When I moved from California to Montreal two years ago, I didn’t know what to expect. I hadn’t spent much time in Canada at that point, but I had a feeling that the not-particularly-flattering U.S. stereotypes of Canadians as overly friendly, slightly naïve people who live in perpetual winter and are obsessed hockey couldn’t be correct. (Spoiler: They’re not. Except for the hockey. They are really into hockey here.) Two years in, I’m still discovering unexpected ways that life in Canada is different from the U.S. Some of these differences make me shake my fist in the air (as one does) and cry, “Oh, how I miss thee, United States!” Others have me sighing, “Oh, Canada! Thou art truly a delight!” Still others have me pausing to declare, “Wait… what?”
I should note that I am no expert on Canadian culture. I can only speak to my experiences here in Quebec, which many Canadians will tell you is a province with a unique mindset all its own. As in the U.S., there are a lot of regional differences across Canada — it is, after all, geographically huge — so that there is no single Canadian “identity.” In fact, there are probably more cultural similarities between Vancouver and Seattle or Portland than between Vancouver and Montreal. And there are probably some things that seem weird to me about Canada that have more to do with the fact that, until recently, I had only ever lived in Texas and California. For example, although the Canadian winters were a huge shock to me, someone from Minnesota would probably just shrug and say, “Meh.”
Read on for 12 ways that life is different in the Great White North:
1. Socialized health care is awesome, but it’s also more complicated than a lot of Americans seem to think it is.
In the endless debates about nationalizing health care in the U.S., it’s common for people to hold up Canada as an example to follow, or to say that they’re just going to move to Canada and get free care there instead. Since moving to Canada, however, I’ve found that the health care system is a lot more complex than these idealized notions of Canadian medicine seem to suggest. It’s true that once you are registered as part of the health care system, you can go to a clinic and receive free care, which is great. My experience of getting stitches a few months ago really drove this home: I had to get stitches here last February, and it was completely free. Compare that to my friend who had to go to the ER to get three stitches a few years ago in the U.S. It cost her 900 dollars (with insurance).
But health care here is also fairly confusing (for me, at least). Each province has its own health system, and they don’t all work the same way. If someone from Ontario, for example, goes to Quebec and has to see a doctor, he or she has to file the expenses with the health service in Ontario, which might not compensate the same amount that Quebec expects to be paid, and then things get really complicated really quickly. A lot of people also have trouble finding primary care physicians (many have to wait a long time), and most Canadians carry private insurance in addition to their public insurance, to pay for prescription medication, dental care, eye care, and other services.
All of that said, Canadians generally do not need to worry that an accident or major illness will completely bankrupt them, which is a terrifying aspect of life in the U.S.
2. Maple syrup really is everywhere, and it is The Best.
When I was growing up in Texas, real maple syrup was a delicacy reserved for special occasions only, but here it’s cheap and widely available in big cans. In the spring, during maple harvesting season, people celebrate by visiting sugar shacks, which host big dinners that usually involve multiple courses and a lot of maple.
3. E-commerce is not as good.
In the U.S., we are used to being able to buy anything on the Internet, at a low price, with instantaneous shipping. Seriously, I have ordered shoes on Zappos in the U.S. and had them arrive within less than 24 hours. So I was surprised when I first moved here to discover that buying online isn’t available for many businesses, and that even a site like Amazon Canada has a much smaller selection than its U.S. counterpart. As this infographic explains, Canadians have a high rate of Internet usage, but fewer than half of Canadian businesses have websites, let alone the capability to sell products online.
4. It’s F*CKING COLD, people.
It’s no mystery that it’s cold in Canada, but I think many Americans would be surprised to experience just how cold it gets here in Montreal in the winter. Until you’ve had to walk your dog when it’s –8 degrees out for months, you do not know cold.
Of course, there are very cold places in the U.S., too, but I think that there’s a major difference between the countries in the sense that all of Canada experiences very cold winters. In the U.S., some places have cold winters, but others (like where I grew up in South Texas) have people running around in shorts in January. That variation contributes to a different mindset.
5. Paying the bill at a restaurant is better in Canada.
Paying a restaurant bill is better in Canada for two reasons:
- Instead of waiting for a waiter to take your card and run it, he or she brings a credit/debit card machine and runs your card at the table. You punch in your pin, and instead of having to figure out the tip in your head, you can simply select a “%” button and enter the percentage you’d like to tip instead.
- American restaurants generally are not happy about splitting bills (especially with a lot of people), but in Canada, waiters do it automatically. Easy peasy.
6. They sell horse and camel meat at my grocery store.
This might be something that’s unique to French Canada, but the grocery store selections have a markedly French influence, meaning that there tends to be a lot of duck confit for sale, along with horse meat and other meats commonly eaten in Europe. People here are also really into fondue, so there’s a whole freezer section of thinly sliced exotic fondue meats, including camel and ostrich.
7. Poutine flavored potato chips are a thing.
Quebec is famous for its love of poutine (French fries covered in gravy and cheese curds), but Ruffles has taken it a step further and made poutine flavored potato chips. Guys, I don’t even know.
8. Canadian money is so colorful, it looks fake.
I mean, just look at it. So fancy.
9. In Quebec, French is for real.
Canada is officially a bilingual country. People I’ve spoken to from outside of Quebec tell me that very few people use French in day-to-day Canadian living. However, in Quebec, French really is the primary language, and in many areas of the province, is the only language spoken. Montreal is a very bilingual city (and listening to locals switching seamlessly between French and English as they converse on the metro is fascinating to me), with some areas dominated by French speakers and others by English speakers.
10. In Quebec French, swear words are inspired by the church.
The French spoken in Quebec has a unique class of swear words called “sacres” that are derived from words associated with the Catholic Church. For example, in Quebec French, “tabarnac,” which simply means “tabernacle” in English, means something along the lines of “F*ck!” (without any sexual connotation).
11. “Hydro” refers to electricity.
In many parts of Canada, if you’re looking for an apartment, you’ll see listings mention “Hydro” over and over. You might think it would be safe to assume that this refers to water, but you would be wrong. “Hydro” is the electric company.
12. Canadians make cocktails with clams.
The Caesar is a popular Canadian cocktail that contains vodka, tomato juice, clam broth, Worcestershire sauce, lime, and celery salt. I have not yet tasted one of these things. I’m sure Canadians will say I’m missing out, but I will not believe them.