To Canada, With Love from Paris

July 1, 2012
“L’Express Special Edition – Moving to Canada: All the Keys to Success”

Happy Canada Day to my fellow Canadians, at home and abroad!

It’s a funny thing being an expat—I have never felt more Canadian now that I live outside of my country than I ever did while I was living in it. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’ve always been really proud of my Canadian heritage.  Like most other Canucks, I get all excited and puff up with some bizarre sort of delighted pride when our neighbours to the south poke fun at us in films and sitcoms like How I Met Your Mother, 30 Rock and Family Guy (probably because, I suspect, someone on their writing staff is Canadian).  I occasionally crave poutine when I’ve been drinking it’s cold out, I know all the lyrics to If I Had A Million Dollars—including the banter about gourmet ketchup—and when somebody says, “If I wanted water…”, I know exactly how to finish the sentence.  I followed the events of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics with zealous fervour, and I was part of the ecstatic, flag-waving crowd celebrating with national pride in Toronto’s Dundas Square when we beat out the Americans in a nail-biting overtime game to take home the Olympic gold in hockey.

But all that aside, for the most part, being Canadian was something that had always been kind of a given.  You’d trot it out when you were rooting for your favourite team, during national elections, when you were good-naturedly mocking your American friends for forgetting their “u”s… and then you mostly forgot about it.  When everybody around you is also Canadian, it’s not something really something that you tend to think about on a daily basis.

When you live abroad however, the first thing that people ask you once they realize you’re not local is, “Where do you come from?” Over here, I probably tell somebody that I’m Canadian at least once a week, if not more.  And there’s always that instant, spontaneous reaction—positive or negative—upon hearing your response. Just naming your country conjures up all sorts of preconceived notions and connotations about your background that influence how other people interact with you. I’m proud to report that most of the time, saying I’m Canadian elicits a big smile, followed by a comment along the lines of, “Ah, le Canada ! Il est beau, ce pays !” (“Oh, Canada! It’s a really beautiful country!”) or “J’y suis allé une fois et les gens étaient vraiment sympas !” (“I went there one time and the people were so friendly!”)

Living abroad, you also somehow become THE representative for All Canadians, Everywhere. When Canadian politics or culture come up in a discussion, my French friends will turn to me quizzically and ask me to explain why something is a certain way in Canada, or why Canadians have such-and-such an opinion. Ummm….  (As somebody who has never really been into politics, I’ve been somewhat shamed into following them from abroad, just so that I can answer their questions.)  When Canadian murderer Luke Magnotta fled our borders to hang out in Paris cafés, everybody suddenly wanted to talk to me about it. And when I do or say something out of the (French) ordinary that aggravates or pleases a friend of mine, that behavior isn’t just seen as my own, it’s also “typically Canadian”. I remember one time being reluctant to complain about a dessert that didn’t come exactly as described in the menu, and being scolded by my friend Jean-François: “Non, mais Darlene, arrête de faire la Canadienne ! Tu ne vas pas payer six euros pour un moelleux au chocolat qui n’est pas moelleux !” (“No Darlene, stop being so Canadian! You’re not going to pay six euro for a chocolate lava cake that doesn’t come with any lava!”)

“Nous nous souviendrons d’eux” (“We Remember Them”), Canada House, Juno Beach, Normandy
During a trip to Normandy last March, I was surprised at how many Canadian flags and monuments there were scattered around the beaches and surrounding villages. Canadians are remembered fondly in the region and saying you come from Canada often is often greeted with a smile, and sometimes, a WWII story.

When I first moved to Paris, I didn’t understand why my Canadian expat friends were so hung up on getting together to eat chicken wings and beer at TGC (The Great Canadian Pub) by Saint-Michel. After all, I didn’t come to Paris to hang out with other Canadians and eat wings at a pub—I could do that at home! But the longer I’m away, the more I get it. Much as there are so many new and different things to love about my current city, there’s an ease and comfort in being surrounded by people who come from the same culture as you, who share the same background, who get the same references, who make the same jokes… and most of all, who greet you warmly with that unmistakably familiar, slightly goofy, open Canadian smile.  There’s a distinct, inherent optimism and an ouverture d’esprit (“openness of spirit”) to my fellow countrymen that I had never noticed or appreciated until I wasn’t surrounded by them on a regular basis anymore.  I never realized how much the country I grew up in informed who I am and how I interact with people, until I was away from it.

This winter, I had the occasion to attend a Canadian citizenship ceremony for my friend Mel. A British national, she had been living in Toronto for ten years and was finally getting her Canadian citizenship.  It was the first time that I’d ever attended such a ceremony and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. As I waited for the formalities to start, I scanned the diverse crowd of excited faces in the room curiously, wondering what it was that had brought them here, to this place, to this country. Why had they chosen it for their own?  The judge started to speak. He was animated and captivating, and he said a lot of inspiring things, but one statement struck me in particular.  He addressed the crowd of soon-to-be Canadians and charged them with speaking up, with speaking out, with running for office if they wanted to, but most of all, with participating in this culture that was welcoming them with open arms.  “And don’t worry about your accent,” he made a point of saying. “So what? All these accents are Canadian accents.”  I loved that this statement came from a government official—it was such a Canadian thing to say, and so very different from the kind of thing I’d expect to hear over here, where mocking foreign accents is par for the course.

And suddenly I got it. I understood a little bit about why these people had chosen my country, what it is about Canada that might have attracted them in the first place. My French friend Anne once said to me that one of the things she misses most about Canada is how easily people invite you into their homes. Funnily enough, that was actually how I met her – she was working in my local neighbourhood bakery, and after finding out that she was new to the country, I invited her to my birthday party so that she could meet some new people. And that, in a nutshell, is what we do in Canada—we invite you to the party.  And not just as a guest—we invite you to participate.  Watching our neighbours to the south torn apart over issues like universal health care and gay marriage, and living, as I am at the moment, in a country that is increasingly tightening its borders and looking to cut immigration in half, I’ve come to realize how very unique and special this inclusive attitude actually is.

And the proof is in the pudding.  The other day while I was out for a walk, I passed this ad for a special edition of the French magazine “L’Express”.  It says, “Moving to Canada: All the Keys to Success.” Yep, even the Frenchies know we’ve got something pretty special.

So Happy Birthday Canada!  Rest assured that even though your countrymen might be scattered far and wide across the globe, the distance only serves to increase our appreciation of how lucky we are to belong to such a great nation. Today, everywhere, in Canadian-themed pubs, at embassies, and of course, at today’s giant celebration in London’s Trafalgar Square, Canadian expats will be there, proudly waving our flags and singing our national anthem.

Even from abroad, we stand on guard for thee.

Stopping for a photo op in front of the Louvre with other fellow Canadians during my first Canada Day in Paris, two years ago.


And just for fun… a little classic patriotic humour from Molson.

If you’re a Canadian living abroad, how are you celebrating Canada Day this year?

And if you’re living abroad, regardless of nationality, do you also find that you feel more Canadian/American/French/etc. outside of your home country than you ever did back home?

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