Adjusting to life abroad

“Doesn’t this country have milk?” I said loudly while scanning every aisle of the grocery store.

Then a man going about his business extended his tanned brawny arm in the direction of a large refrigerator filled with plastic bags containing a white liquid.

“That’s the milk? I asked, even more puzzled while wondering how one was supposed to add that to tea without having to consume the whole product all at once.

“You put the milk in one of those jugs,” he rolled his eyes to the plastic containers.

“Oh,” I exclaimed.

“How weird,” I said, as he disappeared down an adjacent aisle.

I reflected on the convenient cartons of milk back home and how far away that felt in this isolated city of Thunder Bay, nestled between Lake Superior and vast boreal wilderness.

Terry and Desiree in Thunder Bay, Ont.

I noticed the absence of alcohol in the grocery store too. In England it’s conveniently and boldly placed by the bread and milk, and some stores even have a whole aisle just dedicated to a variety of booze. But this isn’t like the milk situation in plastic bags, rather alcohol in Canada can be found in a segregated store often off some beaten path.

There are so many things to learn in this new land. I always believed it was very similar to England, but after moving to Ontario, I realized it’s a whole different ball game.

Tax is something that is not included in the price of many items sold at stores. Everything runs in the opposite direction. Chips are called fries and crisps are chips, trousers are pants, the bonnet of the car is the hood, the loo is a washroom, Hoovers are vacuums, and if you mention football people think you are talking about the National Football League, so nothing is what it seems.

Frozen Kakabeka Falls on the Kaministiquia river (about 30-kilometres west of the city of Thunder Bay).

A few months back I decided excitedly to immigrate to the wild and mountainous land of Canada, where Mounties in dashing red uniforms ride horses along the roads, but now I was finally here I felt quite lost.

There were no Mounties to be seen on horses, like in the movies played back home, and just one mountain could be seen from this city. Sidewalks for walking often slipped into oblivion because everything – from the shopping centres to the Tim Hortons – seemed designed for the motorist.

A bumpy road lay ahead for me and winter had not even kicked off in its full-blown frigid glory.

My first goal on moving abroad was to explore, but of course this wasn’t possible without getting a job and having money to spend. I hastily updated my Curriculum Vitae by changing the heading to Resume and emailed it off to numerous places with fingers and toes crossed.

Exploring the capital of Canada, Ottawa, on a vintage biplane built in the 1930’s.

A retirement home promptly responded. I was offered the job of a Dietary Aide. What a la-di-da title I thought, as I wondered what a Dietary Aide was and searched online for a job description, which turned out to be rather disappointing.

In England there are no fancy titles when it comes to work. My first day as a ‘food server’ began the following week.

“Would you like couscous with your vegetables?” I tapped at the menu to a withered old woman seated at a dining room table.

“Cockroach?” she replied in a thin, cracked voice.

“Couscous,” I said louder and with more clarity, attempting a Canadian accent.

“Did you just say cockroach?” She whimpered confused.

“COO-COUS” I howled like some sort of wolf-owl, drawing unwanted attention and snickering across the hall. I decided to go ahead and plate the couscous, along with mashed potatoes (because elderly people seem to love that stuff) and soft vegetables.

At the time I didn’t have a vehicle so I would walk home from work. It was about a 15-minute walk along a busy road and past a block of shabby-looking homes. There were other ways to get home, but this route seemed the quickest.

Once on my way home, a remarkably grotesque-looking man, dirty with no teeth, asked me out. I ignored him and carried on my journey. Later in the evening, I was told the route I was taking to work, and back, was a prostitute pickup area. I never walked that way again.

These were the first few weeks of my time in Canada.

Incredible wildlife in Canada.

My British coat and clothes were no good and had to be replaced so I could brave the weather. Snow would turn to rain and then freeze, and I was told to put salt on the drive and walkways to help melt the ice.

Looking back, I can’t help but laugh at this next scene…I pushed the pepper aside in the kitchen cabinet and took out the table salt, before sprinkling it outside. Nothing happened because – as I later learned – table salt is not the same as road salt.

I found winters exciting watching the rivers freeze and crack, and then trying my hand at sledding or attempting to ice-skate with no success. But driveways had to be shovelled, snow dripped down boots, freezing temperatures burned my face, fingers and toes, and sometimes I just wanted to curl up and hibernate. England would have shut-down with a dusting of the white stuff, but here in Canada life goes on.

Spring soon arrived after winter, with meadows bursting into a rainbow of colours and wildlife waking up from hibernation. Summer then hummed to life with tourism and the sun bathed the city in gold each evening. Autumn followed with its fiery reds, burnt oranges, and golden-yellows as the deciduous trees turned. And I enjoyed experiencing every season, the way it was meant, in Canada.

Looking back, the first year living abroad was a major learning curve. There were times I found myself crying with frustration, overwhelmed, and wanting to take the quickest airplane back ‘home.’ Then there were the highs where I was captivated by the raw and natural beauty of the landscape, wildlife or even the unexpected kindness of a stranger.

Fast-forward seven years and while a lot of things have changed since those first few weeks, some things have remained the same.

I have kept my strong British accent, according to Canadians, although family and friends in England would disagree. I have not used ordinary table salt to melt the ice on the sidewalks or driveway since that one occasion, but in self-defence I heard it does work. I met and married a Canadian man called Terry, and we moved shortly after from Thunder Bay to Ottawa, and then Prince Edward Island – where milk can be found in containers, like England. We have our own piece of paradise in PEI, the smallest province in Canada.

I still sometimes stumble and sweat over the little things, send family members pictures of the Canadian winters and get concerned phone calls back asking if I’m still alive, but I’ve learned to embrace Canada – just as this country has embraced me.

Us in Gros Morne National Park, Newfoundland.
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