When in Rome

I’ve already written about my epic journey to becoming a Canadian. While Canada and the US aren’t all that different, there are a few surprises in store for those who make the move. There are always the minor things of course; new restaurant and grocery store chains, strange commercials, the overwhelming desire to apologize to the person who stepped on your foot. But all joking aside, these were my major adjustments.

1. One and Two Dollar coins
The most immediately noticeable difference between the US and Canada is the money. A stack of US dollars all look pretty much the same, but you can tell the difference between denominations in Canada with a casual glance. The smallest is the blue $5. The $10 is bright purple. The $20 is a subtle green, not all that different from most US currency (aside from the pretty picture of the Queen’s face). And the $50 blazes red. But it isn’t the brightly colored money that takes some getting used to. It’s the coins.

Nickles, dimes and quarters are all pretty much the same up here (though they’re weighted differently which can cause foreign vending machines to reject the other). Canada did away with the penny early this year. It’s the $1 and $2 coins that take adjustment. There are $1 coins in the US but they tend to be commemorative. The Sacajawea dollar went into circulation shortly before I left, but it never really caught on. Unfortunately it wasn’t much bigger than a quarter, which I don’t think helped it much. Canadians refer to $1 coins as ‘loonies‘ (because the bird depicted on the back is a loon). And they’re everywhere up here. They’re easily distinguishable from quarters because they’re larger and they have 11 straight edges rather than being circular. Just as common is the ‘toonie,’ it’s $2 counterpart.

Why do they take some getting used to? Well the first couple months I was here, I always reached for the paper money. And of course I never had anything lower than a $5. Then one day I opened the coin section of my wallet and all these dollars spilled out. I started using them to buy my daily coffee and it made things much easier. Wrapping your mind around dollar coins is tougher than it sounds.

2. The Metric System
Which brings me to the next biggest adjustment; measurements. I grew up on inches and feet (and football fields, the classic US measurement). If you’re driving across the boarder, this change is even more noticeable than the money because as soon as you hit Canada you’ll see the speed limit shoot up to 100. Until you realize it’s KILOMETERS and if you gun it up to 100 miles you’re you’re going to get pulled over pretty quick.

The metric system has it’s benefits. All the conversions are easy because everything is in multiples of ten. And in theory that makes it easy to learn. Unless you’ve spent your whole life using inches and feet. This is an issue I still struggle with. We want to buy a new entertainment center. I want it to be about 32 inches high. And how much is that in centimeters? (to Google!) The kids I tutor think it’s hilarious when I tell them I don’t know what a decimeter is. What the heck is a decimeter?!

And if you think it ends there, how cute you are. Food is measured in grams. Every time I need to measure an ingredient for a recipe that isn’t already listed in cups, I require Google. How people made the switch in the days before instant Google conversions, I can’t say.

And of course there’s the temperature. It’s 11 degrees as I write this. That’s Celsius. That’s a balmy 52 degrees Fahrenheit for those, like me, who just can’t figure Celsius out.

3. Milk in a Bag
This is one of the weird ones. One of those little quirks that makes you balk, narrow your eyes like you’re looking at a crazy person and say “what?”

Instead of gallon jugs, milk in Canada comes in a bag. Don’t worry, you can still get your your half-gallon cartons. But anything bigger than that and you’re in bag territory. You buy a bag of milk and it has three milk bags in it. They’re just large rectangular pouches with milk in it. You usually plunk one in a pitcher, cut off the corner and voila! Milk.

It sounds strange. It IS strange. But only at first. Milk is milk, really, and once you get over how you’re accessing it, it just becomes one of those things you laugh about with other people. I’ve got to say, milk in a bag came in damn handy when I worked at Starbucks. We shoved a whole bunch of it into the small fridge under the espresso machine and bing, bang, boom it was easy to get to the milk and change it when we ran out. And you go through A LOT of milk at Starbucks.

4. Poutine
This isn’t so much an adjustment, but poutine is so prevalent in Canada it can make a newcomer do another of those milk-bag double takes. You can get poutine pretty much everywhere here. Almost every restaurant has a version of it, though good or bad depends on how seriously they take the prep. (Most pubs have a really great poutine recipe. Some restaurants just throw gravy and shredded cheese on their fries. There’s a huge difference in taste so be aware if you’re looking for the ultimate poutine experience). Even fast-food places usually have an option to add poutine to your meal instead of regular fries.

What is poutine? Poutine is a French-Canadian dish that consists of fries, gravy and cheese curds. Cheese curds. Not liquid cheese. Not shredded cheese. Cheese curds. If you get poutine without cheese curds it’s cheap and it’s not going to taste as good, just so you know.

Most Americans hear the description of poutine and think it sounds disgusting. Because most Canadians describe it as ‘gravy and cheese fries.’ But not the kind of cheese Americans use for cheese fries. And actually it’s insanely delicious. If you come to Canada, you must try proper good poutine before you leave. It’s a rule.

5. Regional Dialect
This is a fun and quirky one. You wouldn’t think moving to another country where the language is the same would make much difference in every-day communication, but you do notice little things. Depending on where you are, even in the US, people tend to refer to things in different ways. Canada is no exception. There are a few anomalies my US friends and I have noticed over the years that make us chuckle. Such as we refer to grades as ‘7th grade’ or ‘first grade’ in the US, but in Canada it’s usually referred to as ‘grade 7’ or ‘grade 1.’ Which isn’t, of course, a big deal, but the first time you hear it you might make the milk bag face. Another common one is that Canadians say that they’re “done” something instead of “finished.” Such as “I’m done my test,” or “when I was done my test,” or even asking “are you done dinner?” instead of “are you finished?” Canadians also usually refer to ‘where we are’ where as Americans refer to ‘where we’re at.’

This is a hard one to describe because you need to hear the conversation to really get the difference. It’s something only someone from a different region would understand. I grew up in a place with weird verbal quirks, so I’ve seen many examples of this throughout my life.

We noticed several more when we moved from Ontario to Quebec. Because many people speak English as a second language, strange traits seep into their speech. Like the habit of saying ‘la’ all the time (instead of ‘oh’ or ‘um’) when they’re trying to think of what to say. Or to sneak extra ‘la’s’ into a statement (it’s over there, la).

The real challenge, of course, is not to pick up the regional habits (I’ve utterly failed).

Of course I’d be remiss if I wrote a post about Canada and didn’t mention Tim Hortons. It isn’t really an adjustment, but Tim Hortons is like the Dunkin’ Donuts of Canada. Like poutine, it’s so much a part of every-day life that people sometimes refer to getting their daily coffee as getting a tims or a timmies instead of getting coffee. So if you’re using this as a list of experiences for when you visit the great white north, don’t forget to drop by a Tim Hortons.

11 Responses to “When in Rome”

  1. » First Impressions Cosmic Desire Says:

    […] wrote recently about my first few months in Canada, a similar experience and no less daunting at the time. We haven’t had time to discover all […]

  2. Gingy Says:

    The milk in a bag thing is not ubiquitous, mostly Ontario. We had it in Alberta while I was a kid but it’s long gone.

    • Striker Says:

      Interesting! I didn’t know that. We have bags in Quebec as well. But we might be headed to Alberta here shortly :) Guess I’d have to re-adjust!

  3. JRD Says:

    Great post! I’m not sure if you have much of a sweet tooth, but we often find it fun to compare available candies with our American friends.

    • Striker Says:

      Haha! It’s funny you should mention that because I’ve had many a conversation about the same. The one I remember most happened when I was visiting my now-husband and we were taking a road-trip across Ontario (this was when I still lived in the States). We were talking about what we wanted for dinner and I said chocolate. My husband’s father said “We’ll get you some smarties.”

      Me and another US friend said, “Smarties don’t have chocolate!”

      And of course all the Canadians said, “Yes they do!”

      After a few minutes of arguing we finally described the candies and realized they have the same name but are entirely different XD Smarties in Canada are like large, flat M&Ms but in the US they’re like crumbly Sweet Tarts. My first introduction to the candy differences between countries :)

  4. Donna Says:

    Sooo true…and funny coming from another perspective…things we just don’t think aboot ;)

    • Striker Says:

      I’m sure you’d have a similar list if you did the reverse, and probably all things I wouldn’t have noticed either :) It’s always fun to think aboot.

  5. Kristin Says:

    So our software vendor is located in Wisconsin. Several team members were recently out there for a conference and one brought me a Several pound bag of cheddar cheese curd. There’s poutine in my future!

  6. Sue H Says:

    Dialects …. You need to head east :). The Newfoundland accent is a wonder to hear, particularly if it is a good ‘rural’ accent. I’ve noticed the kids who grow up in the large towns or St. John’s don’t have the thick accent anymore.

    Poutine…. Agreed… Soooo good. Particularly here in Quebec. Not nearly as common in other regions.

    Timmies…. I’m not a huge coffee fan but I’m pretty sure it’s the 18% cream that has me hooked.

    Measurements…. Many of us struggle with this. Cooking and building material still function mainly in imperial but otherwise that ‘base 10, system makes life much easier. Temperatures as well, 0C is freezing point of water and 100C is boiling point of water.


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