El Norte

Marcelo Virkel Issue: Section:

I didn't flee political repression or an unbearable economic situation;
it wasn't a war or the lack of safety in a suburban Latin American
conglomerate that brought me to Canada. I came here freely, mainly
because I'm curious.

I've been in the country for almost three years, and I've already
experienced life in three different cities. It's not my intention to
bring to light big questions such as what the Canadian values are or why
Canadians behave in certain ways: these are elusive matters even for
scholars. I want to share my views about the Canada I've seen
so far, with my biases, my limitations, my non-scientific approach.
My first destination was Calgary. Not a very glamorous
beginning, to be honest. The inexpressive and far too extended suburbia,
the oil stained buildings in the impersonal downtown core, and the
abundance of Hummers and limos weren't very appealing. Distracted only by
the gorgeous Rockies nearby, I had some time to get a hint of the

Calgarians have a distinct relationship with their motorized vehicles. Drive-thru facilities are impossibly ubiquitous, and
people seem to enjoy having meals by themselves while driving. I found
the parking lots to be huge and disgusting, although apparently
locals aren't offended: even nice pubs and restaurants have windows
facing these massive concrete docks. The whole situation looked rather
depressing to me.

I quickly learned: there exists a very popular sport played
on ice, in which a few men push around an object so small that it's never
to be seen on the TV screen. People get excited when they believe their
team scored, but the real adrenaline comes when the match is interrupted
by a brawl. I was sure that some players were going to be ejected
from the game and banned for life, but somebody explained that it
wouldn't happen, because fighting wasn't merely expected, it's considered the best part of the game.

The monotony in Calgary was alleviated only by Stampede, a far west celebration that serves as an excuse for otherwise
serious-looking entrepreneurs to wear ridiculous cowboy hats and awkward
fitting leather boots. It's also a time when it seems to be acceptable to
drink heavily at all hours, and yell “Yahoo!” at the top of your lungs
for no apparent reason. “Howdy” replaces the more urban
“Hello”, bulls' testicles are eaten profusely from tin plates, and people
line up in the early morning to receive a free breakfast that consists of
a couple of greasy pancakes and weak coffee. This mayhem takes place
downtown, and there is more at Stampede Park: a tacky amusement fair in
which rodeo spectacles are performed and where you can find the most
unhealthy food on earth, including fried coke.

When I thought I had seen enough fake cowboys and guzzling SUVs, I moved
to greener Vancouver, a city with an excellent public transit system and
seemingly mandatory yoga apparel. And there is the beach! But fellow
Latin Americans, don't imagine anything similar to Rio de Janeiro,
Acapulco or Santa Marta, where it's hot and there are waves. The coast of
Vancouver looks more like a tranquil Patagonian lake, with its
flat, uninviting cool water.

I soon discovered the price you pay if you like to live in the
rain forest. The forecast is repetitive and almost always right: “There
are chances of showers.” And so Vancouverites live under the rain or
under the agony of the rain to come, the same way that Calgarians can't
fully enjoy the summer because they have to complain in advance about the
cold next winter is going to bring.

Canadians are obsessed with the weather. It's almost a competition among cities to see which one has
the most miserable winter, with the most snow fall and the lowest
temperatures. Everybody needs everybody else to know they are
suffering the elements.

Don't get me wrong. Although a bit too modern for my taste, Vancouver is
a beautiful city. There is “the drive” and its amazing little
restaurants, independent coffee shops and convenient stores from all over
the world; the sushi is cheap and the cultural life decent.

On the negative side, the posh Robson Street glows in shocking contrast
with the Downtown Eastside, where addictions, homelessness and poverty
are rampant. It's an unacceptable Third World enclave surrounded by
shameless opulence, and nobody seems to know how to improve its
conditions. The brightest idea the city came up with during the Olympic
preparation frenzy was to “deport” the homeless someplace else, so they
aren't noticed by the rest of the world.

But the real solution lies beyond the local level; it's a
national issue (or should be). How is a government that isn't capable
of ending the problems of a small area within a rich city going to
contribute to the stabilization and democratization of Afghanistan? By bringing up politics -- no matter how light the comment might be --
I'm skating on thin ice. This very realization is something I also
learned in Western Canada: it's better to avoid potential confrontation; people get uncomfortable.

After more than a year spent on the West Coast, I embarked on a long journey eastward. My final destination was
Ottawa-Gatineau, two cities separated by a river that marks the
border between Ontario and Quebec. The location was a compromise between the French
culture and language that I wanted to experience, and the reality that
for the time being I can only function in English.

The first impressions were positive: the region smells of
history and its citizens seem to be more politically engaged. After
Calgary and Vancouver, where a lot of people regard greetings as an old
useless ritual, the friendliness of these smaller cities was a
welcome change. On the other hand, the landscape is flat, the snow
abundant and the cold persistent.

Gatineau is only a few hundred meters away from Ottawa, but somebody said
it might as well be across the ocean. Apparently not many Ontarians enjoy
crossing the river and visiting Quebec, although I believe several
Quebeckers work in Ottawa. Maybe for this reason the city is bilingual, though the street signs are questionable. “Rue Bank
Street” might appear bilingual, but I find it grammatically awful
-- as if an endemic redundancy infuses the city. Bike
messengers and tourist associations might have lobbied to avoid truly
bilingual signs such as “Rue Banque / Bank Street.”

One thing that I noticed everywhere in Canada is how different the
driving rules are from the ones I'm used to. Left turns on two-way streets
and passing on the right are no-nos in Argentina. Since we trust the
mirrors, shoulder checks are rare; the indicator lights are less
frequently used; and stop signs only make us go a bit slower. For
us, honking might mean an insult or a greeting, a complaint or a means to
release frustration. If the national soccer team scores a goal or wins a
match, we honk. If there is a wedding motorcade, they honk and we honk in
response. And don't get me started with the car alarms! Honking without
the need of any human action.

I could keep on enumerating things that amaze me about Canada. Some I
like, some I don't so much, several make me laugh and others make me
angry. But I'm free to come and go, and so far I'm staying.
I'm still curious, and there is still a lot to see in this country.

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