26/06/2016

As I was leaving you, Canada


6 days ago I boarded a plane away from my life in Québec. As the plane took off and I got my last glimpse of the city lights of Montréal in the dimming night, I knew I had turned my back for all that could have been: my temporary work permit could have been extended, turned into a permanent residence, and in the end, maybe one day, I would have held my Canadian passport in my own trembling hands after having cheerfully chanted the lyrics of O, Canada in front of a jury. In the very end, if I had chosen otherwise, I would have become a Canadian.

But I chose a different life. So as the lights of Montréal slowly faded away and disappeared behind a wall of clouds, I tried very hard to think forward, hold back the tears and remain grateful for all that I experienced as a resident of Canada, for I have inevitably been changed forever.

I never considered Canada - not before meeting Alexandre, that is. In my mind Canada was just a stereotyped and distant country on a continent I had never even visited, yet alone thought of one day calling my homeland. Lumberjacks, plaid shirts, maple syrup, ice hockey, polite people always saying sorry, all that jazz. But it wasn't for me, who had long since fallen in love with a whole different kind of culture. And as life worked in its mysterious ways and I one sunny summer day found myself standing in that very same P.-E. Trudeau airport for the first time, exhausted from the longest flight I had ever taken, I was a tabula rasa. A blank board, ready take in all that Canada would throw at my face, in good and bad. I had no expectations and no prejudices. My only experience of a Canadian person was the man, Alex, who waved at me from the residents' queue a few meters and border guards away, while I was stuck in the much longer and insanely slow visitors' line. Alex was about to introduce me to Canada, his Canada, and I was prepared for everything. That entrance hall on that airport in Montréal was, and always will be, my very first breath of a country that would, in the upcoming years, end up filling my lungs with its love, hate and completely unpredictable adventures.

I have said good bye five times on P.-E. Trudeau airport. Sometimes I've been the one leaving, other times I've stayed. But every time - every single damn time - Canada has shot its little harpoons at me, and every time those good byes get a little harder as Canada is pulling me back. The first time, 2 years ago, I cried because of Alex and the thought of not seeing him for 2 months was scaring the living crap out of me. 6 days ago everything was different. After 2 years of being shot with little Canadian harpoons time after time my feet, my heart and my stomach hungry for more poutine were so tied to this land, and I didn't cry only because of Alex - I cried because I was about to lose not only his Canada, the one he had showed me from that magic carpet of his (precisely a 2005 Toyota Echo), but my own.

In 2 years I had had time to observe, learn, experience and get attached to a Canada that would be special to me, and only me. My personal relationship with Canada had been formed and was no longer dependent on my dear Canadian ambassador, waving at me encouragingly from that queue back in the days. My Canada is no longer a distant stereotype of lumberjacks, plaid shirts, maple syrup, ice hockey and polite people always saying sorry. Well, yes. Actually. But there's something else now.

Poutine: french fries, cheese and gravy
My Canada speaks French. It greeted me with a cheerful Bonjour! and started whipping me to repeat it to an extent where I wanted to spit on its pretty little francophone face. My Canada is full of people of minority who love their language, their culture and their heritage so much it hurts, they squeeze it like a scared child is squeezing his toy on a nightly trip to a bathroom across the corridor. They laugh loud like Americans, pull off their plaid shirts and beards like the most stereotypical English Canadian lumberjacks, eat like the British and love like the French. They hug you tight and they give you their all, whether its kisses on the cheeks or food from a nearby vending machine when you're out of change. Les québécoises, they will love you like a tiger mother loves her cubs, as long as you try and roar at least remotely as loud as she can. That francophone folk, in all their infinite and furious passion and willpower to fight against oppression, are the most easily flammable material I've ever encountered. Vive le Québec libre! is the first sentence my Canadian ambassador ever taught me, on that damp but lovely little flat on Highfield Street in Leicester, and whether or not they all agree on these political views, they all have one. Even the ones who say they don't, as I pose the question, they all engage into an inner monologue about independence. My French-speaking Canadians love all this so much they occasionally forget there are other ones out there, ones like themselves, as minor and a bit lost.

My friend Will and his weird Guinness

Despite turning inwards, Québec is inhabited by the most loving, caring, friendly and polite people I've ever encountered - and I'm not kidding. The stereotypes are all true, and I love them for proving them all right. My Canada is about people who let me throw myself into their arms, knowing I would be safe and sound, and that whatever I say or do, they will love me for it. During the past years I have been impressed, astonished and utterly amazed by their habit of always finding ways to show me how much they can care. My Canada sounds like an annoyingly polite counter-question "... but what would YOU like?", reeks of weed at night on a street I can't remember, and feels like a gentle touch on my shoulder as I press my drunken head in shame against the bar desk after spilling my drink. And on that moment, as I, drunk as mentioned, encountered a barman who brought me a new drink for free instead of kicking me out like in Finland, I started crying. (Honestly, this happened and it's my friends' favourite running gag: "Mel I know I'm being really nice right now but please don't start crying") So many times Canadians have made me burst from happiness as I jump into their arms in the middle of the office or fall asleep on their couch during an insane nightly winter storm. They have made me laugh so much my abs hurt, and they've made me cry, they've made me angry and disappointed, and as I'm fighting with them on the phone at dawn after a party that turned weird, they always lower their heads, say they're sorry and make everything alright.

My Canada is full of people who are overly self-conscious, unreasonably insecure and sorry to an extent where I want to grab them from their plaid shirted shoulders and shake, shake, shake them into the realisation that their tiny little francophone culture has so much to offer and so much to teach to the world, that instead of throwing their flaming passion into strangers' face as a defense mechanism, they should OPEN, and share that crazy national dish of a poutine with the outside. My
Canada has the most breathtaking landscapes I have ever seen, the incredibly vast and empty wilderness, humbling mountain horizons and waters like nowhere else in the world. Its hiking trails have put me to my knees so many times I'm constantly bruised, but once I reach the top, every damn time I feel like screaming from the top of my lungs how incredibly grateful I am to stand right there, right at that moment, sharing a glimpse of this magnificent land, wanting to ask the rest of the world why you don't love Canada and Québec like I do. Canada is a country of people who don't know what they're sitting on - their shared smiles in a bus or sun-glazed mountain tops in a distant horizon from the window in the morning commute are the kind of moments they pass with a shrug, but I cherish forever.

My Canada, my dearest Canada, the one I saw last as mere dimming city lights from an airplane window: you are a land of internal struggles and conflicts, things you want to forget and things you have promised never to forget, as stated on all of Québec's license plates. But you're also a land of people with so much potential, so much love to share, so much unleashed energy and so much furious fire I've seen in all those eyes I've stared at on street corners, in the dark of the night, on door steps, across the table. You have changed me. The girl in that entrance hall, scared of the unknown, no longer exists. I breath you in and I will never let you go. Whatever emotions are loaded into all those license plates I've seen during the past 2 years, I now know what Québec's motto means to me.

Je me souviens. Lest we forget.
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16/06/2016

A Day in the Life


Many people live in the illusion that living a life abroad is somehow different to normal - and sometimes it definitely can be. However, for the most part, us immigrants struggle with the same daily tasks and errands as our home team back in the Old Continent. But what is different, and what is the same? How does a normal day in the life of a Finn in French-speaking Canada look like? How is it to work in a major video game company abroad?

I tried to choose as normal day as I possibly could, and ended up switching the date multiple times due to changing plans. However, after picking this particular Wednesday two weeks in advance and then realising that during that time it had become a very untypical Wednesday, I decided to give up. None of my days seemed to be typical enough for this post, which in the end made me realise that there doesn't seem to be such thing. In all its chaotic running after small errands, my Wednesday the 25th of May turned out to summarize my life as an employed immigrant in Canada quite successfully.

This very untypical Wednesday started at 07.00, 15 minutes later than my normal weekday. My task of the morning is to go visit the nearby tax office to make a query about the state of my tax returns. I had to take 2 hours off from work because of this, since the Service Canada office is open only Mon-Fri 8.30 - 16.00. My working hours are Monday to Friday 8.30 to 17.00 in normal conditions, so there's no chance I have the time to visit governmental offices without skipping work. Needless to say, I wasn't really excited about the upcoming task.

07.15 I'm in a coma on the sofa, eating my cereals and browsing Facebook. I often take the time to answer Facebook messages I've received during the night from my Finnish entourage while eating breakfast, since the time difference makes it a little difficult to keep in touch in real time.

07.15

07.30
I'm fixing my face in the bathroom. I rarely put much effort on my looks on normal weekdays, since I work in a closed office with a large male majority. However, as there is about to be a lot of running to do and the day is about to be long, I decide to tie my hair. Other than that, I only rely on foundation and eyebrow pencil:



08.00
I'm off. Alex has promised to drive me to Service Canada, since I only have 2 hours off and the public transportation of Québec City is nothing but efficient. We didn't write down the address, which turns out to be a mistake: after almost an hour of aimless driving back and forth Chemin Sainte-Foy and vigorous arguing, we take a turn to Chemin des Quatre-Bourgeois and end up right in front of the building.

08.10 on Chemin Sainte-Foy

09.15 I exit the office, not any wiser than before. The lady at the counter gave me a number in Revenu Québec that I could call, so let the horror begin. I'm not one of those people who are terrified of making phone calls, but when you have to make a phone call to an automated service number where everything happens only in French, it gets a little scary. After pressing a few 1s and #s, I finally reach a real person who turns out to speak perfect Canadian English - because no, after living a year in a French-speaking city I'm still not able to talk about my tax forms in French.

09.15 In a car making a phone call to Revenu Québec

I know what most of you must be thinking right now: what is that phone? It's my LG flip phone, or "That F*cking Crap" as I often call it. Now this holy union is yet another story of my Immigrant Adventures from the beginning of my year in Canada. I brought my Samsung Galaxy Trend with me from Finland, hoping to find a compatible SIM card of a local teleoperator. Turns out there is no such thing, and my European smart phone is unable to read Canadian SIM cards. As I was about to ask for a refund for my newly purchased Koodo Mobile prepaid bundle, the service clerk panics and throws this flippy thing at me. "It's for free". We have been together ever since. No internet, no apps, no QuickType. Only a 50-minute talk boost and unlimited texting with a French keypad that requires you to press number 3 seven times to get the letter F. My Canadian friends know to keep texting with me to a minimum, as it's a hazard to my mental stability.

09.45 I arrive to work
09.45 I have more answers to my infinite questions about my Canadian taxes, and Alex drives me to the office. Now, this is where reporting about my day get tricky, since my job is extremely confidential. Working for a multimillion video game company like Activision Blizzard means a lot of work and a lot of silence - or as it was put in my orientation PowerPoint: "The first rule of working in the QA is that you don't talk about working in the QA". So what do I actually do?

I work as a Quality Assurance Analyst on Mobile department of Activision. My job is to break the game. I write bug reports, fill checklists, verify issues, create excels, calculate probabilities, give suggestions, proofread a lot of texts and work my way around the IT on mobile. 11 months ago I couldn't tell the difference between Samsung and Apple tablets, but nowadays I'm able to differentiate iPhone 4S from iPhone 5 just by giving it a glimpse. This is why my beloved flip phone is a known celebrity around the office, as the Mobile Expert has a neanderthal phone herself.

So I'm not allowed to talk about my job, but there surely is a lot of completely un-work-related stuff happening in between! This stuff often consists of appropriate, inappropriate, ridiculous, funny and not-so-funny conversations and email chains exchanged inside my team. Underneath is a collection of some of the email art me (and my team mates) have created to fill the void of my pre-lunch break hours:

    


12.30 It's lunch break! I rarely feel like having enough hold of my life to cook lunch the previous day, so I head to Thaï Express with Sébastien. The food is a slight disappointment each time, but it's close. This particular restaurant also brings back a funny memory about that one time I had a bilingual discussion with the cashier. Unlike expected, I was the one who insisted on speaking French, but the cashier just would not switch from English to French because he had heard me speak English with my colleagues in the queue, so I ordered my food and answered to his English questions in French. Sometimes it's not easy to force people to serve you in their native language, right?

13.00 The lunch break is over. Working in the QA requires you to be fluent both in written and spoken English, so as mentioned, I communicate with my team in English. However, I have definitely taken these 11 months to practice my French on the side, as my team mainly speaks to each other in French. The difference to my language skills in September surely is huge, as one would expect after spending 40 hours a week for a year in French immersion - but there is a BUT.

The French I have learnt during the past year is the kind of French you learn by throwing yourself out there, not by systematic studying. In other words, I'm completely unable to write many of the things I'm able to say with a seemingly fluent l'accent quebecois. 100% of work-related emails I receive are written in French, which is not a problem at all as long as I read them out loud in my mind. My grammar is also more or less painful for the sensitive ear: like most native speakers, I ruthlessly skip the double-structure of the negative, ne-pas, and just go with pas. The same goes with questions: instead of asking properly Qu'est-ce que c'est? I prefer to go with the faster variant, C'est quoi ça? and so on. But all in all, I owe all my French, no matter how slangish and unproper, to my lovely colleagues at work, who tirelessly repeat, repeat and repeat until I understand what I'm supposed to be doing. (my boss only gives instructions to me in French, so there was the motivation I had been looking for....)

17.00 I leave the office. I have plans with my friend Jay, so we head to his place, make a huge pot of coffee, mix it with Bailey's and devour the whole thing while talking about the universe. All of my friends in Québec are more or less my colleagues from the office, and Jay has been in my team since February. His company is as delightful as it is disturbing at times: Jay is the most intellectual person in my quebecois entourage otherwise filled with wild and reckless twenty-something men, but he also happens to be the one with the darkest sense of humour.

21.09 I leave the building and text Seb. I had forgotten my jacket to his place the day before, and since he lives just on the other side of the river in Limoilou, I might as well walk there and fetch it.



21.20 I blast through Sébastien's front door. I'm that honoured individual with a spare key to his apartment, and often not afraid to use it to my advantage - I mostly just hope that he's dressed when I storm in.

Sébastien is my best friend. I was seated next to him on my first day at the QA, and a year later he's still able to stare at my face almost every day. Seb also happens to be, funny enough, the friend who's the least skilled in English, which is why our conversations are often more or less bilingual (mostly because switching from one language register to another is really difficult for him, so he just accidentally ends up speaking to me in French). This has worked for the advantage of us both. We have a wide range of weird inside jokes and nicknames for each other, often originating from Seb's failed attempt to say something in English. (There is still a running gag going around from that one time he tried to google images of râpe, cheese grate, but well, needless to say, ended up googling images of rape)

21.30 Seb wants chips, so we head to the nearby convenience store, or dépanneur, like locals call it. Our quest is conducted in the dark of the night:









Limoilou is to Québec what Kallio is to Helsinki. Can be hip, can be trendy, but is also covered in poverty and suspicious folk. Thanks to this guy, Limoilou also happens to be one of the districts of Québec that I know best. And since parallels to Finland have now been drawn, the photos above highlight one of the features of Québec that has taken me quite by surprise: the darkness of nights this late in the spring. My Finnish mind associates warm temperatures with light, but after a few uncomfortable nights out spent in a jacket I'm finally able to dress appropriately for the weather.

22.30 We have watched an episode of Planet Earth, a nature documentary series narrated by David Attenborough, and I feel it's time to head home. Seb takes me to the bus stop, like he does every time.
Limoilou can be beautiful too!

The bus trip is 25 minutes. I have a monthly bus pass, the OPUS card, which takes me wherever and whenever I want with 84 dollars a month. A single ticket would be 3,25 dollars, so it pays itself back fast.


23.07 I'm finally at home, and at my limits. I exchange news with Alex, who has just successfully graduated from his university and is taking a small holiday before moving to Granby. I set my alarm to 06.45 and hope to have a shorter day tomorrow.
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