Sting's "Englishman in New York" played on a constant loop in my head for the first few days after I landed in Canada this past June ...
So many things about this "home and native land"* always seem so foreign and/or striking upon returning to my homeland after months in the ME.
"I'm an alien, I'm a legal alien, I'm an expat in Canada."
There are the obvious differences:
- the clash of an abaya-clad lady standing shoulder to shoulder with a granny in a fake tan, stilettos, leggings and a tube top in the Customs line.
- the welcome being broadcast over the airport PA system in French and English - "Welcome to Montreal", "Bienvenue a Montreal". Not a single "Marhaba".
- the absence of 300 listless laborers disembarking a single flight from Sri Lanka with nothing but a plastic grocery bag as a carry-on.
Then there are the more subtle things.
Still no fast-pass for me
One thing that surprised me is that there is now a "National queue" for Canadians at passport control/customs. In the past, Canada has likely prided itself on political correctness by excluding everyone from fast-tracking customs. Nonetheless, Pierre-Elliott Trudeau Airport now boasts a "Canadian Residents" line.
Fat lot of good that does me. I am a citizen, yes. A resident, no. My chances at ever making it into one of those fast-track lanes seem to have been foiled again. I WANT a fast-pass lane!!!!!!
I wind my way slowly through arrivals with an army of in-transit passengers, vacationers, business travelers and newly landed immigrants. I show my passport to the customs officer ... He asks me what the purpose of my visit is; I explain that I needed a breath of fresh air, a reconnection with family, a proper fix of Tim Horton's. Judging by his flat expression and blank stare, my attempt at levity has gotten me exactly nowhere ... some things are actually quite similar no matter where you're traveling to.
"I'm on vacation", I retract ... He writes a code on my immigration card. I can never remember which code will get me directly through the arrivals gate and which will get me frisked. I find out soon enough that today's code is a pass. I am off to meet my family!
Porters ... a thing of the past
But first I must collect my bags ... not a porter in sight. Unlike Doha where there are dozens of porters standing by the luggage belts actually anticipating carrying your luggage with glee. I WANT a porter!!!!!!
I wait 45 minutes for my bags to come around on the carrousel. It is about 1.5 hours after landing that I finally get to hug my sister and gulp in as much fresh Canadian air as I can before stepping into the car for the ride downtown.
Pedestrians on sidewalks ...
I'm coming from a country where sidewalks are for parking and cycling (not the leisurely kind of cycling; the laborer on a banana bike type). Nary a pedestrian to be seen. People just don't 'walk' to get around in Doha.
In downtown Montreal, the sidewalks are teeming with folk of all ages, all walks of life. Here a teenager jogging in short shorts and a t-shirt; there an elderly couple taking a leisurely stroll; across the street a few smart-dressed professionals having a smoke the obligatory 10m away from the front of an office building. The bustling, the vivacity, the eclecticism of it all is enough to give me a feeling not that unlike brain-freeze. It is truly, truly invigorating.
A clear head ...
You'd think I'd be used to the dust, the stuffy sinuses and the mild yet ever-present cough after seven years in the Land of Sand. I guess in a way I have become acclimatized to a degree, because as I head out to pound the pavement that first afternoon, the fresh air is like an assault on my system. I swear, it's almost like I can think more clearly, despite coming off a 13-hour sleepless flight and having been awake for close to twenty hours. The rush of oxygen to my brain those first few days seems to ward off the jet lag remarkably fast.
Where are all the beads and sequins?
Even though the national dress in Qatar is the abaya (traditional long black gown worn by women over their clothing when going out in public), many of these are festooned with beads, pearls, embroidery and sequins. Women who don't wear the abaya tend to wear bright colors, sparkly tops, leopard print skirts and the like. Montreal, while extremely cosmopolitan, is a much more 'muted eclectic' on the fashion front. Note that this is not necessarily a bad thing.
Is wearing shoulder blades, bare knees and pierced navels in public actually legal?
You just can't help it. No matter how overtly liberal you may consider yourself in the ME, no matter how emancipated and moderate the ME country you are living in may seem compared to others in the region, after a few years as a ME expat you will become overly sensitive to the sight of exposed flesh striding down the street in broad daylight. Crop tops, tank tops, tube tops, hot pants, barely there skirts and crack-baring jeans are a visual onslaught. The desensitization only takes a few days, but it the meantime it can be highly disruptive when driving or trying to hold down a conversation.
Did I actually just pay taxes on picking my nose?
EVERYTHING is taxed in Canada. Sometimes the tax is built-in (e.g. for gas), but sometimes it comes as a big fat surprise. (I know, I know, it's not like I've never lived here before, but it still comes as a shock when you've been away for so long.) You will be charged a provincial and a federal tax on pretty much everything you purchase, from that takeaway pizza to that early-morning coffee to that trip to the salon.
I could go on forever: the assault of green on your senses when you've become acclimatized to beige, the thrill of rain drops replacing dust particles, the sound of church bells ringing in the distance, the surprise and slight discomfort at understanding every single conversation going on around you, etc. The But my point is simply that cultural adjustment is not a one-way trip. Just when you think you've got the expat acclimatization halfway sorted out, you realize you will likely one day have to make the return journey and start all over again.
Reverse culture shock 101. Sign me up now ...
Below are a few images of some other differences spotted while on our last trip. Hope you enjoy.
*Reference to "Oh, Canada", the Canadian National Anthem.