

After 30 years in France, I’ve been trained to speak French in public places. In Montreal, it’s natural. In Toronto, slightly weird. In Vancouver, definitely not the norm.

And then there’s the entirely un-French custom of the tip. In Canada, 15% is standard. Anything less is insulting. One place suggested 22% as the norm. The amounts are conveniently added when you pay by card, which virtually everyone does. But it does make the service culture seem a little excessive. Perhaps, compared to the good old French insouciance, a tiny bit fake.

It was time to go home. First, to Toronto, where both the time change (3 hours forward) and the bilingual road signs are a little more familiar. Then, after the Canada Day celebrations, and a good dose of family and friends, we flew back across the ocean to France.

I do love a good holiday. Almost as much as coming home.

How about you?

40 thoughts on “La différence

  1. It looks so pretty and tidy.
    I’ve heard the chirping crossing lights here, too.
    22% tip!!!! Why not just pay the staff a decent amount? Do the individual servers get the tip or are the tips pooled and shared by all? Did you know the U.S. administration wants to let restaurant owners force pooling of tips and to let the owners keep the tips? (Hardly a surprise that it would be for the big guy and against the little one.) I’d rather not tip at all. Or pass a waiter some cash directly in their hand.

    1. When they suggest a tip amount, I give that amount – it’s always less than I would otherwise give unless the service is poor. I don’t being told how much to give. For that matter, I would prefer the restaurant management gave their staff a living wage instead of holding me up for a tip.

    2. I’m of two minds on the tipping…good service should absolutely be rewarded but when tipping 15% is already the norm, then the appropriate tip to show great service becomes quite expensive. Definitely restaurant owners should not be involved! It is galling to think that the money ends up in the wrong hands. Bottom line: I’d rather pay more so that the servers get a proper salary, and keep the tips for true appreciation above and beyond. So essentially the way it is in France!

  2. Reading this I had some great memories popping up in my mind. Lived and worked in T’rana (Toronto) area for over 18 months, travelled parts of Canada and absolutely adored Vancouver….. It was called, at that time, little Switzerland! Or maybe it was just for us being Swiss and they being kind – it sure was as green as Switzie and it rained as much too…..! 😉
    Tips: After over 10yrs in France we still give more than the ‘token’ tips because mostly we are well and truly wonderfully served and it’s interestingly also (probably) likely that we are always remembered at the places we have been and come back to. It might certainly be the fact that we are friendly and interested in their work, we’re appreciative of what they do so well and thankful for their service, but a tiny bit wd surely be due to the fact that we leave a slightly more generous tip than others…. Still, I was and am shocked at the horrendous percentage added in the US & Canada. I second the opinion of others that staff should be paid correctly and I favour the French way. I also think that the French servers are much prouder of their ‘metier’ than in any other country. Even in Switzerland, the tip is ‘officially’ included but we ALWAYS give an extra few CHF. We are just so thankful that we can (occasionally) go to eat out and think this merits an extra token.
    It’s sad that you have become so French that you’re bothered by people being (overly) friendly. We suffer from the snobbish cold treatment we get when out and about. We never felt that when we were on trips, visiting, staying for cultural happenings and although we have warm, lovely, kind and helpful friends here it will never be as warm and all-compassing as the friendships we created in England, Switzerland or other countries. Surely this is the Parisian standoffishness but it hurts anyway. However, we DID feel that – especially the Americans – were too overbearing. I always felt that in 30seconds you’re best friends and 10’ after leaving each other they have forgotten your name…. (slight exaggeration).
    ANYWAY, welcome back !!!

    1. Thanks, Kiki! So many memories… I think that after so many years, I can no longer be objective about my cultural biases. I also prefer friendly people at heart, but with respect for privacy too. I had no idea this sea-change had happened in me until I was confronted with very direct, American-style exchanges and felt a little strange. Then we saw a British comedian interviewed on one of the US late-night shows, Colbert perhaps, and he was saying the same thing: stop talking to me! I felt like some sensibility within me had changed without me realizing it. 🙂 Tipping too much rather than not enough is definitely my preference. Unless the service is poor, in which case I don’t hesitate to leave nothing.

      1. Yeah, it was on S.Colbert’s show, the only show I follow diligently on YT (as much as I can get on his channel). He is genius and sadly he’s also right, so right, with his biting comments!
        With regards to tipping; I’m totally with you too.

  3. I love the sound of the “mouth-watering Nanaimo bars and sourdough donuts”, although I have no idea what Nanaimo bars are!! 🙂 Like you, I’ve lived for over 30 years away from my home country. It still feels familiar, but there are things which I find difficult to get to grips with, such as the shops closing to early

    1. My mom used to make Nanaimo bars, which take the name of the British Columbia city where they were invented. A coconut and chocolate crumb base, generous layer of creamy butter and sugar filling, topped by a dark chocolate ganache layer. Intense but oh so satisfying!

  4. …”Almost as much as coming home” ? That’s an avowal 😊 .
    I long had a friendly feeling towards Vancouver, but there are things that surprise me in your post . Has Van become so USan ?.Tons of ice in all drinks, A/C everywhere, obsequious waiters ? What’s going on ?

    1. This (Cranked A/C, icy drinks, obsequious table service) is the norm all over Canada, including Vancouver. Source: am Canadian, travel a lot for work and pleasure.

      1. Thanks for the insight . My only Canadian memories date from 79 and I remember a big change, coming from a long road movie around the States . But I guess the steamroller has progressed since .

      2. Hi Kiara, thanks for sharing! You’re right, those things are certainly the norm in the big cities. Having never been west before, I probably felt it more in BC. But, I may add that the people on the street were also super friendly, spontaneously offering help on several occasions when hubs and I were obviously lost.That was definitely a difference from Toronto where the big city effect is more pronounced in my opinion.

    2. To be fair, Phil, it’s about coming home as much as to France, although clearly that is where home (and heart) is these days! 😀 Vancouver is no more American than Toronto, but the extra ‘west coast’ vibe probably made it feel all the more so to this neophyte. The wait staff were more annoying than obsequious, just in your face all the time. Many were very good. I forgot to add that I did love the city, it is indeed a beautiful place (despite too many condos!)

    1. Oh, you are right! Thanks for reminding me, Zipfs! I focused this post too much on my cultural disconnects and not enough on the sheer beauty of the place. Again, this despite what I find everywhere in North America: huge contrasts between wealth and poverty, too many homeless on the streets, etc. Vancouver is blessed with a spectacular natural setting, cool people and a true friendliness that even these cranky Frenchies could not ignore!

  5. Travelling is fun, vacations should be a treat but homecoming is surely the icing on the bun if home is nestled nicely in your heart. I am glad you have home to return to and that your heart is tucked well there x

    1. I love going away and seeing new places and people, as well as the good old familiar ones…but travelling per se is only fun for about 5 minutes. I think a forthcoming post will be devoted to the art of being in transit (which I clearly do not master but somehow suspect you do!) Hugs xo

      1. Hugs well received 😊 I look forward to that future post and as for my rather debatable skills – I imagine it ties into my real age being 6. And Champagne 😉 xo

  6. Always wanted to visit Vancouver. I recognise much of what you say, which I feel when I travel back to the UK – and people look a bit puzzled when I seem British and yet I fumble with British money, trying to figure out one pound coins which look like our two dollar coins. Foot in both countries is always odd but I think you live in the right place…!

    1. Colin, I fear you you would be horrified by some of the condos! As much as the natural environment is spectacular, and some of the historical spots like Granville Island wonderful, we were appalled by the vertical forest of ugly concrete highrises. Lovely to visit but still I’m glad to come home to France!

  7. It’s the memories, isn’t it? Whilst your early ones are of Canada, the grownup ones are now forever rooted in France. Life, love, children. 🙂

    1. So true, Meeks! We decided it was important to keep making new memories, so now we try to travel a bit more in the homeland. But the old memories are still the ones that matter most!

    1. It’s one of my fetish themes, Lisa. How we see the world based on our experience and ‘identity’ – as we evolve and morph into different versions of ourselves. If only I could create a country of expats (like this blogging community), I would surely go and live there. 🙂

  8. I do love a good holiday, too — but I would especially LOVE a holiday done Mel-style! Can’t believe how much you managed to see and do. And I adored your mini-observations on the cities and places you visited! Thank you for letting your readers tag along vicariously.

  9. It is interesting to find yourself almost a stranger in your country of origin but I think it is quite normal. We had a bit of that feeling when we got back to Montreal. We had been away from the city for almost 30 years (living in Toronto for 25 years and Paris for 2 1/2) and it took a while to find our markers again… (Suzanne)

    1. I didn’t realize you had been away that long! You must have had quite the adaptation period on your return. Hope you are fully back in the Montreal mood!

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